Thursday, April 30, 2020

Groundwater Discharges of “Pollutants” and “Functional Equivalency”


Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required for an “addition” of any “pollutant” from a “point source” into the “navigable waters of the United States” (WOTUS).  33 U.S.C. §1362(12).  Excluded are agricultural stormwater discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.  33 U.S.C. §1362(14).  Clearly, a discharge directly into a WOTUS is covered. A point source of pollution is that which comes from a discernible, confined and discrete conveyance such as a pipe, ditch or well. 

But, is an NPDES permit necessary if the discharge is directly into groundwater which then seeps its way to a WOTUS in a diffused manner?  Are indirect discharges from groundwater into a WOTUS covered?   If so, does that mean that farmland drainage tile is subject to the CWA and an NPDES discharge permit is required?  1n the 48 years of the CWA, the federal government has never formally taken that position, instead leaving the matter up to the states.  The issue is a big one for agriculture.  Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court, groundwater discharges and the CWA – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Court Developments in 2018

In 2018, three different U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal decided cases on the discharge from groundwater issue. 

  • In Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018), the defendant owned and operated four wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility (LWRF). Although constructed initially to serve as a backup disposal method for water reclamation, the wells became the defendant’s primary means of effluent disposal into groundwater and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean.  The defendant injected approximately 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into the groundwater via its wells.  The wastewater seeped through the groundwater for about one-half of a mile until it reached the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the seepage into the Pacific from the point-source wells one-half mile away was “functionally one into navigable water,” and that a permit was required because the “pollutants are fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water.”
  • In Upstate Forever, et al. v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, LP, et al., 887 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2018), the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant violated the CWA by discharging “pollutants” into the navigable waters of the United States without a required discharge permit via an underground ruptured gasoline pipeline owned by the defendant’s subsidiary. The plaintiff claimed that a discharge permit was needed because the CWA defines “point source pollutant” (which requires a discharge permit) as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, included but not limited to any…well…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.”  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that a pollutant can first move through groundwater before reaching navigable waters and still constitute a “discharge of a pollutant” under the CWA that requires a federal discharge permit. The discharge, the court concluded, need not be channeled by a point source until reaching navigable waters that are subject to the CWA.  It is sufficient, the appellate court reasoned, that the discharge of pollutants from a point source through groundwater have a direct hydrological connection to navigable waters of the United States. 
  • In Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 905 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the CWA does not apply to point source pollution that reaches surface water by means of groundwater movement. The appellate court noted that, to constitute a “conveyance” of groundwater governed by the CWA, the conveyance must be discernible, confined and discrete. While groundwater may constitute a conveyance, the appellate court reasoned that it is neither discernible, confined nor discrete. Rather, the court noted that groundwater is a “diffuse medium” that “seeps in all directions, guided only by the general pull of gravity. Thus, it [groundwater] is neither confined nor discrete.” In addition, the appellate court noted that the CWA only regulates pollutants “…that are added to navigable waters from any point source.” In so holding, the court rejected the holdings of the Ninth and Fourth Circuits from earlier in 2018.

The EPA Reacts

After the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, the EPA, on February 20, 2018, requested comment on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater may be subject to Clean Water Act (“CWA”) regulation. Specifically, the EPA sought comment on whether the EPA should consider clarification or revision of previous EPA statements regarding the Agency’s mandate to regulate discharges to surface waters via groundwater under the CWA.  In particular, the EPA sought comment on whether it is consistent with the CWA to require a CWA permit for indirect discharges into jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater. The EPA also sought comment on whether some or all of such discharges are addressed adequately through other federal authorities, existing state statutory or regulatory programs or through other existing federal regulations and permit programs.

After receiving over 50,000 comments, on April 15, 2019, the EPA issued an interpretive statement concluding that the releases of pollutants to groundwater are categorically excluded from the NPDES regardless of whether the groundwater is hydrologically connected to surface water.  The EPA reasoned that the Congress explicitly left regulation of groundwater discharges to the states and that the EPA had other statutory authorities through which to regulate groundwater other than the NPDES.  The EPA, in its statement, noted that its interpretation would apply in areas not within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal for the Ninth and Fourth Circuits. 

The Supreme Court and the Hawaii Case

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Ninth Circuit opinion.  Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018), pet. for cert. granted, County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 139 S. Ct. 1164 (2019)Boiled down to its essence, the case turns on the meaning of “from.”  As noted above, an NPDES permit is required for point source pollutants that originate “from” a point source that are discharged into a navigable water.  The NPDES system only applies to discharges of “any addition” of any pollutant from “any point source” to “navigable waters.”  Thus, by the statutory text, there must be an “addition” of a pollutant to a navigable water of the U.S. “from” a point source.  Discharges of pollutants into groundwater are not subject to the NPDES permit requirement even if the groundwater is hydrologically connected to surface water.  The legislative history of the CWA indicates that the Congress intentionally chose not to regulate hydrologically-connected groundwater, instead leaving such regulation up to the states.  See, e.g., Umatilla Water Quality Protective Association v. Smith Frozen Foods, 962 F. Supp. 1312 (D. Or. 1997)

As noted, the case involved pollutants that originated from a point source, traveled through groundwater, and then a half-mile later reached a WOTUS.  Does the permit requirement turn on a direct discharge into a WOTUS (an addition of a pollutant from a point source), or simply a discharge that originated at a point source that ultimately ends up in a WOTUS?  Clearly, the wells at issue in the case are point sources – on that point all parties agreed.  But, are indirect discharges into a WOTUS via groundwater (which is otherwise exempt from the NPDES) subject to the permit requirement?

On April 23, the Court issued a 6-3 opinion written by Justice Breyer holding that an NPDES permit is required not only when there is a direct discharge of a pollutant from a point source into a WOTUS, but also when there is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge.  This conclusion, the Court noted, was somewhat of a middle ground between the Ninth Circuit’s “fairly traceable” test and the position that a permit is required only if a point source ultimately delivered the pollutant to a WOTUS.  The Court determined that because the Congress coupled the words “from” and “to” in the statutory language that the Congress was referring to the destination of a WOTUS rather than the origin of a point source.  Thus, the Court determined that a permit is required when there is a direct discharge of a point source pollutant to a WOTUS or when, in effect, that is what occurred.    The Court believed that the EPA’s recent Interpretive Statement excluding all releases of pollutants to groundwater from the permit requirement was too broad and would create a loophole that would defeat the purpose of the CWA. The Court noted that many factors could be relevant in determining whether a particular discharge is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge into a WOTUS, but that time and distance would be the most important factors in most cases.  The Court also indicated that other factors could include the nature of the material through which a pollutant traveled and the extent of its dilution or chemical change while doing so, and noted that the lower courts would provide additional guidance as they decided subsequent cases. 

Justice Thomas dissented (joined by Justice Gorsuch), pointing out that the use of the word “addition” in the statute requires an augmentation or increase of a WOTUS by a pollutant and that, as a result, anything other than a direct discharge is statutorily excluded.  Indeed, in 2010, the Court declined to hear a case where the lower court held that an NPDES permit is not required unless there is an “addition” of a pollutant to a WOTUS.  See e.g., Friends of the Everglades, et al. v. South Florida Water Management District, et al., 570 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir. 2009) reh’g., den., 605 F.3d 962 (11th Cir. 2010), cert. den., 131 S. Ct. 643 (2010).  Justice Thomas also noted that the Court’s opinion provided practically zero guidance on the question of when a permit is necessary when a direct discharge is not involved, except for the Court’s provision of a list of non-exhaustive factors.  Justice Thomas stated, “[The] Court does not commit to whether those factors are the only relevant ones, whether [they] are always relevant, or which [ones] are the most important.”

Justice Alito also dissented, similarly disenchanted with the nebulous standard and “buck-passing” of the Court to lower courts on the issue.  Justice Alito wrote that, “If the Court is going to devise its own legal rules, instead of interpreting those enacted by Congress, it might at least adopt rules that can be applied with a modicum of consistency.” 

Ultimately, the Court’s “functional equivalency” test was narrower than the “fairly traceable” test that the Ninth Circuit utilized and the Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s opinion and remanded the case for a decision based on the Court’s standard. 

Implications for Agriculture

The Court’s opinion is significant for agriculture.  From a hydrological standpoint, surface water and groundwater systems are often connected.  Groundwater is what often maintains a presence of surface water in a stream.  From agriculture’s perspective, the case is important because of the ways that a pollutant can be discharged from an initial point and ultimately reach a WOTUS.  For example, the application of manure or commercial fertilizer to a farm field either via surface application or via injection could result in eventual runoff of excess via the surface or groundwater into a WOTUS.  Certainly, when manure collects and channelizes through a ditch or depression and enters a WOTUS a direct discharge requiring an NPDES permit is required.  See, e.g., Concerned Area Residents for the Environment v. Southview Farm, 34 F.3d 114 (2d Cir. 1994).  But, that’s a different situation from seepage of manure (or other “pollutants”) through groundwater.  No farmer can guarantee that 100 percent of a manure or fertilizer application is used by the crop to which it is applied and that there are no traces of the unused application remaining in the soil.  Likewise, while organic matter decays and returns to the soil, it contains nutrients that can be conveyed via stormwater into surface water.  The CWA recognizes this and contains an NPDES exemption for agricultural stormwater discharges. But, if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the environmental group, the exemption would be removed, subjecting farmers (and others) to onerous CWA penalties unless a discharge permit were obtained - at a cost estimated to exceed $250,000 (not to mention time delays).

What about farm field tile drainage systems?  Seemingly, such systems would make it easier for “pollutants” to enter a WOTUS.  Such drainage systems are prevalent in the Midwest and other places, including California’s Central Valley.  Groundwater, by some standards, is polluted or includes pollutants.  Farm field drainage tile is deliberately installed to deliver that polluted groundwater to a watercourse which, in some instances, might be a WOTUS.  That is a significant reason that groundwater discharges have always been exempt from the NPDES permit requirement along with agricultural stormwater discharges and agricultural irrigation return flows.  Should the law now discourage agricultural drainage activities? 


The Court’s opinion provides no material guidance to determine the need for a federal permit when a discharge into a WOTUS is other than direct.  More litigation can be anticipated as well as conflicting opinions by the lower courts as they struggle to apply the amorphous “functional equivalency” standard.  Likewise, regulatory bodies will have nearly free reign to inflict harm on agricultural operations and tie them up in time-consuming and costly administrative procedures.

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