Once Again, Definition of Navigable Waters Challenged in Courts — EHS Daily Advisor #WOTUS

Ephemeral streams are streams that do not always flow. They are above the groundwater reservoir and appear after precipitation in the area. Via Socratic.org

From the EHS Daily Advisor (Lisa Whitley Coleman):

In November, the EPA asked the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado to restore its definition of waters that are protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA)…

The EPA finalized a revised definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the CWA in April that included four categories of jurisdictional waters:

  • “The territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,”
  • “Perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters,”
  • “Certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments,” and
  • “Wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.”
  • The final definition “provides clear exclusions for many water features that traditionally have not been regulated, and defines terms in the regulatory text that have never been defined before,” according to the EPA. “Congress, in the Clean Water Act, explicitly directed the Agencies to protect ‘navigable waters.’ The Navigable Waters Protection Rule regulates the nation’s navigable waters and the core tributary systems that provide perennial or intermittent flow into them.”

    In July, final changes to the rule were published by the EPA to implement section 401 of the CWA that many characterized as gutting a 50-year history of state and tribal water quality regulation.

    “This section allows states and tribal nations to protect health and human safety within their geographic boundaries by making permitting decisions related to the discharge of waste into state waterways,” according to a press release published by the Washington State Office of the Attorney General. The press release went on to say that the rule would “handicap states’ abilities to regulate water quality.”

    In July, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The case is co-led by New York and California and was joined by Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

    The lawsuit alleges that the new rule “unlawfully violates the plain language, intent and established case law interpreting the Clean Water Act.”

    “The final rule forces states to issue permits based on an incomplete review of what effects industries will have on waterways,” according to the Washington attorney general’s press release. “States will only be able to consider a narrow range of impacts these projects have on water quality, even when the consequences cause far-reaching and even irreversible environmental damage. The rule also limits the amount of information industry must provide, unreasonably reduces the amount of time states have to make decisions or deny permits and attempts to grant the federal government oversight of projects rather than states.”

    Environmental and conservations groups estimate the final rule leaves 50% of U.S. wetlands and millions of miles of streams unprotected, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel…

    Colorado

    Colorado met with success in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, where an injunction was granted to stop the rule within the state. “The court found that Colorado met the bar for preliminary injunction and agreed to freeze the rule until the litigation plays out,” according to E&E News.

    Colorado’s case says the new rule is “significantly narrower” than prior WOTUS definitions and is “inconsistent with case law on the scope of the CWA and abandons the ‘significant nexus’ test laid out in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in the 2006 case Rapanos v. United States,” according to Law Week Colorado. “According to this test, wetlands or non-navigable bodies of water fall under the CWA if they ‘significantly affect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”

    The 10th Circuit convened a remote three-judge panel to hear the EPA’s motion to overturn the injunction, during which Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice Jonathan Brightbill “argued the rules were narrowed to provide clarity in the wake of three Supreme Court cases.”

    “Against this thoughtful interpretation of navigable waters and in light of the Supreme court precedent, including the SWANCC decision which definitively holds there is a stopping point to the term navigable waters short of the Interstate Commerce Clause, Colorado points only to generalized objective provisions of the Clean Water Act,” Brightbill said in a Courthouse News Service article, referring to the 2001 case Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Representing the state of Colorado, State Solicitor General Eric Olson emphasized that important protections are missing from the new WOTUS definition.

    Bobby Ray Baldock, senior U.S. Circuit judge, pointed out that Colorado could correct the issue with legislative measures.

    “Olson explained that Colorado is one of 48 states that previously relied on the federal permitting system and that the new rule was implemented during a state legislative session shortened by Covid-19,” according to Courthouse News. “We absolutely agree we could put in a regulatory regime that could fill that gap, but we can’t do that in 60 days, which is all that they gave us under the rule,” Olson said.

    U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh disagreed. “That’s self-inflicted because the Colorado approach has been there will be no dredge-and-fill permits,” McHugh countered, according to Courthouse News. “The [federal] response was you’ve known since the executive order was signed, isn’t that fair notice?”

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