From “Navigable Waters” to “Constitutional Waters”: The Future of Federal Wetlands Regulation
Wetlands regulation in the United States has a tumultuous history. The early European settlers viewed wetlands as obstacles to development, and they drained and filled wetlands and swamps at an astounding rate, often with government support, straight through the middle of the twentieth century. As evidence of the ecological significance of wetlands emerged over the last several decades, programs to protect and restore wetlands became prominent. Most notable among these is the permitting program under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. That provision prohibits dredging or filling of “navigable waters, ” defined by law to mean “waters of the United States.” Since 1975, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), which is primarily responsible for the section 404 permitting program, has construed “navigable waters” expansively to encompass most wetlands that could affect interstate commerce. In three decisions over the course of twenty years, the Supreme Court has expressed increasing skepticism that the phrase “navigable waters” supports the Corps’ broad claim of regulatory authority. In its most recent decision, United States v. Rapanos, 126 S.Ct. 2208 (2006), a majority of the Court found that the phrase “navigable waters” encompassed only those waters that met the traditional test for navigability.
This Article considers the state of federal wetlands regulation after Rapanos. It begins by describing the significant role that wetlands play in the ecological health of the planet, and the impracticality of setting standards to protect those wetlands at the state or local level. It then examines the history of wetlands regulation, focusing in particular on the Clean Water Act, and the problems encountered with regulating wetlands by federal agencies and in the courts. The Article concludes with recommendations for improving the section 404 program. While the Corps can and perhaps should adopt rules to clarify the law, the time is long overdue for Congress to amend the Clean Water Act to clarify the scope of federal authority over wetlands. In doing so, Congress should affirm its original intent to establish a comprehensive federal program for wetlands regulation under the Clean Water Act. This can best be accomplished by abandoning the ill-fated use of the phrase “navigable waters” and substituting a new phrase such as “constitutional waters,” which will clearly convey Congress’s intent to encompass all waters that are subject to federal jurisdiction under the constitution.