On August 28, 2015, a new rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took effect in Florida. The rule, called WOTUS, seeks to clarify the definition of “waters of the United States,” which is critical to those agencies’ regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA prohibits the discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States without a permit. Violators are subject to penalties of thousands of dollars per day (even if unintentional) or costly lawsuits by neighbors or environmentalists.
Many of the waters subject to federal jurisdiction are easy to identify: navigable water bodies, rivers, streams, creeks, impoundments of those waters, and wetlands directly adjoining any of those waters. Beyond those, though, what qualifies has been unclear for decades. A series of U.S. Supreme Court cases created confusion because the justices could not agree on just how far federal agencies could reach. This meant that, for many small waters and wetlands, the Corps had to perform a site-specific jurisdictional determination. While burdensome to the agencies, this analysis at least forced them to use science to determine whether more-isolated waters and wetlands had a “significant nexus” with a water that was subject to federal jurisdiction.
Now, the federal agencies have adopted WOTUS, a rule that will mean fewer case-by-case analyses. While this may make the process more “efficient” for the agencies, that comes at the expense of more areas automatically being deemed as falling under federal jurisdiction simply because the agency says so, rather than because of any scientific connection to another water.
Thus, WOTUS now designates all tributaries and waters and wetlands “adjacent” to or “neighboring” other jurisdictional waters as under federal jurisdiction. In some cases, waters and wetlands 1,500 feet away from another water are considered “neighboring,” even if there is no hydrologic connection. Even ephemeral drains and ditches that water only flows in after a rain are now almost always under federal jurisdiction.
These changes may not seem important at first, since the timber industry has traditionally been excluded from many permitting requirements. For example, CWA permits are not required to manage the runoff from common forestry practices, such as site preparation, thinning, control burns, and road construction, as long as they are undertaken in accordance with standard industry practice. Even so, WOTUS is important to watch because it will expand the need for obtaining CWA permits for some commonplace practices, such as for application of herbicide and fertilizers in and near wetlands and for construction of some roadside ditches near wetlands. Prudent professionals will need to think twice about past common knowledge.
WOTUS has provoked fierce opposition. Legislation to block it is progressing, but it would likely face a presidential veto. At least half the states are challenging WOTUS in court. A federal judge has temporarily stopped the rule’s implementation, but it is not clear whether this will last. Therefore, the ultimate fate of WOTUS remains unclear. For now, the timber industry should be actively engaging elected officials to encourage them to take action.As I mentioned last week in a post about another article I wrote on this topic, this issue is moving fast and there are a few updates since I wrote the article:
- The Government Accountability Office found that EPA broke federal lobbying and propaganda laws in its zeal for pushing the rule forward.
- The Senate voted to kill the rule; the House did the same recently; and President Obama has vowed to veto any such measures.
- A federal judge enjoined the rule's implementation across the entire country, including Florida. However, it's not clear how long this injunction will last, and the legal wrangling is expected to continue for some time.