The scope of waters that are the subject of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act has been the subject of long-standing confusion and uncertainty in the aftermath of several key Supreme Court decisions.
For background, in 2014, the Obama Administration issued a proposed rule, Definition of Waters of the United States Under the Clean Water Act, for public comment as a result of two recent Supreme Court Decisions, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC), and Rapanos v. United States (Rapanos) in 2001 and 2006, respectively. In SWANCC, the Court decided that the use of waters by migratory birds is not a sufficient basis for federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. In Rapanos, a splintered decision provided 1) ‘relative permanance’ with a connection to traditional navigable waters, and 2) ‘significant nexus’ to navigable waters as bases for determining whether a water is protected under the Clean Water Act. These two decisions have resulted in considerable confusion over what waters are jurisdictional, and therefore increased allocation of federal and state resources to determining this on a case-by-case basis. The Obama Rule was challenged by several states, industry, agriculture and other regulated entities in numerous courts. In 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit stayed the rule’s enforcement while the Courts evaluated the cases.
President Trump signed an executive order on February 28, 2017, repeal and replace the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) promulgated in 2016. The Order is entitled, Presidential Executive Order on Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the Waters of the United States Rule. It instructed EPA and the Corps to begin the process of a rule-making to withdraw the WOTUS rule, and to take appropriate actions in the courts where the rule is in litigation. EPA and the Corps then established an administrative docket to solicit pre-proposal recommendations for the rulemaking to define “waters of the United States.” This docket closed on November 28, 2017.
On December 11, 2018, the EPA and the Corps proposed a revised definition of “waters of the United States” that clarified federal authority under the Clean Water Act. The proposed rule published in the Federal Register on February 14, 2019 and was open for a 60-day public comment period.
On January 23, 2020, EPA and the Corps finalized the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to define “Waters of the United States”. It is not yet published in the Federal Register.
- ACWA Summary of Navigable Waters Protection Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States”
- ACWA Redline Comparison between 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule and 2019 Proposed Rule Redefining WOTUS
- ACWA Comments on Proposed Rule Redefining WOTUS
- ACWA Summary of Trump Administration Proposed Rule Redefining WOTUS
- ACWA Compilation of Questions EPA Seeks Comment On for Proposed Rule Redefining WOTUS
- ACWA Chart Comparing 1986 WOTUS Jurisdiction, 2015 Obama Rule Jurisdiction, and 2019 Trump Rule Jurisdiction
- Waters of the U.S. Website
- Website explaining the Trump Administration’s WOTUS-related proposed rules
- EPA Infographic for Proposed Rule Redefining WOTUS (2019)
- EPA’s “Rule Status and Litigation Update” page detailing which WOTUS rule is applicable in which state
- Federal Register Notice of Proposed Rule (Obama Rule)
- Definition of Waters of the U.S.
- 2008 Rapanos Guidance and Related Documents
- Draft 2011 Guidance
- EPA Science Advisory Board Report Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of Scientific Evidence