By Andrew H. PerellisPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Corps) have recently proposed a “clear, understandable, and implementable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ [(WOTUS)] that clarifies federal authority under the Clean Water Act.”

Concerning the new draft proposed rule, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler tweeted out that “our redefinition of the Waters of the US proposal would replace the Obama 2015 definition with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides states and landowners certainty so they can manage their natural resources & grow local economies.”  84 Fed. Reg. 4154 (February 14, 2019).  The EPA noted that unlike the Obama administration’s 2015 definition of WOTUS, the new proposal contains a “straightforward definition that would result in significant cost savings, protect the nation’s navigable waters, help sustain economic growth, and reduce barriers to business development.”

This proposal, the Agencies assert, is the second step in the two-step process to review and revise the definition of WOTUS consistent with President Trump’s February 2017 Executive Order entitled “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.

The proposed rule is intended to provide clarity, predictability and consistency so that the regulated community can easily understand where the Clean Water Act applies—and where it does not.  The practical effect of the proposal is to remove from Federal authority “waters” that are not directly adjacent to a river, stream or lake that is traditionally understood as under the jurisdiction of the CWA.  The proposal rejects the “substantial nexus” approach that resulted from Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  As a result, many wetlands or ephemeral streams, although hydrologically connected to a traditional CWA-regulated water, would no longer be regulated.

Under the proposal, traditional navigable waters, tributaries to those waters, certain ditches, certain lakes and ponds, impoundments of jurisdictional waters, and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters would be federally regulated.  The proposal also details what are not WOTUS, such as “features that only contain water during or in response to rainfall (e.g., ephemeral features); groundwater; many ditches, including most roadside or farm ditches; prior converted cropland; storm water control features; and waste treatment systems.”

Here is an Agency graphical depiction of the rule provisions:

EPA Twitter image post, December 12, 2018.

The Agencies had received written pre-proposal recommendations and received more than 6,000 recommendations that were considered in developing the proposal.  Public comments on the proposal will be accepted for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.  EPA and the Corps intend to also hold an informational webcast on January 10, 2019, and will host a listening session on the proposed rule in Kansas City, KS, on January 23, 2019.

Our prior blogs provide more detail regarding the definition of WOTUS.  See for instance EPA and Army Corps of Engineers Propose to Rescind Obama Era Rule Redefining “Waters of the United States”EPA Publishes Final Rule Expanding Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water ActProposed Rule on Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, and New Definition of “Waters of the United States”?.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.