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EPA and Army Finalize Rule Establishing Definition of WOTUS and Restoring Fundamental Water Protections

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of the Army (the agencies) announced a final rule establishing a durable definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) to reduce uncertainty from changing regulatory definitions, protect people’s health, and support economic opportunity. The final rule restores essential water protections that were in place prior to 2015 under the Clean Water Act for traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, interstate waters, as well as upstream water resources that significantly affect those waters. As a result, this action will strengthen fundamental protections for waters that are sources of drinking water while supporting agriculture, local economies, and downstream communities.

“When Congress passed the Clean Water Act 50 years ago, it recognized that protecting our waters is essential to ensuring healthy communities and a thriving economy,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Following extensive stakeholder engagement, and building on what we’ve learned from previous rules, EPA is working to deliver a durable definition of WOTUS that safeguards our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and protects people’s health while providing greater certainty for farmers, ranchers, and landowners.”

“This final rule recognizes the essential role of the nation’s water resources in communities across the nation,” said Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor. “The rule’s clear and supportable definition of waters of the United States will allow for more efficient and effective implementation and provide the clarity long desired by farmers, industry, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders.”

This rule establishes a durable definition of “waters of the United States” that is grounded in the authority provided by Congress in the Clean Water Act, the best available science, and extensive implementation experience stewarding the nation’s waters. The rule returns to a reasonable and familiar framework founded on the pre-2015 definition with updates to reflect existing Supreme Court decisions, the latest science, and the agencies’ technical expertise. It establishes limits that appropriately draw the boundary of waters subject to federal protection.

The final rule restores fundamental protections so that the nation will be closer to achieving Congress’ goal in the Clean Water Act that American waters be fishable and swimmable, and above all, protective of public health. It will also ensure that the nation’s waters support recreation, wildlife, and agricultural activity, which is fundamental to the American economy. The final rule will cover those waters that Congress fundamentally sought to protect in the Clean Water Act—traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, interstate waters, as well as upstream water resources that significantly affect those waters.

More information, including a pre-publication version of the Federal Register notice and fact sheets, is available at EPA’s “Waters of the United States” website.

Accompanying the issuance of the final rule, the agencies are also releasing several resources to support clear and effective implementation in communities across America. Today, a summary of 10 regional roundtables was released that synthesizes key actions the agencies will take to enhance and improve implementation of “waters of the United States.” These actions were recommendations provided during the 10 regional roundtables where the agencies heard directly from communities on what is working well from an implementation perspective and where there are opportunities for improvement. The roundtables focused on the geographic similarities and differences across regions and provided site specific feedback about the way the scope of “waters of the United States” has been implemented by the agencies.

Today, the agencies are also taking action to improve federal coordination in the ongoing implementation of “waters of the United States.” First, EPA and Army are issuing a joint coordination memo to ensure the accuracy and consistency of jurisdictional determinations under this final rule. Second, the agencies are issuing a memo with U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide clarity on the agencies’ programs under the Clean Water Act and Food Security Act.

Background
On June 9, 2021, EPA and the Department of the Army announced their intent to revise the definition of “waters of the United States” to better protect our nation’s vital water resources that support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth. On Nov. 18, 2021, the agencies announced the signing of a proposed rule revising the definition of “waters of the United States.”

The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants from a point source into “navigable waters” unless otherwise authorized under the Act. “Navigable waters” are defined in the Act as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” Thus, “waters of the United States” is a threshold term establishing the geographic scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The term “waters of the United States” is not defined by the Act but has been defined by the agencies in regulations since the 1970s and jointly implemented in the agencies’ respective programmatic activities.

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