Posted on March 30, 2022 by Chester Babst
In 2022, the on-going debate will continue over the hotly contested definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a phrase that determines the scope of federal jurisdiction over streams, wetlands and other waterbodies under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The WOTUS definition is included in 11 federal regulations and affects, among others, NPDES and Section 404 permitting, SPCC plans and spill reporting. This year, both the executive and judicial branches of the federal government are expected to weigh in on this definition, without any guarantee that their interpretations will be consistent.
Proposed Rule 1
USEPA and the Corps have already taken the first step to revise the WOTUS definition, as promised by President Biden during his campaign, by publishing a proposed rulemaking on December 7, 2021 (Rule 1). While this proposed definition is similar to the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS, which is currently in effect, it also reflects relevant Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Rapanos v. United States) that occurred in the early 2000s.
Much of the controversy surrounding the WOTUS definition relates to the two tests identified in the Rapanos decision. Justice Antonin Scalia issued the plurality opinion in Rapanos, holding 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.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, however, advanced a broader interpretation of WOTUS in his concurring opinion, which was based on the concept of a “significant nexus,” meaning that 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.”
If promulgated, the December 2021 proposed WOTUS definition would incorporate Justice Kennedy’s significant nexus test into the regulations. Practically speaking, however, the impact is not expected to be significant because, in interpreting the current definition of WOTUS, the Corps has already largely been relying on its 2008 guidance, which reflects Justice Kennedy’s significant nexus concept.
Proposed Rule 2
A more expansive definition of WOTUS is expected when the Biden administration unveils its second proposed WOTUS rulemaking (Rule 2), planned for publication later this year. While the language of Rule 2 is currently unknown, as stated in the Fall 2021 Unified Agenda, Rule 2 is expected to reflect “additional stakeholder engagement and implementation considerations, scientific developments, and environmental justice values. This effort will also be informed by the experience of implementing the pre-2015 rule, the 2015 Clean Water Rule, and the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” The effect of identifying federally-regulated waters based on concepts such as environmental justice and, potentially, climate change is uncertain. However, it is expected that this proposed definition will broaden the scope of WOTUS.
Sackett v. USEPA
In addition to the Biden administration’s planned changes to the WOTUS definition, the U.S. Supreme Court, in January 2022, signaled that it would, again, weigh in on the WOTUS debate, when it agreed to hear the case of Sackett v. USEPA. 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 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 Court, instead, will consider the narrow issue of whether the Ninth Circuit “set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are ‘waters of the United States.’”
The Supreme Court’s opinion as to whether the significant nexus test is the “proper test” for identifying WOTUS is expected to be very significant in future interpretations of WOTUS. In addition, this ruling could create direct conflicts and further uncertainty if the Court holds that the significant nexus test is not appropriate while the Rule 1 or Rule 2 regulatory definition incorporates the significant nexus test. One thing is clear: the seemingly never-ending debate over WOTUS is not going away anytime soon.