The new WOTUS rule: what does it mean and does it really matter?

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Tuesday, January 10th, 2023
Picture of Adams Lake, Ohio

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a big splash when it released its final rule for defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) on December 30. Immediate criticism and support for the new rule surfaced as many undertook the unenviable task of interpreting the rule’s 514 pages of text.  Perhaps some enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the latest development in WOTUS.  But how many responded with a bit of weariness, asking what this “new” rule really means for agriculture and, more importantly, does it really matter?

What does the new final WOTUS rule mean for ag?

There are several answers to this question.  The first and most practical answer is that the rule changes which waters are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Through its permit programs, the CWA aims to protect water quality by preventing discharges of pollutants, dredge, or fill into a water that fits within the rule’s definition of “waters of the United States.”  A water that falls into any of five categories now laid out in the new WOTUS rule is a “water of the United States” that will be subject to CWA permit requirements and regulations, once the rule is effective.  But the rule also contains exceptions and exclusions to CWA jurisdiction, and waters that fall into these categories won’t be subject to CWA regulation.

The categories, exceptions, and exclusions all attempt to draw lines around waterways that are at risk for pollution and dredge and fill activities and thus should be protected under the CWA.  It is the less “obvious” waterways, like wetlands and ephemeral streams, that create consternation and raise the eternal question:  when is a water sufficiently connected to an “obvious” water body, and thus at risk for harm, to warrant CWA regulation?  The new rule tries, once again, to answer this difficult question.  As it does so, it repeats many of the categories, exceptions, and exclusions that we’ve seen in previous WOTUS rules, but there are some changes and attempts at clarification.  For an explanation of the new rule’s categories, exceptions, and exclusions, see this summary of the rule by our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.  Agricultural interests have reacted to the changes in the rule; see this article for those reactions.

A second and more skeptical answer to the question of what the rule really means for agriculture is that it modifies the landscape for legal challenges to WOTUS.  As history illustrates, the new WOTUS rule will be challenged as the agencies interpret and enforce the rule against agriculture and other regulated communities.  New rule, new arguments, new court decisions--it’s a cycle we’ve witnessed before.  And a legal challenge to the validity of the rule itself, not just to an application of the rule, is also likely. The court cases that arise from such challenges might help answer the question of what the rule really means for agriculture or might instead create more confusion and continued battles.

Does the new rule really matter?

If you’ve followed WOTUS recently, you may know that the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard an appeal in October by the Sacketts, landowners who were affected by an agency interpretation that subjected their property to CWA jurisdiction.  That challenge centered on whether the “significant nexus” test is an appropriate test for determining whether the wetlands on the Sackett property fall into the definition of “waters of the United States.” The new WOTUS rule contains a renewed EPA attempt to clarify the “significant nexus” test and also introduces a new “material influence” standard for smaller waters and wetlands.  As we await the SCOTUS decision, we must acknowledge that its outcome could require EPA to rewrite any parts of the rule, especially the significant nexus and material influence provisions, that conflict with the Court’s holding.

Due to the impending SCOTUS decision and potential legal challenges to the rule, the WOTUS rule might not even go into effect.  The rule cannot be effective until 60 days have passed from the date it is published in the Federal Register.  It has not yet been published in the Federal Register, so the 60-day time clock is not yet ticking.  There’s a slight possibility SCOTUS will rule before that effective date, and also a possibility that if the rule does become effective, immediate legal challenges will put the rule on hold.  In both situations, we have an answer to the question of what the rule means for ag:  possibly nothing.

WOTUS weariness

I have never experienced such exhaustion over a legal issue as I have with WOTUS.  That’s because we have yet to solve the problem despite a long, long, parade of court cases and revised rules.  We still await clarity to the definition of WOTUS and certainty on which waters should be subject to CWA.  Congress could take a shot at doing so, given that Congress enacted the CWA and established the very term, “waters of the United States.”  Yet Congress sits silent on the issue. 

For me, it is the overlooked questions, and the need to examine the big picture, that most contribute to WOTUS weariness.  Is the WOTUS battle effectively addressing water quality?  Is it time to admit that a fix to WOTUS might require a new approach?  Under the old adage of “check your premises,” perhaps we should examine the premise upon which WOTUS rests—waters that are “inside” the scope of the definition are similar, all under the same risks, and should all be regulated by CWA.  While the obvious and easily identifiable water bodies can benefit from WOTUS and CWA, should we quit trying to define those other waters and instead focus on different mechanisms that manage water quality risks to them?  Would we get further, faster, with a new approach?

The final question:  is there actual improvement in water quality that comes with yet another rule, another change, and more challenges to the scope of the definition of WOTUS?  The answer to that question, I fear, is no--but a focus on that question could be a way to overcome WOTUS weariness.

Read the new WOTUS rule from the EPA, and additional EPA resources about WOTUS.  More on the Sackett case is in this recent blog post.