EPA AND ACOE ISSUE NEW “WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES” RULE FOR CLEAN WATER ACT JURISDICTION

In April 2020, two days before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army, Corps of Engineers (ACOE), published the Navigable Waters Protection Rule redefining the scope of waters subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act (Act or CWA).

The Act, which prohibits the discharge of any pollutant into “navigable waters” without a permit from the EPA under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and the discharge of dredge or fill material into “navigable waters” without a permit from the ACOE under the Act’s Section 404 permit program, defines “navigable waters” as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” Although the Supreme Court has consistently held that the CWA’s jurisdiction extends beyond waters that are actually navigable, a clear definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) has eluded lower courts and federal regulators since the Supreme Court decided Rapanos v. United States in 2006. In Rapanos, a plurality opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia interpreted WOTUS to cover relatively permanent or continuously flowing bodies of water connected to traditional navigable waters, as well as adjacent wetlands with a continuous surface water connection to these waters. Although concurring in the ultimate decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion with a different interpretation of WOTUS, covering any wetlands that have a “significant nexus” with traditionally navigable waters. The 4-1-4 decision did not establish a clear precedent for the WOTUS definition.

In June 2015, the Obama Administration published the Clean Water Rule to clarify the WOTUS definition after questions arose over the government’s authority when confusion around the WOTUS definition stalled CWA enforcement actions. The Clean Water Rule looked to the Act’s objective “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” and adopted Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” standard to implement this objective. The rule thus covered any waters that, either alone or in combination with similarly situated waters in the region, significantly affected the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters. It established six categories of waters that were jurisdictional by rule; specified waters that were excluded from CWA jurisdiction; and identified two categories of waters (similarly-situated regional waters and floodplain waters) that could be subjected to a case-specific significant nexus jurisdiction analysis.

The new Navigable Waters Protection Rule replaces the Clean Water Rule and, in doing so, shifts the emphasis of the WOTUS definition more in line with Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos. Under the new rule, jurisdictional waters “encompass relatively permanent flowing and standing waterbodies that are traditional navigable waters in their own right or that have a specific surface water connection to traditional navigable waters, as well as wetlands that abut or are otherwise inseparably bound up with such relatively permanent waters.” The new rule establishes four categories of jurisdictional waters: (1) the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; (2) perennial and intermittent tributaries that contribute surface water flow to such waters; (3) certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and (4) wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters. All other waters or features are excluded from CWA jurisdiction.

This new rule will have the effect of further muddying the waters of CWA jurisdiction as the regulatory pendulum swings back once again, risking further confusion in an area where consistency and predictability are key. As the new rule reduces the Act’s reach over the nation’s waters, it is expected that it will also reduce the number of permits required under the NPDES and Section 404 permit programs. There are five lawsuits currently in federal court which are challenging the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, including a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court.

We will continue to monitor judicial and administrative developments under the CWA as courts, the EPA, and the ACOE apply this new rule. For any questions regarding this evolving area of the law, please reach out to the attorneys at Mackie Shea Durning, PC.

By Peter M. Vetere

U.S. SUPREME COURT ISSUES NEW GUIDANCE ON CLEAN WATER ACT PERMITTING

In April, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that could drastically expand the scope of activities requiring a permit under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA or Act). The case, County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, involved a wastewater reclamation facility in Hawaii that pumped treated waste water into groundwater injection wells, from which the effluent would enter groundwater and flow to the Pacific Ocean.

The Court held that, even though the effluent traveled through groundwater (a non-point source) before entering the ocean, this activity required a CWA permit, because it was “the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.” In doing so, the Court introduced a new test for determining whether indirect discharges, i.e., when point-source discharges of water pollution enters a non-point source (such as groundwater) before traveling to a water body covered by the CWA, required CWA permits.

The holding is particularly relevant to wastewater treatment facilities who pump treated effluent into groundwater wells, since that is the particular fact pattern at issue; however, it is also relevant to any point source discharger from whom pollutants could travel through groundwater or another non-point source into waters of the United States.

 

CWA Permitting and Application

The CWA prohibits the “discharge of any pollutant by any person” into the waters of the United States without that person obtaining a permit from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The Act defines “pollutant” broadly to include, among other things, any solid waste, sewage, and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water. A “discharge of a pollutant” is any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source. A “point source” is any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, conduit, or well, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.

Less clear is whether, and to what extent, a NPDES permit is required for discharges of pollutants to non-point sources, such as groundwater. Regulation of groundwater has traditionally been left to the states and not the federal government under the Act. Practically speaking, non-point source pollution is rarely traceable to any single discrete source and is, therefore, difficult to regulate through individual permits.

Not too long before the Court’s decision, in November 2019, the federal court in Massachusetts acknowledged the ambiguity inherent in the CWA’s application to discharges of pollutants into groundwater. In Conservation Law Foundation, Inc. v. Longwood Venues & Destinations, Inc., the District of Massachusetts deferred to EPA’s April 2019 interpretative statement on the issue and held that “discharges into groundwater are categorically excluded from the CWA’s regulatory regime, irrespective of any hydrological connection to navigable waters.” Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision in County of Maui nullified what was the (not at all longstanding) prevailing law on this issue in Massachusetts.

The Court’s Decision and the New “Functionally Equivalent” Test

In County of Maui, a majority of the Supreme Court (in a 6-3 opinion written by Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer) resolved the ambiguity by applying the CWA to certain discharges of pollutants to groundwater. Under the new test, the addition of a pollutant from any point source requires a NPDES permit when (i) a point source directly discharges pollutants into navigable waters, or (ii) the addition of the pollutants is “the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.”

Unfortunately, by resolving one ambiguity, the Court may have created more confusion instead of clarifying the law. The majority essentially staked a middle position between two arguments. The petitioner, the County of Maui’s wastewater treatment facility, argued for a bright-line “means-of-delivery” test where only direct discharges from a point source to a covered water required a permit, focusing on the manner in which the pollutant is conveyed to the covered water. The respondents, several environmental groups who filed a CWA citizen suit against the water treatment facility, argued for application of the Ninth Circuit’s “fairly traceable” test, which would have required a permit whenever pollutants are fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water. The U.S. Solicitor General submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioner and arguing for the application of the EPA’s April 2019 interpretative statement. The Court declined to grant deference to the EPA’s interpretation, because no party had requested it and because a total exclusion of all discharges through groundwater “would open a loophole allowing easy evasion of the [Act’s] basic purposes.”

In the end, the Court settled on the “functional equivalent” test and identified several factors which may be relevant to determining whether a particular discharge is the functional equivalent of one directly into navigable waters:

  • transit time;
  • distance traveled;
  • the nature of the material through which the pollutant travels;
  • the extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels;
  • the amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source;
  • the manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters; and
  • the degree to which the pollution has maintained its specific identity at the point it enters the navigable water.

The first two factors, time and distance, will be the most important factors in most cases.

The problem with this new test is that it introduces a number of new ambiguities to replace the original ambiguity over whether discharges to groundwater required a CWA permit. The Court acknowledged these shortcomings: the list of factors is not exhaustive (“courts can provide guidance through decisions in individual cases”); the two factors which the Court said are most important will “not necessarily [be important in] every case;” and even when time and distance are important, there is only a sliding scale of the acceptable range (a permit is required somewhere between “[w]here a pipe ends a few feet from navigable waters” and “[i]f the pipe ends 50 miles from navigable waters and the pipe emits pollutants that travel with groundwater, mix with much other material, and end up in navigable waters only many years later”).

During a status conference in federal district court following the decision, the Maui wastewater facility declared its intent to proceed to discovery and prepare its case for trial in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Both parties will have an opportunity to submit additional briefs on discovery issues, which the district court will hear in a further status conference at the end of June.

In combination with the EPA’s newly-promulgated Navigable Waters Protection Rule revising the definition of “waters of the United States,” which takes effect on June 22, 2020, the Supreme Court’s decision marks a major shift in CWA permitting.

We will continue to monitor judicial and administrative developments under the CWA as courts and the EPA apply this new “functional equivalent” test. For any questions regarding this evolving area of the law, please reach out to the attorneys at Mackie Shea Durning, PC.

 

By Peter M. Vetere

Mackie Shea Durning PC secures an important ruling on the Water Management Act

Town of Concord’s water supply at Nagog Pond.

On October 11, 2019, Judge Jennifer S.D. Roberts of the Massachusetts Land Court issued a Memorandum of Decision granting summary judgment to the Town of Concord resolving a dispute among  Littleton, Acton and Concord regarding which statutory authority governed the water withdrawal rights from Nagog Pond.

Nagog Pond has  been a source of public drinking water for Concord since it took the pond via eminent domain in 1909.  Littleton and Acton argued that a provision in an 1884 Act, which gave Concord rights to Nagog Pond, reserved withdrawal rights for the two towns where the pond is located. Concord argued its withdrawal rights were superior to any provisions of the 1884 Act, because it held a Registration under the 1985 Water Management Act, which grandfathered qualified existing water withdrawal rights.

Mackie Shea Durning PC attorneys Peter Durning, John Shea, and Gail Magenau Hire compiled an analysis of the legislative history for the Water Management Act and provided a statutory interpretation of the language of the statute to demonstrate that the Legislature intended to repeal prior special acts, like the 1884 Act, as it set up a new regulatory regime under the Water Management Act.

In her written Decision, Judge Roberts confirmed that the Water Management Act was “a comprehensive statute that was designed to address a state-wide problem – the preservation and allocation of water resources” without regard for municipal or other political boundaries.  Judge Roberts noted that in its deliberations on the scope of the Water Management Act, the Legislature was concerned with pre-existing rights created by approximately 650 prior special acts regarding water withdrawals, like the 1884 Act. Judge Roberts affirmed that the legislature “chose to address that concern by registering existing water withdrawals and continuing those registrations, upon timely renewal, ‘forever’.”  Based on the language of the two statutes, Judge Roberts concluded the “1884 Act is repugnant to and inconsistent with” the Water Management Act and that any rights granted to Littleton and Acton under the 1884 Act were extinguished.

The Land Court’s Decision to uphold Concord’s Registration to withdraw water from Nagog Pond will allow Concord’s investment in the construction of a new state-of-the-art water treatment facility to go forward without a lingering concern that Littleton and Acton might attempt to usurp Concord’s Registration which perfected and protected its withdrawal rights at Nagog Pond.

Drought Management Plan

Waiting to pick up our coffee orders, a neighbor and a veteran of 30 seasons as a little league coach groused that his perennial champs had no practices in April due to the heavy rains, making the fields soggy and unsafe.  Knowing my expertise as an environmental lawyer, he asked me if it was due to climate change, or is that “fake” science as POTUS claims, or is it real and the denial is one of his many lies.  I assured him that climate change is real and was recently supported in the March 4, 2019 United Nations 6th Global Environmental Outlook Report.  I told him to expect more rain in May and extreme weather conditions like the severe drought we experienced in 2016, and suggested the baseball season be scheduled for warmer months.

If I had more time, I would have educated him on the 2019 revised Drought Management Plan (“DMP”) prepared by the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission.  Massachusetts is relatively water-rich with annual precipitation averaging 48 inches a year, ranging from 31 to 61 inches.  There were 6.9 inches of rainfall on the baseball fields in April 2019 (the norm is 3.9).  Annual precipitation in Massachusetts is expected to rise as a result of climate change and extreme precipitation events are on the rise.  However, large storms do not mean significant groundwater recharge or steady stream flows.  They mostly result in localized flooding and rapid stormwater flows.

Massachusetts has suffered major droughts over the years, including 2016-2017, which was characterized by a rapid decline in conditions from month to month, known as a “flash drought.”  The nine year drought from 1961-1969 is the most severe on record, and communities responded with water-use restrictions and emergency supplies.  I remember when Great Pond in South Weymouth turned into a mud flat, killing my favorite fishing spot.

Great Pond in Jan. 2017. Photo by Ed Baker

The 2001 DMP was developed in response to a period of low precipitation from April 1999 to March 2000.  It was revised and updated over time in consultation with the Drought Management Task Force (“DMTF”) and issued as a formal plan in 2013.  During the 2016-17 drought, the 2013 DMP was used and lessons learned.  EEA and MEMA are responsible for coordinating response efforts and communications with the public.  The DMTF has 18 members from environmental agencies and organizations, public health officials and public safety officials.  The DMTF provides a comprehensive assessment of drought situations based on six drought indices (precipitation, stream flow, groundwater, lakes and impoundments, fire danger and evapotranspiration), establishes four index severity levels, forecasts of rain and temperature, and updates the DMP as needed.

MassDEP has significant responsibilities through its Water Management Act (“WMA”), Drinking Water, and Wetlands programs to oversee water supplies, allocations and resource protection.  MassDEP imposes water conservation measures and water use restrictions in withdrawal permits under the WMA.  Each permit holder must develop a water conservation program to comply with Water Conservation Standards, and a Water Loss Control Program.  In a declared water emergency, MassDEP may require a public water supplier to submit a plan with provisions for shutting off water, upgrades to WMA conservation measures, loss control plans, audits, system rehabilitation, building permit moratoria, and bans or restrictions on certain water uses (e.g., don’t water the ballfields).

The Massachusetts Water Works Association comments on the 2019 draft revisions to the DMP argue for local, systems-specific Water Resiliency or Drought Response Plans instead of mandates from the state DMP.  There is no one-size-fits-all Drought Plan.  Water suppliers assert that drought declarations must be based on scientific facts and not subjective judgment from non-water supply professionals.  Water suppliers want the DMP to encourage the development of new sources to provide redundancy opportunities and to increase the resiliency of the water supply systems.  The DMP should discuss the development of new or supplemental sources, rather than focus exclusively on conservation and restrictions.

The DMP is considered to be a living document to be updated and revised based on experiences.  The DMP is a critical component in tackling climate change impacts on water supplies: more extreme weather events from storms and droughts.

Water Management Tango

Comparing Water Management in Massachusetts and Mendoza, Argentina

As an environmental lawyer with vocational zeal, every opportunity to travel and see new places triggers a fascination with environmental policy.  During a recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina, issues related to water rights were front and center.

You could literally trip over the issue, because most sidewalks have irrigation ditches or “acequias” on the curbs and sidewalks to transport water throughout the region.

Though Mendoza sits on the very arid eastern leeward side of the Andes Mountains, the regional planners conceived a complex web of irrigation channels designed to bring fresh Andean snowmelt into the city, agricultural lands, and now the sprawling suburbs.

As with many of our environmental law projects, some of the most important work is performed by engineers. In 1889, the government of Mendoza recruited an Italian engineer, César Cippoletti, to improve the region’s hydrologic system. Cippoletti designed and supervised the construction of a dam to hold water from the Mendoza River and redirect the flow of the mountain run-off in the river through a series of directional canals. Just past the dam, one of the simplistic, yet elegant, structures designed by Cippoletti is a four-quadrant inverted cone. As the dammed water rises above the lip of the structure, it is channeled into one of four curved funnels.  The water descends through the curved quadrants, gathering speed and direction toward different parts of the Mendocino irrigation system.

 

 

 

 

 

With this complex irrigation infrastructure, the arid region boasts a cornucopia of agricultural riches, including large potato, garlic, tomato, and butternut squash farms.  But the true pride of Mendoza, is its burgeoning wine industry. High-quality wines provide a fantastic export crop with an accompanying economic boom for agro-tourism in Mendoza and the vineyards in the neighboring Uco Valley.

The arid conditions and well-developed irrigation systems are excellent for controlling the grapes’ exposure to water. In addition to regulating water, the daily temperature variations in the region have beneficial influences on the growth of a robust skin on the grapes. The grape skin is a primary driver of flavor and color in the wine-making process. Thus, these strong-skinned grapes of the Uco Valley provide good ingredients for bold wines, including Malbec, which is the primary driver of the region’s reputation.

For all of the ingenuity and planning for the advanced irrigation system, water is still a finite resource in the region. Overtaxing the system could lead to dramatic impacts for all users. To preserve and protect the region’s water resource, Argentina developed a comprehensive nation-wide regulatory scheme. Argentina adopted a Water Law in 1916, which is similar to Massachusetts’ Water Management Act(“WMA”). The Argentinian law grandfathered existing users through a system which is similar to WMA Registrations. Argentina’s Water Law accommodated new users with licenses that operate like permits in Massachusetts. Just as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (“MassDEP”) oversees water withdrawals from the various river basins in the Commonwealth, the water management system in Argentina is administered by the Departamento General de Irrigación (DGI). The DGI approves and regulates irrigation licenses, oversees allocations among historic surface water users, regulates temporary projects or discharges, and evaluates and authorizes proposed new users.

This legal structure in Argentina is very similar to the modern WMA in Massachusetts, which centralizes the administration of water rights in the professional staff of the MassDEP, rather than be subject to the whims of the political actors in the State Legislature. Like Argentina’s 1916 Water Law, the WMA creates tiers of rights between active users, at the time the law was adopted, and new users, who came on-line following the statutory observation period for registrations from 1981 through 1985. Different sections of the WMA – and the corresponding regulatory section of 310 CMR 36.00 – establish different requirements for registrations and permits, which are grounded in the WMA’s statutory purpose of protecting and preserving the Commonwealth’s precious water resources.

Managing Water as Demand Grows and Supply Is Strained

While agriculture, industry and residential development can flourish side-by-side when resources are abundant, there are tensions between users when scarcity occurs. Even with their well-developed infrastructure and generally plentiful mountain run-off, the Mendoza region still experiences drought and supply problems. The authorities simply cannot approve all proposed projects.

During our time in Mendoza, we observed a planned housing development in an advantageous location near a major arterial highway that stood fallow. Though the developer began designating internal roadways and had launched a marketing effort for new homes on the outskirts of the metropolitan area, the entire project was abandoned, because the water authority did not approve an extension of the canal system to provide water to this location. There are no potential alternate water sources. Thus, without access to the regional water distribution channels, the project was doomed. The development’s abandoned footprint sits like the shadow of a ghost town that never was, and serves as a stark warning of the perils of stretching a limited resource.

Water allocation in Massachusetts is not nearly as dire. Unlike Mendoza, Argentina, or even many communities in the Western United States, Massachusetts enjoys a temperate climate.  Water management issues in the Commonwealth do not occur against a backdrop of desert conditions. And yet, drought conditions can occur and strain a community’s ability to keep water in the taps – for industrial, agricultural, and residential users.

Additionally, the forces of impending climate change are not linear or neatly predictable.  Some models forecast the climate of Massachusetts as being very wet, but there are also predictions of more pronounced swings between periods of plentiful rain and extended periods of drought.  Against this backdrop, managing our water resources in times of relative abundance may influence how successful we are in navigating periods of water scarcity.

While Massachusetts is currently experiencing an uptick in residential and industrial development, proper planning and water needs forecasting must be part of the statewide effort to ensure there are adequate resources to support public water supplies, agricultural activity, and natural ecosystems. Like Argentina’s DGI, which has authority over irrigation licenses and can preserve resources for existing uses and ensure the system is not overtaxed, MassDEP has the power within the structure of the WMA to exercise informed professional discretion to protect our public water supplies, provide flexibility for emerging industrial needs, and preserve our shared natural resources. Though it may create some harsh outcomes – like the abandoned housing complex outside Mendoza, MassDEP also needs to be able to say “No” when users seek to over-exploit a resource.

With the WMA, Massachusetts has a strong statewide regulatory structure to provide stewardship and achieve a fine balance among residential, industrial, and agricultural users on a watershed basis.

By Peter Durning