Navigating “Navigable” Waters

Posted on April 21, 2014 by Earl Phillips

Whether a wetland or modest stream is subject to Clean Water Act regulation as a “navigable water” of the United States (navigable in law) remains a muddy question. In Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining CWA jurisdiction: the body of water must be “relatively permanent” and it must be adjacent (have a continuous surface connection) to navigable waters. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion says waters or wetlands sharing a “significant nexus” with traditionally navigable waters are subject to CWA jurisdiction.

In 2011, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) released draft guidance on “waters of the United States” which expanded the waters over which the agencies planned to assert CWA jurisdiction, compared to pre-Rapanos. Then, in September 2013, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board released a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters,” for public comment, stating that the final version of the report would be the basis for a joint EPA and ACOE rule on CWA jurisdiction.  On March 25, 2014, the two agencies released a proposed rule stating that all tributaries of traditional navigable waters and interstate waters, and adjacent water bodies, are automatically jurisdictional because they share a “significant nexus” with navigable waters. The proposed rule appears to assert default jurisdiction over many seasonal and rain-dependent streams and wetlands near rivers and streams, provided they are “tributaries.” Beyond this, the proposed rule states that jurisdiction over other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream waters—such as unidirectional waters, non-adjacent wetlands, and other waters outside of flood zones and riparian areas—will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The official version of the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday with public comments due in ninety days.

Parties understandably confused can petition for case-specific jurisdictional determinations. While a decision on such a petition may be definitive, courts have refused to allow judicial review of such decisions because they are not “final decisions” under the Administrative Procedure Act. In Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal district court noted that jurisdictional determinations do not impose any new or additional legal rights or obligations, but merely remind the party of existing duties under the CWA. By contrast, the Supreme Court determined in Sackett v. EPA that compliance orders issued by the ACOE or EPA following or flowing from jurisdictional determinations are subject to judicial review. 

Adding to the challenge of navigating these uncertain legal waters, many states and municipalities have expanded their statutory definitions of “waters” (e.g. artificial features and groundwater) and “wetlands” (e.g. soil types and buffers) to increase the breadth and depth of state and local regulation. So, update your navigational charts and prepare for some challenging sailing!