March 01, 2018

The Clean Water Act goes underground: An analysis and implications of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui

Gary Steinbauer

On February 1, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, No. 15-17447 (9th Cir.), held that the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act) regulates point source discharges that travel indirectly through groundwater to a jurisdictional surface water—that is, a navigable “water of the United States.” Maui is the first federal appellate court decision in a recent wave of citizen suits by environmental groups relying on the so-called “groundwater conduit” theory of CWA liability. The Fourth Circuit and Sixth Circuit are poised to weigh in next and, in the wake of the Maui decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a 90-day public comment period on whether it should clarify or revise its own past statements on the theory and whether it is consistent with the text, structure, and purposes of the CWA. 83 Fed. Reg. 7126 (Feb. 20, 2018).

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