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EPA Announces Plan to Repeal WOTUS Rule

Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

On June 27, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) announced their plan to repeal the Obama Administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule.  The EPA and the Corps’ proposal involves two steps.  First, the agencies propose to “rescind” Obama’s WOTUS rule and “re-codify,” or re-enter, the definition of WOTUS “that existed prior to 2015” into the federal regulations.   The pre-2015 rule would serve as a placeholder until the agencies are able to carry out the second part of their plan.  The second part of the plan involves developing and proposing a new definition of WOTUS.  This announcement comes several months after President Trump called for either a repeal or revision of the WOTUS Rule in his February 28, 2017 Executive Order (EO).  The EO was quickly followed by the EPA and other agencies filing a Notice of Intention to Review and Rescind or Revise the Clean Water Rule (Notice).  The EO can be found here, and the Notice here.

What was the Obama Administration’s WOTUS Rule?

The WOTUS Rule went into effect on August 28, 2015.  The Rule expanded the meaning of “waters of the United States,” or those waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA), to include “tributaries to interstate waters, waters adjacent to interstate waters, waters adjacent to tributaries of interstate waters, and other waters that have a significant nexus to interstate waters.”  Furthermore, the Rule stated that tributaries are WOTUS when they flow into navigable waters, even if their flow was not constant.  The rule also elaborated on the meaning of “adjacent waters.”  For more information about the WOTUS Rule, see our blog post from earlier this year.  The Rule as it was released in the summer of 2015 can be found here.

How will “Waters of the United States” be defined?

  In the short term

Step one of the EPA and the Corps’ plan calls for a repeal of the Obama Administration’s definition of WOTUS, and a reimplementation of the WOTUS rule that existed prior to 2015.  In order to do this, the agencies are proposing a rule.  The proposed rule calls for the Code of Federal Regulations—in particular, 33 C.F.R. §328.3, to be amended to reflect the previous definition of WOTUS.  Notably, this definition does not include the Obama Administration’s expanded descriptions of “tributaries” or “adjacent waters.”  Furthermore, there is no mention of “significant nexus.”  This interim definition of WOTUS proposed by the EPA and the Corps can be found in the proposed rule, here.

            In the long term

The second step of the EPA and the Corps’ plan calls for the agencies to perform a “substantive re-evaluation” of the definition of WOTUS.  Any re-evaluation of the definition will likely take Trump’s EO into account, which called for the EPA and other agencies to, in any “[f]uture [r]ulemaking,” “consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters’” as Justice Scalia did in Rapanos v. U.S.   The CWA defines “navigable waters” as “waters of the United States, including territorial seas.”  Thus, “navigable waters” and “WOTUS” are one in the same.  Scalia’s interpretation rejected the idea that navigable waters and WOTUS could come from channels where water flow was only occasional.   Justice Scalia asserted that navigable waters/WOTUS must be, for the most part, permanent bodies of water.  Given the language in Trump’s EO, it is likely that the second step of the plan will involve a proposed rule that includes a definition of WOTUS that closely resembles Scalia’s interpretation.  More information on Scalia’s interpretation can be found in our earlier blog post.

It is important to keep in mind that even if the EPA and the Corps successfully repeal and replace the previous administration’s definition of WOTUS, it is still very likely that opponents will challenge any new definition.  Furthermore, both the short term and long term parts of the plan have to go through the rulemaking process, including a comment and review period, before they can become effective. As a result, the debate over the meaning of WOTUS is likely far from finished.

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A Worrisome Week for WOTUS

Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, and Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

 The controversial “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) Rule suffered two governmental assaults this week.   We reported earlier this year about litigation over the Rule and a Senate Resolution urging withdrawal of the Rule.   Actions this week in the House of Representatives, the White House and the EPA echo the Senate’s sentiments and push the Rule further towards its demise.

The House Resolution

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio’s Representative Bob Gibbs introduced a resolution on February 27, 2017 stating that the Rule should be vacated.  House Resolution 152 declares that the Clean Water Act (from which the Rule derives) is one of the nation’s most important laws whose success requires cooperative federalism, under which federal, state and local governments have a role in protecting water resources.   Based upon the foundation of cooperative federalism, “Congress left to the States their traditional authority over land and water, including farmers’ field, non-navigable, wholly intrastate water (including puddles and ponds), and the allocation of water supplies.”  The Resolution asserts that the latest revision to the Rule, however, claimed broad federal jurisdiction over water that encroaches upon the authority of the States and undermines the Clean Water Act’s historical exemptions from federal regulation.  The Resolution also claims that the EPA failed to follow proper processes when issuing the Rule.

 The Executive Order

 President Trump’s executive order  (EO) issued on February 28, 2017 calls for the EPA and the Army for Civil Works (“Civil Works”, a part of the Army Corps of Engineers) to “rescind or revise” the WOTUS Rule.  It is important to note, however, that the EO does not abolish the Rule; it simply orders the two agencies to review the Rule and try to adapt it to the Trump administration’s policies.   The EO includes a policy statement explaining that it is in the best interest of the United States to keep “navigable waters… free from pollution,” but there is also a strong interest in promoting economic growth, so any changes to the Rule must balance both of those interests.  The EO also gives the Attorney General the discretion to communicate any potential changes to the WOTUS Rule to federal courts with pending WOTUS litigation.

The EO further directs the EPA and Civil Works, when revising or rescinding the WOTUS Rule, to construe “navigable waters” as Justice Scalia did in the Supreme Court case Rapanos v. U.S.   Under the Clean Water Act, “navigable waters” are defined as “waters of the United States, including territorial seas.”  This means that the terms “navigable waters” and “waters of the United States” are interchangeable.   In Rapanos, Justice Scalia, who wrote the decision for a plurality of the Court, asserted that navigable waters/WOTUS cannot be “ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows.”  Instead, they must be “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water,” or wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to permanent water bodies.   Scalia’s interpretation is at odds with the interpretation contained in the Obama administration’s WOTUS Rule.

Agency Response to the Executive Order

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Civil Works acting Secretary Douglas Lamont didn’t waste any time responding to Trump’s EO.  On the same day Trump signed the Order, the agencies filed a Notice of Intention to Review and Rescind or Revise the Clean Water Rule.  In the notice, the agencies explain their intentions to follow the EO, review the Rule and consider adopting Justice Scalia’s interpretation of navigable waters.   The agencies state that they will utilize new rulemaking to “provide greater clarity and regulatory certainty concerning the definition of ‘waters of the United States.’”

 Refresher:  What’s in the WOTUS Rule?

The Obama Administration’s WOTUS Rule was released in the Federal Register on June 29th, 2015, and went into effect on August 28th, 2015.  According to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers at the time, the rule was meant to “clarify the scope of ‘waters of the United States’…protected under the Clean Water Act.”  In particular, the Rule states that a number of bodies of water qualify as WOTUS, such as: “tributaries to interstate waters, waters adjacent to interstate waters, waters adjacent to tributaries of interstate waters, and other waters that have a significant nexus to interstate waters.”  The Rule elaborates on the definition of “tributaries,” which are WOTUS if they flow “to a traditional navigable water, an interstate water, or the territorial seas,” regardless of whether the flow is year-round, seasonal, or due to precipitation.  Tributaries flowing into navigable and interstate waters that have “a bed and banks,” as well as “an indicator of ordinary high water mark” qualify as WOTUS under the Rule.  “Adjacent waters” means “all waters located in whole or in part within 100 feet of the ordinary high water mark” of WOTUS, as well as “all waters within the 100-year floodplain” of WOTUS.   Numerous different kinds of water can be “adjacent,” such as “wetlands, ponds, lakes, oxbows,” and “impoundments.”   More information about the WOTUS Rule is available here.

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Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Waters of the United States Rule

The Supreme Court of the United States has accepted a petition to hear an appeal from a Waters of the United States (WOTUS) ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  To read this post, visit aglaw.osu.edu/blog.

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Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear challenge to WOTUS Rule

To read this post, visit our new blog site at aglaw.osu.edu/blog.

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