The rollback of the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule is underway. Last week, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Army) to review and rescind or rewrite the WOTUS rule, which was adopted in 2015 by the previous administration. That rule was intended to clarify which waterways the EPA and Army can regulate under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), which requires a federal permit for the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters,” defined as “waters of the United States.” The CWA expressly reserved jurisdiction over non-navigable waters to the states.
The question of what is a “water of the United States” has generated considerable uncertainty for the states, small businesses, agricultural communities, developers and environmental organizations. The federal agencies have been increasingly exercising federal jurisdiction over small waterways, ditches and ponds, and had been rebuked in 2001 and 2006 by the U.S. Supreme Court for attempting to expand federal regulation to non-navigable waters. In the 2006 decision, Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), Justice Scalia wrote for the plurality opinion and very adeptly summarized the burden of federal regulation on those who would deposit fill material in locations designated as “waters of the United States”:
In deciding whether to grant or deny a permit, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) exercises the discretion of an enlightened despot, relying on such factors as “economics,” “aesthetics,” “recreation,” and “in general, the needs and welfare of the people.” . . . The average applicant for an individual permit spends 788 days and $271,596 in completing the process, and the average applicant for a nationwide permit spends 313 days and $28,915—not counting costs of mitigation or design changes. . . . In this litigation, for example, for backfilling his own wet fields, Mr. Rapanos faced 63 months in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in criminal and civil fines.
The WOTUS rule was an attempt to better define the scope of “waters of the United States” in light of these decisions, but was seen by property right advocates as a massive power grab by the federal agencies, as it gave federal authority over small waterways, such as wetlands, headwaters, small ponds and, as stated by President Trump during the Executive Order signing ceremony, “puddles.” The rule was challenged by over 30 states. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a nationwide stay of the rule on October 15, 2015, pending further action of the court.
The Executive Order does not change anything immediately, because the rule is already on hold and it could take years for the EPA and Army to roll it back through a formal regulatory process. The EPA and Army issued a Notice of Intent that was published in the Federal Register on March 6th, announcing their intention to review the rule through a new rulemaking. The EPA Acting General Counsel also sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that day informing Mr. Sessions of the pending review, so that this information could be used to inform the courts of the review in any litigation involving the WOTUS rule. The Executive Order directed the EPA and Army to consider interpreting the term “navigable waters” in a matter consistent with the plurality opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos. If that is the case, then the EPA and Army will be regulating “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water ‘forming geographic features’ that are described in ordinary parlance” as “streams,” “oceans,” “rivers,” “lakes,” but not puddles.
President Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would repeal the WOTUS rule, as well as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. With his record of checking off campaign promises, we should expect an Executive Order shortly instructing the EPA to begin the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, as well.