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)