The Trump Administration and Waters of the U.S.

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order aimed at rolling back the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, an Obama-era rule designed to protect the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of the nation’s water resources. What will happen to current WOTUS litigation following the president’s recent executive order?

(Getty Images)
Per the Clean Water Act, “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) are parcels of land, such as the wetlands pictured above, which are federally regulated by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. (Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s executive order Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the “Waters of the United States” Rule calls for the “rescinding or revising” of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) definitional rule published in the summer of 2015. Many state and local governments objected to the broad nature of these regulations, in particular to the expansive definition of ditches and the ambiguous definition of tributaries.

“The EPA so-called Waters of the United States rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation, and it has truly run amok, and is one of the rules most strongly opposed by farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers all across our land,” said President Trump on Tuesday.

The executive order acknowledges that rewriting the WOTUS definitional regulations will require going through the lengthy and complicated process under the Administrative Procedures Act which the 2015 final regulations endured. This process involves proposing a new rule, receiving and responding to (likely thousands) of comments, and issuing a final rule.

The current WOTUS regulations are subject to complicated litigation. In October 2015, the Sixth Circuit issued a temporary stay of the regulations preventing them from going into effect nationally. In February 2016, the Sixth Circuit ruled that it, rather than a federal district court, has jurisdiction to rule on whether the WOTUS rule exceeded the Clean Water Act.

In January 2017 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth Circuit ruling that an appellate court – not a district court – has jurisdiction to rule on WOTUS. This case, National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, will not be heard until late 2017, meaning the Supreme Court may not issue an opinion in this case until as late as June 2018.

What will be the fate of all this WOTUS litigation over the current rule in light of the executive order? We don’t know – but the executive order directs the Attorney General to “inform any court of such review and take such measures as he deems appropriate concerning any such litigation pending the completion of further administrative proceedings related to the rule.”

The Attorney General may ask the Sixth Circuit to voluntarily vacate its decision temporarily staying the regulations, given that the new administration intends to change them. The Sixth Circuit is more likely to agree to this if none of the parties object. A number of states and environmental groups have intervened in support of the current WOTUS regulations and may object.

If the Sixth Circuit vacates the stay, the practical effect is that the current regulations would no longer be valid. Vacatur of the Sixth Circuit stay also would likely render moot the Supreme Court challenge on jurisdiction. If the Sixth Circuit refuses (or isn’t asked) to vacate the Sixth Circuit decision regarding the stay, the Supreme Court jurisdiction litigation is likely to proceed indefinitely.

Given that defining WOTUS has been so difficult and contentious, almost no matter what new definition is proposed it too will be subject to litigation.

The executive order instructs that Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision in Rapanos v. United States be “considered” in defining the term “navigable waters.” Rapanos is a 4-1-4 decision. Justice Scalia wrote the plurality opinion, defining this term more narrowly than Justice Kennedy’s solo concurring opinion. The Sixth Circuit considered Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion controlling. If the new definition of WOTUS relies on Justice Scalia’s opinion, it will almost certainly be challenged on this ground, along with many others.

Interested in more WOTUS news? Lisa Soronen contributed a previous CitiesSpeak blog post about the jurisdictional determinations issued by the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.