PDF _ RL33263 - The Wetlands Coverage of the Clean Water Act is Revisited by the Supreme Court: Rapanos vs. United States
9-Jan-2009; Robert Meltz & Claudia Copeland; 21 p.

Update: Previous Releases:
November 28, 2007
September 12, 2006

Abstract: Twice in the past, the Supreme Court has grappled with issues as to the geographic scope of the wetlands permitting program in the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). On June 19, 2006, the Supreme Court rendered a third decision, Rapanos v. United States, on appeal from two Sixth Circuit rulings consolidated by the Court. The Sixth Circuit rulings offered the Court a chance to clarify the reach of CWA jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent only to nonnavigable tributaries of traditional navigable waters — including tributaries such as drainage ditches and canals that may flow intermittently. (Jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to traditional navigable waters was established in one of the two earlier decisions.) The Court’s decision provided little clarification, however, splitting 4-1-4. The four-justice plurality decision, by Justice Scalia, said that the CWA covers only wetlands connected to relatively permanent bodies of water (streams, rivers, lakes) by a continuous surface connection. Justice Kennedy, writing for himself, would have demanded a substantial nexus between the wetland and a traditional navigable water, using an ambiguous ecological test. Justice Stevens, for the four dissenters, would have upheld the current broad reach of Corps of Engineers/EPA regulations. Because no rationale commanded the support of a majority of the justices, lower courts will have to wrestle with the proper rule of decision to extract from Rapanos for resolving future cases. The legal and policy questions associated with Rapanos — regarding the outer geographic limit of CWA jurisdiction and the consequences of restricting that scope — have challenged regulators, landowners and developers, and policymakers for more than 30 years. The answer may determine the reach of CWA regulatory authority not only for the wetlands permitting program but also for several other CWA programs; the CWA has one definition of “navigable waters” that applies to the entire law. Critics of the regulatory program had hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision would provide a “bright line” jurisdictional standard, but the 4-1-4 ruling did not do so and has led to pressure for guidance, new regulations, or possibly congressional action to clarify the current questions. While regulators and the regulated community debate the legal dimensions of federal jurisdiction under the CWA, scientists contend that there are no discrete, scientifically supportable boundaries or criteria along the continuum of wetlands to separate them into meaningful ecological or hydrological compartments. Wetland scientists believe that all such waters are critical for protecting the integrity of waters, habitat, and wildlife downstream. Changes in the limits of federal jurisdiction highlight the role of states in protecting waters not addressed by federal law. From the states’ perspective, federal programs provide a baseline for consistent, minimum standards to regulate wetlands and other waters. Most states are either reluctant or unable to take steps to protect non-jurisdictional waters through legislative or administrative action.

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Topics: Wetlands, Water, Legislative

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