EPA and Corps Release Proposed Rule Defining "Waters of the U.S."

When does placing fill in a wetland or disturbing a stream for construction require a federal permit? Seems like this should evoke a pretty straightforward answer.  However, for more than a decade the extent of federal permitting regulations has been unclear.  Now EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) are attempting, once again, to try and provide a clear answer.

Background on Supreme Court Clean Water Act Decisions

Federal regulations clearly define "waters of the United States" in 40 CFR 122.2 to include "navigable waters" (i.e. those waterways used for commerce) as well as interstate waters.  What has not been clear is the scope of "other waters" that fall within federal jurisdiction.

The extent of federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands has been unclear ever since the Supreme Court  issued its decisions in Solid Waste Authority of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001) and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Since Rapanos, Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test has been used to determine jurisdiction for streams and wetlands that fall into the "other water" regulatory classification.  Under the test, a waterway is evaluated to determine whether it impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. If it does impact a navigable water in that manner, then it falls under federal jurisdiction. 

Since the Rapanos decision, both the ACOE and EPA have struggled to provide clear guidance as to which waterways meet the "significant nexus" test.  Far too frequently, the determination has been left to case-by-case determinations that are litigated.  Making matters worse, different federal courts have reach different conclusions when applying the “significant nexus” test. 

The ACOE and EPA have attempted to clarify through guidance federal jurisdictional waters, but those guidance documents have been vacated by the Courts (see prior post).  The courts made clear a formal rule was necessary for EPA and ACOE's scientific interpretations to have legal force.

On March 25, 2014, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers jointly released their proposed rule defining the terms “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Under the proposal, the federal agencies attempt to move away from the case-by-case application of the “significant nexus” test by simply defining certain waters as under federal jurisdiction.

 Proposal Maintains Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters

Under the proposed rule, the following waters are jurisdictional by rule, with no further analysis needed:

  • Navigable waters
  • Territorial seas
  • Interstate waters
  • Tributaries of navigable or interstate waters
  • Adjacent waters and wetlands

The EPA and ACOE state they are not expanding the definition of these categories in the proposed rule.  Rather, these categories represent those waterways that have been consistently recognized as subject to federal jurisdiction in prior rule making.

Expansive Proposed Definition of Tributary

The rule proposal does contain an entirely new definition of "tributary," which under the proposed rule, would be classified as jurisdictional waters with no further analysis.  If the rule were finalized, it would eliminate most case-by-case decision making on federal jurisdiction.  Under the proposal, a “tributary” is any waterway that meets the following characteristics:

·       Can have perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow

·       Has a defined bed, bank and ordinary high water mark (a term defined under existing regulations)

·       Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to as jurisdictional water

·       Or, is part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water

The portion of the definition which states any waterway that contributes flow “directly or through another water” to a jurisdictional water, is very expansive.  It is these waterways with more tenuous connections to "navigable rivers" that have been the subject of litigation.  The proposed rule would eliminate any doubt for the vast majority of such streams and wetlands-  they would be under federal jurisdiction.  

The tributary definition includes wetlands, lakes, ponds that contribute flow to a navigable or interstate water.  It also includes ditches, except in upland areas that don’t contribute flow to a jurisdictional water. 

The rule proposal states the connectivity demonstration can be made using aerial photos and/or USGS maps or other evidence.  However, only the connection must be demonstrated.  There does not need to be any individualized demonstration that the waterway in question impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. EPA argues its review of the science demonstrates the vast majority of tributaries have such impacts.

While it difficult to come up with a stream or wetland that would likely not fit the definition of tributary, the rule still proposes to a catchall provision which states jurisdiction may still be asserted over any waterway on a case-by-case basis.  The catchall provides EPA and ACOE for regulate streams and wetlands that may not meet the expansive definition of tributary.

EPA Argues Proposal Rule Supported by Science

EPA states that the proposal to expansively define tributary to automatically include most waterways without a case-by-case demonstration is supported by scientific literature.  EPA conducted a review of published peer-reviewed scientific literature- “Connectivity and Effects of Streams and Wetlands on Downstream Waters:  A Review and Synthesis of Scientific Evidence.”   In it's review EPA concludes most waterways are interconnected and can impact water quality of larger streams and rivers.

In the proposed rule, EPA argues that its expansive definition of tributary is supported not only by science but by case law as well.  EPA discusses the various cases that have tried to address the "significant nexus" test.

Public Comment Period

A 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposal is published in the Federal Register.  The EPA states is seeks comments to its proposal as well as other ways to define which waters should be considered jurisdictional.  However, the proposal makes very clear that EPA believes its proposal is on solid ground.  

 Creative Commons photo by putneypics via Flickr

Ohio EPA Wants to Take Over Wetland and Stream Permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers

Another aspect of Governor Kasich's controversial proposed legislation- Senate Bill 315- is to provide the legislative authority for Ohio EPA to take over Section 404 Clean Water Act permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers.  Section 404 permits are needed prior to impacts to streams or wetlands within federal jurisdiction. 

The bill itself doesn't really do that much.  It simply provides the authority to the Director of Ohio EPA to seek approval from U.S. EPA to assume responsibility for administering the Section 404 permitting program.  The real important issues will be covered in the approval request itself. 

As discussed below, the biggest issue Ohio EPA faces is to convince U.S. EPA in its request that it has sufficient resources to take over all the Section 404 permitting functions from the Army Corps.

What's good about the proposal

Right now any developer that needs to impact wetlands or streams as part of their development will typically need to obtain two permit approvals.  First, they must obtain a Section 401 Water Quality Certification from Ohio EPA.  Second, if the wetland or stream is considered within federal jurisdiction, the developer must obtain a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The fact two permits will be needed won't change if Ohio takes over the Section 404 program.  However, developers will have the opportunity to go to one regulator to obtain both certifications.  This will hopefully streamline the process. 

Another major complication under the current structure is that Ohio is divided among four different Army Corp Districts- Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Louisville and Huntington.  Each of the Districts has very different ways they process Section 404 permits.  Therefore, another benefit of Ohio taking over the program would be greater consistency. 

Approval Process Will Be Lengthy and Difficult

While there are good reasons for Ohio to take over Section 404 permitting, it will be a very lengthy and difficult process.  First, Ohio EPA will have to show that it has sufficient resources to handle all the duties performed by the Army Corps.  I have heard projections that this could take up to forty (40) additional staff in Ohio EPA wetland section. 

This would be a very substantial increase in staff and the resources will be very difficult to come by.  Unless, Ohio EPA is going to direct fees that are currently being used to support other programs, the Agency would need to seek a fee increase or new fee.  While applicants may like the streamlined process, its unlikely they will want to pay substantially more for it. 

If the Director was going to tap into current fees, such as the solid waste disposal fee, he will have to likely cut other programs.  Also, the solid waste industry may object to use of the disposal fees to pay for significant new staff in program that doesn't directly deal with management of solid waste.

Even if Ohio EPA clears the hurdle of demonstrating sufficient resources, it will still need to prove to U.S. EPA its has the legal authority to carry out the same functions as the Army Corps.  The last time the State of Ohio tried to convince U.S. EPA of something similar it was transfer of the water permitting program (NDPES) for large farms to the Department of Agriculture.  This process has taken years and involves only a transfer between two state agencies. 

While the idea may sound good in theory, Ohio faces a significant uphill climb to make this proposal a reality.

 

EPA Finds No Support in the Courts for Wetland Guidance

Ever since Rapanos,  EPA has struggled to consistently apply the "continuous surface connection" and "significant nexus test"  which both emerged from the Supreme Court decision. The two tests are to be used to determine whether wetlands fall within federal jurisdiction.  

To combat these inconsistencies, the Army Corps (ACOE)  has adopted guidance documents to help its staff apply the tests in the field.  The ACOE's first Post-Rapanos guidance document was issued in 2008. The U.S. EPA and ACOE worked together to draft the second Post-Rapanos guidance document in June 2011.  EPA's webpage still identifies the 2011 guidance as "draft."

Federal Courts Limit ACOE and EPA Use of Guidance

National Mining Association v. Lisa Jackson

While EPA and the ACOE continue to try and use guidance to clarify their regulations, the courts have severely limited application of guidance in wetland permit reviews.  In the latest decision, National Mining Association v. Lisa Jackson (Oct. 6, 2011), the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down policies and procedures adopted by U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) regarding dredge and fill permits under the Clean Water Act.

The guidance involved "mountaintop removal mining," where rock and soil overburden is moved from atop coal seams and placed drainage channels.  In 2009 the EPA, Corps, and the U.S. Department of Interior entered into a memorandum which outlined when EPA would review Section 404 permits that involved surface coal mining and water quality impacts.

EPA argued that the memo clarified the procedural process for reviewing Section 404 permits.  EPA says it had broad discretion to establish procedures in how to implement statutes.

The Court disagreed.  It said that the memo had the legal impact of a rule because it imposed unequivocal requirements.  Also, the Court said the Clean Water Act limits EPA's role to select functions in the Section 404 permit review process, such as issuing a veto of a permit if EPA determines it will have an "unacceptable adverse effect."  The Court said the memo tried to expand EPA permit review role beyond that enumerated in the CWA.  Therefore, the Court said the memo was actually a rule in disguise.

Precon Development Corp., Inc. v. ACOE

The National Mining decision follows the Fourth Circuit decision in Precon Development Corp., Inc. v. Army Corps of Engineers, in which the Court also limited use wetland guidance in permitting decisions.  In Precon, the Court refused to provide the same legal deference to the Corps permitting decision because it had failed to adopt a rule for applying the "significant nexus test." 

In Precon, the Corps had utilized its 2008 Post-Rapanos guidance document in arriving at its decision a wetland was subject to federal jurisdiction.  The Court found that ACOE administrative record supporting its determination was inadequate.  The Court said the ACOE must find some evidence that the wetlands and other water bodies at issue perform functions that are considered "significant" for there to be determined a connection to a navigable water. 

The Court suggested the ACOE jurisdictional review may have been entitled to more deference if the Agency had adopted a rule rather than using guidance in making its decision.  The Court said it would not give as much deference to the ACOE application of the "significant nexus test" in this case because the Agency relied the 2008 Post-Rapanos guidance and not a rule. 

Conclusion

The EPA and ACOE's 2011 Post-Rapanos guidance has still not been finalized.  The public comment period was closed in July. 

Both the National Mining and Precon cases demonstrate that, even if the guidance is finalized, the Agency's jurisdictional determinations will not receive as much deference without a formal rule.  Furthermore, if any aspect of the 2011 guidance is found to impose unequivocal requirements on Section 404 applicants it could be struck down as illegal rulemaking.

 

Bay Village Debates Riparian Setback Ordinance

Bay Village has been debating establishing a riparian setback for the last few years.  The proposal which began with a 75 foot setback has now been scaled down to 25 feet.  Yet the ordinance is still controversial and City Council decided to delay its vote enacting the provision.

The debate before Council was covered in the West Shore Sun:

Council took the items off the March 21 meeting agenda after hearing concerns voiced by Lake Road resident and attorney, Homer Taft... 

Taft told council he felt the proposed legislation was onerous, would impose unfair hardships on some residents, and could be found unconstitutional.

Residents near creeks wanting to make changes on their property could face thousands of dollars in additional engineering expenses, he said. In addition, some residents could find themselves facing restrictions on developing significant portions of their property.

“I believe this ordinance is unfair to property owners and rather draconian,” Taft said.

He also questioned whether the city is really obligated to pass the legislation.

“I know you are being told the EPA requires this,” Taft said. “I challenge anyone to provide written evidence that’s true.”

Riparian setback ordinances are appearing all over Northeast Ohio due to a strong push by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, local officials with Ohio EPA and the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District.  I am willing to bet that more areas are covered by riparian setback requirements in Northeast Ohio than anywhere else in Ohio.

From the article is appears there is still confusion as to whether Ohio EPA is mandating local municipalities adopt the ordinances to comply with NPDES permit requirements to control stormwater.  As discussed in a previous post, setbacks are but one option municipalities can utilize to meet their stormwater control requirements.

From an environmental standpoint do setback have value?  There is no debate setbacks have value by providing flood retention, filtering of pollutants and habitat to improve water quality.  While there are benefits, they also restrict owners ability to fully utilize their property. 

Many municipalities passed setback ordinances without really understanding what they were placing on their books.  City Councils then faced outraged citizens who complained about "no build zones" on their properties.  Some Boards of Zoning Appeals were faced with controversial variance requests to appease local citizens.  Given the controversy its a good idea that Bay Village is having a robust debate. 

 

Army Corps/EPA Propose to Expand Federal Jurisdication over Waters and Wetlands

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions, Rapanos and SWANCC, which interpret the extent of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  Since these decisions were issued the Army Corps of Engineers as well as Courts have had difficulty applying the tests for determining federal jurisdiction in a consistent and coherent manner.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in its 2008 Rapanos Guidance, set forth its methods for applying the Supreme Court tests for determining federal jurisdiction.   The prior written guidance left open key issues such as:

  • Which of the two tests (Kennedy or Scalia) should be utilized- see discussion below
  • Since the statutory language at issue, "waters of the United States,"  appears in other sections of the Clean Water Act how do the Supreme Court tests apply to regulatory requirements not directly addressed by the Supreme Court Decision.

The new 2010 Draft Rapanos Guidance (click link for a copy) attempts to address these issues as well as others. 

Perhaps most importantly, the draft guidance announces that its application will greatly expand the number of waters falling within federal jurisdiction- "the Agencies expect that the numbers of waters found to be subject to CWA jurisdiction will increase significantly compared to practices under the 2003 SWANCC guidance and the 2008 Rapanos guidance.”   The Agencies criticize the 2008 Rapanos guidance as interpreting Justice Kennedy's test too narrowly. 

Recap of Supreme Court Tests

The Rapanos decision contains two tests for determining federal jurisdiction.  The plurality test and the significant nexus test created by Justice Kennedy.  A key debate since the Supreme Court decision in the lower courts has been whether one or both tests should be used to determine jurisdiction.  Here is recap of the two tests that emerged from Rapanos:

  1. Significant Nexus Test- (Justice Kennedy) Federal Clean Water Act Jurisdiction extends to all waterways that have a "significant nexus" to a navigable water. A "significant nexus" occurs "if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as `navigable
  2. Plurality Test- (Just Scalia) The test developed by the plurality has a more narrow focus than the Kennedy test.  Under the test, federal jurisdiction extends to only "relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water"

New 2010 Draft Rapanos Guidance

EPA and the Army Corp's 2010 Rapanos guidance basically states the agencies will apply Justice Kennedy test exclusively, the more expansive of the two tests.  Also, as discussed above, the guidance contains a clear message that the Justice Kennedy test will be applied by the agencies in a more expansive manner than under the 2008 guidance. 

The new guidance also applies to more programs under the Clean Water Act (CWA)  The 2008 Rapanos guidance focused only on the CWA 404 regulations governing placement of fill in wetlands and streams.  The 2010 Draft Guidance is far more expansive, stating it is meant to apply to “whether a water body is subject to any of the programs authorized under the CWA."  Such CWA programs include sections 402 (NPDES), 311 (oil spill), 303 (water quality standards and TMDLs) and 401 (state water quality certification) programs.

Status of Written Guidance

The draft 2010 Guidance was sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. OMB has until March 20, 2011 to conclude its review (90 days from the date it was submitted).  EPA and the Army Corps have also said they will provide a limited opportunity for comment once the draft clears OMB review.

It goes without saying that there is concern with the new guidance.  Industry has already stated it believes it is overly expansive and also incorporates language into Justice Kennedy's test that the Justice never intended. 

Based on the federal agencies attempt to greatly expand federal jurisdiction through release of the guidance, it will almost certainly be challenged. 

Are Local Government's Mandated to Adopt Riparian Setbacks

Northeast Ohio has led the state in the adoption of ordinances that establish setback requirements from streams and wetlands.  Buried within municipal codes is the requirement to stay out of buffer areas surrounding streams and wetlands. 

Homeowners, businesses and developers often learn of these requirements after they go to the City with their designs for additions, expansions or subdivisions. 

There is a lot of misinformation as to whether cities are required to adopt these ordinances.  Some municipalities are telling citizens and developers they were mandated by Ohio EPA to adopt them. While there was a very big effort to try and push adoption of these ordinances, let's be clear, there is no legal mandate in Ohio at this time to adopt them. 

The two most common model ordinance that many municipalities have adopted are either the Northeast Ohio Storm Water Task Force and Chagrin River Watershed Partners model ordinances.  (The Chagrin River Watershed Partners website provide very good information regarding riparian setbacks and their purpose.)

What are municipalities required to do to control stormwater?

The legal requirement for local governments to adopt various stormwater control ordinances stems from Ohio EPA's implementation of the MS4 program (Small Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems).  Each local government that has ownership and control over an MS4 is required to develop a Stormwater Management Program (SWMP).  There are certain required elements of the SWMP, including the adoption of certain storm water ordinances, including:

  • Pre-construction stormwater controls
  • Post-construction stormwater controls
  • Illicit discharge, detection and elimination
  • Erosion and sediment controls

As part of the post-construction stormwater program, the municipality must include information on any non-structural stormwater requirements it has imposed.  One possible non-structural stormwater control technique can be wetland and stream setbacks (buffers). 

Where are Ohio EPA's legal requirements specified?

Ohio EPA's NPDES General Permit for the MS4 program permit (Permit #OHQ000002) only requires a rational statement that discusses what non-structural BMPs were selected, including BMPs designed to protect riparian areas and buffers protecting sensitive water bodies. See, Section III.B.5.e.iii of Permit #OHQ00002. Ohio EPA's permit  does not require the MS4 community to adopt riparian setbacks.

OAC Chapter 3745-39, which establishes the minimum regulatory requirements for MS4 program, does not mandate adoption of setbacks. It only discusses setbacks as one option for implementing non-structural stormwater controls. Ohio EPA's comment below the regulation establishing minimum requirements for MS4 communities:

Non-structural best management practices are preventative actions that involve management and source controls such as: policies and ordinances that provide requirements and standards to direct growth to identified areas, protect sensitive areas such as wetlands and riparian areas, maintain or increase open space (including a dedicated funding source for open space acquisition), provide buffers along sensitive water bodies, minimize impervious surfaces, and minimize disturbance of soils and vegetation; policies or ordinances that encourage infill development in higher density urban areas, and areas with existing infrastructure; education programs for developers and the public about project designs that minimize water quality impacts; and measures such as minimization of per cent impervious area after development and minimization of directly connected impervious areas.

In other words, communities are free to consider a mix of non-structural controls which could include riparian setbacks.

What about distances of setbacks?

Model ordinances have between 25 - 300 feet as required buffers.  Does Ohio EPA mandate a specific distance?  No.

Ohio EPA has only included setbacks in a couple NPDES General Permits for specific sensitive water bodies (the Big Darby and the Olentangy). Here is the requirement from the Big Darby general construction stormwater permit:

The stream setback corridor (calculated using one of the methods in Part III.G.2.b of this permit) consists of up to 3 zones.  Zone 1 extends from 0 to 25 feet from the stream edge. Zone 2 extends from 25 to 100 feet from the stream edge, and Zone 3 extends from 100 feet to the outer edge of the setback corridor.

There is a formula for determining the stream setback corridor.  Then the Agency divides up the setback area into three zones.  Each zone has its own mitigation requirements.

While Ohio EPA has selected two sensitive rivers to mandate riparian setbacks, it is still not determined a minimum setback distance.  The NPDES General Permit for the MS4 program does not establish a minimum setback distance if a community elects to utilize this non-structural BMP.

OAC Chapter 3745-39 does not contain a rule specifying minimum distances for riparian or wetland setbacks. 

(For more information on the purpose of Riparian Setbacks, click here)

Clean Water Restoration Act- Federal Expansion or Restoring Protections?

On June 18th the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on a vote of 12-7, passed the amended version of the Clean Water Restoration Act.  The proposal is seen by some as an attempt to fix a major hole in the Clean Water Act.  Others see it as a major extension of federal regulation.  I see it as a State's rights issue...

The debate over the bill has centered on whether federal jurisdiction should cover essentially all streams and wetlands. (for a discussion of the jurisdiction issue see the extended entry to this post)  The hardcore supporters or detractors appear to break into two camps:

  1. Farmers who want the independence and flexibility to address irrigation or flooding without the need of federal permits
  2. Without passage the majority of streams and wetlands will be left completely unprotected leading to a complete destruction of water quality even in federally regulated waterways. 

If you think I'm painting the camps too dramatically let me provide some examples.  First from the protection camp (post on Blue Living Ideas).

Without CWRA, we could return to the times of the Cuyahoga River burning and the Great Lakes smelling like cesspools. The Clean Water Act is important legislation that needs restoration. It’s about birds; it’s about clean water; it’s about drinking water. CWA was intended to protect all of America’s waters from pollution, not just those that are navigable.

Now from the farmer's perspective (post on Drovers).

Under current law, the federal government has jurisdiction over "navigable waters of the United States." However, by removing the word "navigable" from the definition, the CWRA would expand federal regulatory control to unprecedented levels - essentially putting stock tanks, drainage ditches, any puddle or water feature found on family farms and ranches—potentially even ground water—under the regulatory strong-arm of the federal government.

There are of course other perspective, such as the U.S. Chamber's.  In a letter to the Senate Committee the U.S. Chamber opposes the Clean Water Restoration Act because it fears the expansive language will be used by citizen groups to stop development projects:

It has been well-documented that deletion of the term “navigable” from the definition of “waters of the United States” could lead to the unnecessary expansion of the CWA to certain intrastate waters. The bill does attempt to address this problem by listing the specific types of waters explicitly covered by the CWA and exempting others. However, the Chamber’s primary concern is that, despite the good intentions of the Committee in negotiating a compromise, S.787 as drafted is still subject to manipulation by activist groups whose only goal is to stop development.

Lost in the debate seems to be Republican notions of federalism.  When it comes to environmental protection, States seem to often loose the argument that they can craft better regulations or even be trusted to adopt any regulation at all.

The lack of trust makes groups push hard for federal regulation, which is unfortunate because State crafted water quality regulatory programs should be a much better alternative. Here are some reasons why an expanded Ohio jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands may be preferable to "putting all waters under federal protection." 

  1. Regulations crafted at the local level-  ideally States should be in a better position to address unique water quality issues that may be present in their state.  Rather than one size fits all approach under federal regulations.
  2. One permit instead of two-  If the Clean Water Restoration Act passes, anyone with development projects in the State that impacts a stream or wetland will have to get a 401 water quality certification and a 404 permit.  This means all development projects face distinct regulators who may push for different outcomes to mitigate for impacts. 
  3. Greater Flexibility-  In navigating federal regulations, companies and developers often must deal with the "national consistency" argument.  In other words, "we can't be flexible in this instance because we have to worry we are setting national precedent."
  4. Navigation of only one regulatory structures-  Water quality regulation is a complex business.  It involves biological and chemical criteria.  Navigating two complex regulatory structures (federal and state) bogs down business.  An efficient regulatory structure can still be protective.

A state water permit program is not only a possibility, it was proposed by Ohio EPA in the fall of 2008 in response to shrinking federal regulation.  The State's proposal has met with significant resistance which has slowed the rule development process down to a crawl.  However, for the reasons articulated above perhaps its worth reconsidering positions on the proposal.  

Those groups opposing both the Clean Water Restoration Act and Ohio EPA's proposed Water Quality Permit Program must realize they will not get it both ways.  There is too much support for protecting streams and wetlands to have no regulatory program in place.  Without a strong push for State regulation, the default will be to push for federal regulation.

To fend off federal regulation through adoption of effective state regulation, supporters must address the perception of many that State's engage in a "race to the bottom" when enacting environmental regulation.  Federal legislation like the Clean Water Restoration Act get pushed because fear by many groups that if regulation is left up to the State's they will all compete to have the least amount of protections or requirements. 

(Photo: Colin Gregory Palmer/everystockphoto.com)

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EPA Inspector General Reports Impact of Rapanos Uncertainty

U.S. EPA's Office of Inspector General released a report regarding the effects of the Supreme Court's decision in Rapanos on enforcement of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  The report, titled Comments Related to Effects Jurisdictional Uncertainty On Clean Water Act Implementation, contains some interesting observations and discussion.  Bottomline, the lack of clarity for determining whether wetlands or waterways fall within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act has led to U.S. EPA dropping hundred of enforcement cases. 

Overall, CWA enforcement activities (for Sections 311 (oil spills), 402 (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System), and 404) have decreased since the Rapanos ruling. An estimated total of 489 enforcement cases (Sections 311, 402, and 404 combined) have been affected such that formal enforcement was not pursued as a result of jurisdictional uncertainty, case priority was lowered as a result of jurisdictional uncertainty, or lack of jurisdiction was asserted as an affirmative defense to an enforcement action.

Some interesting observations by the EPA lawyers who are  trying to provide advice to those enforcing the Clean Water Act:  Here are two notable comments about the legal terms that are causing uncertainty:

Traditional navigable waterways evade easy definition; even the Supreme Court has been vague on the precise scope of traditional navigable waterways. Traditional navigable waterways have arisen in multiple legal contexts over the years, not just in CWA discussions. Many stakeholders find the Appendix D definition to be still too broad to adequately serve the jurisdictional issues created by the Rapanos decision. The OGC attorneys noted that there had been considerable discussion about the scope of traditional navigable waterways in Fall 2007. Traditional navigable waterways continue to be an issue in some "isolated (a)(3)" elevations.

"Adjacency" was not addressed by the Supreme Court. Although there are 1-2 sentences on it in the interim June 2007 guidance, it remains an imprecise term. However, OGC staff is working with various program offices to create a follow-up to the June 2007 Rapanos guidance where adjacency, among other things, will be addressed. The real debate involves the interpretation of one aspect of the "adjacency" definition: "neighboring." This "neighboring" term was a cornerstone of the debate in the Carabell case.

The blog Great Lakes Law provides a good summary of the aftermath of the Rapanos Decision as well as discussing the possible legislative fix currently being debated in Congress:

Rapanos / Carabell vs. United States resulted in a divided Court issuing a confusing 4-4-1 divided ruling that cast doubt on whether non-navigable tributaries and their associated wetlands were protected by the Clean Water Act. The Rapanos decision has put at risk safeguards for approximately 60% of the nation’s stream miles (exclusive of Alaska) and their neighboring wetlands.

If nearly 60% of the rivers and wetlands are "unprotected" under federal law, it would seem there would be strong pressure on the States to fill the void.  That pressure is being felt in Ohio where it has proposed a new permit program for impacts to streams.  This proposed rule, if it goes final, would likely be challenged.  This could lead to the State of Ohio's own Rapanos-type decision in the State Supreme Court.  Although that is a long way off.

Outside of new regulations, some states have legal authority that appears broader then federal jurisdiction over waterways.  I wonder whether in any of the 500 cases the U.S. EPA  has dropped they attempted to make a reverse referral to the States for enforcement.   For instance, Ohio Revised Code 6111 has a very broad definition of "Waters of the State" which could form the basis of a State enforcement action:

“Waters of the state” means all streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, watercourses, waterways, wells, springs, irrigation systems, drainage systems, and other bodies or accumulations of water, surface and underground, natural or artificial, regardless of the depth of the strata in which underground water is located, that are situated wholly or partly within, or border upon, this state, or are within its jurisdiction, except those private waters that do not combine or effect a junction with natural surface or underground waters.

Many are pinning their hopes on a Congressional fix that would expand federal jurisdiction beyond navigable waters or those with a "significant nexus" to a navigable water.   Legislation has been proposed- the Clean Water Restoration Act.  It would redefine fedral waterways covered by the Clean Water Act by dropping the term "navigable" as a qualifier to which waters are covered.  It would also add the following language regarding federal

WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES.—The term ‘waters of the United States’ means all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing, to the fullest extent that these waters, or activities affecting these waters, are subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution."

This language would certainly capture virtually every water way.   However, it is very controversial.  Especially out West.  Perhaps with Democratic control this legislation will begin to move, but it still faces a huge challenge.  As a result, states will be feeling increasing pressure, like Ohio has, to exercise existing authority in an attempt to fill the void left by the Rapanos decision.

(Photo: whiskymac/everystockphoto.com)

Army Corps/EPA Issue New Post-Rapanos Guidance on Federal Jurisdiction Over Streams and Wetlands

After the Supreme Court issued its decision in Rapanos, a lack of clarity persists as to how to determine whether a waterway or wetland is federally protected under the Clean Water Act.  This of course pretty critical in deciding which types of permits you may need to impact a stream or wetland.

On December 2nd, the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA released a new guidance document that builds upon earlier guidance.  The guidance provides more insight into what factors will be used to determine federal jurisdiction. 

Rapanos contains two tests for determining federal jurisdiction.  The plurality test and the significant nexus test created by Justice Kennedy.  A key debate since the Supreme Court decision in the lower courts has been whether one or both tests should be used to determine jurisdiction.  The new federal guidance makes clear the EPA/Corps position is that both tests should be applied.

Here is recap of the two tests that emerged from Rapanos:

  1. Significant Nexus Test- (Justice Kennedy) Federal Clean Water Act Jurisdiction extends to all waterways that have a "significant nexus" to a navigable water. A "significant nexus" occurs "if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as `navigable
  2. Plurality Test- (Just Scalia) The test developed by the plurality has a more narrow focus than the Kennedy test.  Under the test, federal jurisdiction extends to only "relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water"

The new federal guidance creates three groups of waterways and wetlands- those that are categorically federal waterways, those where a fact specific analysis will be performed and those that are not federally protected.  A quick summary of the key factors for each category is set forth below:

 Categorical Federal Waters-  The following waters will be considered federal waters:

  • Traditional Navigable Waters- which include waters currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce
  • Wetlands adjacent to traditional navigable waters- (adjacent = 1) unbroken surface or subsurface connection; 2)  only separated by man-made barriers like a dike; or 3) science supports conclusion ecologically connected)
  • Non-navigable tributaries of traditional navigable waters that are relatively permanent where they have flow year-round or seasonal flow (typically three months)
  • Wetlands adjacent to these permanent non-navigable tributaries

Fact Specific "Significant Nexus" Test-  The Corps will have to engage in a fact specific analysis of the ecological factors in deciding whether to extend federal jurisdiction to non-adjacent or non permanent waterways justifies.  The fact specific analysis will include:

  • Examination of the flow characteristics and functions of  the tributary and any adjacent wetlands to determine whether such tributary has a significant effect on the chemical, physical and biological integrity of downstream traditional navigable waters.
  • Principal considerations when evaluating significant nexus include the volume,
    duration, and frequency of the flow of water in the tributary and the proximity of the
    tributary to a traditional navigable water
  • In examining flow, physical indicators of flow may include the presence and characteristics of a reliable ordinary high water mark (OHWM) with a channel defined by bed and banks. Other physical characteristics include shelving, wracking, water staining, sediment sorting, and scour.
  • Extent to which the tributary and adjacent wetlands have the capacity to carry pollutants (e.g., petroleum wastes, toxic wastes, sediment) or flood waters to traditional navigable waters, or to reduce the amount of pollutants or flood waters that would otherwise enter traditional navigable waters
  • Evaluate ecological functions such as the capacity to transfer nutrients and organic carbon vital to support downstream foodwebs (e.g., macroinvertebrates present in headwater streams convert carbon in leaf litter making it available to species downstream), habitat services such as providing spawning areas for recreationally or commercially important species in downstream waters

Non-jurisdictional waterways or wetlands-  The Corps will not extend federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction to the following waters and wetlands:

  • Swales or erosional features (e .g., gullies, small washes characterized by low volume, infrequent, or short duration flow)
  • Ditches (including roadside ditches) excavated wholly in and draining only uplands and that do not carry a relatively permanent flow of water

COMMENTARY:  While the guidance provide additional insight, legislative clarity is needed.  It should not take a 13 page memo that includes vague standards to determine whether a waterway or wetland is within federal jurisdiction.  Such a complex test is prone to inconsistent application.  We need a more straightforward test so its clear to everyone. 

 

 

Controversial Ohio EPA Rule Proposes New Permit For Impacts To All Streams

On September 12, 2008, Ohio EPA issued proposed rules that would require a new permit, called a "state water quality permit", for all dredge or fill impacts to non-federally regulated streams.  Ohio may be the first state in the country to try and expand state stream permit requirements in reaction to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the coverage of the Clean Water Act.  As discussed below, Ohio's effort will be controversial.

 The Supreme Court in Rapanos and SWANCC limited federal jurisdiction of the nation's waterways based upon its interpretation of the Clean Water Act's trigger for jurisdiction- "Navigable Waters".  In a prior post (Narrowing Federal Jurisdiction Over Waterways), I discussed the pressure mounting on States to react to federal court decisions which leave many waterways unprotected.  

Currently, Ohio EPA only requires a permit (401 permit) to fill or dredge a stream if the stream is under federal jurisdiction.   No permit is required if a stream is considered a state waterway but not a federal waterway.

In the past this approach didn't matter much because the Army Corps had a very expansive interpretation of federal waterways.  However, with the federal authority shrinking based upon a flurry of recent federal court decisions, the State felt it could no longer allow more and more streams to go unprotected.  In reaction, they have proposed a new rule that would require a permit for dredge or fill activity on any Ohio waterway, defined as "waters of the state" under Ohio Revised Code 6111.01(H). 

While Ohio EPA's action is understandable, after reviewing the rule, the Agency may be overcompensating.  The definition of a "water of state" is quite expansive under O.R.C. 6111.01(H), it includes:

 "...all streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, watercourses, waterways, wells, springs, irrigation systems, drainage systems, and other bodies or accumulations of water, surface and underground, natural or artificial, regardless of depth of the strata in which underground water is located, that are situated wholly or partly within, or border upon, this state, or are within its jurisdiction, except those private waters that do not combine or effect a junction with natural surface or underground waters."

I can see the lobbyists now, holding up pictures of a small puddle and arguing that Ohio EPA would require a permit for putting a few shovels of dirt in the hole.  Only problem is there is not much in the rule to refute this claim from a purely legal perspective.  The rule does not contain an exemption from permit requirements for small water bodies or deminimis impacts. 

In my experience the Agency is typically not persuasive when it argue "just trust us" to apply the regulation fairly.  As a result, there is no doubt this rule package will be very controversial. 

Other issues with the package include the following:

  1. Same Level Review for All Impacts-  While flawed, Ohio's isolated wetland permit requirements appropriately tries to match the level of review required with the amount/severity of impact.  The proposed rule makes no such effort.  All impacts are required to submit the same amount of technical information as part of their application. Also, all projects will be reviewed within 180 days, expedited review requirements for smaller projects is not included in the rule.
  2. Drainage Ditches- Who can clean out a ditch and when has been a controversial issue in Ohio for some time.  The proposed rule would put significant limitations on when ditches can be cleaned out for purposes of flood control or drainage.
  3. Clean Fill Materials- The rule limits fill to material "free from toxic contaminants in other than trace quantities."  While this limitation often appears in 401 permits, it has always been vague.  The rule adds no clarity to what is considered "trace quantities."  For instance, arsenic is naturally occurring in most Ohio soils.  Couldn't this limit be viewed to prohibit use of even typical Ohio farm soil as fill?
  4. All Permit Applicants Will Have to Wait-  The rule requires every applicant provide a copy of a determination letter from the Army Corps of Engineers as to whether the waters to be impacted are within federal jurisdiction.  Shouldn't some waters be just obviously not within federal jurisdiction?  This requirement is problematic because the Army Corps has been very slow to issue jurisdictional determinations. 
  5. Ohio EPA Guidance Elevated to Legal Requirements-  The rule requires all applicants evaluate the quality of streams in accordance with a series of technical guidance developed by Ohio EPA.  While these guidance documents have been used for years in permit reviews, it certainly will be controversial to make them mandatory. 

Comments on the rule package are currently due October 27, 2008.  However, business associations  are already requesting Ohio EPA allow for more extensive public involvement in the development of the rules.

 (Photo: flickr, heather0174)

A Primer on Riparian and Wetland Setbacks

Municipalities and counties are utilizing riparian and wetland setbacks in their zoning and planning efforts on a more frequent basis.  Setbacks can be an effective tool to control growth, protect valuable natural resources as well as meet federal and state Phase II stormwater requirements. 

While setbacks are beneficial, officials must understand the level of impact on both large scale and small development within their communities before adopting them.  Are they prepared to require alteration of major new commercial or residential developments?  Are they prepared to face angry residents whose plans for a deck or storage shed are influenced by no build zones?  Do they understand the environmental benefits gained by adopting setbacks?

Some local officials that quickly enacted setbacks without fully comprehending the requirements or educating their residents have faced strong push back.  Some communities have responded by frequently issuing variances that dilute the effectiveness of setbacks. Other communities are delaying action on stormwater ordinances until ordered to by the State.

I have worked with local governments on stormwater ordinances, including setbacks.  In my experience, it is critical for local officials to gain a thorough understanding of the ordinances, how they will be applied, as well as the benefits and consequences of setbacks. 

QUICK PRIMER ON RIPARIAN SETBACKS:

Riparian and wetland setbacks are typically adopted through local ordinance.  The most common form prohibits any development, with narrow exceptions, within specified distances from either wetlands or streams. 

In Northeast Ohio, many communities have used the model ordinances developed by NOACA and the Chagrin River Watershed Partners.  The basic approach used in these ordinances is to establish  "no-build" areas equal to specific distances from all streams or wetland.  The distances in the model ordinances range from 300 ft to 25 ft based on the drainage area of the stream or quality of wetland.  A property owner can try and obtain a variance from the setback requirements by demonstrating hardship.

Some local governments have taken this basic approach much further.  They have invested significant resources to map all of the sensitive environmental resources within their communities.  Once mapped, areas are either designated for planned development or are to be avoided and protected.   

An excellent example of this approach is the Chippewa Creek Balanced Growth Plan developed by the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization through a Balanced Growth grant awarded by the Lake Erie Commission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The map on the left show the entire watershed.  Each color designates a different environmental attribute (such as wetlands, streams or steep slopes) that should be protected.  The map on the right is a satellite image with the critical areas highlighted.  Dark green are "no build zones" (PCAs- Priority Conservation Areas) and light green are designated for future development (PDAs- Priority Development Areas).

Creative approaches can be used to compensate landowners whose land lies in area designated for protection. 

  • Transfer of Development Rights- compensating a landowner for the development value of the land that is being preserved by allowing higher density development elsewhere in the community.  (A good primer on Transfer of Development Rights)
  • Mitigation Banking- establish wetland or restoration areas that can be used to compensate if an impact occurs to a setback area.  This provides flexibility while ensuring the environmental benefits stay within the watershed.

WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE ENACTING SETBACK ORDINANCES

1. Flexibility-  Have you built in a level of flexibility within the ordinance that fits your community's needs?  For instance, will you allow development in a setback if mitigation is provided for the impacts.

2.  Takings-  Do the legal standards for granting a variance provide sufficient protection against taking claims?  Because takings case law is fact specific, requirements within the ordinances must have inherent legal flexibility to avoid providing a basis for a claim.  Application of a setback ordinance that results in a valid takings claims can result in significant compensation to the landowner thus draining local government finances.

3.  Distance of the Setback-  Currently in Ohio there is no minimum setback distance specified in state law.  In addition, there are many different distances utilized.  Some are based upon a formula like the one in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Rainwater Manual.  Others use standard distances like the approach in the NOACA model ordinance.  The key consideration in choosing a distance is whether it will provide the protection your desire without unnecessarily burdening property owners.

4.  Alternatives to Setbacks-  In Ohio, Phase II stormwater communities must adopt both structural and non-structural "best management practices" as part of their stormwater management plans.  Right now, the State does not mandate adoption of setback ordinances unless the community committed to one in their stormwater management plan.  Would an alternative non-structural BMP requirement, such as mandating use of green infrastructure (green roofs, pervious pavement, rain gardens) be more palatable to residents?

5.  Education-  It is critical that communities use effective public education techniques so citizens understand the value of setbacks.  Good education can be the difference between local governments effective implementation of a setback ordinance or a community that issues frequent variances to avoid confrontation with residents. 

 

Update: Shrinking Jurisdiction Leads EPA to Drop Hundreds of Clean Water Act Cases

In a prior post discussing the impact of the Supreme Court's rulings limiting federal jurisdiction over waterways, I discussed how state's may feel increasing pressure to fill the gaps in federal authority.  A recent article in the Boston Globe on diminished EPA enforcement suggests the states are probably dusting off their legal theories as we speak. The Globe reported the following: 

The Bush administration didn't pursue hundreds of potential water pollution cases after a 2006 Supreme Court decision that restricted the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate seasonal streams and wetlands.

From July 2006 through December 2007 there were 304 instances where the EPA found what would have been violations of the Clean Water Act before the court's ruling, according to a memo by the agency's enforcement chief.

Two questions I have relative to this story.  First, does this foretell a strange trend where US EPA starts referring cases to the states for enforcement?  Second question- when will the battle shift to permitting?  It cannot be long before a company challenges federal authority to require an NPDES permit.  The most likely candidate in my mind will be something like the requirement to obtain a permit for construction activities.

Narrowing Federal Jurisdiction Over Waterways

The USA Today did a story on the huge debate taking place over the limits of federal jurisdiction over waterways.   The debate ensued in the aftermath of two major Supreme Court cases dealing with federal jurisdiction over wetlands. 

Early on the focus after Rapanos and SWANCC was which wetlands would receive federal protection.  Now, after a series of federal district court rulings and proposed federal legislation, the debate has grown to be much larger.  The States may soon find themselves in the middle scrambling to fill some large holes in federal authority.

(Image: Colin Gregory Palmer/everystockphoto.com)

At issue was the term "navigable waters" which appears repeatedly in the Clean Water Act.  Both Rapanos and SWANCC looked at that term as it related federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  The Supreme Court ruled that Congress, by using the term "navigable waters", did not intend to use its full powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.  Rather, Congress limited exercise of its authority to waters and wetlands that had some significant connection to a "navigable in fact waterway." 

Unfortunately the Court could not agree on a clear test for determining which waters are federally protected.  Justice Kennedy's broader "significant nexus" test seems to have emerged as the most relevant test.  Under the "significant nexus" test, any stream, pond, wetland or other waterway that has a "significant nexus" to a navigable water is federally protected.  "Significant nexus" means it has a significant effect on the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the navigable water.

The grey area are intermittent streams and isolated ponds/wetlands.  Litigation has seen a clash between experts arguing over whether there is some significant hydrologic connection to a navigable water. 

Now two major cases have expanded the debate from beyond just wetlands.  Back in 2006, the 5th Circuit in United States v. Chevron Pipe Line Co. 437 F. Supp. 2d 605, 614 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2006)  drastically limited the federal government's authority to pursue spill and contamination in waterways.  Chevron involved a major oil spill of 126,000 gallons.  The Company successfully argued there was no federal violation resulting from the spill because contamination only reached intermittent streams that had no flow during the time of the spill or during clean up.  The Court put the burden on U.S. EPA to prove contamination actually reached a navigable water.

In March, a Federal Court vacated U.S. EPA's SPCC Rule (API v. Johnson, No. 02-2247, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25859 (D.D.C March 31, 2008) because it contained an overly broad definition of navigable water.  The Court ruled there was no way U.S. EPA could defend the regulation in light of the recent Supreme Court rulings limiting federal jurisdiction.  The result of this ruling may be less facilities will need to prepare spill control plans. 

Many are focused on the proposed federal legislation as the viable fix to these gaps in federal authority. The legislation would expand coverage under the Clean Water Act from "navigable waters' to "waters of the United States".   As highlighted in the USA Today article, given the controversy over such a large expansion of federal jurisdiction, I don't see legislation passing anytime soon.  This means the States, who have broader authority will soon be facing the prospect of filling the gaps in federal authority using state permitting or enforcement authority.