Friday, August 11, 2006

Ninth Circuit Interprets Supreme Court Wetlands Decision

Aug 10: In the case of Northern California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, Case No. 04-15442. [Editor's Note: The Ninth Circuit provides considerable discussion of its interpretation of the Rapanos decision and, in particular, the interpretation of Justice Kennedy's "controlling" opinion. The discussion begins on page 9 of the opinion.]

The City of Healdsburg appeals the district court’s judgment in favor of Northern California River Watch, an environmental group, in this litigation under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Plaintiff alleges that Healdsburg, without first obtaining a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, violated the CWA by discharging sewage from its waste treatment plant into waters covered by the Act. Healdsburg discharged the sewage into a body of water known as “Basalt Pond,” a rock quarry pit that had filled with water from the surrounding aquifer, located next to the Russian River.

The issue is whether Basalt Pond is subject to the CWA because the Pond contains wetlands adjacent to a navigable river of the United States. The district court held that discharges into the Pond are discharges into the Russian River, a navigable water of the United States protected by the CWA. The court followed the United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc., 474 U.S. 121 (1985).

The Ninth Circuit, in what is believed to be the first Appeals Court interpretation of the Supreme Court's Rapanos decision [See WIMS 8/2/06] said, "The Supreme Court, however, has now narrowed the scope of that decision. See Rapanos v. United States, 126 S.Ct. 2208 (2006). In a 4-4-1 decision, the controlling opinion is that of Justice Kennedy who said that to qualify as a navigable water under the CWA the body of water itself need not be continuously flowing, but that there must be a “significant nexus” to a waterway that is in fact navigable. Adjacency of wetlands to navigable waters alone is not sufficient. Id. at 2236-52. In light of Rapanos, we conclude that Basalt Pond and its wetlands possess such a “significant nexus” to waters that are navigable in fact, because the Pond waters seep directly into the navigable Russian River. We affirm the district court’s holding that Basalt Pond is subject to the CWA. We also affirm the district court’s ruling that neither the waste treatment system nor the excavation operation exceptions in the Act apply to Healdsburg’s discharges."

In it discussion of the Supreme Court ruling in Rapanos, the Ninth Circuit said, "In the last term, however, the Supreme Court discussed the intersection between Riverside Bayview Homes and SWANCC. United States v. Rapanos, 126 S.Ct. 2208 (2006). The Rapanos decision involved two consolidated cases, United States v. Rapanos, 376 F.3d 629 (6th Cir. 2004) (Rapanos I) and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 391 F.3d 704 (6th Cir. 2004)...

"In Rapanos, a 4-4-1 plurality opinion, the Supreme Court addressed how the term 'navigable waters' should be construed under the Act. The plurality, written by Justice Scalia for four Justices, would have reversed on the grounds that only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are 'waters of the United States' are protected under the CWA. Justice Stevens, writing the dissent for four Justices, would have affirmed on the grounds that wetlands not directly adjacent to navigable waters, but adjacent to tributaries of navigable waters, are protected under the CWA. Justice Stevens argued that Riverside Bayview Homes is still the controlling precedent and does not require a 'significant nexus' test.

"Justice Kennedy, constituting the fifth vote for reversal, concurred only in the judgment and, therefore, provides the controlling rule of law. See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977) (explaining that '[w]hen a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds')..."

Access the complete opinion (click here). On August 1: The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water, Chaired by Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) held a hearing on interpreting the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in the joint cases of Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on "The Waters of the United States". Access the hearing website and links to all testimony (click here). Access a "simple" explanation of the Rapanos v. U.S. decision from QuizLaw (click here). [*Water]