On December 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Department of the Army (“DOA”) (“Agencies”) released their much-anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Proposed Rule”), which if adopted would scale back the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) by narrowing the definition of “Waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) to include only those waters that are oceans, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands, and their “naturally occurring surface water channels.” The practical implications for project proponents of the Proposed Rule are that ephemeral streams and many ponds and ditches used in agricultural, industrial and construction activities would no longer be within the jurisdictional reach of the CWA, alleviating the requirement for and uncertainty surrounding permitting requirements and related mitigation measures. The next step in the Proposed Rule’s process is publication in the Federal Register, after which the Agencies will accept public comments on the proposal until 60 days after Federal Register publication.
On July 20, 2018, President Trump signed into law two pieces of legislation alleviating complex federal land use issues for two FERC-licensed hydropower projects in Alaska. Strongly supported by the entire Alaska congressional delegation, Public Law No: 115-200 and Public Law No: 115-201 respectively allow the Swan Lake Hydroelectric Project (“Swan Lake”) and Terror Lake Hydroelectric Project (“Terror Lake”) to pursue needed and scheduled updates to their operations to maintain sufficient electric capacity for their customers in the Last Frontier.
On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) clarified their guidelines for when offsets are required for wetlands impaired by development on the Last Frontier. The new policy recognizes the uniqueness of Alaska for wetlands permitting, by allowing alternatives and flexibility related to compensatory mitigation as Alaska is home to 174 million acres of wetlands covering 43 percent of the land area.
On June 29, 2018, Department of the Interior (“Interior”) issued a public notice withdrawing an opinion issued January 13, 2017 by Interior’s then-Solicitor, Hilary Tompkins, which concluded that Interior retains the authority to acquire land into trust for Alaska natives.
On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Washington through a 4-4 split, with Justice Kennedy taking no part in the decision due to his involvement in similar cases during his time as a circuit judge on the Ninth Circuit. The immediate effect of the high court’s decision will be to require the State of Washington to replace or modify, at the State’s expense, several hundred culverts placed in streams under roads and bridges throughout the State. In the longer run, however, the decision could have much more far-reaching impacts related to federal and state obligations to protect against habitat degradation of salmon and other aquatic species pursuant to their obligations under several Nineteenth Century treaties reached with Native American Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.