Waters Of The United States Redefined


South Carolina is among the states suing the Feds

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers published a Final Clean Water Act Rule defining “waters of the United States” on June 29. The effective date of the rule, which greatly expands the scope of jurisdictional waters, is August 28. The full text of the rule can be read here.

shutterstock_180127517The Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction relates to “navigable waters” which was previously defined simply as “waters of the United States or the territorial seas”.  This vague definition led to numerous lawsuits and much regulatory interpretation, but confusion persisted. For this reason, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers decided to resolve the uncertainty by promulgating a new definition by federal rule. Supporters say the true motivation for the rule is to protect the safety of drinking water and stream health.

The new rule will affect several industries, two of which are of particular importance to real estate practitioners:  construction and housing. The rule will undoubtedly lead to considerable additional costly federal permitting and is likely to slow development.

The rule deems all tributaries to traditional navigable waters with beds, banks and ordinary high water marks, as jurisdictional, regardless of size. The definition of “wetlands” has been expanded to include “neighboring” wetlands which incorporates all waters within the floodplain or within specified distances from the ordinary high water mark of traditional navigable waters, their tributaries and impoundments.

Of local significance, the rule extends protections to “Carolina Bays”, on a case-by-case basis, depending on the significance of their nexus to navigable waters. Carolina bays are defined as ponded depressional wetlands that occur along the Atlantic coastal plains.

shutterstock_147620981Two lawsuits were filed by 22 states on the day after the rule was published. South Carolina is a plaintiff in Georgia v. McCarthy, which claims the rule infringes on state sovereignty by eliminating the states’ primary authority to regulate and protect water under state standards. The lawsuit also alleges that the rule imposes significant new federal burdens on the states, homeowners, business owners and farmers by forcing them to obtain costly federal permits to continue to conduct activities on their property that have no significant impact on navigable, interstate waters.

The second lawsuit, North Dakota v. McCarthy, alleges that the rule harms states in their capacity as owners and regulators of waters and lands within their respective jurisdictions.

It is likely that other challenges to the new rule will follow.  In addition to the challenges by the states, the housing, construction, farming and oil industries are opposed to the implementation of this far reaching rule.

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