United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc. 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
The Clean Water Act §301 prohibits discharges to
"navigable waters" without a permit (issued by the US Army Corps
of Engineers, pursuant to §404).
Clean Water Act §502(7) defines "navigable
waters" to mean "the waters of the United States, including
That's a pretty vague definition.
It was written to cover "navigable waters" so
that the Federal government could have the authority to regulate it
under the Interstate Commerce Clause.
98-99% of all waters in the US would not be considered
"navigable", in that you can't drive a boat on them, but a lot
feed into the major navigable rivers and lakes.
Riverside owned 80 acres of wetland in Michigan. They
began dumping fill materials from housing construction into the wetland.
The particular wetland in question was near a lake, but
didn't feed directly into the lake, so Riverside felt that they did not
need a permit.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) felt that Riverside
did need a permit before they dumped waste into the wetland and sued for
The USACE felt that the wetland met the definition of an adjacent
The Trial Court found that the low-lying potion of the
wetland was covered as an adjacent wetland to navigable waters
and a permit was required. Riverside appealed.
The Appellate Court remanded.
The Appellate Court told the Trial Court to look at the
1977 amendments to the Clean Water Act.
The Trial Court came to the same conclusion as before.
The Appellate Court reversed. USACE appealed.
The Appellate Court found that the wetlands were
"not subject to flooding by adjacent navigable waters" and so
Basically, the Appellate Court said that polluting a
body of water is only covered if that pollution can move into a
navigable water. In this case, the pollution Riverside was dumping
would likely stay in the wetland and not seep into the nearby lake, so
it was not covered.
The US Supreme Court reversed and held that a permit was
The US Supreme Court found that it is difficult to define
where "water" begins and "land" ends, so it is a
challenge for the USACE to determine where their authority ends.
The Court decided to interpret the term "waters of
the United States" broadly, and found that the USACE's ecological
judgment about the relationship between waters and their adjacent
wetlands provides an adequate basis for legal judgment that adjacent
wetlands may be defined as waters under the act.
Basically, the Court said that waters covered under the
act include any waters that the USACE reasonably concludes may affect
the water quality of adjacent lakes rivers and streams, even when the
waters of those bodies do not actually inundate the wetlands.
Basically, the Court said that since it is difficult to
define jurisdictional boundaries with precision, it's best to leave it up
to the scientists to use a functional approach to the jurisdictional reach
of the Clean Water Act.