On January 23, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Navigable Waters Protection Rule to replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule, promulgated by the Obama administration and repealed by the current administration in 2019. The new rule purports to clarify federal regulation of waters within the U.S. by differentiating “waters of the U.S.,” which are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, and non-jurisdictional waters. It identifies four categories of protected waters—the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters. The new rule also identifies waters not subject to federal control, including groundwater; ephemeral features; ditches; prior converted cropland; farm and stock watering ponds; waste treatment systems; and rainfall collection features.
The new rule is moored to late Justice Antonin Scalia’s plurality opinion in the landmark Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), that offers a more restrictive view of jurisdictional waters. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in the same case offers a more expansive view and spawned what became known and implemented as the “significant nexus” test—which placed all waters that bear a significant nexus to traditional navigable waterways within federal jurisdiction. For nearly a decade, Kennedy’s significant nexus test, imprecise as it may be, supplemented the 1986 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) definition of jurisdiction waters in a majority of regions—later serving as the basis for the 2015 Rule.
Implications of the new Trump administration rule vary state by state but mark a clear reduction in federal protection for waters that were formerly classified as jurisdictional, notably wetlands and ephemeral waterways. California is especially affected because of its unique climate and abundance of wetlands and seasonal streams. A primary stated goal of the current administration with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule was to increase state responsibility for managing their waters, which is the exact outcome in California where the State Water Board will soon regulate what are referred to as “Waters of the State.” This new regulatory program becomes effective on May 28, 2020, and closely tracks the 2015 rule in terms of protection and coverage.
The Navigable Waters Protection Rule arrives on the heels of nearly 620,000 public comments on its proposal, fewer than the over one million received on the 2015 rule’s proposal. The rule will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, although a publication date has yet to be released. Until such time, the 1986 USACE definition prevails, along with any adopted Supreme Court clarifications. For Ninth Circuit territory, this means a return, if only temporary, to Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test.