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Markets & Analytics: Clean Water Act
February 2023 Markets & Analytics

Administration’s WOTUS Rule Muddies Jurisdictional Waters

By Lisa Bruderly

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have issued a new definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), which becomes effective on March 20. The regulated community is watching this new definition of WOTUS because it will determine federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

For example, projects involving oil or natural gas development or pipeline construction require federal permitting for impacts from crossing, or otherwise disturbing, WOTUS. Generally speaking, the more impacts to such federally regulated streams and wetlands, the more complicated, expensive and lengthy the Corps Section 404 permitting.

In addition to determining the scope of federal permitting for the dredging/filling of streams and wetlands, the WOTUS definition also determines the scope of several other federal regulations, including regulations associated with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting, Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure plans and federal spill reporting. Although WOTUS is not defined in the CWA, the WOTUS definition appears in 11 different federal regulations.

Overview And Background

The agencies have promoted this final rule as establishing a “durable definition” that will “reduce uncertainty” in identifying WOTUS. However, this definition does not appear to provide much-needed clarity. Rather, generally speaking, the new definition codifies the approach that the agencies already have been informally utilizing to determine WOTUS, for example, relying on the definition of WOTUS from the late 1980s, as interpreted by subsequent U. S. Supreme Court decisions (such as the 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States). Challenges to the new definition are already underway.

The definition of WOTUS has been debated for nearly two decades, starting with several U. S. Supreme Court cases, which addressed the meaning of the 1980s WOTUS definition. This 1980s definition is very brief and is open to much interpretation because it does not include any defined terms. As discussed further below, rather than providing clarity, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions introduced additional uncertainty by offering more than one test for determining WOTUS.

Subsequently, Presidents Obama and Trump each introduced their own WOTUS definitions. President Barack Obama introduced the Clean Water Rule (CWR) in 2015, and President Donald Trump introduced the Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR) in 2020.

Not surprisingly, the CWR entailed a broader interpretation of WOTUS, based heavily of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s significant nexus test in Rapanos, while the NWPR was based heavily on Justice Antonin Scalia’s “relatively permanent waters” test in Rapanos. Both the CWR and the NWPR were immediately and significantly challenged. Neither rule remains in effect.

Current Status

The Biden administration published its draft definition of WOTUS on Dec. 7. The final rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 18. The agencies’ approach to interpreting WOTUS relies heavily on both of the frequently discussed tests identified in the Rapanos decision. In Rapanos, Justice Scalia issued the plurality opinion, which held that WOTUS would include only “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water” connected to traditional navigable waters, and to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to such relatively permanent waters” (such as adjacent wetlands).

Justice Kennedy, however, advanced a broader WOTUS interpretation in his concurring opinion, which was based on the concept of a “significant nexus” (for instance, wetlands should be considered as WOTUS “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 water”). President Biden’s new definition directly quotes and codifies these tests as regulations that may be relied upon to support a WOTUS determination.

While this new WOTUS definition may not be, conceptually, a significant change to how the agencies regulate streams and wetlands, the new definition may expand the agencies’ interpretation of a wetland that is “adjacent” to a WOTUS, through its lengthy discussion of adjacent wetlands in the final rule’s preamble.

The new definition also may expand how the agencies determine whether a water body will “significantly affect” a WOTUS, by providing a definition of “significantly affect,” which enumerates five factors to assess and five functions to consider in evaluating whether a potentially unregulated water will have a “material influence” on a traditionally navigable water.

Factors include distance from the traditionally navigable water, hydrologic factors and climatological variables. Functions include contribution of flow and retention and attenuation of runoff. Both the factors and the functions are broad and open to interpretation, which may lead to the agencies asserting jurisdiction over more water bodies. The new definition also codifies that the effect of the potentially regulated water must be evaluated alone “or in combination with similarly situated waters in the region,” which likely will broaden how the agencies evaluate the potential regulation of ephemeral and isolated water bodies.

Supreme Court And Congress

Publication of this definition, at this time, is likely a preemptive move by the agencies in advance of the Supreme Court’s impending decision in Sackett v. EPA, a case in which the court will, again, weigh in on the definition of WOTUS.

In Sackett, landowners in Idaho have had a long-standing challenge to an administrative order issued against them for allegedly filling wetlands without a permit. The Sacketts assert that Justice Kennedy’s significant nexus test in Rapanos is not the appropriate test to delineate wetlands as WOTUS, and that, under the test identified by Justice Scalia, the wetlands on their property are not WOTUS.

In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Sacketts’ position and held that the “significant nexus” test in the Kennedy concurrence was the controlling opinion from Rapanos. The Sacketts petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether Rapanos should be revisited to adopt the plurality’s test for wetland jurisdiction under the CWA. However, the Supreme Court instead will consider the narrow issue of whether the Ninth Circuit “set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are WOTUS.”

Some have speculated that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion may support a narrower interpretation of WOTUS than the agencies have been implementing. For example, if the court narrows or eliminates the “significant nexus” test, the decision will create even more uncertainty in identifying WOTUS and may invalidate the Biden administration’s definition. The Sackett opinion is expected by this summer.

In a letter dated Jan. 30, 25 Republican governors asked President Biden to delay implementation of the new WOTUS definition until the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Sackett decision. The governors oppose the new definition and claim that it is, among other things, ill-timed, burdensome and overbroad. The governors assert that delaying implementation of the new definition until after the issuance of the Sackett decision will minimize the number of changes to the definition in a short time. The governors stated that multiple revisions would “impose an unnecessary strain on farmers, builders and every other impacted sector of the American economy.”

Consistent with the sentiments of the Republican governors, in early February, Republican members of Congress, led by Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., and representatives Sam Graves, R-Mo., and David Rouzer, R-N.C., announced that they intended to use the Congressional Review Act to formally challenge the new WOTUS definition through a joint resolution of disapproval. The hearing was held on Feb 8.

The CRA provides Congress a mechanism to vote to disapprove agency rules that go beyond the authority Congress granted to federal agencies and to send the resolution to the president, who can approve or veto the resolution. If passed, the joint resolution of disapproval could invalidate the rule and prohibit an agency from issuing a rule that is in substantially the same form without further congressional authorization. President Biden is expected to veto any such joint resolution of disapproval.

Consistent with Obama’s CWR and Trump’s NWPR, the new WOTUS definition already has been challenged in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas by Texas and 18 industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, claiming that the new definition is “unworkable” and in conflict with the CWA (see accompanying story, page 30). These challenges may result in the stay or vacatur of the new definition. If this occurs, the agencies may, again, revert back to the current WOTUS definition.

Lisa Bruderly

LISA BRUDERLY is a shareholder and past chair of the environmental group at Babst Calland. She is also a member of the firm’s energy and natural resources group and primarily focuses on regulatory issues associated with water resources, wastewater/stormwater management, compliance auditing, site assessments and remediation, including state voluntary remediation programs. Previously, she was an environmental scientist for a national environmental consulting company and an environmental auditor and compliance project manager for a large natural gas transmission corporation based in West Virginia. Bruderly has a B.S. in environmental resource management from Pennsylvania State University and a J.D., cum laude, from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

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