In an statement this week likely to send chills down the spine of developers, EPA Administrator Jackson called on Congress to provide a clearer definition of wetlands subject to permitting authority under the Clean Water Act. As most readers know, the 2006 Supreme Court decision in Rapanos v. United States narrowed the scope of regulatory jurisdiction over wetlands. Unfortunately, the absence of a majority decision in Rapanos means that, at this point, no one knows quite how much narrower. I think that most observers at least triangulate around Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion, which stated that waters or wetlands with a “significant nexus” to waters that are navigable in fact should be subject to regulation. However, uncertainty abounds.
Uncertainty imposes significant costs on regulated entities (not to mention EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers). Therefore, a statutory fix that simply eliminated uncertainty would probably be welcomed by the regulated community. Of course, the devil is in the details. If the uncertainty is eliminated by subjecting any land that is ever wet to the CWA, such legislation would probably not be welcomed by developers. Jackson’s statement that “I believe that the country benefits from something broader rather than narrower” is not likely to assuage developers’ concerns.
Time will tell whether compromise is possible in order to eliminate uncertainty that benefits no one.