Seyfarth Synopsis: The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed to rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule defining “Waters of the U.S.,” and recodify the pre-existing rule, then engage in a subsequent rulemaking to re-evaluate and revise the definition of WOTUS presumably intended to decrease in the number of water bodies subject to EPA permitting obligations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have published a proposed rule on the “Definition of “Waters of the United States” – Recodification of Pre-Existing Rules.”

We had previously blogged about the EPA’s monumental final rule, in June 2015, expanding the definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act, thereby increasing the number of water bodies subject to protection by the EPA through permitting obligations. The final rule was based on EPA’s Science Advisory Board’s draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.” EPA/600/R-11/098B (September 2013).

In commenting on the proposed rule to rescind the WOTUS rule, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, “we are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses …. This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.”

The proposed rescission follows President Trump’s February 28, 2017, Executive Order on “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.” The effect of the rescission would be to recodify the regulatory text that was in place prior to the 2015 Clean Water Rule and that is currently in place as a result of a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the 2015 rule. Therefore, according to the EPA press release, this action, when final, “will not change current practice with respect to how the definition applies.”

EPA also notes that the agencies have begun deliberations and outreach on the second step of the rulemaking involving a reevaluation and revision of the definition of WOTUS in accordance with the Executive Order.

The regulated community — industry, municipalities, developers, builders, and a host of others — should watch and monitor this rulemaking effort closely. While this initial step will recodify the pre-existing rule, the subsequent rulemaking to re-evaluate and revise the definition of WOTUS presumably is intended to reduce the number of regulated water bodies constituting “waters of the United States,” thereby decreasing permitting obligations, or subjecting fewer entities to permitting requirements as a result of a narrower definition of WOTUS.