You’re never going to make everyone happy. This is especially true when it comes to the federal definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The definition of WOTUS has changed over the years in order to adapt to numerous court decisions. The Obama administration’s 2015 rule has been litigated so much that a patchwork of enforcement has been created across the country, with some states falling under the 2015 rule and others falling under the previous iterations of the rule from 1986 and 1988. In fact, in New Mexico, parts of the state follow one rule and other parts follow the other. You can see the current state breakdown here.
To add even more chaos to all of this confusion, the Trump administration decided to repeal and replace Obama’s 2015 rule. In September, a rule was announced that would repeal the 2015 WOTUS rule and replace it with the 1986 and 1988 rule. This reversion would not be permanent; the 1986/1988 rule is simply a placeholder until the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalize a new WOTUS rule to replace it. The repeal is set to become effective in December. You can read our blog post on the repeal here.
Of course, there are those who are unhappy with the 1986/1988 rule being reinstated, even if only for a time. In October, two lawsuits were filed against the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in federal district courts. In South Carolina, environmental groups sued because they feel that the 1986/1988 rules do not go far enough to protect waters. On the other hand, in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association sued because they feel that returning to the 1986/1988 rules goes too far in regulating water. Below, we will briefly break down the arguments in each of these lawsuits.
South Carolina lawsuit
Following the October repeal announcement, environmental groups, including the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, claiming that the repeal rulemaking was unlawful. In their complaint, the environmental groups make several arguments. They allege that the repeal rulemaking violates the Due Process Clause, Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and Supreme Court precedent. They say that the Due Process Clause has been violated because the rulemaking was not undertaken with an open mind, instead it was already pre-judged or all but decided before the process even started. They cite many violations of the APA—including failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the repeal, failing to discuss alternatives to repealing the rule, and failing to provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment on the rulemaking. Additionally, the environmental groups claim that the repeal “illegally departs from Justice Kennedy’s” opinion in the Rapanos case. Ultimately, Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos is what led the EPA and Corps to scrap the 1986/1988 rule and create the 2015 rule to be more consistent with that opinion. Therefore, the environmental groups argue that going back to the 1986/1988 version would violate Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test for WOTUS, which invalidated the old version of the rule. In other words, the environmental groups believe that going back to the 1980s rules will result in less waters being protected.
New Mexico lawsuit
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. In the complaint, NMCGA asks the court to enjoin, or stop the enforcement of the repeal rule, claiming that the rule violates the CWA, the Congressional Review Act, the Commerce Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Non-delegation Doctrine, and the Tenth Amendment. The NMCGA’s argument hinges on the definition of “navigable waters.” Under the CWA, “navigable waters” are the same as WOTUS. Like the environmental groups in South Carolina, NMCGA interprets the Rapanos decision as invalidating provisions of the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule. NMCGA, however, reads Rapanos as limiting “navigable waters” to only the waters that are actually navigable, or “navigable-in-fact.” Thus, unlike the environmental groups, NMCGA believes that both the 1986/1988 rule and the 2015 rule result in more waters being regulated than is allowed under the CWA and Supreme Court decisions.
Will the tide turn on WOTUS in the future?
Despite the Trump EPA’s repeal and upcoming replacement of the 2015 rule, the future of WOTUS is anything but certain. The lawsuits in South Carolina and New Mexico are just the latest proof of that. What is more, the lawsuits to enjoin the 2015 rule are still ongoing, and it is unclear whether they will be wiped out when the repeal rule becomes effective in December. When the replacement rule is finally published, there is no doubt even more lawsuits will follow. It’s also important to remember that we have an election next year, so if there’s a new administration, they’ll probably put their own stamp on WOTUS.
In August, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Trump Administration would be making revisions to the way the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is carried out under federal regulations. The move was made in part to further the Administration’s goal to “ease the regulatory burden” on citizens. The revised regulations apply to sections 4 and 7 of the ESA, which means they make changes to how species are listed as endangered, how critical habitat for species is determined, how threatened species are treated, and how the different federal agencies cooperate to carry out the ESA.
Revision of endangered, threatened, and critical habitat protections
The changes to how the ESA is carried out were made in three rulemakings published on August 27, 2019. One of the rules, available here, is meant to increase cooperation between federal agencies when carrying out the ESA (this rule is set to become effective on October 28). Changes made by the other two rules, available here, and here, are much more controversial because they have a great impact on how endangered and threatened species and their habitats are treated under federal regulations. The new rules went into effect on September 26, 2019. We discuss some of the biggest modifications below.
First, the rules change the term “physical or biological features” to “physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.” This change will likely diminish the number of natural features and areas that will be protected, since only those deemed essential to an endangered species will be protected. Similarly, the new rules give the federal government more leeway to determine when habitat is not critical habitat for species, which may result in less habitat being protected under the new iteration of the rules.
In yet another change, the new rules separate the discussion of “threatened” and “endangered” species within the regulatory text. Due to this uncoupling, some read the new version of the rule as stripping threatened species of protections they enjoyed when they were more closely related to endangered species. The new edition of the rules instead includes factors for determining whether a species can be listed as threatened, such as whether it is likely the species will become endangered in the “foreseeable future,” which will be determined on a case by case basis. Critics of the new rules believe that this language will give the government the discretion to overlook the effects of climate change on a species, which could play out over a period of time longer than the “foreseeable future.” Along the same lines, the rules also make it harder to ban certain activities in order to protect threatened species.
The rules weaken the ESA by allowing the federal government to take into account the actions of states, other nations, and local jurisdictions when listing and delisting species. In other words, if the species is being protected on another level of government or by another country, the U.S. government may be less inclined to protect the species; either by choosing not to list the species, or by removing its threatened or endangered status. Importantly, the new rules also allow “commercial information,” not just scientific information, to be considered when making a decision. Under the old rules, agencies were not allowed to consider the economic impacts of listing or delisting a species. On the whole, the rules seem to give the federal government a lot more discretion to determine that species or habitats should not be protected.
On September 25, 2019, the day before the new rules became effective, the attorneys general from 17 states, including Ohio’s neighbors Michigan and Pennsylvania, sued the Trump Administration in federal court over the changes to the rules. You can find the complaint here. The states assert that the rulemaking violates several federal statutes, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal administrative agencies. The states further claim that the weakening of protections for endangered and threatened species and their habitats will cause harm to their natural resources, harm to their citizens through environmental degradation, take away the current and future economic benefits of protected species, and increase costs for state governments.
Amidst all the rule changes and lawsuits, members of Congress have been working on their own potential changes to the ESA. Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of congress members from all around the country who are concerned with land use and resource rights, among other causes, introduced nineteen bills meant to “modernize” the ESA. If you’re interested in the specifics of each bill, they are listed on the Caucus’ website, here. Overall, the bills focus on fixing the ESA by implementing “defined recovery goals” for species, relying on “standardized…publically available” science, and allowing more involvement from states and stakeholders on endangered species decisions.
With action taking place on the administrative, legislative, and judicial levels of the federal government, the way the ESA is written and interpreted seems to be up in the air at present. We will be sure to update the Ag Law Blog with any developments.