Federal waters rule gets batted around endlessly in the courtrooms

Confusion is nothing new when it comes to figuring out whether federal agencies have jurisdiction over certain wetlands and intermittent streams under the Clean Water Act. And now the Trump administration has guaranteed that confusion will reign a while longer.

Meanwhile, lawsuits — also nothing new to the Clean Water Act — continue to pile up at a rapid pace.

Some argue that the confusion begins with the 1972 Clean Water Act itself, which requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for any filling or dredging — which covers most development — within the “navigable waters” of the country.

Congress defined “navigable waters” in a way that has generated much confusion and many lawsuits through the years: “The term ‘navigable waters’ means the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas,” the law states.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court couldn’t figure it out and ended up adding to the confusion. In a 4-4-1 split ruling, half the justices focused on “navigable waters” with a narrow definition to include major waterways but avoid federal protection for many wetlands and intermittent streams. The other half of the justices supported a broader definition, which would protect downstream waters by also protecting upstream sources of water.

Writer Steve Zwick of Ecosystem Marketplace does a nice job explaining the legal and historical context for the confusion in a four-part series of articles. Zwick relies on, and gives credit to, the writings of William W. Sapp and William M. Lewis, Jr.

Under the previous administration of Barack Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency worked together to draft a new rule to more clearly define federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands, as outlined by the broader Supreme Court opinion. It became known as the “Clean Water Rule” or “WOTUS” for Waters of the U.S.

Some potential opponents applauded the certainty of the proposed rule, even if they disagreed with some details. (See Water Ways, March 25, 2014.) But others believed that the states, not the federal government, should be in charge of protecting streams and wetlands. It became a common theme to argue that the new rule would regulate the tiniest ditches and farm ponds — something the Obama administration denied.

One of the opponents of the 2015 rule was Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general who ended up suing the Obama administration on behalf of his state. In all, 31 states joined various lawsuits against the rule, with separate lawsuits brought by farmers and industry.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator
Photo: EPA official portrait

“President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency currently stands poised to strike the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen,” Pruitt declared in an opinion piece co-authored by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. The piece was published in The Hill.

Pruitt, of course, is the man that President Trump later named to head the EPA, the same agency he was suing in multiple lawsuits. Pruitt said early on that he would not allow Obama’s WOTUS rule to go into effect.

Before it took effect, the WOTUS rule was tied up in the courts, including an injunction issued by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Under the Clean Water Act, appeals courts can take primary action under certain conditions, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed unanimously (PDF 923 kb) on Jan. 22 that the WOTUS rule is not one of these conditions.

And so the rule, originally scheduled to go into effect in August 2015, was put back into a confusing status, ready to go into effect in 37 states where it was not blocked by an injunction that covers 13 states under an order of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota.

“This is just all-out war. All-out litigation,” Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau was quoted as saying in an article by Ariel Wittenberg in E&E News. “This is good news for lawyers, but it is not going to be settled at all.”

Pruitt’s EPA then moved to finalize the Obama WOTUS rule on Jan. 31 but with an “applicability date” set for two years away. The announced intent was to overhaul the rule by pulling back federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands.

“Today, EPA is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers,” Pruitt said in a news release. “The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation.”

In the interim, the EPA has announced that it will revert to previous policies and guidelines drafted following the confusing Supreme Court ruling.

You can guess what happened next. On Feb. 6, a total of 10 states, including Washington, plus Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit in New York, claiming that Pruitt’s delaying tactics were illegal. The state officials, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, argued that the federal government ignored the federal Administrative Procedures Act by adopting the revised rule without a meaningful comment period and in disregard of the Clean Water Act’s underlying intent of protecting the nation’s waters.

“The agencies have now suspended the Clean Water Rule without consideration of the extensive scientific record that supported it or the environmental and public health consequences of doing so,” the lawsuit (PDF 1.9 mb) says.

On the same day, the implementation delay was challenged in a separate lawsuit (2.6 mb) by two environmental groups, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation.

“The Agencies’ only proffered rationale for the suspension is that it will promote regulatory clarity and certainty,” the lawsuit says. “In light of the administration’s open antipathy for the rule’s provisions, that rationale rings hollow. But it is also belied by the record. There is no evidence that suspending the rule will promote clarity or certainty, and ample evidence that suspending the Rule will create confusion and uncertainty.”

In Ariel Wittenberg’s story in E&E, Georgetown Law professor William Buzbee talks about how messy things have become.

“If the administration had taken the time to put out proposals that truly and fully engaged with the merits of the Clean Waters Rule and tried to come up with a new read, then it would be ordinary days in the courts,” he was quoted as saying. “But anything they do now, given their proposals, is likely to be legally vulnerable.”

Now the possibility exists that some courts could delay implementation of the original WOTUS rule while others reject the two-year delay. In any case, there is no end in sight to the legal battles, and nobody can be certain about what kind of projects will require federal permits.

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