Supreme Court water battle pits San Francisco against EPA

By Pamela King | 05/28/2024 10:32 AM EDT

The California city contends that the federal government has imposed vague water quality standards that are impossible to meet.

The U.S. Supreme Court building is pictured.

The U.S. Supreme Court. Francis Chung/POLITICO

San Francisco will face off against the Biden administration in a Supreme Court fight over federal water permits.

In a short order issued Tuesday, the justices agreed to consider San Francisco’s argument that EPA may not create generic provisions that punish Clean Water Act permit holders for exceeding water quality standards without specifying limits on discharges.

San Francisco lost its case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that EPA can say in National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits not to release “too much” pollution, without offering numerical contamination thresholds.


“These pollution targets remain undefined until the conclusion of enforcement cases, at which point it is too late for the permittee to install controls to better protect water quality and come into compliance,” San Francisco wrote in its Supreme Court petition. “Generic prohibitions thus fail to promote environmental protection while exposing permitholders to enforcement they cannot avoid.”