Monday, July 2, 2018

Regulation of Wetlands and “Ipse Dixit" Determinations


Over two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Cicero coined a phrase for opinions not supported by facts.  “Ipse dixit” is Latin for “he said it himself.”  It’s an assertion without proof, with the person (or entity) making the assertion claiming that a matter is because the party making the assertion said it is.  

In a recent case involving wetlands, the court determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) claimed jurisdiction over “wetlands” without any supporting evidence.  It was a wetland because the Corps said it was a wetland – an “ipse dixit” determination.  The court set the Corps’ determination aside.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  In 1998, the USDA/NRCS did the same thing in a Nebraska case involving ditch maintenance of a hay meadow caught up in the Swampbuster regulations.

“Ipse dixit” determinations involving wetlands – that’s today’s blog post topic.

Farmed Wetlands and Swampbuster

The conservation-compliance provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill introduced the concept of “Swampbuster.”  In 1986, the interim rules for Swampbuster were published in the Federal Register and evidenced general compliance with congressional intent and made no mention of “farmed wetland.”  However, the final rules published in 1987 introduced the concept of “farmed wetland,” defining a farmed wetland as playa, potholes, and other seasonally flooded wetlands that were manipulated before December 23, 1985, but still exhibited wetland characteristics.  Drains affecting these areas can be maintained, but the scope and effect of the original drainage system cannot be exceeded. 7 C.F.R. § 12.33(b). The USDA/NRCS has interpreted this as meaning that farmed wetland can be used as it was before December 23, 1985 (National Food Security Act Manual (NFSAM) § 514.23), and a hydrologic manipulation can be maintained to the same “scope and effect” as before December 23, 1985. Id. § 515.10(a).  In particular, the government has interpreted the “scope and effect” regulation such that the depth or scope of drainage ditches, culverts or other drainage devices be preserved at their December 23, 1985, level regardless of the effect any post-December 23, 1985, drainage work actually had on the land involved. 

Nebraska case.  However, in 1999, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the government’s interpretation of the “scope and effect” regulation.  The court held that a proper interpretation should focus on the status quo of the manipulated wetlands rather than the drainage device utilized in post-December 23, 1985, drainage activities.  Barthel v. United States Department of Agriculture, 181 F.3d 934 (8th Cir. 1999)

In Barthel, to determine the original scope and effect of the manipulation, the USDA focused solely on the depth of the ditch that drained the hay meadow at issue.  In essence, the USDA interpreted the manipulation to be the ditch. The USDA pointed out that the level of the culvert (that drained the ditch beneath a road) on or before December 23, 1985, was eighteen inches higher than at the time of the litigation.  The USDA took the position that the culvert could only be placed at that higher level.  At that level, the meadow would not drain and the plaintiff’s land was flooded. 

The USDA/NRCS claimed it had the authority to “determine the scope and effect of [the] original manipulation” by selecting “any pre-December 23, 1985, manipulation ‘which can be determined by reliable evidence.’” Thus, if the agency had reliable evidence about the ditch level in 1965, then the Barthels would be stuck with those findings, even if in 1983 (still before the effective date of the Act), more far reaching modifications were made. The appellate court disagreed, noting that it was presented with a factual setting that was cyclical.  The court noted that the record showed that the ditch was continually silted-in by natural conditions and animal traffic and must be periodically cleaned out.  The court then stated that if it accepted “the government’s argument, the USDA could select a level for the original manipulation, either intentionally or unintentionally, which is at the end of the natural cycle - just before the periodic clean-up.  This would essentially redefine the cycle.  Thus, in the government’s view, if partial flooding occurred just before the clean-up, the flood level would be the best the Barthels could expect for use of their land.  An ipse dixit determination like this would drastically reduce the use of the land and even leave it underwater - reviving a wetland [citation omitted].  This interpretation conflicts with the Act considered as a whole.” 

Wetland and the Clean Water Act

In 1993, the COE and EPA adopted new regulations clarifying the application of the permit requirement of §404 of the CWA to land designated as wetland.  Section 404 of the CWA makes illegal the discharging of dredge or fill material into the “navigable waters of the United States” (WOTUS) without obtaining a permit from the Secretary of the Army acting through the Corps.  The regulations specifically exempt prior converted wetlands from the definition of “navigable waters” for CWA purposes. 58 Fed. Reg. 45,008-48,083 (1993); 33 C.F.R. §328.3(a)(8).  Thus, prior converted cropland is not subject to the permit requirements of § 404 of the CWA.  Indeed, the Corps stated clearly that the only method for prior converted cropland to return to the Corps’ jurisdiction under the regulation was for the cropland to be “abandoned” – cropland production ceases with the land reverting to a wetland. 

In early 2009, the Corps prepared an Issue Paper announcing for the first time that prior converted cropland that is shifted to non-agricultural use becomes subject to regulation by the Corps. See Issue Paper Regarding "Normal Circumstances" (ECF No. 18-22).  The paper was the Corps’ response to five pending applications for jurisdictional determinations involving the transformation of prior converted cropland to limestone quarries. The paper concluded that the transformation would be considered an "atypical situation" within the meaning of the Corps’ Wetlands Manual and, thus, subject to regulation.  The paper further found that active management, such as continuous pumping to keep out wetland conditions, was not a "normal condition" within the meaning of 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(b).  However, no APA notice-and-comment period occurred (as required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) – Pub. L. 79-404, 69 Stat. 237, enacted Jun. 11, 1946)) before the Corps issued the memorandum.  Even so, the Corps implemented and enforced the rules nationwide.  The rules were challenged and in New Hope Power Company, et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 746 F. Supp.2d 1272 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 2010), the court held that the Corps had improperly extended its jurisdiction over the prior converted croplands that were converted to non-agricultural use and where dry lands were maintained using continuous pumping.  Under the Corp’s new rule, wetland determinations were being made based on what a property’s characteristic would be if pumping ceased.  The court noted that the rules effectively changed the regulatory definition of prior converted cropland without the new definition being subjected to notice and comment requirements.  Accordingly, the court invalidated the Corp’s new rule.

Illinois case.  In Orchard Hill Building Co. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 15-cv-06344, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151673 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 19, 2017), the plaintiff was a developer that obtained title to a 100-acre tract on the southeast side of Chicago metro area in 1995.  The local town then passed a zoning ordinance allowing development of the property.  The tract was divided into three sections - 25 acres were to be developed into 168 townhomes; 61 acres to be developed into 169 single-family homes; and 14 acres in between the other acreages to function as a stormwater detention area.  The townhomes and water detention area was to be developed first and then the single-family housing.  Construction of the townhomes began in 1996, and the single-family housing development was about to begin when the defendant designated about 13 acres of the undeveloped property as “wetlands” and asserted regulatory jurisdiction under the CWA.

The defendant claimed jurisdiction on the basis that the “wetland” drained via a storm sewer pipe to a creek that was a tributary to a river that was a navigable water of the U.S.   The plaintiff administratively appealed the defendant’s jurisdictional determination to the Division Engineer who agreed that the District Engineer failed to properly interpret and apply applicable the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), which created a significant nexus test.  On reconsideration, the District Engineer issued a second approved jurisdictional determination in 2010 concluding that the tract had a significant nexus to the navigable river.  The plaintiff appealed, but the Division Engineer dismissed the appeal as being without merit.  In 2011, the plaintiff sought reconsideration of the defendant’s appeal decision because of a 1993 prior converted cropland designation that excluded a part of the 100-acres from CWA jurisdiction.  Upon reconsideration, the District Engineer issued a third jurisdictional determination in 2012 affirming its prior determination noting that farming activities had ceased by the fall of 1996 and wetland conditions had returned.  The plaintiff appealed on the basis that the “significant nexus” determination was not supported by evidence.  The Division Engineer agreed and remanded the matter to the District Engineer for supportive documentation and to follow the defendant’s 2008 administrative guidance.  The District Engineer issued a new jurisdictional determination with supportive evidence, including an 11-page document that had previously not been in the administrative record.  This determination, issued in 2013, constituted a final agency determination, from which the plaintiff sought judicial review. 

In court, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant didn’t follow its own regulations, disregarded the instructions of the Division Engineer, and violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by supplementing the record with the 11-page document.  However, the trial court judge (an Obama appointee) noted that existing regulations allowed the Division Engineer, on remand, to instruct the District Engineer to supplement the administrative record on remand and that the limitation on supplementing the administrative record only applied to the Division Engineer.  The trial court also determined that the supplemental information did not violate the Division Engineer’s remand order, and that the supplemental information had been properly included in the administrative record and was part of the basis for the 2013 reviewable final agency determination.  The trial court also upheld the defendant’s nexus determination because it sufficiently documented a physical, chemical and biological impact of the navigable river.  In addition, the trial court determined that the prior converted cropland exemption did not apply because farming activities had been abandoned for at least five years and wetland characteristics returned. 

On appeal, in Orchard Hill Building Co. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 17-3403, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 17608 (7th Cir. Jun. 27, 2018), the appellate court three-judge panel in a unanimous opinion (the author of the opinion is a Trump appointee and another judge is also a Trump appointee; the third panel member is a Ford appointee) first noted that the Corps concluded that the tract was a WOTUS based on the 11-page document both “alone and in combination with other wetlands in the area.”  However, the appellate court held that this conclusion lacked substantial evidence.  Simply stating that wetlands filter out pollutants and that the tract has a “discrete and confined intermittent flow” to a creek that flowed to a WOTUS which gave the tract the ability to pass pollutants along was mere speculation that didn’t support a significant nexus with a navigable water.  The appellate court also that the Corps also determined that the development of the tract would result in a floodwater rise of a fraction of one percent. On this point, the court stated, “If the Corps thinks that trivial number significant, it needs to give some explanation as to why.”  The appellate court found similarly with respect to the potential increase on downstream nitrogen.  The Corps provided no reasoning for its conclusion. 

The appellate court also noted that the Corps referenced the National Wetland Inventory for a listing of all of the wetlands in the area that were in proximity to the creek that flowed into a navigable waterway.  But, again, the appellate court scolded the Corps for making a bald assertion that the wetlands in the watershed were adjacent to the same tributary without any supporting evidence.   The Corps claimed it didn’t have to show or explain how each wetland was adjacent to the creek, but the appellate court stated that constituted jurisdictional overreach.  Importantly, the court stated that, “the significant nexus test has limits:  the Corps can consider the effects of in-question wetlands only with the effects of lands that are similarly situated.  To do as the Corps did on this record – to consider the estimated effects of a wide swath of land that dwarfs the in-question wetlands, without first showing or explaining how the land is in fact similarly situated – is to disregard the test’s limits…. By contrast, the Corps’ similarly-situated finding here, lacking as it does record support or explanation, is little more than administrative ipse dixit.”

Consequently, the appellate court vacated the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Corps and remanded with instructions to remand to the Corps for reconsideration of its jurisdiction over the tract.


Two ipse dixit determinations by federal agencies against landowners.  In each situation, the appellate court found that the government had abused its discretion.  The cases point out that maybe there is some hope that the courts will hold government agencies to the requirement that they must support their determinations with solid proof.  They can’t just say that it is so because they say it is.

Environmental Law, Regulatory Law | Permalink


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