Cleaning Up the Clean Water Act
By: Kristyn L. Lambert
On July 27, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) proposed the first of two rules designed to replace the controversial 2015 “Clean Water Rule” (the 2015 Rule), which some argue broadened federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA). This regulation is particularly important because it determines which areas are subject to the Corps’ permitting authority under the CWA. This news comes after Louisiana state administrators asked the Trump administration to grant funding and ease the federal permitting requirements related to Louisiana’s coastal lands.
The Corps’ Clean Water Rule of 2015 purportedly sought to clarify the question of which wetlands fall under the jurisdiction of the CWA, and interpreted “waters of the United States” to include “all waters that require protection in order to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters,” without requiring a continuous surface connection. After its adoption, critics of the 2015 Rule argued that this construction significantly expanded federal jurisdiction.
Pursuant to its terms, the CWA applies to “navigable” waters, defined by Section 1362(7) of the Act as “waters of the United States.” This definition caused confusion regarding which areas are subject to the CWA regulations. Wetlands have been particularly difficult to classify under the CWA because the boundaries between navigable waterbodies and adjacent wetlands are often unclear. Enforcing agencies and the courts have struggled to determine where the navigable waters – and the jurisdiction of the CWA – ends, and where terra firma land begins.
The Corps, responsible for enforcing certain of the CWA’s permitting requirements, interpreted “waters of the United States” expansively. This resulted in a number of legal challenges from multiple parties and states, including Louisiana.
For instance, in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc., the United States Supreme Court upheld the Corps’ authority to interpret the CWA as applicable to wetlands adjacent to other covered water bodies, even though the Corps had historically construed the CWA to cover only waters navigable in fact.
In Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (SWANCC), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Corps exceeded its authority under the CWA when it adopted a rule extending the definition of “navigable waters” to include intrastate waters used as habitat by migratory birds. That case did not involve wetlands specifically, but it discussed that the deciding factor in Riverside, supra, was the “significant nexus” between the wetlands and navigable waters at issue. While the opinion did not precisely address what constitutes a significant nexus, it did indicate that physical proximity and location are important considerations.
More recently in Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court agreed that the “significant nexus test” should be applied to determine which wetlands fall within the CWA’s jurisdiction, but failed to reach a majority holding regarding how the test is applied. According to the plurality opinion authored by late Justice Scalia, a significant nexus requires that the wetlands be adjacent to “a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters; and second, that the wetland has a continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the wetland begins.” According to the opinion, the scope of the definition of “waters of the United States” was determined by a wetland’s physical proximity to covered waters, “not ecological relationship thereto.” According to Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion, the significant nexus is established if the wetlands “affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters.” In Justice Kennedy’s view – if the wetlands have a substantial ecological impact on navigable waters, the significant nexus test is satisfied regardless of the wetlands’ physical proximity to the navigable waters.
In October 2015, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit stayed the Rule on the grounds that the 2015 Rule was “at odds with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rapanos” and because the rulemaking process by which the 2015 Rule was adopted was “facially suspect.”
In February 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order instructing the EPA and Corps to issue new regulations that reflect Judge Scalia’s majority opinion in Rapanos to narrow CWA jurisdiction and reduce the area subject to federal permitting. The rule proposed on July 27, 2017 essentially seeks to repeal the 2015 Rule and “re-codify” the prior regulations temporarily. This will essentially maintain the status quo, as the prior regulations have been applied since the Sixth Circuit enjoined the 2015 Rule. In a “second step,” the agencies intend to “conduct a substantive re-evaluation of the definition” to draft replacement regulations.
 Corps of Engineers’ regulatory definition of waters of the United States 33 C.F.R. § 328.3.
 Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States,” 80 FR 37054-01 (2015).
 33 U.S.C.A. § 1362(7) (2014).
 See U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc., 474 U.S. 121 (1985); and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).
 U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc., 474 U.S. 121, 123 (1985).
 Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001).
 Id. at 167.
 Id. at 168.
 Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 742 (2006)(internal quotations omitted).
 Id. at 747.
 Id. at 780.
 In Re E.P.A., 803 F.3d 804, 807 (6th Cir. 2015).