On January 18, 2023, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) adopted revised definitions of “waters of the United States.” The Clean Water Act (CWA) empowers federal agencies to regulate activities that may affect “waters of the United States”—sometimes called “navigable waters.” These activities include water quality planning and discharge regulation by EPA and delegated states, and regulation of projects that may lead to “dredge and fill” of waters, requiring permits from the Corps. The remainder of this note offers a brief summary of the last 20 years of judicial reinterpretations and regulatory responses, and discusses the latest revisions.
On November 22, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the success of its ongoing National Compliance Initiative for “Reducing Significant Non-Compliance (SNC) with NPDES Permits,” addressing high levels of non-compliance with individual permits to discharge water pollutants under the Clean Water Act’s (CWA’s) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system (NPDES). EPA started the Initiative in fiscal year (FY) 2018, in cooperation with delegated state water quality agencies, after compiling and evaluating permit holders’ data showing significant non-compliance by over 20% of the 46,000 permitted facilities around the country. The Initiative’s goal has been to cut non-compliance in half by the end of FY 2022. EPA’s November 22 report claims that this goal has been exceeded, with significant non-compliance rates down to 9%.