The Science Advisory Board (SAB) has provided advice and comment on EPA’s proposed rule that defines which streams and wetlands are federally regulated. The SAB’s comments are interesting in two ways:
- Despite comments that EPA’s proposal pulls under federal regulation way too many waterways, SAB believes there are too many exceptions in the EPA’s proposal; and
- The SAB seems to be frustrated with the lawyers deciding which streams, wetlands and water bodies should be regulated under the Clean Water Act.
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 reached different conclusions when applying the “significant nexus” test.
Practical Issues Post Rapanos
Business and developers, for the most part, hate regulatory uncertainty. The post-Rapanos era has provided very little certainty with regards to which waterways fall under federal regulation and need permits in order to be impacted.
Post-Rapanos, EPA and the Army Corps tend to be expansive in their interpretations of federally protected waterways when applying the "significant nexus" test. This puts businesses and developers in the difficult position of having to choose between:
- Even if they believe regulators are overextending their authority, do they just acquiesce and spend a significant amount of time and money to obtain permits for impacts;
- Proceed with impacting waterways and risk criminal or civil enforcement; or
- Attempt to litigate whether the Army Corps properly exerted its jurisdiction.
EPA Rule Defines "Waters of the United States"
In attempt to address the increasing amount of litigation and uncertainty surrounding which water bodies fall under federal regulation, EPA released is proposed rule- "Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’ Under the Clean Water Act". The rule was released on March 25, 2014.
Many in the business community have commented that EPA’s proposed rule provides certainty by purporting to regulate virtually all waterways.
The rule proposal contains 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. Waterways with more tenuous connections to "navigable rivers" 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.
SAB Believes EPA Still Doesn’t Go Far Enough
While EPA’s proposal has been criticized as expanding the coverage of the Clean Water Act too far, SAB’s comment letter criticizes a number even the limited exemptions from jurisdiction proposed by EPA. For example, SAB comments:
- Drop OHWM in definition of "tributary"- The Board recommends EPA drop the requirement that a tributary must contain an "ordinary high water mark" which may be absent from many ephemeral streams. The Board advises EPA to consider changing the wording in the definition of "tributary" to " bed, bank, and other evidence of flow;"
- Adjacent should be determined based on connection not simply location- SAB supports EPA’s proposal to regulate adjacent waters and wetlands. However, the Board advises EPA that adjacent waters and wetlands should not be defined solely on the basis of geographical proximity or distance to jurisdictional waters;
- Whether to regulate "Other Waters" should not be based solely on proximity- The Board encourages EPA to expand which waters may be regulated on the rule’s catchall provision. The Board wants EPA to drop geographical proximity to "jurisdictional waters" as the key factor. Rather, whether to regulate "other waters" should be made on a case-by-case basis;
- Include groundwater- The Board recommends that EPA extend regulatory coverage to groundwater;
- Artificial Lakes or ponds- Rather than exclude all such waters from jurisdiction, SAB points out that these bodies of water may be directly connected to jurisdictional waters by groundwater;
- "Significant Nexus"– The Board comments that the term "significant nexus" (the test articulated by Justice Kennedy in the Rapanos decision) is not well defined. The Board recommends that the rule clarify this is purely a legal term, not a scientific term.
If EPA adopted SABs recommendations most waterways would be federally regulated. The Army Corps would also be provide wide latitude to regulate virtually any waterway.
Photo: Ohio Non-Point Source Management Plan