RAPANOS v. UNITED STATES
John Rapanos sought to fill in three wetland areas on his property in order to build a shopping center. Rapanos ignored warnings from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the area was protected wetlands under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA allows the government to regulate the discharge of any pollutant (including dirt or sand) into "navigable waters," which the Act defines as "the waters of the United States." Under regulations issued by the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), wetlands are covered by the CWA as long as they are adjacent to traditionally navigable waters or tributaries of such waters. After Rapanos also ignored cease-and-desist orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the government brought a civil suit against him. Rapanos argued before the District Court that the CWA gives the government jurisdiction to regulate only traditionally navigable waters. The government countered that Rapanos's lands were covered by the CWA as "adjacent wetlands" under the Corps's interpretation of the Act; the sites drained into man-made drains which eventually emptied into navigable rivers and lakes. The District Court rejected Rapanos's argument and upheld the Corps's regulations including the wetlands as "waters of the United States." The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the "hydrological connection" of the wetlands to the navigable waters qualifies them as "waters of the United States" under the Act.
The Carabells sought to fill in a wetland on their property in order to build a condominium, but were denied a permit because the wetland was protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA allows the government to regulate the discharge of any pollutant (including dirt or sand) into "navigable waters," which the Act defines as "the waters of the United States." Under regulations issued by the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), wetlands are covered by the CWA as long as they are adjacent to traditionally navigable waters or tributaries of such waters. Carabell's site is separated from a nearby ditch by a 4-foot- wide berm (earthen barrier), but the Corps's regulations specify that the wetland is nevertheless adjacent to the waterway. The ditch empties into another ditch, which in turn empties into a creek and ultimately into Lake St. Clair, a navigable water. After exhausting administrative appeals, Carabell sued in District Court. Carabell argued that the government lacked jurisdiction under the CWA to regulate the relatively isolated wetland as part of the "waters of the United States." The District Court disagreed, and upheld the Corps's expansive interpretation of the CWA. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled for the Corps, holding that as long as wetlands are "adjacent" to tributaries of traditionally navigable waters and share a "significant nexus" with such waters, the wetlands qualify as "waters of the United States" for purposes of the CWA.
Does the phrase "waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act include a wetland that at least occasionally empties into a tributary of a traditionally navigable water?
Legal provision: Federal Water Pollution Control (Clean Water), plus amendments
Unanswered. The closely-divided Court split 4-1-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the crucial fifth vote to reject the Sixth Circuit's decision.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the plurality opinion, which was joined by three other Justices. The plurality rejected the argument that only actually- navigable waters can be regulated by the Clean Water Act, but also held that the word "navigable" in the Act cannot be divested of all meaning. The plurality held that the definitional term "waters of the United States" can only refer to "relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water," not "occasional," "intermittent," or "ephemeral" flows. Furthermore, A mere "hydrological connection" is not sufficient to qualify a wetland as covered by the CWA; it must have a "continuous surface connection" with a "water of the United States" that makes it "difficult to determine where the 'water' ends and the 'wetland' begins."
Justice Kennedy wrote a separate concurring opinion, which disagreed with much of the plurality's reasoning. In Justice Kennedy's view, wetlands need not have a continuous surface connection to a continuously flowing body of water to be covered under the CWA, but mere adjacency to a tributary of a navigable water is not sufficient. Instead, Wetlands that are not adjacent to a traditionally navigable water must have a "significant nexus" with a one. This requirement is satisfied if the wetland has a significant effect on the water quality of navigable waters. Justice Kennedy suggested that Rapanos's wetlands may be covered under the CWA if more evidence of a significant nexus were presented.
Justice Stevens wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. The dissent argued that the Corps's regulations should be upheld as a reasonable interpretation of the Act. The inclusion of all wetlands adjacent to tributaries of navigable waters was most consistent with the CWA's purpose of eliminating pollution in the nation's waters.
Though the Court failed to obtain a majority on most of the legal issues presented by the case, the plurality and Justice Kennedy agreed to send the case back to the Sixth Circuit for a new decision based on a different analysis.
Argument of M. Reed Hopper
Chief Justice Roberts: We'll hear argument first this morning in Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Hopper: Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.
This is a case of agency overreaching. In this case, the Corps and EPA pushed the very limits of congressional authority, contrary to the plain text of the act and without any clear indication Congress intended that result. They claim 404(a) jurisdiction over the entire tributary system, from the smallest [*2] trickle to the largest watershed, swapping in -- sweeping in remote, non-navigable wetlands 20 miles from the traditional navigable water. This limitless claim of jurisdiction shifts the Federal/State balance and raises significant constitutional questions. We believe this boundless interpretation is inconsistent with this Court's reading of the act in Solid Waste Agency.
Justice Scalia: It goes somewhat beyond the smallest trickle?
Doesn't it also include ditches that currently don't have any trickle if they obtain a trickle during a rainstorm?
Mr. Hopper: Yes, Your Honor.
They actually argued that it... it makes no difference whether there... what the substantiality is or the directness of the connection is.
It's irrelevant to the jurisdictional determination.
And as I said, they... the... the agencies assert jurisdiction over even the entire watershed.
For example, the Mississippi watershed, the largest in the Nation, covers 1 million square acre... 1 million square miles and reaches from the Rockies to the Appalachians and drains 41 percent of the 48 lower States.
Justice Ginsburg: So where would you... where would... where would you put the line?
Mr. Hopper: I'd put the line where Congress put the line, Your Honor.
Congress declared in 404(a) that it would prohibit the discharge of fill and dredged material into the navigable waters.
So the... these agencies can permit or prohibit any discharge, no matter where it occurs, so long as it reaches a navigable water.
That would be the--
Justice Ginsburg: But then... but you were... you are including at least wetlands that abut--
Mr. Hopper: --Yes.
Justice Ginsburg: --navigable water.
Mr. Hopper: Yes.
Traditional navigable waters plus abutting wetlands inseparably bound up.
Justice Ginsburg: What about major tributaries?
Mr. Hopper: Congress cannot regulate all tributaries.
It could regulate some tributaries--
Justice Ginsburg: Which ones?
Mr. Hopper: --but would have to do so on a case-by-case basis.
The regulation of all tributaries raises significant constitutional questions and contrary to the regulation of... of wetlands that are inseparably bound up.
And there's no clear indication that Congress intended to regulate any tributaries, let alone the entire tributary system.
Justice Ginsburg: Well, is your position no tributaries or some tributaries?
Mr. Hopper: The... the act, by its terms, does not recognize the... the regulation of any tributary.
Justice Alito: Does it make sense to say that any wetlands that it abuts a traditionally navigable water is covered, but a tributary that leads right into a traditionally navigable water is not necessarily covered?
Mr. Hopper: --I think... I think it's fair to say that under this Court's determination in Solid Waste Agency that the only wetlands that are covered are those that are abutting and inseparably bound up.
It makes sense to do so because by regulating those types of wetlands, the Government is essentially declaring them the equivalent of the navigable waterway.
Justice Souter: Yes, but they're doing it for a functional reason.
The functional reason is that if you put the poison in the adjacent wetland, it's going to get into the navigable water.
Exactly the same argument can be made as you go further and further up the tributaries, and it seems to me that once you concede, as I think you have to, that there can be a regulation that goes beyond literally navigable water at the point at which the... the pollutant is added, then you have to follow the same logic right up through the watershed to... to any point at which a pollutant, once added, will eventually get into the navigable water.
Mr. Hopper: The reason that logic does not apply, Your Honor, is because the regulation of... of tributaries raises significant constitutional questions that are not implicated by the regulation of a wetland inseparably--
Justice Souter: Then... then you have to accept the fact that... that Congress cannot effectively regulate the navigable... the... the condition of the navigable water itself because if all the... the... let's... let's assume there's a class of... of evil polluters out there who just want to wreck the... the navigable waters of the United States.
All they have to do is get far enough upstream and they can dump anything they want to.
It will eventually get into the navigable water, and Congress can't do anything about it on your theory.
Mr. Hopper: --That's incorrect, Your Honor.
We acknowledge that under the... the act, the Government can regulate any discharge that actually reaches the navigable water.
Justice Souter: So you're... you're going to... you... you then want to draw a distinction between the dredge and fill addition and, let's say, a... a conventional synthetic poison.
Mr. Hopper: No.
Either... in either case, if... if the... if the discharge of dredged material actually enters into a navigable water, regardless of where it's discharged, it would be covered.
Same for a conventional toxin.
Justice Souter: You mean on... on... in every... in every case then, I mean, Congress would have to... I'm sorry... a scientist would have to analyze the molecules and... and trace them up, and so long as they could... could trace it to a specific discharge, they could get at it, but otherwise they couldn't?
I mean, that... you know, you know what I'm getting at.
That obviously would... would totally thwart the regulation.
Mr. Hopper: I don't... I don't believe it would, Your Honor.
The... the... certainly Congress did not think so in section--
Justice Scalia: Well, I... couldn't you simply assume that anything that is discharged into a tributary ultimately goes where the tributary goes?
Wouldn't it be enough to prove the discharge?
Mr. Hopper: --Well, it certainly wasn't true in this case, Your Honor.
Justice Scalia: So you don't think it would be enough for the... for the Government to prove the discharge into a tributary in order to prove that the act has been violated.
Mr. Hopper: --No, Your Honor, I do not.
Justice Scalia: You really think it has to trace the molecules.
Mr. Hopper: Absolutely.
That's... that's what the terms of the act require.
Chief Justice Roberts: How do you... how do you define a tributary?
Mr. Hopper: Well, the... that's one of the problems here, Your Honor, is that... is that the agency has... has established a moving target for... for tributaries.
Chief Justice Roberts: So what's your definition?
Mr. Hopper: Well, the... the definitions we're working with here, to which we object, is that... is that it includes anything in the hydrological connection.
Chief Justice Roberts: I know what you object to, and I know that you think your client isn't covered.
But I don't know what test you would have us adopt for what constitutes a tributary.
Mr. Hopper: Well, we're suggesting that... that this Court need not define tributary because under the act all tributaries are excluded.
The only... the only prohibited act--
Chief Justice Roberts: Well, okay, but we still don't know what you're excluding.
I mean, the Missouri is a tributary of the Mississippi, but I assume it's still covered.
Mr. Hopper: --Those... anything that is not of a... anything does not constitute the channel, the traditional navigable water, and anything not abutting as a... as a inseparably bound up wetland would constitute a tributary.
Justice Kennedy: Well, it... it seems to me that what works in your favor is... is it SWANCC?
I don't... I'm not quite sure how to pronounce the case.
Mr. Hopper: Yes.
Justice Kennedy: The Migratory Bird Rule case where we said there had to be a significant nexus.
But I think what the Court is asking you is... is how to define significant nexus.
We're... if you want us just to say, well, this case is too much, but then the Corps of Engineers should use its expertise to come up with a new regulation, that's rather an odd opinion for us to write.
Mr. Hopper: Well, this Court did not--
Justice Kennedy: And it seems to me that that's what you're asking us to do here.
Mr. Hopper: --This Court did not suggest in... in SWANCC that a significant nexus constitutes the jurisdictional standard for all... for all waters.
That standard only applies to wetlands that are adjacent to traditional navigable waters.
The jurisdictional standard is determined by the terms of the act.
In... in SWANCC, this Court determined that the act was clear and should be read as written to avoid the constitutional questions raised by a broad interpretation of the act.
Justice Ginsburg: From everything... from everything you said, it sounds like you're... you're taking issue with Riverside Bayview because if a wetland adjacent to the river counts, then why not a stream that goes right into it?
What sense does that distinction make?
Mr. Hopper: --It makes perfect sense, Your Honor, because the regulation of those tributaries and streams, all of them in the entire tributary system, raise significant constitutional questions that are not implicated by regulating wetlands that are inseparably bound up with traditional navigable water.
Justice Scalia: More than that, Mr. Hopper.
I thought and I had expected you to... to respond to Justice Souter's question this way, his question about how come putting poison in... in the wetlands is bad, but it's okay to put it in the tributary.
But they... as I understand it, the reason we held wetlands were included within the waters of the United States was not... not that, that you could poison the waters by poisoning the wetlands, but rather, it was that it's very hard to tell where the navigable water ends and the wetland begins.
And... and we said, you know, we're not going to parse that.
If it's... if it's adjacent to a navigable water and it's wet, we're going to say it's part of a navigable water.
Mr. Hopper: That's right.
Justice Scalia: I thought that was our basis.
Mr. Hopper: That's exactly right.
Justice Scalia: And, of course, that basis doesn't apply to tributaries, does it?
You... you can always tell where the tributary ends.
It ends at the point where it goes into the main river.
Mr. Hopper: I think that's correct, Your Honor.
Justice Ginsburg: You think that's correct about what the Court said in Bayview when it phrased the question as before discharging fill material into wetlands adjacent to navigable bodies of water and their tributaries.
That's what the Court thought it was deciding in Riverside Bayview.
Mr. Hopper: The Court did frame the question that way, Your Honor.
However, the Court's commentary about tributaries was not germane to its... to its holding.
Tributaries was not a question before the Court.
Justice Ginsburg: At any rate, they could not have been making the distinction Justice Scalia suggested if, at least in the Court's thinking, the tributaries rolled right into the navigable body.
Mr. Hopper: Well, as I said, the... the Court's commentary in Riverside Bayview is not good law because the... the Court was not addressing the... a tributary's question in that case, and it was not faced with a Commerce Clause challenge as it is in this case.
And at that time, the agency did not interpret tributaries to include every hydrological reach of the... of the tributary system.
Justice Souter: Yes, but doesn't the reference to tributary make it relatively plain that what the Court was getting at was the impossibility of drawing a functional distinction between wetlands and tributaries on the one hand, navigable waters on the other, when the purpose of the regulation is to protect the purity of the ultimate navigable water?
And isn't the inclusion of the reference to tributaries an indication that it said if we want to attain the objective, which is clearly constitutional, then we have got to recognize these means, i.e., regulation of... of pollution in wetlands and tributaries, in order to reach that objective?
Isn't that the reasoning that is apparent from what Justice Ginsburg just... just read to you?
Mr. Hopper: I don't believe so, Your Honor.
The... the problem that... that the agencies have in this case, which was underscored in Solid Waste Agency, is that the Government cannot show any clear indication that Congress intended to regulate the entire tributary system.
In Solid Waste Agency, this Court did recognize that because of congressional acquiescence, Congress intended to regulate wetlands adjacent to navigable waters, but as to other waters, this Court could come to no conclusion because the Congress had never defined other waters.
Justice Souter: Well, it's... except for the... it seems to me except for... for your... your argument is... is fine except for one problem.
And that is, if we... if we assume that Congress was being as... as cautious as you suggest, then Congress' caution, in effect, was... was allowing an end run around the regulation for the reasons we went into a moment ago.
All you've got to do is... is dump the pollutant further... far enough upstream in the watershed and you get away scot-free.
And it's very difficult to believe that Congress could have intended that.
Mr. Hopper: I don't think it's difficult to believe that at all, Your Honor.
We simply look at... at the goals and objectives that Congress itself adopted in furtherance of this mission to protect the waters.
If we look at 1251(a), Congress declares that its purpose is to protect the integrity of the Nation's waters.
It used that term, Nation's waters.
And then in... in 1251(a)(1), it says it will accomplish this by eliminating the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters, showing that it knows how to distinguish between all waters and navigable waters.
And then in 1251(b), Congress says we will respect and defer to the States' primary responsibility to address local water pollution and to manage local land and water use.
So the way that Congress intended to address this issue as to defer to the States to regulate pollutants upstream while Congress... or while the Federal Government regulates downstream.
That's a perfectly rational approach to this national problem.
Chief Justice Roberts: But if... but your... but your answer earlier to Justice Souter's earlier question was that if you dump the pollutants anywhere and they make their way to the navigable water, you're covered.
Mr. Hopper: Are covered if they make it... their way all the way there.
If they don't, then the States have that responsibility.
And every State in the Nation has antipollution regulation.
If there are no further questions, I'd like to reserve my time.
Argument of Timothy A. Stoepker
Chief Justice Roberts: Thank you, counsel.
Mr. Stoepker: Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court: After years of review by the State of Michigan and the respondent, the record is very clear. Petitioners' wetland is hydrologically isolated from any navigable water of the United States. Further, the State of Michigan, exercising the power specifically and traditionally reserved to it, undertook responsibility to regulate the waters at issue and pollution and, in doing so, issued petitioner a wetland permit. It is clear from the record in this case that there is no hydrological connection between the petitioners' wetland and navigable waters of the United States. Referring to the appendix filed, the joint appendix filed in this case, specifically beginning with the EPA letters dating back to 1994, as this property has been under years of review, [*15] do not reference any such connection.
Chief Justice Roberts: Did we talk about a hydrological connection in Riverside Bayview?
Mr. Stoepker: The... the connection there was... in essence, yes, Your Honor, based upon the inseparable, bound-up nature of those wetlands which were immediately adjacent to the navigable water.
There was nothing that separated those wetlands from that specific body of water.
They were immediately adjacent and intersected with that body of water.
Justice Scalia: I'm not sure what you mean by a hydrological connection.
Do you mean a constant... a constant body of water between the two, or do you mean simply a... a drain that at some times might carry off rainwater from... from this land?
And... would that... would that suffice to be a hydrological connection?
Mr. Stoepker: In... in this case, Your Honor, there was no connection at all.
In this case, there was no connection identified.
It was speculated that there might be a potential--
Justice Scalia: Water never ran off of this... of this land.
Mr. Stoepker: --No.
If you look... that is correct.
If you look at the circuit court opinion, it... and even the district court opinion and the findings made, there is no finding that any water has ever left the petitioners' wetland into the ditch.
Justice Souter: Well, do they have to make this on a plot-by-plot basis, or can they make a categorical judgment that even in cases in which, you know, there's a berm, as there is here, when the water is high, it spills over?
And if the categorical judgment is sound, do you have an exception because they haven't proven it with respect to your particular lot?
Mr. Stoepker: Yes.
Yes, Your Honor.
In... in this case--
Justice Souter: Where do you get that exception?
Mr. Stoepker: --In the respondents' brief on page 18, they acknowledge that the traditional test has been hydrological connection, that that's what they have looked towards.
Justice Souter: And the... and the... but I mean, what I'm getting at is the traditional test is the basis for a categorical judgment.
Your land falls within the general category.
Your argument is I should not be subject to it, to the statute, because of the general category.
I should be subject to it only if they prove specifically that the water spills over in rainy periods in my particular lot.
In other words, you're saying there's got to be a specific connection as opposed to a categorical judgment.
And my question is what under the act supports that view.
Mr. Stoepker: Under the act, it talks about the issue of discharge.
That is the... that is the matter that is being regulated by the statute, an actual discharge into the navigable body of water.
If you have an hydrologically isolated body of water, you cannot physically have a discharge into the navigable stream.
It is an impossibility.
And therefore, the act does not allow the speculation that the Court is referring to here.
Justice Souter: So... so your... maybe what you're saying is we have shown or the record shows that this doesn't fit within the category because it never spills over or whatever.
Is that your argument?
Mr. Stoepker: That is correct.
The record in this case does not identify a connection between this wetland and this non-navigable ditch.
Justice Stevens: Am I correct--
Justice Scalia: But, Mr. Stoepker, your friend, Mr. Hopper, would certainly not agree with you that... that a... a hydrological connection is the, quote, traditional test.
What... what is your definition of tradition?
Mr. Stoepker: Our definition--
Justice Scalia: How long has this test been established?
Mr. Stoepker: --If you look at respondents' brief in their arguments to this Court, they first state, page 18, that in fact traditionally they've looked at hydrological connection.
Justice Scalia: Traditionally.
Mr. Stoepker: --Traditionally.
Justice Scalia: Yes--
Mr. Stoepker: From the inception of the rules.
Justice Scalia: --From the inception of the rules.
Mr. Stoepker: Inception of the rules, that they have looked at hydrological connection.
Justice Scalia: That that alone has been enough.
Mr. Stoepker: No.
They state that that is the... the beginning point.
The beginning point.
They then state that they have historically undertook a interrelationship analysis of the wetland to the tributary or body of water and that they then defer that to the permit review.
Justice Scalia: I see.
So you're... you're not conceding that... that hydrologic... hydrological connection is adequate.
You're just... is sufficient.
You're just saying it's necessary.
Mr. Stoepker: We're... that is correct, Your Honor.
Justice Scalia: Okay.
Chief Justice Roberts: Can I get back to the question earlier?
What is a hydrological connection?
Is it enough if the water seeps through the ground and underground is connected with the navigable water, or does there have to be a ditch or... or a culvert that you can see the water flowing through?
Mr. Stoepker: Yes, Your Honor.
Chief Justice Roberts: Yes?
Mr. Stoepker: --Mr. Chief Justice, in... in response to that question, both potentially.
In this case, again, there was no surface water connection, and due to the nature of the clay soils, it was found that there was no groundwater connection--
Justice Kennedy: Was it... was it also clear that after the improvement, there would be no drainage?
Mr. Stoepker: --After the improvement, there could be drainage.
Ironically the respondent in this case actually recommends that the barriers between this site and the ditch be removed.
Justice Stevens: --May I just ask one clarifying question?
Was it found that there was no connection, or was it not found that there was a connection?
Mr. Stoepker: It was found that there was not a connection.
Justice Stevens: It was.
I didn't read it that way.
Mr. Stoepker: If you... referring the Court to the respondents' report dated May 5th of 2000, it specifically states--
Justice Souter: Where are you reading from?
Mr. Stoepker: --This is from appendix page 81 and 83.
This is a report that starts with the term jurisdictional at the top.
Justice Souter: Right.
Mr. Stoepker: It notes a number of issues or classifications there or points.
First, that the wetland is not adjacent to navigable water.
It then notes the wetland is not adjacent to headwater.
And then it makes a comment.
It says, to a tributary to navigable water, and it says, no.
The sole basis for jurisdiction in that report is the Migratory Bird Rule.
The respondent took out to the property who they believed to be the most credible expert they had on migratory birds and then state that the--
Justice Stevens: I'm sorry.
I want to be sure I follow you.
You say that somewhere on page 82 there is a finding that there was no hydrological connection?
Mr. Stoepker: --They do not reference a... I'm... this--
Justice Stevens: They don't find a--
Mr. Stoepker: --Right.
They do... they do not.
Justice Stevens: --I agree with that.
I'm asking you if they found there was no hydrological connection.
Mr. Stoepker: Yes, they make that in a subsequent report.
Justice Stevens: But not on page 82.
Mr. Stoepker: Not... not in this first report.
Justice Souter: Is the report in the... is the subsequent report in the record somewhere?
Mr. Stoepker: Yes.
The next report is issued September 11th of 2000.
In that report--
Justice Souter: And again, where--
Justice Stevens: What page are you on?
Justice Souter: --Where are you?
Mr. Stoepker: --I'm going to refer you to the specific pages.
They first referenced clay soils on page 93.
These are the same clay soils that the State administrative law judge, after much hearing on the record, found were impermeable to prevent groundwater and surface water discharge.
Then at page 97 of the appendix, the respondent finds that due to site conditions... I will quote... this wetland has been obstructed from receiving runoff from surrounding area and from circulation by flooding into the drain.
End of quote.
Then referring to page 99 of the same appendix, I quote.
The parcel is not currently a part of the S-O Drain watershed, being the Sutherland-Oemig watershed.
Then referring to page 100 where they comment on navigation, they state, no impact on navigation.
And then finally at page 106 of the appendix, the features on this site... and again I quote... presently isolate the wetland from the S-O Drain and receiving waters.
So it receives none and it gives none.
They used the term in their report isolated.
There is no finding anywhere to the contrary in any reports issued, or thereafter at the public hearing that was conducted by the respondent, that there is any connection.
In fact, the Sixth Circuit noted there was no connection.
Justice Ginsburg: Then what was the reason they gave for rejecting the permit?
Mr. Stoepker: The... the sole reason claimed for jurisdiction at the agency hearing was adjacency to this non-navigable, unnamed ditch, which was dug by the county for a sewer system.
That's the sole reason.
The same argument appeared at the district court level, adjacency to the unnamed, unnavigable ditch.
Justice Kennedy: I'm--
Justice Ginsburg: Suppose--
Justice Kennedy: --I'm still not clear as to what the findings were, if there were findings, as to what the condition would be after the improvement.
Would there be an increased likelihood of drainage into the ditch after the improvement?
Mr. Stoepker: The... it... it could occur in two different ways.
Justice Kennedy: And... and if that were so, would that be sufficient for jurisdiction?
Mr. Stoepker: They... that... that was not their finding because in this case they actually recommended, whether or not anything occurred on the property, that the berms or barriers be removed.
They actually recommend there be an interaction between the wetland and the ditch.
That's the irony of this.
Justice Kennedy: But, well... suppose the interaction were automatic.
Would that suffice to make this a wetlands after the improvement?
Mr. Stoepker: It... it is our position in this case no because the ditch next to the site has not been regulated under the rules adopted by the respondent and... nor under the statute adopted by Congress.
The ditch is... has been historically designated as a point source or a source point, as has been the drain under the statute.
In 1975, after the district court ruled that the respondent's rules were too narrow from a jurisdictional standpoint, the respondent then expanded its rules in 1975.
In the preamble to those rules, it specifically stated that ditches... ditches of this nature, drainage ditches, were specifically exempted as waters of the United States.
That is in the preamble.
We then go to--
Chief Justice Roberts: Counsel, what... what is the test that you would have us adopt for a significant nexus?
Mr. Stoepker: --Our... our test for significant nexus would start with the... the basis that there must be an established, existing hydrological connection between the wetland and the body of water adjacent--
Chief Justice Roberts: By that, you mean either a ditch or underground seepage?
Mr. Stoepker: --Yes.
Chief Justice Roberts: Okay.
So there has... there has to be any... and any hydrological connection works.
Mr. Stoepker: Based--
Chief Justice Roberts: Mr. Hopper won't like that, but for--
Mr. Stoepker: --No.
Using this Court's definition in... in SWANCC, it's... it is our position that it needs to be a substantial nexus or interrelationship.
Justice Scalia: Well, you don't... you don't have to define what... everything that's necessary.
All you have to define is one indispensable element.
And all you're arguing is that a hydrological connection is an indispensable element, whatever additional elements--
Mr. Stoepker: --That is correct.
Justice Scalia: --there may be.
So you may agree with your friend, Mr. Hopper.
Mr. Stoepker: We're--
Justice Scalia: You... you just haven't reached that point.
Mr. Stoepker: --We don't... we do not believe that this case needs to reach that--
Justice Stevens: But I'm still puzzled--
Justice Scalia: I don't want to set you two to fighting with each other.
Justice Stevens: --by your answer to Justice--
What if there's no hydrological connection today, but there would be after you... after you built your project?
Mr. Stoepker: --At that point, then maybe the respondent could determine there would be some form of regulation if, in fact, the discharge was into a ditch that was, in fact, regulated.
Justice Stevens: But it... would it be a sufficient reason to deny a permit based on the judgment that after the project is completed, there will be a... a hydrological connection?
Mr. Stoepker: --The test is from the outset, Your Honor.
Justice Stevens: No.
It seems to me you could answer that yes or no.
Mr. Stoepker: Yes.
Justice Stevens: Perhaps you don't want to but--
Mr. Stoepker: The... the resulting impact... I would say no.
The resulting impact has not been determined for jurisdiction.
Justice Stevens: But isn't it sort of foolish to say that we're concerned about pollution, but only if you... only if you catch it in advance?
That doesn't make sense because if the problem would arise when you did what you're seeking a permit to do, why shouldn't you be denied the permit?
Mr. Stoepker: The application for the permit does not automatically equate to a request to discharge.
The fill of a wetland does not automatically discharge into the ditch.
Justice Stevens: No, but my hypothesis is that we know it would happen, or they... they would find it would happen after the project is completed.
And it seems to me that... that that's what you should focus on rather than what's... you know, rather than what happens before.
Mr. Stoepker: This Court's test in SWANCC is based upon the before, and also based upon Riverside, it examined the before condition and the impact on that navigable water.
And what is to be prevented is the discharge into that navigable water.
And that is the initial test that is conducted.
If the Court examines the respondent's actual test data, what they examined here was the jurisdictional determination from the beginning.
Is there a connection?
Is it isolated?
Is it not isolated?
They didn't look at the after-effect.
They looked at the after-effect in relationship to issuing or not issuing the permit.
Justice Scalia: What we're talking about here is... is at... at most, whether this is a water of the United States.
The condition for requiring permits is that it... it be a water of the United States.
Isn't that right?
Mr. Stoepker: That is correct.
Justice Scalia: And it either is or it isn't, not... not that it will be.
It either is or it isn't.
If it is, you... you need a permit; if it isn't, you don't need a permit.
Mr. Stoepker: That is correct.
Justice Souter: And Justice Stevens' question I think in... in that framework is... is this.
If it will result in discharge after the project, is it a water of the United States now?
Mr. Stoepker: Under the Court's definition in SWANCC and Riverside, the answer again is no.
Justice Souter: Then... then Congress has passed a statute that says we'll lock the barn after the horse is stolen.
I mean, that... maybe that's what it did, but that's... that would be a very odd thing for it to do, wouldn't it?
Mr. Stoepker: It did not do so, Your Honor, because specifically under section 1251(b), it reserved to the States the primary responsibility of regulating pollution within its waters.
The primary responsibility.
Their primary responsibility is not designated to the respondent in this case.
A shift would... in... in that framework would shift the primary responsibility to the respondent and take that primary responsibility away from the State.
Justice Souter: Well, it... it would do so in... in cases of... I guess, of the... the sorts of... of new proposed actions that require the... the Corps to get into it in the first place.
But I also assume that it would leave lots of... of water pollution regulation to the States.
I don't see that it would displace the States.
Mr. Stoepker: In this case, it actually... the decision of the respondent did displace the State.
The State, after years of examination and determination of impact, made a decision to issue a wetland permit to this project and, in doing so, found specifically that the issuance of the permit would be better, effective method of dealing with pollution than not issuing the permit.
That was the specific finding made by the administrative law judge in that appendix, and those findings are the first part of the appendix in this case, detailed findings after a 2-week administrative trial where witnesses were cross-examined and examined.
In this case, the respondent has ignored those State powers given to its traditional waters and has said, we're going to ignore, number one, your claim of jurisdiction, and number two, we're going to ignore your finding of no impact and completely disregard that.
So, in fact, the framework in this case did shift.
The State did what it was supposed to do under 1251(b) and the... the respondent in this case usurped that responsibility and those traditional powers granted to it traditionally and both by this statute, and then determined that what the State of Michigan did had no relevance.
It was unwarranted.
So the framework in this case did specifically change.
And in doing so, we get back to those same factual findings they've made.
We are here only today because they found that it is adjacent to a ditch which they have said is not a waters of the United States.
So in this case, the--
Justice Scalia: And the only reason it's a water of the United States is that there are some puddles on this land.
And if there were no puddles, it... it wouldn't be a water of the United States.
It would just be land of the United States.
Mr. Stoepker: --That's correct, because there's some puddles on the land occasionally.
Justice Scalia: So it... it becomes waters of the United States because there are puddles on it, and you assert because those puddles have some hydrological connection or if it is... if it is water of the United States, those puddles have some hydrological connections with the navigable waters.
Mr. Stoepker: To... to be waters of the United States, they would have to have a hydrological connection as a minimum test to be a part of the waters of the United States.
Justice Scalia: And... and the... the statute only prohibits the discharge of dredged or fill material, which is what is going on here, into the navigable waters, right, at specified disposal sites.
The... the permits that... that are required here--
Mr. Stoepker: That is correct.
Justice Scalia: --permit discharge into waters, not... not into lands that aren't waters.
Mr. Stoepker: No.
The... that is correct.
The permit permits the discharge into a navigable water of the United States.
That is the object of the permit.
Again, the rules that the respondent has adopted since 1975 have specifically excluded the Nundane ditch, as well as the drain next to that ditch, as being defined as waters of the United States.
So therefore, even if they could show a connection, which is a question that has been raised, would in fact the wetland be regulated, by the... by the respondents' own definitions and by the statutory definition which excludes a ditch and a drain under section 1262(12) and (14), neither the ditch or the Sutherland-Oemig drain by definition is a water of the United States.
It is a point source and therefore not a water.
So even if they could--
Justice Ginsburg: --May I ask one question about your... your not... no hydrological connection?
If this berm were next to a wetland that would otherwise be adjacent to a river, the situation that was presented in Riverside Bayview, is it the berm that prevents there being a hydrological connection?
Mr. Stoepker: --In this case, there are two things.
The first, the berm segregates the surface water connection between the two, and then second, the nature of the soils being clay, which are not permeable soils, create the additional segregation between that and the body of water.
Justice Ginsburg: So it could... there could be a situation where the wetlands would be right next to the river, but there's a berm in between, and that would break the hydrological connection?
Mr. Stoepker: It would break the hydrological connection.
However, this Court has ruled in the Riverside case that those wetlands which are adjacent to navigable waters... it did not reach the issue whether they were not adjacent to non-navigable waters.
They only addressed the... this Court only addressed the issue of relationship to navigable waters.
In that case, this Court specifically found that wetlands adjacent to navigable waters were regulated.
The Court specifically reserved the--
Justice Scalia: Do you think it... do you think it meant adjacent with a berm in between?
I... I thought the reason they... they reached that conclusion was you can't tell where the navigable water ends and where the wetland begins.
I... I thought they assumed a connection between the two.
Mr. Stoepker: --In reading the opinion... Your Honor, my time is up.
Chief Justice Roberts: --You may respond briefly.
Mr. Stoepker: Yes.
In reading the opinion, it... it appears that this Court found, because it actually went to the water's edge, there was an inseparable, bound-up attachment between the wetland and the navigable water.
Chief Justice Roberts: Thank you, counsel.
Mr. Stoepker: Thank you.
Argument of Paul D. Clement
Chief Justice Roberts: General Clement.
Mr. Clement: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
In United States against Riverside Bayview Homes, this Court unanimously upheld the Corps' jurisdiction over wetlands that were not themselves navigable, but were adjacent to waters otherwise within the Corps' jurisdiction.
The principal difference between the Rapanos wetlands and the wetlands at issue in Riverside Bayview are that the Rapanos wetlands are adjacent to a non-navigable tributary, while the wetlands at issue in Riverside Bayview were adjacent to a navigable creek.
Chief Justice Roberts: How do you define tributary?
Mr. Clement: Mr. Chief--
Chief Justice Roberts: The tributary... you say they're adjacent to a nonnavigable tributary.
That's a... a culvert, a ditch.
Mr. Clement: --Well, not in all these cases, Mr. Chief Justice.
Chief Justice Roberts: But in the Rapanos' case.
Mr. Clement: No, not... not... that's actually not true.
There are three specific wetlands that are at issue in the Rapanos case.
One of those, the Pine River site, as its name suggests, is adjacent to the Pine River, which is a body of water that has water flowing through it all year-round.
It's a river.
I don't think anybody would look at that and say that's not a tributary of the downstream navigable rivers.
And I think that's why, in fairness--
Chief Justice Roberts: What about... what about the other... the other sites?
Mr. Clement: --The... the other sites are... are adjacent to man-made ditches that also drain in.
If I just... can I just say, though, I think the fact that the Pine River site is so obviously a tributary under... under any definition is one of the reasons, along with the theory that you heard advanced by petitioners, that this case--
Chief Justice Roberts: But your argument assumes that the ditches that go to the other two sites are also tributaries.
Mr. Clement: --Absolutely, Mr. Chief Justice.
I just want to make the point that this case, because of the theory petitioners have advanced, has not really unearthed or focused on the definition of a tributary, but let me get to it because the Corps has defined the definition of a tributary.
And the definition of a tributary is basically any channelized body of water that takes water in a flow down to the traditional navigable water--
Justice Scalia: Even when it's not a body of water.
Mr. Clement: --Even--
Justice Scalia: A storm drain, even... even when it's not filled with water, is a tributary.
Mr. Clement: --Justice Scalia, absolutely.
Justice Scalia: Okay.
Mr. Clement: The Corps has not drawn a distinction between man-made channels or ditches and natural channels or ditches.
And, of course, it would be very absurd for the Corps to do that since the Erie Canal is a ditch.
Justice Scalia: I suggest it's very absurd to call that waters of the United States.
It's a drainage ditch dug... you know, dug by the municipality or... you know, or a gutter in a street.
To call that waters of the United States seems to me extravagant.
Mr. Clement: Well, let me say two things, Justice Scalia.
First of all, this case has not been litigated under the theory that the key difference is whether it's man-made or natural, and that defines somehow the scope of a tributary.
And I think there's a good reason for that, which is the second point, which is as the Corps experts... from the experts, the Corps will tell you the process of making the natural rivers navigable has all been about the process of channelizing them and creating man-made, artificial channels in them to the point where the difference between that which is a man-made channel and that which is a natural channel is both difficult to discern and utterly beside the point for purposes of this regulatory scheme.
Justice Scalia: What... what percentage of the... of the territory of the United States do you believe is... is subjected to permits from the Corps of Engineers on your theory whenever you want to move dirt, whenever you want to deposit sand?
What... what percentage of the total land mass of the United States, if you define tributary as broadly as you define it to include?
Every storm drain?
I mean, it's the whole country, isn't it?
Mr. Clement: Well--
Justice Scalia: All the water goes down to the sea and there's some kind of a drain or... or a bed that takes the water down there.
Mr. Clement: --Well, I think the precise answer to your question being none of the land mass... none of the land itself would be regulated.
But in terms of... you want to talk about the--
Justice Scalia: You're calling empty ditches... not unless you call empty ditches land, which I do.
Mr. Clement: --Well, the... the Corps doesn't.
They treat those as water bodies.
Justice Scalia: I understand that.
Mr. Clement: And that's not the gravamen of the complaint here.
But just to be responsive to your question, I think it's important to understand that the Corps and the EPA's view of wetlands would cover about 80 percent of the wetlands in the country.
And that shows that the impact of this Court's decision in SWANCC was real and substantial because about 20 percent of the Nation's wetlands are isolated.
Justice Scalia: But... but you... that's just because this statute happens to refer to wetlands.
But under your theory, the Corps of Engineers would have jurisdiction over any land that is part of that tributary system as well.
If any of that land has a deposit of... of some materials that could leach into or... or drain into the... the tributary system, which is to say any gutter, in theory, the... the Federal Government can regulate it all.
Mr. Clement: I don't think that's right, Justice Scalia.
The Corps has regulated this channelized tributary system.
It has done it without regard to whether those channels are seasonally dry in some areas, and I think that's a rational judgment.
It's not been the gravamen of this case, though.
And what's important is while the Corps and the Federal Government regulate that channelized system of tributaries, non-point source pollution is still something that's in the primary providence of the States.
And so it's not true that the Corps is asserting an authority to regulate land as such.
But to also get it on the table, if the Federal Government wanted to... if Congress changed its mind and said that, say, the banks of the navigable rivers or their tributaries are within the scope of this program, as it did in 1899 in section 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, we'd be here defending that as a valid exercise of Congress' authority not just under the Commerce Clause, but under the navigation power of the--
Justice Scalia: But in 1899, it just said navigable rivers, not... not every... every tributary defined to include even storm drains.
Mr. Clement: --No.
With respect, Justice Scalia, in 1899 in section 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, the so-called Refuse Act, Congress regulated the navigable waters and their tributaries.
Now, in fairness, the focus there was this idea that they only regulated the tributaries if they could show that it flowed into the navigable waters themselves, but they asserted right in the text of the statute in 1899 the authority to regulate the tributaries and the banks.
And that shows what I think is a very important difference between this case and SWANCC.
Justice Kennedy: But your... your theory is there is regulatory authority because there's an interaction between the wetlands or the lands in question and the navigable waters.
Mr. Clement: Justice Kennedy, that's not precisely accurate.
The way it would describe it is this.
As to the first question you have to ask, which is are the tributaries covered, we think an important component of describing the reach of the tributary system is whether there's a hydrological connection.
On the second... and that's subsection 5 of the regulatory definition that brings within the scope of waters of the United States tributaries.
Then you get to the second question which actually implicates another subsection of the definition, subsection (7), which is the adjacent wetlands.
And as to the adjacent wetlands, as the Carabell case illustrates, the definition does not turn on hydrological connection for purposes of asserting the Corps' jurisdiction.
Justice Kennedy: Well, but... but wasn't... wasn't the reason for including the adjacent wetlands because of... of the likelihood of an interaction?
Mr. Clement: I think they... they were included for the likelihood of an interaction both hydrologically and otherwise.
I would say two important things, though.
Justice Kennedy: Well, let... well, please finish.
Mr. Clement: The two points I would make is, first of all, I think the Corps' regulations, which for 30 years have ignored the premise... the... the presence of a berm, are rational because in the vast, vast majority of cases, that berm is not going to prevent a hydrological connection, so to speak.
And so a test that focuses, first and foremost, on physical proximity is a very rational jurisdictional test.
The second thing I would say, though, is it's simply not true that even in the rare case where a berm or a dike prevents all hydrological connection, that an adjacent wetland will not perform an important function for the adjacent water body.
And the most obvious one is the flood control possibility of the wetland.
Chief Justice Roberts: Well... well, as you mention that, you cited subsection (7), and there's a... what struck me anyway as a very interesting provision in there.
It covers wetlands adjacent to waters other than waters that are themselves wetlands.
Now, everything that you've said today and in your brief would lead me to think you would contend that wetlands that are adjacent to wetlands ought to be covered as well, and yet, the regulation leaves them out.
And I want to know why do you think the regulation leaves those wetlands out.
Mr. Clement: I... I think, Mr. Chief Justice, my own view is the reason that that caveat is in subsection (7) is actually a vestige of the pre-SWANCC scope of the regulation.
And specifically, if you look at subsection (3) of the definition which is the isolated waters provision that was at issue, I think, through the Migratory Bird Rule in SWANCC, that includes wetlands in the available isolated waters.
And I think--
Chief Justice Roberts: To me it... it suggests that even the Corps recognized that at some point you've got to say stop because logically any drop of water anywhere is going to have some sort of connection through drainage.
And they're... they're stopping there, and I wonder if we ought to take that same instinct that... that you see in subsection (7) and apply it to your definition of tributary and say, at some point, the definition of tributary has to have an end.
Otherwise, you're going to go and reach too far, beyond what Congress reasonably intended.
Mr. Clement: --Well, several thoughts on that, Mr. Chief Justice.
I think the problem with that approach is that the reason why it makes sense to regulate that very first tributary that flows into the Mississippi is the reason that it makes sense to regulate the entire tributary system.
All of that water is going to flow down into the navigable waters, and if there's going to be--
Chief Justice Roberts: But that's true of the wetland that is adjacent to the wetland that is adjacent to the tributary, and yet, the Corps says we're not going to reach the wetland that is adjacent to another wetland.
Mr. Clement: --Well, with respect, Mr. Chief Justice, the way that I would read that and the way I understand the Corps reads that is that was really just trying to exclude a wetland adjacent to a wetland that was a water of the United States only because of the application of subsection (3).
Justice Kennedy: Your assumption--
Mr. Clement: And I think that's... that's supported by the--
Justice Kennedy: --but this... this is preliminary to my question.
In SWANCC, we said there has to be a significant nexus.
It seems to me that you have to show that there's some significant relation between the wetlands you're regulating or seeking to regulate and the navigable water.
Mr. Clement: --I agree with that, Justice Kennedy.
Justice Kennedy: And I... and that's just, it seemed to me, so far been missing from the discussion.
Mr. Clement: Well, and I... I guess there are two ways to look at this.
You can start with the significant nexus test and see if it's met.
I guess the way that the Corps would naturally proceed is to start with their definitions, and they would say section... subsection (5) covers tributaries.
And you can ask the question, is there a significant nexus between the tributaries and the navigable waters in which they flow into?
And I think the answer to that is yes.
And then there's the secondary question, as to subsection (7) of the regulatory definition.
Is there a significant nexus between wetlands that are adjacent to waters otherwise within the Corps' jurisdiction, be they the traditional navigable waters or their tributaries?
And I think Riverside Bayview answered that question and said, yes, there is a significant nexus between adjacent wetlands and any otherwise regulable water body to which they are adjacent.
So that's the way we would ultimately satisfy what this Court required, which is a significant nexus.
I wouldn't have understood this Court's decision to transplant the significant nexus test and say, that's what the Corps should administer, because whatever ambiguity there is in waters of the United States, I think significant nexus is precisely the kind of test you'd want the Corps--
Justice Kennedy: What... what about the Chief Justice's question, wetlands next to wetlands?
Mr. Clement: --Well, I... I think that... as I said, I think what... what the definition meant to get at was to exclude wetlands adjacent to isolated wetlands under subsection (3).
I think if you ask the question more broadly, what about wetlands next to wetlands, I guess it depends on what you mean by that because the one thing we know from Riverside Bayview is that it's not a requirement that the parcel and its wetlands be immediately adjacent.
Chief Justice Roberts: Well, but we didn't come up with the idea of wetlands next to wetlands.
The Corps of Engineers has it in their regulations.
Mr. Clement: And--
Chief Justice Roberts: So what do they mean by it?
Mr. Clement: --They meant wetlands adjacent to waters that would otherwise not be in the statute which are isolated wetlands under subsection (3).
It's the only application it has in... in the regulatory structure, as they understand it.
Chief Justice Roberts: What... what is an example of an insignificant nexus under the SWANCC test?
Mr. Clement: Under insignificant nexus?
Well, I think it's the waters at issue in SWANCC, and I think it's--
Chief Justice Roberts: No.
There's no nexus there.
Mr. Clement: --Well, no--
Chief Justice Roberts: They're isolated.
There's no nexus.
The... the notion in SWANCC of a significant nexus suggests that there are some bodies of water or puddles that are going to have a nexus, but it's not going to be significant enough.
We didn't just say any nexus.
It said significant nexus.
So what are you leaving out to give meaning to the test that we articulated in SWANCC?
Mr. Clement: --I'm leaving out everything that this Court excluded in SWANCC, and I wouldn't have thought that the... that the Court necessarily suggested there was going to be some subset that had a further insignificant nexus because it wasn't... the argument of the Government in those cases was obviously... we didn't just concede that those bodies of water were utterly isolated.
We said they did have important ecological connections with the water.
And I think the way I read SWANCC is that we can't make that--
Chief Justice Roberts: So if you have a wetland, you would say a wetland with a hydrological connection to a tributary of navigable waters through one drop a year is a significant nexus to the waters of the United States?
Mr. Clement: --What I would say, Mr. Chief Justice, is that if the tributary flows in.
I would start with the tributary, and I'd say, now, there's clearly a significant nexus between the tributary and the navigable waters to which it flows.
I would then look at the wetland, and I would say for purposes of the regulation of adjacent wetlands--
Chief Justice Roberts: One drop.
Mr. Clement: --For purposes of the adjacent wetlands, it doesn't look to hydrological connection per se.
The way I would resolve that is I would resolve it with reference to footnote 9 in this Court's opinion in Riverside Bayview, and I would say, all right, one drop?
It's in the regulatory jurisdiction because it's adjacent and that's what the Corps looks to.
And I think that's a rational judgment.
But if there's one drop, grant the permit.
That solves the--
Justice Scalia: Adjacent to what?
Adjacent to a tributary.
Mr. Clement: --Adjacent to a tributary, absolutely.
Justice Scalia: But... but here's... here's the fly in the ointment.
You... you interpret tributary to include storm drains and ditches that only carry off rainwater.
I mean, it makes an immense difference to the scope of jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers.
I mean, when you talk about adjacent to a tributary, I think, you know, maybe adjacent to the Missouri River or something like that.
You're talking about adjacent to a storm drain.
Mr. Clement: Well, Justice Scalia, I think if you had in mind a tributary, you'd probably have in mind the Pine River which is at issue in one of these sites.
And I think that's why that's not the way petitioners have presented this case.
Justice Scalia: Only because I don't know how a storm drain is a water of the United States.
I mean, all of these terms that you're throwing around somehow have to come within a reasonable usage of the term, waters of the United States, and I do not see how a storm drain under anybody's concept is a water of the United States.
Mr. Clement: With respect, Justice Scalia, some things that you might classify as a storm drain are actually very deep channels that have a continuous flow of water that were--
Justice Scalia: No.
I was referring to a real storm drain.
Mr. Clement: --Well--
Justice Scalia: Okay?
Mr. Clement: But therein is the problem, which is some things that are part of the storm water drainage system of a city are actually things that were previous navigable natural waters.
I mean, so--
Justice Scalia: And some aren't.
But... but you would sweep them all into the jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Clement: --We would, Justice Scalia, but I guess if we can start with the proposition that tributaries are covered and then some things that the Corps thinks are tributaries you disagree with, that would be fine.
But that would be a different case.
That hasn't been the theory that this case has been presented.
As I understand, these drains here are actually, you know, substantial channels that do have water in them.
I have no doubt that the Pine River meets the test that it sounds like you would have for a tributary, and the difficulty I'm having is I'd be happy to defend what the Corps did if this court, in the... in the litigation of this case, had focused the court's and the Corps' attention on that issue.
Chief Justice Roberts: Am I right that a tributary is not a defined term in the regulations?
Mr. Clement: That's right.
It's an undefined term.
The Corps has interpreted it in the 2000 preamble.
The best place to find the Corps' teaching on this is 65 Fed. Reg. 12,823-4.
And they go through... it was part of a comment and they deal with comments about their treatment of ditches and the like and many of these issues.
And I guess what I would say is I think that for purposes of this case, I mean, you heard the petitioners' argument.
They have obviously, based on the legal position they've advanced, not focused this Court or any other court's attention on subdividing which tributaries count because their view is nothing counts.
Even the first tributary doesn't count.
And I think in this case what I would urge you to do, if... if you have some concern with, you know, the extent of the definition of tributary, is to not make that a basis for invalidating this... the judgment of the Sixth Circuit here.
And that's an issue that could be developed in other cases if... if the parties want to really focus the attention on that.
I think I would be comfortable defending the Corps' judgment, even in those more finely focused challenges, because I get back to the point, which is that the same logic that has you regulate that first tributary also suggests that you want to regulate anything that's a channel that brings large quantities of water into the navigable waterways.
Justice Scalia: Well, but that... but that doesn't follow.
I mean, it is not a principle of law that so long as the object is... is lawful and within the power of the United States, all means to achieving that object are lawful.
That is simply not true.
There are various means of stopping that pollution, and it may well be that one of the means, which intrudes too deeply into the State's power to regulate land within their jurisdiction, is not a permissible one.
That... that's not an extraordinary proposition.
Mr. Clement: I absolutely agree with you, Justice Scalia, and that's why I'm not up here asking for Federal regulation over non-point source pollution, although that obviously contributes to the... to the problem.
What I'm up here asking for is a recognition that the tributary system is something that Congress can validly regulate and did regulate in its broader definition of waters of the United States in the Clean Water Act.
And I think that's something... the authority to regulate tributaries is something Congress regulated starting in 1899 and, importantly, this Court expressly upheld in 1941 in Oklahoma against Atkinson.
Justice Scalia: I don't see how non-point source pollution is... is any more remote from what the Federal Government should be able to do to achieve its ends than is a point source pollution that... that consists of... of dumping sand on land that has some puddles on it.
I... that seems to me just as remote.
Mr. Clement: Well, I think one important thing to focus on, Justice Scalia, is this case is not just about the Corps' 404 program because the 404 program by its terms does not permit anything.
As... as the permit word suggests, it's a... it's a process of granting permission.
The relevant provision here is section 301 of the statute which prohibits a discharge into the navigable waters without a permit.
And so whatever this Court decides for purposes of the 404 jurisdiction, it's necessarily deciding for purposes of the 402 jurisdiction of the EPA.
And so what you'd be suggesting is that if some tributaries aren't covered, then it's perfectly okay to dump toxins in those tributaries even though you know that because they are a channelized system that directly connects with the navigable water--
Chief Justice Roberts: Well, that's not really fair.
The petitioners, as I understand it, both concede the discharges that make their way into the navigable waters would be covered.
Mr. Clement: --That's right, Mr. Chief Justice, but there's only two ways to do that.
One way of doing that and the one that I hear them advocating would be this impossible sort of process of trying to fingerprint or DNA test oil spills in a tributary to figure out, yes, that's the guy that got it to the navigable waters.
And the one thing we know is that there were some efforts to try to regulate pollution that way before 1972 and they were a dismal failure.
The only other way to do it, as suggested by one or two amici, is to treat the last... treat the tributary as if it were a point source.
But I'd sure hate to be the guy who owns the... the land next to that tributary that's dumping into the Mississippi who's going to be responsible for the pollution of everybody upstream.
And what Congress recognized in 1972 is that they had to regulate beyond traditional navigable waters.
Justice Kennedy: But the Congress in 1972 also, in its statement of policy, said it's a statement of policy to reserve to the States the power and the responsibility to plan land use and water resources.
And under your definition, I... I just see that we're giving no scope at all to that clear statement of the congressional policy.
Mr. Clement: With respect, Justice Kennedy, the States still have plenary control over the non-point source pollution.
They still have an important cooperative role in... in the overall program, as you'll hear more about in the second case today.
And I would actually ask you to focus on one particular provision that deals with the relationship between the Federal Government and the States under 404 in particular, and that's section 404, subsection (g) of the statute.
And that was added to the statute in 1977.
Unless Congress is going to be construed to have given the States a virtual empty set, that provision makes crystal clear that the waters of the United States, for purposes of the Clean Water Act, extend beyond traditional navigable waters and their adjacent wetlands.
Justice Scalia: Though not necessarily as far as storm drains.
It would be enough to... to say navigable... you know, non-navigable tributaries that are real... real tributaries.
Mr. Clement: Absolutely, Justice Scalia.
I concede that.
But then you get to the question of defining real tributaries, and that's neither been teed up in this litigation, nor is it something that I think, at the end of the day, you'd want to differ from the Corps' judgment, which although you find it striking that some things that are ditches are actually included in the system, that is a product of the way that the tributary systems have worked, the way that certain cities have taken over a natural stream and channelized it and make it look like a ditch, but it's part of the system that carries water down from the headwaters.
And again, maybe that's an issue that we can try to divine the limits to in a subsequent case.
But I think what's important, as... as your very comments suggest, is that trying to give meaning to that textual indication that Congress had clearly wanted to capture something beyond traditional navigable waterways and their adjacent wetlands.
Justice Scalia: It's a very vague indication.
I mean, I... I agree with you that your argument based on 404(g) is a strong one, but it... it perhaps is weakened if you believe that in order to stretch to the... to the limit of Federal jurisdiction, you need a clear statement.
I certainly wouldn't consider 404(g)... if... if the act did not previously include the kind of authority you're arguing for, I would not... I would not consider 404(g) a clear statement of that... of that new... new authority.
Mr. Clement: Well, I think even you would concede it's a clear statement that something else must be covered.
Otherwise, other than is completely meaningless in the statute.
And so... and... and I... I grant you that it might not be a clear statement as to the nth tributary, and maybe that's a case on which we can litigate in the future.
But I think what I would say is, for those of your colleagues that want to look at the legislative history, it provides some additional context for 404(g) and makes it very clear that Congress, as this Court found in both Riverside Bayview and in SWANCC, was specifically focused on the coverage of adjacent wetlands.
And it's very clear that they understood that whatever scope of jurisdiction was given to the Corps, that it would bring along with it the adjacent wetlands.
And so there was this long debate.
As I say, the legislative history I think makes it quite clear that they were meant to include the non-navigable tributaries and a substantial amount of the non-navigable tributaries.
And so, I mean, I would invite others to look at that.
I also think that, to get back to a point I made earlier, one thing that's exceedingly clear from that legislative history is nobody in 1977, including those that were advocating restricting the scope of the 404(g) program, wanted to restrict the EPA's jurisdiction under 402.
And so in the legislation that they proposed that eventually found form in 404(g), they expressly decoupled the 404 permitting process and its jurisdiction from the 402 process.
Petitioners' argument, by contrast, necessarily restricts the scope of both of those programs because they are joined in the hip through 301.
And so if they're right that they can dredge and fill in these wetlands, then it is equally true that they can dump toxic materials into those wetlands.
Justice Breyer: Could you just say a word about the... the ditch... sorry... the word about the wetland next to a tributary that's separated by a man-made object like a ditch?
Are there many such instances?
It sounds to me like a scientific question.
Are there many such instances where there is no transfer of water?
And in those instances, is the presence of water in the wetland anything more than a coincidence?
Mr. Clement: --Well--
Justice Breyer: Insofar as it seeks to serve a purpose of the statute to regulate this.
Mr. Clement: --What I would say, Justice Breyer... I... I think I can answer the whole question... is in the vast majority of cases, as I understand it, a berm will not have the effect of actually preventing all hydrological connection.
Justice Breyer: And where do I look to verify that scientific matter?
Mr. Clement: I think a number of the amicus briefs have addressed that.
I wish I could point to you a specific one.
Justice Breyer: No.
I can't find any quantitative assessment.
Mr. Clement: Oh, again, I didn't mean to suggest a percentage.
I just think that... that... let me put it to you this way, and this is the argument we obviously make in the brief.
The best reason to think that a man-made... that a man-made berm or a natural berm is unlikely to prevent all hydrological flow is even those man-made structures that have as their express design to prevent water flow, like dikes and levees and dams, have seepage and leakage from them.
Justice Breyer: Fine.
Now suppose we take a set, which you think exists as not the null set, of instances where there is no such transfer, which your opponents say is this case.
Now what's the justification for regulating those?
If it's simply flood control because water flows over the top and sits there, I guess you could say the same thing is true of any low depression, and therefore, the presence of water would be just a coincidence.
Now, what's your... the fact that they're wet doesn't have anything to do with it.
It's the fact that they're next to a place that floods that has to do with it.
Now, what's wrong with what I just said?
Mr. Clement: --What's wrong with what you just said is that wetlands have unique characteristics that are different just from low-lying areas.
And I think this Court started to recognize that in the Riverside Bayview case.
And the image I would leave you with is the image that wetlands actually act something like a sponge, and because of that characteristic, they play two important roles in helping to regulate the flow of the adjacent water body.
Justice Breyer: Okay, I understand that.
Now, what specifically, since I think this is scientific, do I look at to verify what you just said, namely that a wet depression, even if there's no interchange, has a lot to do with flood control that a dry depression wouldn't have?
That's a scientific statement.
Where do I verify it?
Mr. Clement: And, again, I mean, I would direct you to the amicus briefs that discuss in length the benefits of wetlands, but I understand you won't find those--
Justice Breyer: I read them, and I... I just perhaps wasn't reading them closely enough, but I just can't find the verification directly there.
Mr. Clement: --And... and I sense that you found them lacking in that sense.
I guess what I would say is there's certainly anecdotal evidence in those amicus briefs that I think is quite striking.
Justice Breyer: Well, what am I supposed to do with the case?
I read them quickly.
I don't necessarily pick up everything.
I'll read them again.
But if I don't find empirical verification for that statement, what am I supposed to do with this case?
Mr. Clement: Well, not surprisingly, I would suggest that you defer to the agency in its exercise of expertise.
Justice Breyer: Fine.
And where did the agency, in its many, many proceedings over the course of 35 years, say what you just said, namely that a wetland acts as a sponge?
It's very plausible to me.
It's just that there may be a need to drop a citation somewhere.
Mr. Clement: Well, you... and you could cite to the proceedings in this very case in the joint appendix because although they didn't use the sponge word, there was a specific finding in this case that these wetlands played an important role in flood control and pollution control for the adjacent streams.
Chief Justice Roberts: And if you wanted a cite for the opposite proposition, you could cite subsection (7) of the Corps' regulations where they have no interest in wetlands that happen to be adjacent to other wetlands that are adjacent to the waters of the United States.
If they act in the way that you've been postulating, presumably they'd want to cover those adjacent wetlands just as much as they want to cover the wetlands that are next to the tributary, but they don't.
Mr. Clement: With respect, I don't think that follows because if you read subsection (7), as I do, as only excluding those wetlands that are adjacent to other isolated wetlands, then regulating those wetlands--
Chief Justice Roberts: It doesn't... it doesn't say that.
It says other than waters that are themselves wetlands.
It excludes all wetlands that are adjacent to wetlands that are adjacent to waters of the United States.
Mr. Clement: --Well, and as I said, I think you have to read that in the context not just of the rest of the regulations but of this Court's decision in Riverside Bayview.
The one thing we know from Riverside Bayview is that it's not enough to simply say that your parcel of wetlands is not adjacent to the navigable waterway because in that case, as the Court remarked, it... the parcel ended before it got to the adjacent navigable body of water and there was another wetland.
There was a continuation of the same wetland.
Now, I don't know whether you'd call that two adjacent wetlands.
I might as a common locution.
There might be some different way of referring to that.
But we know that the one wetland was covered because that was the holding of this Court in Riverside Bayview.
So I don't think I would give undue weight to that reading of it especially when, if you read it as I do, it makes perfect sense because a wetland adjacent to an otherwise isolated wetland is not going to have the same role to play in flood control in terms of monitoring the stream volume as a wetland adjacent to an otherwise regulable water body as you have at issue here.
And so I think that that regulatory decision that the Corps has made is one that's perfectly defensible and makes sense.
And I think that... again, I think one other point that I want to note that's kind of specific to this case is part of the reason why it makes sense to regulate a wetland adjacent to an otherwise regulable water body, even if there is a berm present, is illustrated by this case because, as was alluded to, the specific development plan at issue here... and this is clear at joint appendix pages 95 and 160... would sever the berm and create the hydrological link between a smaller, deeper wetland and the adjacent navigable wetland... waterway system.
And so, I mean, it doesn't make a lot of sense, as Justice Stevens suggested, to have a regulatory regime where you have a regulable wetland after but not before a construction project that has the effect of vastly reducing the size of the wetland.
Justice Scalia: So you say that the authority of... I don't... I don't even think the Corps has ever suggested this.
The authority of the Corps extends not only to all that you've... we've been talking about and that you've asserted, but also to lands that, if altered, could have some hydrological connection.
Mr. Clement: No, that's not it, Justice Scalia.
What I'm saying is what the Corps has always done for 30 years is said they are going to regulate a physically proximate, adjacent wetland without regard to whether or not there's a berm there.
I'm just making the subsidiary point that that makes sense because the very construction project that might be at issue might have the effect of changing the degree of the hydrological connection.
I want to be very clear, though.
The hydrological connection has never been the sine qua non of the assertion of regulation authority over the adjacent wetlands.
Justice Scalia: What is... what is the basis for their doing it?
If there is currently no hydrological connection, there is a berm, there is no... there is no connection to the navigable waters of the United... what could possibly be the basis for their asserting jurisdiction?
Mr. Clement: The short answer is flood control.
If there is that berm that... that allows the sponge to soak up water, either rainwater or waters from adjacent parcels, although I think in this case, it would largely be rainwater, that... the fact that there's a berm actually helps in the flood control.
When you sever it, it changes the dynamic quite a bit because then it's somewhat less helpful for flood control--
Justice Scalia: Yes, I--
Mr. Clement: --but actually is earlier in term... plays a better role--
Justice Scalia: --A statute could do that.
A statute could do that.
But this statute requires that it be a water of the United States.
Mr. Clement: --Absolutely.
Justice Scalia: And... and when... when there is nothing but puddles that are isolated by a berm, even from the storm drain which goes to tributaries, I can't conceive of... of how you could consider that that's... you know, at least where it leaks sometimes into the storm drain and went down to a tributary, I think it's an exaggeration, but maybe you could call it a water of the United States.
But where there's a berm that prevents any water from going even into the storm drain which then goes into a tributary, how can you possibly consider that a water of the United States?
Mr. Clement: Well, I think the way I would do it is you start with the tributary.
And if you'll concede for purposes of the illustration or the argument that that's a water of the United States, then what the Corps does as a jurisdictional regulation is treat the adjacent wetland as a water of the United States as well.
That makes sense for two principal reasons.
One, in the overwhelming majority of cases, there is going to be a hydrological connection.
Actually tracing out exactly what it is and how it works is very difficult and not the kind of thing you'd want to get into at the jurisdictional stage, and that's why the Court said that was fine in footnote 9 of Riverside Bayview.
Justice Scalia: That's not the argument I was addressing.
I'm addressing the argument that in changing the land, you may cause it to--
Mr. Clement: And that's not an independent basis for jurisdiction.
It's simply an illustration of why disregarding the berm makes sense.
Justice Scalia: --I'm happy to hear that.
That's all I was trying to establish.
You... you don't assert that that's an independent basis.
Mr. Clement: It is not an independent basis.
It is part of the reason why, though, in the context of wetlands in particular, a focus on physical proximity and adjacency makes sense and a fixation on hydrological connection does not make sense.
Part of the reason you can look at the record here and find differing information about the extent of the hydrological connection is that is not a term that is relevant for the regulatory scheme.
And the same thing was equally true in Riverside Bayview itself.
In fact, in Riverside Bayview, the district court made a finding that the wetland there was hydrologically isolated from the adjacent streams.
Now, as the Solicitor General pointed out in the petition at footnote 7 in Riverside Bayview, we think the best understanding of what was meant there was that there was no overtopping and that there was some drainage.
But that just illustrates the point that hydrological connection is not a statutory term.
It's not a regulatory term.
It's a very loose term and it's not a term the Corps has ever used in regulating adjacent wetlands.
It's important to stress that the regulation for adjacent wetlands that is at issue here, subsection (7), is exactly the same regulation that was at issue in Riverside Bayview.
As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, the Court, when it framed the question presented, framed it in terms of whether or not the Corps could rationally regulate wetlands that were adjacent to navigable waters and their tributaries.
And when they got to the holding, this Court approved the regulation and approved the fact that it asserted jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to otherwise regulable waters.
So if the tributaries are otherwise regulable because they are waters of the United States, it follows directly from Riverside Bayview that the adjacent wetlands are covered as well.
Chief Justice Roberts: You... you put a lot of weight on the tributary question in your approach by giving up the hydrological connection.
Your response is you don't need a hydrological connection because it's right next to a tributary.
But for those of us who are having a little trouble with the concept of tributary, you don't leave us much to fall back on.
Mr. Clement: Well, and... and I'm... I wish that weren't the case, Mr. Chief Justice.
What I would say, though, is that this case has just not framed up the question of tributaries, and that's because... I mean, to put it more favorably to my client, the other side has never taken issue with the fact that their wetlands are adjacent to tributaries.
And I think that's... that's obvious for a couple of reasons.
I mean, first of all, if you look at the property in Carabell, it's just a mile from Lake St. Clair.
It's right next to a substantial drainage ditch which connects to a navigable water, Auvase Creek, and then into Lake St. Clair.
In fact, it's kind of ironic, but the property in Riverside Bayview was also a mile away from Lake St. Clair.
So it's very similar.
If you look at the three sites at issue in Rapanos, one is right next to the Pine River.
One of the others... the whole point of the dredge and fill operation was to drain the wetland through the adjacent tributary systems so the water would go away.
And in the third one, there also isn't an issue about whether or not those are tributaries.
In a different case, that might be an appropriate focus for inquiry.
The last thing, I would say a couple of points before I sit down.
I do think, first, that section 404(g) of the statute is very important because it is the clearest textual indication that Congress intended to regulate something beyond traditional navigable waterways and their adjacent wetlands.
And as this Court itself remarked in SWANCC, the single most likely candidate are the non-navigable tributaries.
The second point to emphasize is that the scope of the Corps' 404 jurisdiction is the same as the EPA's 402 jurisdiction.
They are joined at the hip through the basic prohibition under section 301.
So a conclusion that somehow certain tributaries are excised from the tributary system for purposes of 404 is likewise excising those tributaries and creating a situation where you can have a... a free dump zone at some point above the... above what somebody might put as the limits of the navigable waterway system or the tributary system.
And I think that is something that even the proponents of narrowing the Corps' jurisdiction in 1977 could not countenance.
The last point I would make is that there are going to be real-world consequences to contracting the jurisdiction of the Corps and the EPA to pre-1972 or, really, pre-1899 levels, especially for the downstream States.
I think it's a bit much to ask a legislator in Wisconsin or in Minnesota to stop local development in order to protect the water quality and flood control propensities of the Mississippi River in Mississippi.
That's why it was manifest in 1972 that there was a need for a Federal solution to this problem.
That Federal solution includes as two of its most important components first getting at water pollution at its source, at the point source, and secondly, covering the tributary system without which the navigable waters will continue to be polluted.
Rebuttal of M. Reed Hopper
Chief Justice Roberts: Thank you, General.
Mr. Hopper, you have 4 minutes remaining.
Mr. Hopper: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.
Justice Scalia: Mr. Hopper, I hope you're going to tell us what you make of section 404(g).
Mr. Hopper: I'd be happy to.
In... in Solid Waste Agency, this Court looked at 404(g) and determined that it had... it was not enlightening as to the meaning of navigable waters under 404(a) because Congress did not define other waters in any way.
And this Court likewise concluded that 404(g) was simply not before it and would not draw any conclusions from it.
So I submit that it is really irrelevant.
I note... I want to draw this Court's attention to our footnote 1 in our reply where we point out that... that in every formal rulemaking, the Corps and the EPA have excluded drainage ditches from the definition of tributary.
It is here and now that these agencies are redefining the term tributary to include anything in the hydrological chain.
The Sixth Circuit decision says that any hydrological connection suffices as a significant nexus to bring in wetlands under Federal jurisdiction.
Of course, in... in page 31 of the opposition, the Government argues that neither the directness... excuse me... nor the substantiality of a tributary's connection to traditional navigable waters is relevant to the jurisdictional inquiry.
It's simply not true that the Government is only identifying channelized conduits as tributaries.
Anywhere water flows is a tributary in their book.
Let me also address something that this Court did in SWANCC.
It was not the lack of a hydrological connection in that case that informed this Court's decision to exclude those isolated ponds from Federal jurisdiction.
It was the fact that those... that the regulation of those isolated ponds did not meet the terms of the act and there was no clear indication Congress intended to regulate isolated ponds.
I submit that's this case.
In this case, there is no clear indication that Congress intended to regulate wetlands 20 miles from the nearest navigable water.
Justice Ginsburg: We're told that one of them was much closer.
Mr. Hopper: --The... the record is silent as to the distance between--
Justice Ginsburg: What about the Pine River?
Are you... that's not 20 miles away, is it?
Mr. Hopper: --We don't know how far that is because the record is silent as to the distance between those water bodies.
Justice Ginsburg: Do you know?
The... the Solicitor General represented to us that it was very close.
Are you disputing that as a matter of fact?
Mr. Hopper: I don't know what he means by very close.
The... the Solicitor General would agree with me that... that there's nothing in the record to indicate what those distances are.
And it's irrelevant in... in our opinion whether it's... whether it's a mile or 20 miles or 50 miles or 100 miles, and that's the point.
There does... under the... under the Federal regulations a true, significant nexus is not required, just any hydrological connection.
This is a presumption on congressional authority.
This expansive interpretation destroys any distinction between what is national and what is local under... as... as has already been pointed out.
Under the Federal regulations, you can't dig a ditch in this country without Federal approval.
You can't fill it in.
You can't clean it out without Federal approval.
This reads the term navigable right out of the statute.
We... we ask this Court not to allow these agencies--
Justice Stevens: Of course, when we're talking about the scope of... of Federal power, we're not merely concerned with dumping refuse in the creek, but also deliberate attempts to poison the water system.
Mr. Hopper: --Congress... Congress considered all this when it made its policy decision to defer to the States to address this.
The States have the ability and the will to... to protect their own waters from pollutants of any kind.
And as I indicated earlier, all the States have antipollution regulations.
Justice Stevens: No.
The fact that the States have the power and the interest does not necessarily mean that the Federal Government does not also have the power.
Mr. Hopper: My time is--
Chief Justice Roberts: You may respond briefly.
Mr. Hopper: --Congress determined that it would defer to the States instead of exercising any further power beyond its channels authority.
Chief Justice Roberts: Thank you, counsel.
The case is submitted.
Argument of Speaker
Mr. Clement: Justice Scalia has the announcement in 04-1034, Rapanos versus United States, and 04-1384, Carabell versus United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Argument of Justice Scalia
Mr. Scalia: These cases are here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
I am announcing the judgment of the Court, which is to vacate and remand these cases for further proceedings.
My opinion, which I will now summarize, is joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Alito.
The Clean Water Act makes it illegal without a permit from the Corps of Engineers to discharge dredged or fill material into, “the waters of the United States”.
Getting an individual permit can be enormously expensive -- over $1.7 billion is spent in obtaining them each year -- and the Corps’ regulations allow denial of permits not only for environmental reasons, but also because of economics, aesthetics, recreation and, “in general, the needs and welfare of the people”, factors no less expansive than those taken into account by state and local authorities for land-use zoning.
The two cases before us concern wetlands -- that is, lands sufficiently saturated at least part of the time to support aquatic vegetation -- wetlands in Michigan.
Most of this land lies near ditches or manmade drains that eventually empty into navigable waters.
Petitioners are developers, who claim the right to backfill these lots without getting a permit.
No one here contends that intrastate wetland such as this are, ipso facto, waters of the United States, and our opinions make clear that they are not.
The 6th Circuit held, however, that these wetlands were covered by the Act, because the nearby ditches and drains constituted tributaries of navigable waters and because the wetlands were adjacent to those tributaries, both by reason of their physical proximity and by reason of their hydrologic connection to it.
The 6th Circuit holding is in accord with the Corps’ regulations, which define “waters of the United States” to include, among other things, wetlands adjacent to waters of the United States; and the Corps means by “adjacent” not just a butting, but also nearby or having some hydrologic connection; and the regulations define “waters of the United States” to include tributaries of those waters and defines “tributaries” to include any channel that contains a visible mark of the passage of water, such as a high waterline of litter or debris, even if the channel is ordinarily dry and contains water only during rainfall.
Thus, under its regulations, the Corps has asserted permitting jurisdiction over, as waters of the United States, storm sewers, manmade drainage ditches miles from traditional waterways and arid canyons connected to waters only through the flow of groundwater over centuries and even desert washes that hold rainwater once a year; and it has also asserted jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to these features, by which it means wetlands nearby, even if separated by a 70-foot-wide impermeable dike over which automobiles travel, wetlands that are connected to United States waters by sheet flow of rainwater during storms and wetlands connected to such waters by flooding once every 100 years.
The Corps convinced one district court that a wetland was adjacent simply because, “water molecules currently present in the wetlands”, we’re sure at some point, no matter when or how, to, “intermingle with water” from a navigable river.
Based on its understanding of adjacent wetlands, the Court has asserted jurisdiction over 270 to 300 million acres of wetlands, including half of Alaska and an area the size of California in the lower 48 states.
And based on its definition of tributary, any channel that contains a visible mark of passage of water, no matter how rarely the water passes, constitutes a covered tributary of the waters of the United States.
This includes storm sewers in major cities and dry washes in immense arid deserts.
Thus, a vast portion of the nation’s dry land potentially constitutes waters.
We think all this departs very much indeed from what the statute provides.
With regard to tributaries, the Act authorizes jurisdiction only over the waters of the United States.
Used in the plural and with a definite article, this term refers only, in the words of the dictionary definition to water, “as found in streams and bodies forming geographical features such as oceans, rivers and lakes”.
A country’s waters do not include dry channels, desert washes or storm gutters.
They include streams, rivers, lakes, oceans -- in short, relatively permanent, continuously standing or flowing bodies of water.
The Act itself distinguishes conveyances that typically contain intermittent flows of waters, such as ditches, channels and conduits, from permanent bodies of water by defining the former separately as “point sources”, not as “waters of the United States”.
And the Corps’ broad interpretation is inconsistent with the Act’s stated purpose of preserving the state’s primary responsibility to plan the development and use of land resources, because it makes the Federal Government a de facto regulator of huge tracts of intrastate land.
A waterlogged log in the middle of a town become subject to the Corps’ permitting authority rather than the town’s zoning authority, simply because it is adjacent to a storm drain.
We ordinarily expect a clear and manifest statement from Congress to authorize agency action that pushes to the limits of Congress’s commerce power or that intrudes upon an area of traditional state responsibility, such as land-use regulation.
The Corps’ interpretation does both with no clear and manifest statement other than “the waters of the United States”.
As for the Corps’ expansive definition of “adjacent”, it must be understood, first of all, that the notion of adjacency does not come from the statute; rather, it comes from one of our opinions, called Riverside Bayview, in which we held that wetlands adjacent to covered waters, in the sense that they actually abutted covered waters, were also covered by the Act.
The reason we included those wetlands was that there is an inherent boundary-drawing problem between waters and the adjoining wetlands that they gradually blend into.
When a swamp borders on a river or lake, there is no clear line showing where the water ends and the wetland begins.
Because of this inherent ambiguity, we held that the Corps’ inclusion of “adjacent” -- that is, “abutting” -- wetlands as waters of the United States was a permissible construction of the statute.
Of course, wetlands that are physically separate from covered waters do not present such a boundary-drawing problem and cannot be included as waters of the United States or indeed as waters at all.
The fact that such wetlands may have an ecological relationship to waters of the United States does not mean that they are waters of the United States.
We held that in a case called SWANCC -- that’s an acronym for Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County -- which squarely rejected the notion that the ecological connection between isolated ponds and waters of the United States was enough to render them covered.
Therefore, in order for a wetland that neighbors a ditch or drain to constitute part of the waters of the United States, two criteria must be satisfied: first, the nearby channel must contain a relatively permanent body of water that would normally be described as a stream, river or lake, not merely intermittent or ephemeral flows of water; second, the wetland must have a continuous surface connection to the nearby water, making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the land begins.
Only wetlands that are continuously physically connected to relatively permanent waters are part of those waters.
Our opinion describes why this test will not at all imperil the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent the discharge of liquid pollution into sewers, ditches or other conduits.
It merely reduces the Corps’ asserted jurisdiction to demand permitting for the introduction of solid fill into wetlands.
Many claims have been made in these cases about the environmental benefits achieved by the Corps’ expansive regulation of wetlands.
Even if these claims are true, they cannot justify a patently unreasonable interpretation of the statute.
Congress may, if it wishes, expand the Corps’ jurisdiction beyond what the statute now clearly provides; but we cannot.
The 6th Circuit thus did not apply the correct legal standard to decide these cases.
We would vacate the judgments in both cases and remand them for further proceedings.
Justice Stevens, who will describe his own opinion, would uphold the Corps’ regulations in their entirety; so what I have said in opposition to the regulations responds to his opinion, as well; Justice Kennedy, however, who will also describe his opinion, does not uphold the Corps’ regulations, but proposes a criterion of his own.
Ignoring the text of the statute, he focuses on the phrase “significant nexus”, which we used in the SWANCC case to describe the relationship between an abutting wetland and the waters it abuts.
As though this phrase were the statutory test of jurisdiction, rather than a line from one of our opinions, Justice Kennedy reasons that such a significant nexus exists and therefore Corps jurisdiction exists whenever a storm drain, desert wash, intermittent stream or wetland, “significantly affects”, the quality of waters of the United States.
This is in its effects not an unreasonable disposition.
It just happens not to be the disposition adopted by Congress.
Something that significantly affects waters of the United States does not become waters of the United States, which is the jurisdictional test that Congress has provided.
The Chief Justice has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer join; and Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion.
Argument of Justice Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy: My separate opinion in these consolidated cases agrees that they should be remanded, and for that reason the opinion is a concurrence in the judgment.
The statute here is difficult.
It uses the term “navigable waters”; but by that term, it means something other than waters that can be navigated by boat, and the separate opinions today confront this difficulty in various ways.
In my view, the correct approach has already been stated by the Court’s opinion in our most recent case on the topic, the SWANCC case to which Justice Scalia has just referred.
There, the Court said the regulation can be sustained if there is a significant nexus with the waters that are navigable in the usual sense.
An application of this standard in today’s cases leads me to agree with the plurality that the cases must be remanded; but in most cases, my interpretation of the Act would be closer to that stated in the dissent.
The limits the plurality would impose, in my view, give insufficient deference to Congress’s purposes of enacting the Clean Water Act and to the authority of the executives to implement the statutory mandate.
As one example, the plurality asserts that the extent of the term “navigable waters” may be confined as it proposes, because the deposit of fill material, such as dredge, spoil, rock, sand and the like, requires different treatment from discharges of soluble pollutants, such as toxic waste.
Yet, the Act’s prohibition on the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters covers both these forms of pollution, the discharge of fill and the discharge of toxic materials.
One reason for the parallel treatment may be that the discharge of fill material can impure downstream water quality.
It seems plausible that new or loose fill not anchored by grass or roots from other vegetation could travel downstream through waterways adjacent to a wetland; at least this is a factual possibility that the Corps’ experts can better assess than we can.
Silt, whether from natural or human sources, is a major factor in aquatic environments.
They clog waterway, alter ecosystems.
It may also and does limit the useful life of dams.
Sediment builds up on the reservoir side of the main dam wall, and to date there is just no solution for this other than to say that the dam’s life is limited.
There is also another reason for the parallel treatment.
As the Court observed in Riverside Bayview Homes, also referred to by all of the opinions and just mentioned by Justice Scalia, the Corps has concluded that wetlands may serve to filter and purify water draining into adjacent bodies of water and to slow the flow of surface runoffs into lakes, rivers and streams and thus prevent flooding and erosion.
Where wetlands perform these filterings and runoff-control functions, filling them may increase downstream pollution, much as the discharge of toxic pollutants would.
In many cases, moreover, filling in wetlands separated from another water by a berm or other barrier can mean that floodwater impurities or runoff that would have been stored and contained in the wetlands will instead flow out to major waterways.
With these concerns in mind, the Corps’ definition of “adjacency”, which the plurality opinion would reject, is a reasonable one.
In many instances, it may be the absence of an interchange of water prior to the dredge-and-fill activities that makes the protection of the wetlands critical to the statutory scheme.
The significant nexus requirement, then, in my view, is responsive to these concerns.
In both the consolidated cases before us, the Court of Appeals recognized the significant nexus standard, and in both cases, as acclaimed in my opinion, the record contains evidence suggesting the possible existence of that nexus.
Nevertheless, neither the Court of Appeals nor the agency considered all of the factors necessary to determine whether the wetlands in question had or did not have this requisite nexus.
Although the end result in these cases may be the same as that suggested by the dissent -- namely, that the Corps’ assertion of jurisdiction is valid -- I believe a remand is necessary for a consideration of the issues in the proper terms.
Argument of Justice Stevens
Mr. Stevens: My dissenting opinion is joined by Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer.
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, coated with a slick of industrial waste, actually caught fire.
Congress responded to that dramatic event and others like it by enacting the Clean Water Act.
The text of the statute states that it was intended to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
It proclaimed the ambitious goal of ending water pollution by 1985.
The cost of achieving that goal persuaded President Nixon to veto the statute; but both Houses of Congresses voted to override that veto by overwhelming margins.
The Clean Water Act is fairly characterized as watershed legislation.
It endorsed fundamental changes in both the purpose and the scope of federal regulation of the nation’s waters.
Whereas earlier statutes had assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers the task of regulating navigable water in order to protect their use as highways for the transportation of goods in interstate commerce, the Clean Water Act broadened the Corps’ mission to include the purpose of protecting the quality of the nation’s waters for aesthetic, health, recreational and environmental purposes.
The statute did not define a new category of non-navigable waters that the Corps was authorized to regulate; instead, Congress simply redefined the term “navigable waters” to encompass all of the waters of the United States.
Congress gave the Corps the authority to control pollution in what were formerly non-navigable waters, not by defining their connection to navigable waters, but rather by categorically defining, for statutory purposes, as, “navigable waters”.
The statutory definition in the Clean Water Act does not contain any requirement of either actual or potential navigability.
In order to achieve the goal of cleaning up the waters of the United States, Congress assigned broad regulatory powers to two Executive agencies, the Army Corps of Engineer and the Environmental Protection Agency, two agencies that can employ scientists and technicians having expertise in such matters as flood control, wildlife protection and pollution, matters that are not particularly familiar to graduates of law schools.
They had assigned the agencies to draft and enforce regulations to achieve the statute’s ambitious goal.
After debate both within the agencies and in Congress, they agreed on regulations that prohibit the filling of marshes, swamps and other wetlands adjacent to tributaries of navigable waters without first obtaining a permit from the Corps.
And of course, if it was a de minimis problem, the Corps would issue the permit.
The narrow issue presented by these two cases is whether the petitioners may fill some 66 acres of marshy wetlands in southeastern Michigan in order to develop the properties commercially without the permission of the Army Corps.
Because each of their opinions -- that is, Justice Scalia’s opinion and Justice Kennedy’s opinion -- explains why the other’s is unfaithful to the statute, I shall merely explain why those in dissent agree with the Corps, with the unanimous view of the district and circuit judges who reviewed the evidence in these two cases and with the Solicitor General, who represents the Executive branch of the Government, that the fact that these wetlands are adjacent to tributaries of navigable waters is a sufficient basis for the exercise of federal jurisdiction.
The Corps has simply applied the plain language of regulations that have been in place for over 30 years that were implicitly approved by Congress when it amended the statute in 1977, that were endorsed by this Court’s unanimous decision in Riverside Bayview case in 1985 and that have been enforced in case after case after case for over three decades.
Thus, the issue presented to us when we granted certiorari did not involve any conflict among the lower courts; it was an issue had been well-settled by all three branches of our Government since at least 1985.
Today, however, five Justices have decided to upset a well-settled balance.
Rather than continuing to defer to the Corps’ longstanding interpretation of the statute that Congress authorized them to administer, they have come up with two separate approaches.
Not only are both approaches wrong, as each of them explains in his criticism of the other’s opinion; but more significantly, their joint conclusion represents an unwise shift in our jurisprudence.
Since our unanimous decision in 1984 in Chevron against the National Resources Defense Council -- an opinion, by the way, that I am rather proud of -- we have repeatedly held that if statutory language is ambiguous, we should uphold any reasonable interpretation adopted by the expert agency entrusted by Congress with enforcing the statute.
Yet, neither Justice Scalia nor Justice Kennedy pays more than lip service to this well-settled principle.
The approach that the four of us in dissent would take, by contrast, follows directly from our unanimous opinions in Riverside Bayview and Chevron.
Riverside Bayview recognized that the phrase “waters of the United States” is exactly the sort of ambiguous language that gives rise to deference under Chevron.
The Corps has interpreted this phrase to cover wetlands adjacent to tributaries of traditionally navigable waters.
Given the importance of wetlands for water quality, for flood control and the need to prevent pollution at its source, treating all such wetlands as waters of the United States is eminently reasonable.
An unusual feature of today’s judgment merits a final comment.
While five Justices have voted to vacate the Court of Appeals’ judgment in these two cases, the two controlling opinions propose two very different tests for the courts to follow on remand.
Because all of the Justices who have joined my dissent would uphold the Corps’ jurisdiction in both cases, on remand, the court should find that the Corps has jurisdiction if either Justice Scalia’s or Justice Kennedy’s test is met.
In addition to joining my dissent, Justice Breyer has filed a separate dissent explaining that when Congress used the term “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act, it intended to exercise its full power under the Commerce Clause.