The U.S. Supreme Court closed the door on changing a six-state agreement on reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, forcing farmers and builders to find new ways of doing business.

States weren’t cutting Chesapeake Bay pollution, so in 2010 the EPA stepped in. Using the Clean Water Act, federal authorities limited how much pollution the District of Columbia (on the Potomac River) and six states — New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware — could dump directly or indirectly into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The pollution problem was due in large part to homeowners fertilizing their lawns as well as farms fertilizing their fields and letting cows, along with other farm animals, into or near streams and creeks that flow into the Bay. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus lower oxygen in the Bay and cause dead zones that suffocate fish. Tilled soil was washing into the Bay, covering oysters and filling in water-cleaning marshes.

Seven government entities came up with plans — called the Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake — for how they would meet the EPA’s requirements to limit pollution and sediment by 2025.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed map
Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The plan regulates farm animal waste, crop planting, and construction to save the fish. The American Farm Bureau Federation sued, saying the EPA was behaving “as a federal zoning board, dictating which land can be farmed and where homes, roads, and schools can be built,” according to Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall.

They saw it as government overreach against farmers who were able to be good stewards of the land and police their own actions.

“Farmers are justifiably proud of their successes in reducing agriculture’s impact on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, and they remain committed to further improvements,” says Duvall.

Chesapeake Bay grape field

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation sees it differently.

“In the Chesapeake Bay region, there have been decades of failed voluntary efforts to reduce pollution and restore water quality,” writes the CBF in a statement.

While farmers look at it as a forced change in the traditions of their profession, the CBF sees one lifestyle (farming) killing off another (fishing). The EPA drew the line between the two when it set the limits.

The farm bureau’s suit was lost in federal district court. They lost again at the federal appeals court level in July. And now, the highest court in the land has declined to take up the case, letting the appeals court ruling stand and ending the legal challenge.

fishermen off of North East, Maryland
North East, Maryland

“We, of course, are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision not to examine the lawfulness of EPA’s Chesapeake Bay ‘blueprint'” says Duvall.

“This is a historic day for the Bay,” says CBF President William C. Baker. “Everyone who cares about clean water can breathe easier now that the Supreme Court has let stand the lower court decision that Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is perfectly legal under the federal Clean Water Act.”

The farmer’s bureau is giving up on the lawsuit, but not on the issue. The group is going to monitor the EPA’s implementation and enforcement of the new limits.

“This lawsuit has ended, but the larger battle over the scope of EPA’s power is not over,” says Duvall.