Surprise! New WOTUS Rule Leads to Conflicting Rulings

Posted on June 30, 2020 by Rick Glick

It was clear to everyone, including this humble blogger, that EPA’s new rule defining Waters of the United States (WOTUS) would bring little clarity to this fraught area of law.  The rule took effect June 22, but court challenges were already underway, and already we have conflicting rulings, described in this space by Seth Jaffe with his usual alacrity. 

Regardless of what ultimately emerges from this morass, recall that the states have authority of their own and that is probably where practitioners should be focusing in advising clients.  On the same day the WOTUS rule came into effect, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued a statement including a not too subtle warning about discharging pollutants into state waters without benefit of a permit. 

The ODEQ statement also speaks to state authority under CWA section 401, the subject of another recent EPA rulemaking, and a continuing source of litigation and uncertainty.  As Seth notes, the new WOTUS and 401 rules are complementary.  In its statement, ODEQ encourages project proponents to meet with the agency early for an evaluation of a “project plan.”  Such pre-application meetings are always a good idea—better to anticipate and address issues before they become controversial. 

All of this is pretty interesting for lawyers, but frustrating, time consuming and expensive for clients trying to discern a critical path for development projects.  Surely there is a better approach to ensuring clean water, but it is hard to see one emerging soon.