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New Federal Rule Proposes to Expand Jurisdiction of the Federal Clean Water Act

By Sharon O. Jacobs

On March 25, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jointly proposed a new rule defining the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The rule would expand EPA’s jurisdiction to waters that were previously not subject to EPA’s jurisdiction as “waters of the United States.” The new rule, if it becomes final, may allow the EPA or the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to expand its jurisdiction to small bodies of water on private property. Under the joint proposed rule, all natural and artificial tributaries and wetlands that are adjacent to or near larger downstream waters would also be subject to the federal CWA. The EPA and the Corps purportedly proposed the new rule in an effort to clarify the CWA program. However, the end result appears to be an expansion of the scope of “waters of the United States” protected under the CWA. Specifically, the proposed rule provides that under the CWA:

    • • Most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are protected.
    • • Wetlands, ponds and other waters near rivers and streams are protected.
    • • Other types of waters may have more uncertain connections with downstream water, and protection will be evaluated through a case-specific analysis of whether the connection is or is not significant.

The proposed rule defines “waters of the United States” as “traditional navigable waters; interstate waters, including interstate wetlands; the territorial seas; impoundments of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, including interstate wetlands, the territorial seas and tributaries, as defined, of such waters; tributaries, as defined, of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters or the territorial seas; and adjacent waters, including adjacent wetlands.” In addition, the agencies propose that “other waters” (those not fitting in any of the above categories) could be determined to be “waters of the United States” through a case-specific showing that, either alone or in combination with similarly situated “other waters” in the region, they have a “significant nexus” to a traditional navigable water, interstate water or the territorial seas. However, at this time, the “significant nexus” has not been defined. The agencies seek public comments on alternate approaches to determine which waters are jurisdictional as “other waters.”

The proposed rule allows the EPA and the Corps to seek comment on a case-by-case basis on whether the aggregate effect of geographically isolated wetlands and other waters that “significantly” affect the physical, biological and chemical integrity of federally protected downstream waters are jurisdictional pursuant to the CWA. An interpretive rule was also included which clarifies that 53 specific conservation practices identified by the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect or improve water quality won't be subject to dredge-and-fill permits under Section 404 of the CWA.

The agencies seek public comments on the proposed rule. Public comments will be accepted for 90 days after the date of the publication in the Federal Register. Because the rule alludes to other bodies of water, which could be regulated, it is important for the public to review the proposed rule carefully and provide comments. The rule is a game changer for small bodies of water if it becomes final.

The public should submit feedback by identifying Docket ID No. EPA–HQ–OW–2011–0880 using one of the following methods:

    • • Mail: Send the original and three copies of your comments to: Water Docket, Environmental Protection Agency, Mail Code 2822T, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20460, Attention: Docket ID No. EPA–HQ–OW–2011–0880.

 

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