EPA and ACOE--Clean Water Act

Waters of the United States

The Clean Water Act grants federal jurisdiction over "waters of the United States." On December 7, 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) proposed a revised definition of "waters of the United States” that allows for consideration of the effects of climate change on water resources when determining federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. As explained in the proposed rule, “[t]his term establishes the extent of most federal programs to protect water quality under the [Clean Water] Act—including, for example, water quality standards, impaired waters and total maximum daily loads, oil spill prevention, preparedness and response programs, state and tribal water quality certification programs, and dredged and fill programs—because such programs apply only to ‘waters of the United States.’”

In the proposed rule, EPA and ACOE interpret the term ‘‘waters of the United States’’ to include: “Traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, and the territorial seas, and their adjacent wetlands; most impoundments of ‘waters of the United States’; tributaries to traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, the territorial seas, and impoundments that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard; wetlands adjacent to impoundments and tributaries, that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard; and ‘other waters’ that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard.” The agencies specify that “the ‘significant nexus standard’ means waters that either alone or in combination with similarly situated waters in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, or the territorial seas.” The agencies further specify that the significant nexus standard allows them to consider climate change when evaluating if upstream waters significantly affect foundational waters.

Section 401 Water Quality Certification 

On June 3, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed revising and replacing its 2020 regulatory requirements for water quality certification under Clean Water Act (CWA) section 401. Section 401 provides states and authorized tribes the power to grant, condition, or deny certification for federally licensed or permitted projects, including natural gas pipelines, that may result in a discharge into waters of the United States. In a 2020 rule revising the prior 1971 rule, EPA had limited the power of states and tribes to review the impacts of such projects and to deny such certifications. The 2022 proposal would return reverse those 2020 changes.