Wednesday, November 7, 2018

“Waters of the United States” Means “Frozen Soil”?


Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (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 of Engineers (COE). 33 U.S.C. §§1311(a); 1362(6),(12).  The definition of what a WOTUS has been confusing and controversial in recent years.  How is a wetland that could be a WOTUS delineated?  What force do definitions contained in a COE manual have?  What about supplements?   

How the government defines a “WOTUS” – that’s the focus of today’s post.

Regulatory Definitions

The regulatory definition of a “wetland” has changed over the years.  In its 1987 Manual for delineating wetlands, before the COE may assert jurisdiction over property, it must find the area satisfies the three wetland criteria of hydric soil, predominance of hydrophytic vegetation, and wetland hydrology (soil saturation/inundation).  Wetland hydrology under the 1987 Manual requires either the appropriate inundation during the growing season or the presence of a primary indicator.  Table 5 of the 1987 Manual indicates a nontidal area is not considered to evidence wetland hydrology unless the soil is seasonally inundated or saturated for 12.5 percent to 25 percent of the growing season.  A “growing season” is defined as a season in which soil temperature at 19.7 inches below the surface is above 41 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The 1987 Manual lists six field hydrologic indicators, in order of decreasing reliability, as evidence that inundation and/or soil saturation has occurred: (1) visual observation of inundation; (2) visual observation of soil saturation; (3) watermarks; (4) drift lines; (5) sediment deposits; and (6) drainage patterns within wetlands.

In 1989, the COE adopted a new manual.  The 1989 Manual superseded the 1987 Manual.  The delineation procedures contained in the 1989 manual were less stringent.  Thus, it became more likely that the COE could determine that a particular tract contained a regulable wetland.  This change in delineation techniques caught the attention of the Congress which barred the use of the 1989 Manual via the 1992 Budget Act.  Pub. L. No. 102-104, 105 Stat. 510 (Aug. 17, 1991).  Specifically, the 1992 Budget Act prohibited the use of funds to delineate wetlands under the 1989 Manual "or any subsequent manual not adopted in accordance with the requirements for notice and public comment of the rulemaking process of the Administrative Procedure Act." The 1992 Budget Act also required the Corps to use the 1987 Manual to delineate any wetlands in ongoing enforcement actions or permit application reviews. In the 1993 Budget Act, the Congress again addressed the issue by stating that, “None of the funds in this Act shall be used to identify or delineate any land as a "water of the United States" under the Federal Manual for Identifying and Delineating Jurisdictional Wetlands that was adopted in January 1989 or any subsequent manual adopted without notice and public comment.  Furthermore, the Corps of Engineers will continue to use the Corps of Engineers 1987 Manual, as it has since August 17, 1991, until a final wetlands delineation manual is adopted.”  Thus, it was clear that Congress mandated that the COE continue to use the 1987 Manual to delineate wetlands unless and until the COE utilized the formal rulemaking process to change the delineation procedure. 

While the Congress mandated the use of the 1987 Manual to delineate wetlands, it also appropriated funds to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contract with the National Academy of Sciences for a review and analysis of wetland regulation at the federal level.  See Department of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 1993, Pub. L. 102-389, 106 Stat. 1571 (Oct. 6, 1992); H.R. Rep. No. 102-710, at 51 (1992); H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 102-902 at 41. This resulted in a report being published in 1995 containing a suggestion that the 1987 Manual either eliminate the requirement of a “growing season” approach to wetland hydrology or move to a region-specific set of criteria for delineating wetlands.  Consequently, the COE began issuing regional “supplements” to the 1987 Manual that provided criteria for wetland delineation that varied across the country.  For instance, in the COE’s 2007 Alaska Supplement, the COE eliminated the measure of soil temperature contained in the 1987 Manual and replaced it with “vegetation green-up, growth, and maintenance as an indicator of biological activity occurring both above and below ground.”   The 2007 Supplement was updated in 2008.

Alaska Case

The 1987 Manual and the budget bills and COE region-specific Supplements were the issue of a recent case.  In Tin Cup, LLC v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 17-35889, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 27085 (9th Cir. Sept. 21, 2018), the plaintiff was a closely-held family pipe fabrication company in Alaska that sought to relocate its business for expansion purposes.  The plaintiff found a suitable location (a 455-acre tract in North Pole) where it would need to lay gravel and construct buildings as well as a railroad spur.  Because gravel is contained within the regulatory definition of “pollutant” under the CWA and because the tract was purportedly a “wetland,” the plaintiff had to obtain a discharge permit so that it could place gravel fill on the property before starting construction. 

The plaintiff received a permit in 2004 and, pursuant to that permit, cleared about 130 acres from the site.  In 2008, the plaintiff submitted another permit application to place gravel fill on the site.  The COE issued a new jurisdictional determination in 2010, concluding that wetlands were present on 351 acres, including about 200 acres of permafrost – frozen soil.  The COE granted the plaintiff a discharge permit to place gravel fill on 118 acres, but included mitigation conditions that the plaintiff objected to.  The plaintiff sued on the basis that the COE’s delineation of permafrost as a wetland was improper and, thus, a discharge permit was not necessary. 

The COE delineated the permafrost on the tract as wetland based on its 2008 Alaska Supplement. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regional Supplement to the Corps of Engineers Wetland Delineation Manual: Alaska Region (Version 2.0) (Sept. 2007).  However, the COE’s 1987 Manual specifically excludes permafrost from the definition of a wetland.  The plaintiff argued that the Congress had instructed the COE to continue to use the wetland delineation standards in the 1987 Manual until the COE adopted a “final wetland delineation manual” as set forth in the 1992 and 1993 Budget Acts, as noted above.  Thus, because permafrost does not have the required “growing season” (it never reached 41 degrees Fahrenheit at a soil depth of 19.7 inches) it cannot be a wetland.  The plaintiff pointed out that by virtue of the issuance of regional supplements to the 1987 Manual, the COE had expanded its jurisdiction over private property by modifying the definition of a “wetland.”  Key to the plaintiff’s argument was the point that the Supplement was not a new manual that had been developed in accordance with the formal rulemaking process (e.g., notice, comment, and public hearing).  It also was never submitted to the Congress and the Government Accountability Office which, the plaintiff noted, the Congressional Review Act requires before any federal governmental agency rule can become effective.  5 U.S.C. Ch. 8, Pub. L. No. 104-121, §201. 

The trial court ruled against the plaintiff, holding that the COE could rely on the 2008 Supplement when delineating a wetland and determining its jurisdiction.  The trial court determined that the Budget Acts have no force beyond the funds that they appropriate.  That meant that the COE could delineate wetlands in accordance in whatever manner it determined – the 1987 Manual or any subsequent Manual or supplemental guidance that it issued. 

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed, holding that the 1993 Budget Act did not require the COE to continue using the 1987 Manual to delineate wetlands.  The appellate court stated that there is a “very strong presumption” that if an appropriations act changes substantive law, it does so only for the fiscal year for which the bill is passed” unless there is a clear statement of futurity. Because the 1993 Budget Act contained no such statement, the Court held that the requirement for use of the definition of a growing season in accordance with the 1987 Manual expired at the end of the 1993 fiscal year.

One of the appellate judges, while concurring with the decision that the lower court did not err in granting summary judgment to the COE, disagreed that the 1993 Budget Act didn’t apply beyond the 1993 fiscal year.  This judge noted that the Congress, in the 1993 Budget Act, specifically directed the COE to continue to use the 1987 Manual “until” it adopted a final wetlands delineation manual.  According to this judge, that was a sufficient Congressional directive of futurity that made the directive applicable beyond the Federal Government’s 1993 fiscal year.


The definition of a “wetland” and “WOTUS” is confusing and controversial.  The Ninth Circuit’s holding that the COE can conclude that frozen soil is a navigable water will not diminish that controversy.  The issue of the application of congressional budget act provisions is also one that there is not agreement upon within the federal appellate courts.  Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case. 

As for me, I am going to read my copy of Alice in Wonderland.  It might make more sense than concluding that gravel is pollution and frozen dirt is water and when the Congress says not to do something, you can.

Environmental Law, Regulatory Law | Permalink


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