The Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA, issued May 25, limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to defend a large portion of the nation’s wetlands and waterways from pollution.

UCLA environmental law experts say the court is second-guessing Congress and shifting power to the states, which will result in more flooding and dirtier, more dangerous water.

In multiple opinions, the court unanimously agreed that the Sackett family could build a home on the wetlands on their property near Idaho’s Priest Lake. The EPA had argued that the wetland was protected by the Clean Water Act and that the family needed a federal permit. The decision strips key protections from the Clean Water Act and redefines which bodies of water can be regulated by the EPA, making it arguably the most important water-related case in decades. UCLA experts weigh in.

Second-guessing Congress

Julia Stein

Stein is a UCLA environmental law expert, deputy director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, and an expert on environmental litigation, regulations and legislation.


“One of the most notable features of this decision was the Court’s articulation of what seems to be a new ‘clear-statement rule’— similar to the ‘major questions’ doctrine we’ve seen emerge over the past few terms — that requires Congress to ‘enact exceedingly clear language’ in circumstances involving the regulation of private property. Here, the court seems to be adding to a list of circumstances under which it feels entitled to second-guess Congress’ delegation of its authority to executive branch agencies.”

Shifting water protection to the states

Cara Horowitz

Horowitz is a UCLA environmental law expert, executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, and an expert on legal and policy solutions to climate change and related environmental issues.


“The court bends over backwards to shrink the reach of the Clean Water Act significantly, so that it will no longer protect wetlands and perhaps other waters that have been a core part of the statutory scheme for many decades. This will make it much harder for the federal government to protect water quality — and surely this is the court’s goal. The opinion is clear in its aim to shift more power to the 50 states to control water pollution, with the likely effect of creating ‘red state’ and ‘blue state’ approaches to water protection.”

More flooding, worse water

Noah Garrison

Garrison is director of the Environmental Science Practicum at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and a practicing environmental attorney with extensive experience in regulation and enforcement under the federal Clean Water Act.


“The Supreme Court’s decision will eliminate protection for as many as 90 million acres of wetlands in the United States, and it will mean more flooding and dirtier, less-safe water for our communities and for the environment and ecosystems.”