Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
What’s old is new again. To what was likely a mixed chorus of cheers and groans heard around the nation, the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers today announced the repeal of the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The action is “Step 1” in the Trump administration’s two-step plan to repeal and replace the WOTUS rule, which establishes the jurisdictional authority of the EPA and Army Corps over waters and waterways. It came in the form of a final rule that not only repeals the 2015 WOTUS rule set in place by the Obama Administration, but also reverts the entire country back to the old regulatory definitions of “waters of the United States” that were developed in 1986 and 1988 rulemakings and further interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Those definitions of WOTUS created a lot of confusion and litigation over the actual meaning of WOTUS, which the 2015 WOTUS rule aimed to clear up. Today’s “Step 1” takes us back to the older, earlier definition of WOTUS.
Wait—there’s a Step 2?
Back in February, we wrote a blog post when the Trump administration began what is now “Step 2,” proposing a new definition of WOTUS. If that rule becomes final, it will replace the pre-2015 WOTUS definitions put in place by today’s announcement. So, Step 1 involves reverting back to the old WOTUS definition until Step 2, implementing a new definition, is finalized.
The Trump administration’s proposed WOTUS rule scales back the reach of the 2015 WOTUS rule, which many claimed exceeded the agencies’ regulatory authority over waterways and waterbodies in the U.S. Under the currently proposed rule, tributaries that are “ephemeral”—meaning those that are not around for a great deal of time or created by temporary conditions like rainfall or snowmelt—would not be considered as WOTUS. In both the 2015 and pre-2015 WOTUS definitions, at least some ephemeral streams fell under federal regulation. The currently proposed rule also clarifies waters that are not WOTUS by including a list of such waters. The Trump administration states that its proposed rule would encompass fewer ditches, lakes, ponds, and adjacent wetlands than both the 2015 and pre-2015 versions of WOTUS.
So what’s WOTUS now, exactly?
Until the tide turns again, the definition of WOTUS set in place by today’s announcement is the pre-2015 rule, which is as follows:
- 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;
- All interstate waters including interstate wetlands;
- 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: (i) which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or (ii) from which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or (iii) which are used or could be used for industrial purposes by industries in interstate commerce;
- All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under this definition;
- Tributaries of waters identified above;
- The territorial seas;
- Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified above;
The current WOTUS does not include prior converted cropland or certain waste treatment systems. Importantly, it also contains definitions for the terms wetlands, adjacent, high water, ordinary high water mark and tidal waters—many of these definitions have been the source of the litigation and confusion that led to the 2015 rule.
It’s been a while since we’ve written about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). As a refresher, LEBOR was passed in February in a special election as an amendment to Toledo’s city charter. LEBOR was meant to create new legal rights for Lake Erie, the Lake Erie ecosystem, and to give Toledo citizens the ability to sue to enforce those legal rights against a government or a corporation violating them. For a longer explanation on LEBOR, see our post here. Since then, lawsuits for and against LEBOR have been filed, and the state of Ohio has passed legislation concerning the language in LEBOR. Updates on those actions will be discussed below.
Update on the Drewes Farm lawsuit
The day after LEBOR passed, Drewes Farm Partnership initiated a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division, against the city of Toledo. Our initial blog posts concerning this lawsuit are available here and here. In May, we discussed updates to the Drewes Farm lawsuit in yet another blog post. Since our last update, the Lake Erie Ecosystem and TSW’s motion to stay pending appeal and the appeal were both denied, meaning the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to leave the ecosystem and TSW out of the lawsuit. As a result, the current parties to the lawsuit are plaintiffs Drewes Farm Partnership and the State of Ohio, as well as the defendant City of Toledo. In early June, both the Drewes Farm Partnership and the state of Ohio filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. The district court has not yet determined whether to grant the motions; the City of Toledo’s response to the motions is due on August 9, 2019. After the response is filed, the plaintiffs will have a chance to reply.
Toledo Citizens file lawsuit against State of Ohio
In the midst of the Drewes Farm lawsuit, yet another complaint has been filed concerning LEBOR. On June 27, 2019, three citizens of Toledo filed a complaint against the state of Ohio in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas. In the complaint, the citizens, who all voted for LEBOR, asked the court to find that the state has failed to address pollution in Lake Erie, and due to its inaction, circumstances in the lake are getting worse, that LEBOR is enforceable under the Ohio Constitution and state law, and to issue an injunction to prevent the state from curtailing their rights under LEBOR. Currently, it appears as though no response has been filed by the state of Ohio. Perhaps the state wants to let recently passed legislation do the talking.
State budget bill includes language aiming to invalidate LEBOR, adds water quality initiative
Finally, the Ohio General Assembly has also gotten in on the LEBOR action. On July 18, 2019, Governor DeWine signed the General Assembly’s budget bill into law. Page 482 contains language that seems to be aimed at LEBOR and other environmental community rights initiatives. Most importantly, the bill states:
- Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate or bring an action in any court of common pleas.
- No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas.
It will be interesting to see how courts handle lawsuits on behalf of ecosystems and nature after the passage of this budget law.
While the budget bill appears to take LEBOR and initiatives like it head-on, it also created a water quality initiative called “H2Ohio,” which includes a fund in the state treasury. The money in the H2Ohio fund will go toward water quality improvement projects, including projects to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment pollution from agricultural practices. With this initiative, the state seems to be offering an alternative way to protect its waters, including Lake Erie.
Work continues on sorting out the legality of LEBOR and the wider problem of Lake Erie pollution, and there appears to be no end in sight. Keep an eye on the Ohio Ag Law Blog for new developments on LEBOR lawsuits and the H2Ohio program!
The controversy over the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule never really leaves the news. Case in point: last week, on May 28, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas decided to keep a preliminary injunction that prevents the enforcement of the 2015 version of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, meaning that the 2015 rule does not currently apply in those states. Meanwhile, at the end of March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio was not persuaded by Ohio and Tennessee to issue a preliminary injunction which would have halted the execution of the 2015 rule in those states. All of this judicial activity is taking place while the Trump administration is working on a replacement for the Obama administration’s 2015 rule.
If you’re a regular follower of the Ag Law Blog, you know we’ve written numerous updates on the WOTUS saga. For a refresher, the WOTUS rule defines which waters are considered “waters of the United States,” and are consequently protected under the Clean Water Act. In 2015, the Obama administration promulgated its final WOTUS rule, which many agricultural groups and states felt regulated too many waters. Needless to say, many lawsuits over the rule ensued. The Trump administration, hoping to replace the Obama-era rule, released its new proposed rule on February 14, 2019. The comment period for the proposed rule ended on April 15, 2019. The new rule is forthcoming, but in the meantime, due to all of the litigation, whether or not the 2015 WOTUS rule is applicable varies by state. For an explanation of the 2015 rule and the new proposed rule, see our previous blog post here.
Judge continues to block 2015 WOTUS in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi…
At the end of May, Judge George C. Hanks Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas handed down a decision remanding the 2015 WOTUS rule to the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers and ordering that a previously issued preliminary injunction stay in place, meaning that the government should not implement the 2015 rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. While Judge Hanks declined to take up the questions raised by the plaintiffs about the constitutionality of the 2015 rule, he did determine that the agencies violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) at the rule’s conception. The APA is a federal law that controls how federal agencies must go about making regulations. Importantly, the APA dictates that agencies should give the American public notice of a proposed rule, as well as a chance to comment on a proposed rule. In the case of Obama’s 2015 WOTUS rule, the definition of “adjacent waters” was changed from being based upon a “hydrologic connection” in the proposed rule to being based on how many feet separated the waters in the final rule. Interested parties did not have any chance to comment on the change before it was included in the final rule. What is more, interested parties did not have the chance to comment on the final report that served as the “technical basis” for the rule. For these reasons, Judge Hanks found that the final rule violated the APA. As a result, he remanded the rule to the agencies to fix and left in place the preliminary injunction blocking the implementation of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
…but 2015 WOTUS still applies in Ohio and Tennessee
A decision in the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio came to the opposite conclusion of the Texas case. In March of this year, Judge Sargus denied the states’ motion for a preliminary injunction against carrying out the 2015 WOTUS rule. Sargus did not agree that Ohio and Tennessee were being irreparably harmed by having to follow the 2015 rule, and therefore did not go through with what he called the “extraordinary measure” of providing the states preliminary injunctive relief. Basically, Ohio and Tennessee were not persuasive enough in their argument, and “failed to draw the Court’s attention” to any specific harm the states faced from the 2015 rule. Therefore, as of this writing, the 2015 WOTUS rule still applies in Ohio and Tennessee.
What regulation applies in which states?
All of these lawsuits with different outcomes beg the question: what rule is applicable in which state? EPA has a map depicting which states must currently follow the 2015 rule, and which states instead must follow the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS. The map has not been updated since September of 2018. Since the last update, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, whose governors’ mansions flipped from red to blue in November, have pulled out of lawsuits against the 2015 rule. These withdrawals could affect which version of WOTUS applies in these states.
Although the outcomes in the different lawsuits throughout the country presently affect which version of the WOTUS rule applies in which state, it is not clear how the rulings will ultimately affect the 2015 WOTUS rule. The Trump administration is currently carrying out its plan to scrap the rule and replace it with new language, which may render all of the existing legal fights over the 2015 rule irrelevant.
The new WOTUS rule, which is expected in its final form later this year, will probably not mark the end of the WOTUS debate. While implementation of the new rule will likely make the aforementioned lawsuits moot, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be out of the woods yet. With all the contention over this topic, it is likely lawsuits will be filed challenging the new rule, as well. Disagreement over what makes up WOTUS might be around for as long as rivers flow.
Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Board of Trustees of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) brought a lawsuit against thirteen Iowa drainage districts. DMWW is the biggest water provider in Iowa, serving the largest city, Des Moines, and the surrounding area. Drainage districts were first created in Iowa in the 1800s to drain wetlands and allow for agriculture in those areas. In Iowa, the counties are in charge of drainage districts. Individual landowners can tile their land so that it drains water to the ditches, pipes, etc. that make up the counties’ drainage districts. Eventually, that water ends up in Iowa’s rivers. The thirteen drainage districts being sued by DMWW are located in the Raccoon River watershed in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun counties. DMWW is located downstream from the drainage districts in question.
Background of the Lawsuit
On March 16, 2015, the Board of Trustees for the DMWW filed a complaint against the thirteen drainage districts in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division. DMWW alleged that the drainage districts did not act in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and provisions of the Iowa Code because they did not secure the applicable permits to discharge nitrates into the Raccoon River. In order to serve its customers, DMWW uses the Raccoon River as part of its water supply.
DMWW has to meet maximum contaminant levels prescribed under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Nitrate is a contaminant with a maximum allowable level of 10 mg/L. In its complaint, DMWW cited record levels of nitrate in water from the Raccoon River watershed in recent years. DMWW alleged that the nitrate problem is exacerbated by the “artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure…created, managed, maintained, owned and operated by” the thirteen drainage districts. DMWW alleged that the drainage district infrastructure—“pipes, ditches, and other conduits”—are point sources. DMWW points to agriculture—row crops, livestock production, and spreading of manure, as a major source of nitrate pollution.
DMWW also cited a number of costs associated with dealing with nitrates, including the construction of facilities that remove nitrates, the operation of those facilities, and the cost associated with acquiring permits to discharge the removed waste. In their complaint, they generally asked the court to make the drainage districts reimburse them for their cleanup costs, and to make the drainage districts stop discharging pollutants without permits.
All together, DMWW filed ten counts against the drainage districts. In addition to their claim that the drainage districts had violated the CWA and similarly, Iowa’s Chapter 455B, DMWW also alleged that the continued nitrate pollution violated a number of other state and federal laws. DMWW maintained that the pollution was a public, statutory, and private nuisance, trespassing, negligence, a taking without just compensation, and a violation of due process and equal protection under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. Finally, DMWW sought injunctive relief from the court to enjoin the drainage districts to lessen the amount of nitrates in the water. In many of the counts, DMWW asked the court for damages to reimburse them for their costs of dealing with the pollution.
On May 22, 2015, the defendants, the thirteen drainage districts, filed their amended answer with the court. On January 11, 2016, the district court filed an order certifying questions to the Iowa Supreme Court. In other words, the district court judge submitted four questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to be answered before commencing the federal trial. The idea behind this move was that the highest court in Iowa would be better equipped to answer questions of state law than the district court.
Iowa Supreme Court Decision
The Iowa Supreme Court filed its opinion containing the answers to the four state law questions on January 27, 2017. All of the questions were decided in favor of the drainage districts. The court answered two questions related to whether the drainage districts had unqualified immunity (complete protection) from the money damages and equitable remedies (actions ordered by the court to be taken or avoided in order to make amends for the harm caused) requested by DMWW. Both were answered in the affirmative—the court said that Iowa legislation and court decisions have, throughout history, given drainage districts immunity. Iowa law has long found the service drainage districts provide—draining swampy land so that it could be farmed—to be of great value to the citizens of the state. To that end, the law has been “liberally construed” to promote the actions of drainage districts. What is more, judicial precedent in the state has repeatedly found that drainage districts are not entities that can be sued for money damages because they are not corporations, and they have such a limited purpose—to drain land and provide upkeep for that drainage. The law has further prohibited receiving injunctive relief (obtaining a court order to require an action to be taken or stopped), from drainage districts. Instead, the only remedy available to those “claim[ing] that a drainage district is violating a duty imposed by an Iowa statute” is mandamus. Mandamus allows the court to compel a party to carry out actions that are required by the law. In this case, those requirements would be draining land and the upkeep of the drainage system.
The second two questions considered by the court dealt with the Iowa Constitution. The court determined whether or not DMWW could claim the constitutional protections of due process, equal protection, and takings. They also answered whether DMWW’s property interest in the water could even be “the subject of a claim under...[the] takings clause.” The court answered “no” to both questions, and therefore against DMWW. Their reasoning was that both DMWW and the drainage districts are subdivisions of state government, and based on numerous decisions in Iowa courts, “one subdivision of state government cannot sue another…under these clauses.” Additionally, the court found that “political subdivisions, as creatures of statute, cannot sue to challenge the constitutionality of state statutes.” Consequently, they reasoned that the pollution of the water and the resulting need to remove that pollution did “not amount to a constitutional violation” under Iowa law. The court also found that since the water in question was not private property, the takings claim was not valid. A takings claim only applies to when the government takes private property. What is more, the court added that regardless of its status as a public or private body, DMWW was not actually deprived of any property—they still had the ability to use the water. Therefore, the Iowa Supreme Court answered all four state law questions in the drainage districts’ favor, and against DMWW.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that the questions of state law favored the drainage districts, but that is not necessarily the end of this lawsuit. Now that the questions of state law are answered, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, can decide the questions of federal law. If any of the numerous motions for summary judgment are not granted to the drainage districts, a trial to decide the remaining questions is set for June 26, 2017. The questions left for the district court to decide include a number of U.S. Constitutional issues.
One of these issues is whether the drainage districts’ discharge of nitrates into the water constitutes a “taking” of DMWW’s private property for a public use under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Another issue is whether the drainage districts’ state-given immunity infringes upon DMWW’s constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and just compensation. An important federal law question that also remains to be decided is whether the drainage districts are “point sources” that require a permit to discharge pollutants under the CWA.
How will the outcome affect other states?
Either outcome in this lawsuit will have implications for the rest of the country. For example, if the district court sides with DMWW on all of the questions, it could open the floodgates to potential lawsuits against drainage districts and other similar entities around the country for polluting water. Municipal and other users of the water could assert an infringement of their constitutional rights, including taking without just compensation. Furthermore, if drainage districts are found to be “point sources,” it could mean greater costs of permitting and cleanup for drainage districts and other state drainage entities. Those costs and additional regulations could be passed onto farmers within the watershed. As a result, farmers and water suppliers around the country will closely follow the district court’s decisions on the remaining questions in the case.
All of the court documents and decisions concerning this lawsuit, as well as additional articles and blog posts on the topic can be found here. Additional reading on the subject from the Des Moines Register can be found here and here.