On August 29, 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Army) issued a final rule to amend the agencies’ earlier “Revised Definition of ‘Waters of the United States,’” published on January 18, 2023. (88 Fed. Reg. 3004.) The latest rule revises the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) to conform to the Supreme Court’s May 25, 2023 opinion in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (2023) 598 U.S. 651.
The highly anticipated Sackett decision resolved long-standing debate over the scope and definition of WOTUS under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Court’s opinion considerably narrows the regulatory reach of the EPA and the Army by invalidating the agencies’ application of the “significant nexus” test and promulgating a limited interpretation of jurisdictional “waters” and “adjacent wetlands” that are covered by the CWA.
While the EPA and Army’s January 2023 WOTUS Rule was not directly before the Supreme Court, the Sackett decision made clear that certain aspects of the that Rule were invalid, in turn creating further uncertainty for CWA implementation. The August 2023 Rule (also referred to as “the Conforming Rule”) thus responds to Sackett by amending only those components of the rule’s regulatory text that are now invalid under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the CWA—namely, removing the “significant nexus” standard and amending the definition of “adjacent” waters. By expeditiously issuing these amendments, the agencies assert the final rule provides much-needed clarity and a clear path forward that is not only consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but allows the Army Corps to resume issuing jurisdictional determinations (which have been put on hold in some Corps’ Districts).
A summary of the August 2023 Rule’s key amendments and its timeline for implementation are summarized below:
Key Regulatory Amendments
To align with the Sackett holding, the August 2023 Rule takes a surgical approach to make targeted revisions to selected portions of the January 2023 Rule that are implicated by the decision:
Removal of “Significant Nexus” Standard
The Sackett decision found that the agencies’ application of the “significant nexus” test to identify federally protected tributaries and other waters was inconsistent with the text and structure of the CWA. The August 2023 Rule thus removes all references to the standard.
As a result, tributaries, adjacent wetlands, and intrastate lakes and ponds that “significantly affect the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of [traditional navigable] waters” are no longer jurisdictional under the CWA. Along these lines, the Conforming Rule also eliminates the definition of “significantly affect,” which listed various factors and conditions that the agencies used to ascertain whether certain waters would have a material influence on the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters. These standards, according to the Court, were too nebulous for reasonable and understandable implementation and were inconsistent with the structure of the Clean Water Act.
Amended Definition of “Adjacent” Waters
To conform to Sackett, the August 2023 Rule also amends the WOTUS definition so that water can no longer be found “jurisdictional” based on the January 2023 Rule’s definition of “adjacent.” As such, wetlands are not “adjacent,” and thus, not jurisdictional under the CWA, solely because they are “bordering, contiguous, or neighboring…[or] separated from other ‘waters of the United States’ by man-made dikes or barriers, natural river berms, beach dunes, and the like.”
Instead, “adjacent” tributaries, wetlands, and intrastate lakes/ponds are only jurisdictional if they are “relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water,” or have a continuous surface connection to navigable waters.
No More “Interstate Wetlands,” But Little Clarity on “Relatively Permanent” Wetlands
With the elimination of the “significant nexus” standard, tributaries, wetlands, and intrastate lakes/ponds that are “adjacent” to federal navigable waters are only jurisdictional if they are “relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water.” The August 2023 Rule also eliminates “interstate wetlands” from the definition of “interstate waters” that are subject to the CWA.
Notably, however, the August 2023 Rule provides little clarity into the factors that create “relatively permanent” waters. The Rule’s supplemental preamble explains that, under Rapanos, those waters do “not necessarily exclude streams, rivers, or lakes that might dry up in extraordinary circumstances such as drought,” or “seasonal rivers, which contain continuous flow during some months of the year but no flow during dry months.”
And, under Sackett, “waters” encompass “only those relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographical features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes.” Wetlands are WOTUS “when they have a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’in their own right, so that there is no clear demarcation between ‘waters’ and wetlands.’” Nevertheless, under the Conforming Rule, it remains unclear the length of “relative permanency” a water must experience in order to qualify as jurisdictional under the CWA.
Finally, the August 2023 Rule removes “interstate wetlands” to conform to the Sackett decision’s determination that wetlands are not jurisdictional simply because they are interstate. Instead, under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the CWA, the term “waters” refers to such ‘open waters’ such as rivers, lakes, and other waters that flow across or form a part of State boundaries.
Regulatory Interpretation & Agency Guidance
Unlike prior versions of the WOTUS rule, the August 2023 Rule’s proposed amendments note that the agencies will continue to interpret the remainder of the definition of WOTUS in a manner that is consistent with the Sackett decision. But the agencies reiterate that it is both reasonable and appropriate for the agencies to promulgate this rule as quickly as feasible, without notice and comment, in response to the Supreme Court’s significant holding.
In turn, the agencies concede that they will address any potential issues arising from implementation of the August 2023 Rule through appropriate avenues, such as approved jurisdictional determinations and CWA permits, issuing future guidance, subsequent notice and comment rulemaking, preparing agency forms and training materials, and holding stakeholder meetings to ensure the public has an opportunity to provide input on other issues they would like the agencies to address.
Thus, in practice, the agencies will develop guidance and take stakeholder input regarding the August 2023 Rule’s proposed amendments after it is published in the Federal Register and becomes effective, and not rely on pre-publication comment.
As with the agencies’ January 2023 Rule, the August 2023 Rule similarly provides a severability clause that attempts to preserve as many portions as feasible in the event future litigation attempts to stay or invalidate the Rule. The August 2023 Rule reiterates that the WOTUS rule was crafted so that each portion or element is disjunctive and capable of operating independently. Therefore, if any provision is deemed legally invalid, that partial invalidation will not render the remainder of the Rule as also invalid. To this end, if applying any portion of the Conforming Rule is determined to be invalid, the agencies intend that the complete WOTUS rule, as revised, will remain applicable to all other circumstances. In other words, if any of the exclusions from WOTUS were deemed invalid, invalidating one exclusion would not necessarily have any practical impact on any other part of the definition of WOTUS.
No Notice and Public Comment Process
Because the proposed amendments are change only those parts of the January 2023 rule that are invalid under Sackett, the EPA and the Army have decided to issue the August 2023 Rule without notice or an opportunity for public comment. Citing section 553(b)(B) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the agencies have found there is good cause that providing noticing or receiving public comments on the final rule would be impracticable and unnecessary.
According to the agencies, the conforming amendments “do not involve the exercise of the agencies’ discretion,” therefore a “notice and comment process would neither provide new information to the public nor inform any agency decisionmaking regarding the aspects of the regulations defining ‘waters of the United States’ that are invalid as inconsistent with the [CWA] under Sackett.”
Immediate Publication & Effect
The August 2023 Rule will become immediately effective upon publication in the Federal Register. The agencies have found similar good cause under APA section 553(d)(3) to make the August 2023 Rule immediately effective because it will not impose any burdens on the regulated community. Instead, the agencies contend that the amendments merely conform the January 2023 Rule to Sacket by amending those provisions deemed invalid under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the CWA.
The agencies reiterate that making the rule immediately effective will provide more clarity and certainty to the regulated community; whereas a delayed effective date would prolong confusion and potentially result in project delays for prospective permittees that seek a jurisdictional determination for their project’s proposed discharges. Finally, the immediate effect of the Conforming Rule will also provide clarity to States and Tribes that administer CWA permitting programs, as well as members of the general public who seek to understand which waters are subject to the CWA’s requirements.
The amended August 2023 Rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register by Friday, September 1, 2023. Once published, the rule will go into immediate effect and the Army Corps’ pause on issuing jurisdictional determinations (due to the pending Sackett decision) will be lifted.
Due to an existing injunction against the January 2023 Rule, the agencies will implement the August 2023 Rule in the 23 states where the January 2023 Rule is not enjoined. In the remaining 27 states where the January 2023 is enjoined, the agencies will continue interpreting WOTUS consistent with the pre-2015 regulatory regime and the Sackett framework until further notice.
Brian Plant, Of Counsel attorney at RMM, advises private and public agency clients regarding a broad range of permitting actions under Federal and State water quality, endangered species, and other natural resources laws and regulations. He can be reached at: [email protected].