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Is this the final word on WOTUS, or is the rule just being kicked downstream?

By Ellen Essman, Ohio Law Blog, Agricultural & Resource Law Program at The Ohio State University

There’s always something going on with the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Last September, we wrote about how the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule would replace the 2015 Obama rule until the Trump administration finalized its new rule. Well, the final rule was just announced by the EPA on January 24, 2020. So, what does the new rule categorize as “waters of the United States?” Are there any differences between the rule as it was proposed in February of 2019 and the final rule? Will this version of WOTUS stick?

 

What is (and isn’t) WOTUS now?

The Trump EPA’s WOTUS rewrite maps out which waters are and are not waters of the United States. The following are WOTUS in the new rule:

  • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  • Tributaries;
  • Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
  • Adjacent wetlands.

Notably, this definition is a great deal shorter than the 2015 iteration of the rule, meaning that less waters fall under the rule. In addition, the new rule contains a much longer list of waters that are not WOTUS:

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  • Ephemeral features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
  • Diffused stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
  • Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
  • Prior converted cropland;
  • Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  • Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
  • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
  • Waste treatment systems.

 

Changes made to proposed rule

The most significant difference between the proposed rule and the final rule is the treatment of some waters connected by ephemeral streams. Ephemeral streams are those streams that only last for a short time after precipitation. In the proposed version of the rule, if upstream perennial and intermittent tributaries were connected to a water of the United States by an ephemeral stream, they were not WOTUS. The final rule changes this, and such tributaries are WOTUS if they have a surface water connection to a downstream water of the United States during a normal year. To make a long story short, the final rule protects some bodies of water that the proposed rule left out.

 

So, WOTUS is set in stone now, right?

Not exactly. In addition to the ongoing lawsuits over the brief recodification of the 1986/1988 rules, it is almost certain that environmental groups and some states will file lawsuits against the new WOTUS rule. Additionally, while many in the world of agriculture cheer the new rule, there are other groups that have already spoken out against it. For example, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which includes many EPA employees, scientists, and lawyers, filed a lengthy complaint against the rule with the Inspector General. In the complaint, PEER argues that the new rule violates EPA’s “Scientific Integrity Policy,” which EPA employees must follow when making decisions. PEER alleges that top employees at the EPA did not follow this policy when writing the rule because the rule was not based on science, and EPA staff with expertise in the area were not consulted. While the new rule is currently the law of the land, we’ll have to wait and see how long it will last. Challenges like the PEER complaint will have to be addressed, as well as an inevitable wave of lawsuits. Like the 2015 rule, the lawsuits and challenges will likely alter and/or interrupt the implementation of this so-called “final” rule.

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