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Field along the Miami River. Photo by Doug Longfellow.

Long-awaited WOTUS rewrite published

By Ellen Essman, Senior Research Associate, Ohio State University Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Well, it’s been a while since we’ve written about the Waters of the United States (WOTUS), so everyone had to know we were overdue for WOTUS news!

On Dec. 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the Trump Administration’s so-called “straightforward” new definition of WOTUS under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Publication of the proposed rule was delayed due to the federal government shutdown in December and January. The proposed rule was finally published in the Federal Register on Feb. 14, 2019. Interested parties can comment on the proposed WOTUS rule until April 15, 2019. Information on how to comment can be found here, and the proposed rule in its entirety can be found here.

 

Out with the old WOTUS…

The new definition would replace the 2015 definition of WOTUS promulgated under the Obama Administration. The 2015 definition is codified at 33 CFR 328. The 2015 definition defined waters of the United States as:

  1. All waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  2. All interstate waters including interstate wetlands;
  3. All other waters such as intrastate lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, or natural ponds, the use, degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate or foreign commerce including any such waters:
    • Which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or
    • From which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or
    • Which are used or could be used for industrial purpose by industries in interstate commerce;
  4. All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under the definition;
  • Tributaries of waters identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (4) of this section;
  1. The territorial seas;
  2. Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (6) of this section.
  3. Waters of the United States do not include prior converted cropland. Notwithstanding the determination of an area’s status as prior converted cropland by any other Federal agency, for the purposes of the Clean Water Act, the final authority regarding Clean Water Act jurisdiction remains with the EPA.

The 2015 definition also noted that “[w]aste treatment systems, including treatment ponds or lagoons designed to meet requirements of CWA…are not waters of the United States” (emphasis added).

 

…In with the new WOTUS

The Trump Administration’s new proposed definition of WOTUS would make significant changes to the definition listed above. Under the new proposed rule, section (a) of §328.3 would define waters of the United States as:

  1. Waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including the territorial seas and waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  2. Tributaries of waters identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section;
  3. Ditches that satisfy any of the conditions identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section, ditches constructed in a tributary or that relocate or alter a tributary as long as those ditches also satisfy the conditions of the tributary definition, and ditches constructed in an adjacent wetland as long as those ditches also satisfy the conditions of the tributary definition;
  4. Lakes and ponds that satisfy any of the conditions identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section, lakes and ponds that contribute perennial or intermittent flow to a water identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section in a typical year either directly or indirectly through a water(s) identified in paragraphs (a)(2) through (6) of this section or through water features identified in paragraph (b) of this section so long as those water features convey perennial or intermittent flow downstream, and lakes and ponds that are flooded by a water identified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (5) of this section in a typical year;
  • Impoundments of waters identified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (4) and (6) of this section; and
  1. Adjacent wetlands to waters identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (5) of this section.

Every other type of water in this proposed definition relates back to the waters described in (1), which the EPA describes as “traditional navigable waters.” For example, tributaries that are WOTUS would be those bodies of water that empty into or connect to traditional navigable waters. Similarly, lakes and ponds are WOTUS under the definition if they are traditional navigable waters themselves, or if they flow regularly into traditional navigable waters. An EPA fact sheet, available here, is very helpful in understanding what is included under the proposed WOTUS definition. It describes the six proposed categories of WOTUS in layman’s terms, and provides examples of bodies of water that fall under each category.

The newly proposed rule also greatly expands the list of waters that are not waters of the United States in section (b):

  1. Waters or water features that are not identified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (6) of this section;
  2. Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  3. Ephemeral features and diffuse stormwater run-off, including directional sheet flow over upland;
  4. Ditches that are not identified in paragraph (a)(3) of this section;
  • Prior converted cropland;
  1. Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for rice or cranberry growing, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  2. Artificial lakes and ponds constructed in upland (including water storage reservoirs, farm and stock watering ponds, and log cleaning ponds) which are not identified in paragraph (a)(4) or (a)(5) of this section;
  3. Water-filled depressions created in upland incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  4. Stormwater control features excavated or constructed in upland to convey, treat, infiltrate or store stormwater run-off;
  5. Wastewater recycling structures constructed in upland, such as detention, retention and infiltration basins and ponds, and groundwater recharge basins; and
  6. Waste treatment systems.

 

Notable differences between 2015 rule and proposed rule

Just glancing at the two rules, it is obvious that there are major differences in how WOTUS is defined. EPA has a useful fact sheet (highly recommended reading) outlining the “key proposed changes” and how they compare to the 2015 WOTUS rule, as well as to the pre-2015 WOTUS rule. Overall, it appears that the number of water bodies considered WOTUS would decrease under the proposed rule. EPA argues that limiting the number of waters classified as WOTUS would give more power to the states to regulate waters as they see fit.

One major change is that under the proposed rule, tributaries that are “ephemeral” (meaning they’re not around for a great deal of time, and/or may be there because of rainfall or snowmelt, etc.), are not considered to be WOTUS. Similarly, the number of ditches considered to be WOTUS would decrease under the new rule. Upland ditches and ephemeral ditches would no longer fall under WOTUS. The number of wetlands considered WOTUS would also take a hit under the new rule. Wetlands would either have to “abut” other WOTUS or “have a direct hydrological surface connection” to WOTUS in a “typical year” to fall under the new definition. Furthermore, wetlands would no longer be considered to be “adjacent,” and therefore connected to WOTUS, if they are “physically separated from jurisdictional waters by a berm, dike, or other barrier.” Finally, you guessed it— the number of lakes and ponds considered WOTUS would also be reduced, since they would no longer connect through “adjacent” wetlands.

 

What’s next?

It’s important to remember that this new WOTUS rule is not currently effective — they are just proposed rules, open to public comment. In the meantime, due to litigation, what qualifies as WOTUS depends on the state. EPA has a map depicting which definition of WOTUS currently applies where. In some states, the 2015 rule applies, and in others the pre-2015 rule applies. Obama’s 2015 rule applies in Ohio at this time. If the proposed rule makes it through the rulemaking process and goes into effect, it will replace the 2015 and pre-2015 rules, and barring any other lawsuits, will apply nationwide. The ultimate implementation of this rule is anything but certain; changes and challenges to the rule are likely to occur.

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