Unwind of WOTUS Gets Us Back to the Beginning

The Trump Administration has promised massive deregulation, in particular reductions in environmental regulations. A major target of the Trump Administration's deregulation agenda is the Obama Administration's Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) which defines which wetlands and streams are federally regulated.

However, as described in this post, despite the controversy, all of the regulatory activity over the last several years really just leaves us in the status quo.  

CWA Defines Jurisdictional Waters

Section 301(a) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits discharges of pollutants to "navigable waters" without a permit.  See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1311(a), 1362(a).   The CWA defines "navigable waters" as "waters of the United States..." See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1362(7)

However, what exactly constitutes "waters of the United States" has been controversial since passage of the CWA in 1972.  

Supreme Court Weighs in Three Times

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of "waters of the U.S." on three separate occasions:

  • Adjacent waters- In the Court's initial decision, it captured the issue of the extent of federal jurisdiction succinctly- "Between open waters and dry land may lie shallows, marshes, mudflats, swamps, bogs--in short, a huge array of areas that are not wholly aquatic but nevertheless fall far short of being dry land.  Where on this continuum to fine the limit of "waters" is far from obvious." The Court said the term "navigable" in the statute is of little import.  The history of the CWA shows Congress intended broad regulations of waters. In this case, the Court concluded the wetlands adjacent to "waters of the U.S." were federally regulated.  See, United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
  • Habitat for Migratory Birds- The Court determined the Army Corps went too far trying to assert federal regulation over intrastate waters on the basis the waters provide habitat for migratory birds. SWANNCC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. .159 (2001)  
  • Scalia and Kennedy Tests-  The third time the Court visited the issue it could not get five justices to agree on the extent of federal jurisdiction under the CWA.  Two tests emerged- Justice Scalia's and Justice Kennedy's.  Justice Scalia limited federal jurisdiction to navigable waters, adjacent wetlands and non-navigable streams that are permanent flow year round or at least seasonally. Justice Kennedy extended jurisdiction further, to any waters with a "significant nexus" to navigable waters.  Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)

Post-Rapanos the uncertainty and litigation continued over the extent of federal regulation.

Obama WOTUS Rule

In 2015, the Obama Administration attempted to put an end to the uncertainty by defining "waters of the U.S." by rule (WOTUS).  Under the proposal federally regulated waters included the following:

  • Streams with perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow
  • Defined bed, bank and an ordinary high water mark
  • Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to a jurisdictional water
  • Part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water
  • Excludes man-made ditches

Those opposed to the rule felt any small stream or water could meet the definition triggering federal regulation over even incidental creeks and streams or even drainage ditches.

The rules was immediately subject to over 20 legal challenges.  On October 9, 2015 the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of the effectiveness of the rule while its legality was determined.  

Litigation is before the Supreme Court to determine not the legality of the rule, but the proper venue the rule can be challenged.  Despite those who argue the Trump Administration is rolling back protections of waterways, the WOTUS rule never went into effect.  Instead, we still determine the extent of federal jurisdiction using the Scalia and Kennedy tests from Rapanos.

Trump Executive Order

Despite the fact the WOTUS rule was not in effect, on February 28, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order titled "Restoring the rule of Law, Federalism and Economic Growth by Reviewing the "Waters of the U.S. Rule."

The Executive Order had two goals:

  1. Rescind WOTUS;
  2. Issue an new rule interpreting "Navigable Waters" consistent with Justice Scalia's test in Rapanos.

Step 1- Rescinding WOTUS

July 27, 2017, EPA proposed revocation of WOTUS.  EPA accepted public comments on the proposed rule through September 27th.  

Step 2- Propose a New Definition of WOTUS

The next step will be for EPA to propose a definition of the rule that drops the Kennedy "significant nexus" test and limits jurisdiction to the test articulated by Justice Scalia.  However, similar to WOTUS, this rule will almost certainly face numerous legal challenges.

Back to the Beginning?

While the legal challenges work their way through the courts over the next several years, the law will not have changed since Rapanos was decided in 2006.  Both the Kennedy and Scalia tests for jurisdiction will be used by all circuits.  

For over forty years the issue of how far to extend federal jurisdiction over waters has not been conclusively decided.  It appears this issues will not have greater clarity for the foreseeable future.  

 

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