Thursday, September 3, 2015

Federal Jurisdiction over Wetlands Significantly Expanded in Florida

I've had a lot of questions and calls lately about the Army Corps of Engineers' and the EPA's "Clean Water Rule." It is otherwise known as the Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS), and it significantly expands the federal government's regulatory jurisdiction, especially in Florida. The question is this: how far does the federal government's power reach over water bodies and wetlands, especially those that have nothing to do with navigation or interstate commerce?

As most of you know by now, I've joined the Tampa office of Stearns Weaver. My Tallahassee colleague Reggie Bouthillier, our summer clerk William Anderson, and I wrote an in-depth briefing to update Florida landowners and consultants on how this new rule might affect them. At a conference this summer, a well-known environmental scientists quipped that the new rule of thumb in Florida is that when it rains, there are enough puddles to make the entire state subject to federal jurisdiction. He was only half joking.

Here's the summary of our briefing:

On May, 27, 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") and the United States Army Corps of Engineers ("Corps") issued the final "Clean Water Act Rule," aimed at clarifying the jurisdictional definition of "waters of the United States" ("jurisdictional waters") under the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). The new rule attempts to increase regulatory certainty by reconciling past agency practices, science, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. As a result, Florida landowners and developers will likely need CWA permits where they were not previously necessary. 
The CWA prohibits the discharge of pollutants into jurisdictional waters. Even though this concept is key to the agencies' regulatory jurisdiction, its outer boundaries have been unclear and have been subject to numerous court challenges. While navigable waters have traditionally been viewed as jurisdictional, most other waters (including wetlands) have been subject to case-by-case analysis to determine whether those waters had a "significant nexus" with navigable waters. Under the Clean Water Act Rule, however, many more waters and wetlands will be categorically defined as jurisdictional waters, in some cases even if the water is relatively isolated and wholly intrastate. Consequently, the rule does give more regulatory certainty, but that certainty gives landowners and developers less flexibility and makes challenges to jurisdictional determinations more difficult. 
On August 28, 2015, the Clean Water Act Rule will go into effect and land owners and developers will face increased regulation, translating into additional costs, timing, and permitting requirements for projects. It is unclear whether efforts to delay the rule's implementation will be successful. Legislation blocking implementation of the rule has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, but it would likely face a presidential veto. At least ten federal law suits are challenging the rule, and several seek preliminary injunctions against the rule's enforcement. 
In light of this new rule and the uncertainty surrounding it, landowners and developers need to be vigilant in protecting their rights in the federal permitting process.
Read the full article here. Since this was published, you should know that a federal judge in North Dakota has issued an injunction against the rule's implementation. At this time, the federal agencies are taking the position that the order only applies to implementation in those states involved in that particular lawsuit. Florida is not one of them - so the Corps and EPA have been implementing the new rule since last Friday, August. 28, 2015.