Fairfield Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs v. Nally, 34 N.E.3d 873 (Ohio 2015) (holding that a new Total Maximum Daily Load for pollutant discharges into a watershed was a rule as defined under the Ohio Administrative Procedure Act and, as such, should have been properly promulgated to afford interested parties their rights to notice and be heard before the rule’s submission to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval).

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act, seeks to restore and maintain the integrity of U.S. waters through (i) technology-based effluent limitations on “point sources” discharging pollutants; and (ii) water-quality standards for protecting the use of identified water bodies. The Clean Water Act also requires each state to identify waterways that are too impaired to implement applicable water-quality standards and then rank waterways based on pollution severity. States must then develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which establishes a maximum amount of the specified pollutant that may be discharged into the waterway without violating water-quality standards. Once the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) approves a state’s TMDL, the state must implement that TMDL.

Pursuant to these requirements, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“Ohio EPA”) developed a document in 2005 called the “Total Maximum Daily Loads for the Big Walnut Creek Watershed” (“TMDL report”), which the EPA subsequently approved. Using stream-survey data from 2000 of Blacklick Creek—one of the 54 “stream segments” in the Big Walnut Creek watershed—the report put forth new phosphorous discharge limits for Blacklick Creek. The Tussing Road Water Reclamation Facility (“Tussing Road plant”), owned by Fairfield County (“the county”), is one of the sources subject to the report’s new limitation. In 2006, the county applied for and received a renewed National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit for the Tussing Road plant. The new permit included the TDML-derived phosphorous discharge limitation.

The county appealed this limit to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (“ERAC”), which found that while the Ohio EPA had a valid basis for imposing the limit, it failed to consider whether such a limit was feasible. Thus, the ERAC vacated the phosphorous limit and remanded the case to the Ohio EPA. Subsequently, the county appealed the ERAC’s finding that the Ohio EPA had a valid foundation for imposing the limit, and the Ohio EPA cross-appealed (asserting that the TMDL had been federally approved and that federal law required Ohio EPA to set the phosphorous limit). The Tenth District Court of Appeals (“lower court”) affirmed the ERAC’s order, finding that there was sufficient factual foundation for a phosphorous limitation and rejecting the county’s assertions that the new limitation lacked meaningful review and, therefore, violated due process. The county appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio (“Court”).

The Court first considered whether the TMDL was a “rule” within the requirements of Chapter 119 of the Ohio Administrative Procedure Act, which defines a “rule” as any “standard, having a general and uniform operation, adopted, promulgated, and enforced by any agency.” Because the TMDL sets a new legal standard—applied by the Ohio EPA—to “all current and future dischargers in the Big Walnut Creek watershed,” the Court observed that the limit fell within Chapter 119’s definition of “rule.” Additionally, the Court disagreed with the agency’s argument that the TMDL is merely a tool for implementing its pre-existing legal obligation. Examining the consequences of a TMDL, the Court determined that even though the Ohio EPA allocated limits individually to different point sources, the same standards and procedures applied to each; thus, the TMDL had “general and uniform effect.” Finally, the Court noted that the TMDL creates new legal obligations. The results of the TMDL development process were new mandatory loading reductions rather than “mere enforcement of compliance with existing authority,” as argued by the Ohio EPA. Thus, the Court held this indicated that the TMDL was indeed a rule subject to rulemaking procedures.

The Court then addressed the county’s second argument—that the TMDL itself establishes a new water-quality standard and therefore requires rulemaking procedures. Previously, the Ohio EPA had promulgated a narrative standard for phosphorous in the Ohio Administrative Code, requiring limitations on phosphorous “to the extent necessary to prevent nuisance growths of algae, weeds, and slimes that result in a violation of water quality criteria.” However, the TMDL imposes a numeric limit for phosphorous for all water bodies in the Big Walnut Creek watershed. The Court found that this new numeric limit constituted a water-quality standard; therefore it should have been first promulgated as a rule under Chapter 119.

Because the TMDL was a rule, the Court held that the Ohio EPA should have complied with Chapter 119’s rulemaking procedures, which include providing public notice, an opportunity for public comment, and a public hearing before using the TMDL-derived target in an NPDES permit. The Court found that while the Ohio EPA did make a draft of the TMDL available for public review before submission to the EPA, that act alone did not satisfy the rulemaking procedural requirements. Because agencies must give the public certain due process rights before a rule attains final federal approval, the Court held that Ohio EPA’s failure to do so ultimately deprived NPDES permit holders of their rights to notice and be heard regarding the rule.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment, vacating the new phosphorous standard and remanding the cause to the Ohio EPA.

Justice O’Donnell concurred as to the ruling, but agreed with the court of appeals’ reasoning. Justice O’Connell observed that the Ohio Administrative Code allows water-quality standards to be either numeric or narrative in nature, and the Ohio EPA had already promulgated the narrative standard for phosphorous limits (quoted above). Because TMDLs merely provide the factual and technological data needed to implement Ohio water-quality standards, Justice O’Donnell argued that TMDLs are not administrative rules and need not be promulgated as such. In O’Donnell’s view, TMDLs are not legal standards, but objective, factual determinations that the Ohio EPA makes to interpret and implement the water-quality standards. Accordingly, Justice O’Donnell would affirm the court’s ruling on the grounds that the Ohio EPA did not challenge the lower court’s determination that the Ohio EPA failed to consider the technical feasibility and economic reasonableness of the limit, rather than the Court’s ruling that the TMDL was a rule.

Katy Rankin

Image: Turtle Pond Panorama, Three Creeks Metro Park, where Big Walnut Creek is joined by its principal tributaries Alum Creek and Blacklick Creek, Columbus Ohio.  Flickr user Raymond Wald, Creative Commons.

Alaska Wilderness League v. Jewell, 788 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2015) (affirming the district court’s ruling that: (i) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s approval of the challenged oil spill response plans was not arbitrary and capricious; (ii) the Endangered Species Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to consult with any environmental agencies before approving oil spill response plans; (iii) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was entitled to Chevron deference for its interpretation of the Oil Pollution Act; and (iv) the National Environmental Policy Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to do an environmental impact statement before approving an oil spill response plan).

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) outlines the procedure for exploration and development of oil and gas resources offshore. This process has four stages. First, the Secretary of Interior creates a five-year leasing program under which operators may search and mine for oil and gas. Second, the Secretary must approve the leases under agreed upon terms and conditions. Third, the lessee must provide the Secretary with a plan of exploration and an Oil Spill Response Plan (“OSRP”) pursuant to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). Fourth, after searching for oil and gas, and successfully finding either, the lessee has must submit a production and development plan to the Secretary for approval.

At the third stage, the Secretary of the Interior has delegated its power to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) to approve OSRPs to prevent and respond to oil spills. The CWA requires these plans at four levels: national, regional, local, and individual. At the individual level, owners and operators must propose an OSRP for approval that outlines their response to a potential “worst case discharge” of oil or some other hazardous substance.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. (collectively “Shell”) acquired three leases for offshore exploration and production—two leases in the Beaufort in 2005 and 2007, and one in the Chukchi Seas in 2008. Shell complied with all regulations at the time for intended exploration, but due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Secretary of the Interior placed a temporary moratorium on all offshore drilling. The United States Department of Interior required owners and operators to provide new information in all OSRPs after the moratorium ended. To comply with the new criteria, Shell updated its OSRPs for its three leases. BSEE approved the updated Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OSRPs.

Alaska Wilderness League, a coalition of environmental groups, sued Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, in her official capacity because of the approval of Shell’s three OSRPs. Shell intervened as a co-defendant. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska (“district court”) ruled in favor of Jewell and Shell. Alaska Wilderness League appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (“Court”). The Court reviewed the granting of summary judgment de novo and reviewed the record of the agency’s action under the arbitrary and capricious standard.

First, Alaska Wilderness League argued BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was arbitrary and capricious because Shell assumed it would be able to recover ninety to ninety-five percent of any oil spilled in either of the seas via mechanical means. A figure that Alaska Wilderness League claimed was unrealistic and that Shell failed to support with any evidence. The Court did not agree with Alaska Wilderness League’s interpretation, finding instead that Shell could store, not recover, ninety to ninety-five percent of any spilled oil. Further, the Court found that BSEE did not rely on this information in approving Shell’s OSRPs. Therefore, the Court found that the record did not support Alaska Wilderness League’s argument. Accordingly, the Court concluded BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was not arbitrary and capricious.

The Court next addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s argument that BSEE failed to consult with other agencies in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The Court disagreed. The Court reasoned that ESA only triggers consultation when the agency’s involvement is discretionary, and, in this case, BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was non-discretionary. Therefore, the Court held that ESA did not require BSEE to do a consultation.

The Court then went through a two-step Chevron deference analysis to assess BSEE’s interpretation of the applicable sections of the CWA. At step one of its Chevron analysis, whether the statute in question is ambiguous, the Court found that the CWA was ambiguous in both its structure and its language. The Court found the CWA has ambiguous language because of three pertinent sections: (i) 33 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) requires an operator to “prepare and submit . . . a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge;” (ii) § 1321(j)(5)(D) lists six requirements that the OSRP “shall” meet; and (iii) § 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) states that if the OSRP meets all six requirements, then BSEE “shall” approve it.

Specifically, the Court found the text ambiguous as to whether BSEE has the discretion to consider any additional environmental factors in making its determination of an OSRP. The Court found that the “maximum extent practicable” language in § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) suggested the agency had discretion in its approval of an OSRP. However, the Court also found §§ 1321(j)(5)(D) and 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) to be a laundry list of requirements that an OSRP must meet. If an OSRP meets those requirements, then BSEE must approve the plan; removing any agency discretion. Additionally, the Court found the statute’s structure ambiguous because of the discretionary language in one section, and the rigid language in the one following it. The Court found this difference created “a statute whose halves do not correspond to each other – giving rise to ambiguity that calls for Chevron deference.” Under this finding of ambiguity, the Court found it must defer to BSEE’s interpretation of the statute as long as its interpretation is reasonable.

The Court then underwent the second step of the Chevron analysis to determine whether BSEE’s interpretation was reasonable. Courts must defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute as long as that interpretation is reasonable. The Court found that BSEE’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable. BSEE argued that § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) mandated it to promulgate regulations that help operators follow the OSRP requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(D). Then, separately, § 1321(j)(5)(D)-(E) lists exactly what the OSRP shall include and the agency shall approve. The Court agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that the statute mandated the agency to publish regulations to outline how operators can comply with the list. The Court also agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that it could not consider anything more than the list when granting an OSRP. The Court, having found BSEE’s interpretation to be reasonable, deferred to the agency’s interpretation.

The Court also found that BSEE’s interpretation was consistent with longstanding agency policy. The Court explained how BSEE has a history of regulating in conformity with the goals of the Oil Pollution Act that amended the CWA. The legislative history of the Oil Pollution Act suggests that Congress meant to create specific requirements of OSRPs, not guidelines open to interpretation by the courts or agencies.

Lastly, the Court addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s four additional arguments. First, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the similarity in language between the requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(E) and the section of the statute governing federal response plans to spills subjected the approval of OSRPs to ESA consultation. However, the Court disagreed with this interpretation. Under the sections of the statute governing federal response plans, an ESA recommendation may prompt agency action, but the plan “shall include, but not be limited to” a number of factors. This federal response plan requirement, unlike that in § 1321(j)(5)(E), does not limit the factors to those listed.

Second, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the regulations contain no language to support approval of the OSRPs just because they address the clean up plan to some degree. The Court quickly dismissed this argument. The Court found that the statute states that the purpose of the OSRP is to prepare a response plan for an accident at sea resulting in release of oil, and that Congress ordered these plans be in compliance with “the Oil Pollution Act’s amendments to the Clean Water Act.” The Court deferred to BSEE’s interpretation that the OSRPs were sufficient and justly approved, despite any explicit language governing BSEE’s decision.

Third, Alaska Wilderness League argued that BSEE had discretion over whether OSRPs met the criteria in § 1321(j)(5)(E), thus triggering ESA consultation. The Court found this argument to be at odds with previous Supreme Court’s rulings. The Supreme Court previously held that “ESA cannot defeat an agency’s nondiscretionary statutory directive.” The Court held that BSEE’s act of granting OSRPs was nondiscretionary, and so it did not trigger any interagency review under ESA.

Lastly, Alaska Wilderness League claimed that BSEE violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by failing to do an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) before approving the OSRPs. Under NEPA, all federal agencies must conduct an EIS before conducting any “major Federal action” that significantly affects the environment. However, the Court noted that there is an exception to this requirement when the environmental impact is the result of a decision over which the agency had no discretion. The Court ruled that because BSEE had no discretion over the approval of the OSRPs under the statute, it also had no discretion over the environmental impacts, making BSEE exempt from performing an EIS.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling.

D.W. Nelson, Senior Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Senior Circuit Judge Nelson agreed with the majority’s ruling that BSEE acted appropriately when it approved the OSRPs in question, but dissented to all other aspects of the majority opinion. Specifically, the dissent agreed with Alaska Wilderness League’s contention that BSEE’s action was discretionary, triggering an ESA consultation.

The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s finding that BSEE was exempt from performing a NEPA analysis. The dissent did not agree with the majority’s interpretation of the NEPA exception. The dissent argued that as a regulator of environmental consequences “the [BSEE] did in fact possess the kind of discretion that necessitated NEPA review.”

William James Tilton

Image: Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico. Flickr user Green Fire Productions, Creative Commons.

Askins v. Ohio Dep’t of Agric., 809 F.3d 868 (6th Cir. 2016) (holding that i) the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision does not apply to notification requirements; ii) the Clean Water Act’s notification requirement is not a condition of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; iii) the Clean Water Act does not permit a cause of action against non-polluting regulators for violations of procedural regulations; and iv) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to hold a hearing was not a failure to perform a non-discretionary duty, and as such was not actionable under the Clean Water Act).

This was an appeal from The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, which dismissed all of appellants’, Larry and Vickie Askins (“Askinses”), claims.  The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“Ohio EPA”) administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“U.S. EPA”) approval.  In 2001, the Ohio legislature authorized the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) to apply to the U.S. EPA to transfer authority from Ohio EPA to ODA, so that ODA could administer part of the state-NPDES program.  The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permits such a transfer, but requires the U.S. EPA’s permission prior to transfer.  The Askinses alleged that the transfer took place in 2001, while the Ohio EPA didn’t seek permission until some five years later.  As such, the Askinses sued under the CWA’s citizen suit provision, alleging various violations of the CWA.

The lower court held that the Askinses failed to state a claim under the CWA, the U.S. EPA did not fail to perform a non-discretionary duty under the CWA, and the U.S. EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the ODA did not violate the CWA.  The Askinses appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”), arguing that the CWA’s citizen suit provision permitted their cause of action.

First, the Court considered whether the Askinses could maintain a citizen suit action for a violation of the CWA’s notice requirement under Section 1314.  The Court reasoned that the notice requirement at issue is not an enumerated provision requiring compliance, and as such, the citizen suit provision does not encompass alleged violations of the requirement.

Next, the Court considered whether the notification requirement was a “condition.”  The Court concluded that the notification requirement serves as a timing mechanism, which triggers a state’s ability to apply to administer the NPDES program, as opposed to a substantive requirement.  Further, the notification requirement referred to EPA approval of a state’s permit program, not a state’s approval of individual permits.  Finally, the Court concluded that the Askinses’ reading of the notification requirement as a condition was contradictory to NPDES requirements, specifically that state and federal permit conditions be the same.  As such, the Court held that the CWA’s notification requirement is not a permit “condition.”

Third, the Court determined whether there existed a private cause of action against regulators for violations of procedural regulations.  The Court concluded that if Congress intended the citizen suit provision to permit the Askinses’ claim, it would have included language in the explicitly enumerated circumstances permitting suit.  Further, if the citizen suit provision were so expansive as to permit this claim, the provision’s remedies would give it more teeth than the U.S. EPA itself has, by way of the provision’s shorter notice period and availability of civil penalties and costs.  This is not the case because Congress intended the citizen suit provision to supplement the regulators’ authority.  Finally, cases that considered other, identical citizen suit provisions reached the same conclusion as this Court.  Therefore, the Court held, the CWA citizen suit provision did not permit a private right of action against a non-polluting regulator for procedural violations.

Finally, the Court considered whether the U.S. EPA failed to perform a non-discretionary duty.  The Court held that the CWA does not require the U.S. EPA to hold a hearing.  Should the U.S. EPA choose to hold a hearing, the CWA requires it to withdraw approval of a state-NPDES program after hearing, proper notice, and time to address the issue.  That is to say, the CWA does not require a hearing in the first place; therefore it is not a non-discretionary duty.  The U.S. EPA did not hold a hearing in the present case, so no non-discretionary duties arose.  Thus, the CWA did not permit the Askinses’ citizen suit.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Tim Berrier

Forbes v. Forbes

Forbes v. Forbes, 341 P.3d 1041 (Wyo. 2015) (holding: i) water rights are real property that parties must disclose during discovery proceedings; and ii) trustees cannot transfer water rights to individual trust members because it is not in the best interest of all beneficiaries).

Six members of the Forbes family formed the Beckton Ranch Trust (“BRT”) in 1920. The trust holds certain parcels of land with water and ditch rights in Sheridan County, Wyoming. Presently, the BRT has nineteen beneficiaries, and William “Cam” Forbes (“Cam”) is the acting trustee. Some time in 2009 or 2010, the Wyoming Board of Control (“WBC”) asked Cam to correct discrepancies between permitted water rights and actual water usage on BRT land. Acting as trustee, Cam filed four petitions for changes in place of use. In 2012, the WBC granted the petitions transferring the water rights onto Cam and his sister’s, Julia Forbes (“Julia”), land. Cam did not notify any of the other trust beneficiaries of the transfer. Citing other issues with his siblings’ management of the BRT, Cam’s brother, Waldo E. “Spike” Forbes (“Spike”) resigned as trustee and sued to remove the remaining trustees, alleging that they breached their duty of loyalty to the trust. Spike sought removal of his siblings as trustees of BRT. During discovery, Cam did not disclose the water rights transfers. Spike learned of them from another source during pretrial proceedings.

After the Sheridan County District Court removed Cam and Julia as trustees, the siblings appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court (“Court”). Cam and Julia argued that the trial court erred in removing them as trustees and finding that they profited from the transfer.

The Court held in favor of Cam and Julia because Spike did not include the water rights transfers in his original complaint for breach of loyalty, and he failed to amend his complaint to include the specific water rights claim. He thus did not give fair notice that the water rights were at issue. Because the trial court used the water rights exhibits as part of its decision to remove Cam and Julia as trustees, the Court found that the trustees did not have sufficient notice. The Court noted that the parties could have resolved the issue by asking for a continuance on the basis of the surprise evidence. Even though the defendant trustees did not ask for a continuance, they made numerous objections to the inclusion of the water rights transfers in evidence. The Court found this argument against their removal as trustees persuasive.

The Court did find that Spike should have disclosed the water rights transfers during discovery. The interrogatory that called for “details of all transactions of real property” included information regarding water rights of the BRT. The Court did not find that there was enough specificity in the pleading regarding the water rights to properly sanction Cam and Julia under the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure 37(c). Therefore, it declined to remove them as trustees of the BRT.

Next, the Court considered whether Cam’s transfer of water rights on behalf of himself and sister breached his duty of loyalty to the BRT beneficiaries. Because of the trust’s specific language, and Cam’s failure to distinguish between his own property and property held by the BRT, he did not manage the trust in the sole interest of the beneficiaries. The Court concluded that that self-dealing alone constituted a breach of the duty of loyalty. However, the Court noted that Cam’s breach of duty of loyalty did not warrant his removal as a trustee of the BRT.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s order removing Cam and Julia as trustees of the BRT.

Sarah Rice

Image: Thermopolis, Wyoming.  Flickr user m01229, Creative Commons.

Teton Co-op Canal Co. v. Teton Coop Reservoir, 365 P.3d 442 (Mont. 2015) (holding: (i) the Water Court’s finding that Teton Canal’s predecessors in interest did not develop a certain diversion point was clearly erroneous because they developed the diversion point to build Glendora Canal; (ii) the Water Court’s finding that the Eureka Reservoir’s priority date related back to the 1890 Notice was incorrect because the 1890 Notice did not contemplate the Eureka Reservoir; and (iii) the Water Court, on remand, must determine Eureka Reservoir’s priority date).

In 1890, Teton Canal’s predecessors filed an appropriation notice (“1890 Notice”) for claims along the Teton River for irrigation purposes. Immediately following the 1890 Notice, Teton Canal’s predecessors constructed the Glendora Canal. In 1891, the predecessors filed another larger claim along the Teton River (“1891 Notice”). The 1891 Notice listed a diversion point two miles from the Glendora Canal’s diversion point. Both the 1890 and 1891 Notices described part of the purpose of appropriation as to create reservoirs.

In 1893, Teton Canal’s predecessors sold their interests to a company that later transferred those interests to Russell Shepherd. Shepherd subsequently became involved in a court case adjudicating water rights on the Teton River (“Perry case”). During the Perry case, Shepard transferred his rights to Teton Canal. In 1908, the Perry court issued a decree that effectively extinguished the claims made under the 1891 Notice. While Teton Canal demonstrated interest in developing a reservoir, it had not done so by 1926, the year when the United States General Land Office inspected the site. Teton Canal finally constructed the reservoir in 1937.

In 1982, Teton Canal submitted claims for six distinct water rights along the Teton River in order to comply with the requirements of the Montana Water Use Act of 1973. All six claims listed an identical priority date: April 18, 1890. The point of diversion, the Eureka Canal, was also the same for all six claims. Water distributors, Teton Coop Reservoir Co. (“Teton Reservoir”), Lower Teton Joint Objectors, and the Farmer’s Co-op Canal, all objected to Teton Co-op Canal’s claims to the Eureka Reservoir. Teton Canal settled with all of the objectors besides Teton Reservoir. After conducting evidentiary hearings, the Montana Water Court (“Water Court”) issued an order in favor of Teton Canal. The Water Court held that Teton Canal’s water rights claims related back to the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir appealed the judgment of the Water Court to the Supreme Court of Montana (“Court”).

On appeal, Teton Reservoir argued that the Water Court erred in determining that Teton Canal’s claims to the Eureka Reservoir related back to the 1890 Notice. The Court reviewed the Water Court’s findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard and its conclusions of law for correctness.

The Court first examined whether Teton Canal’s predecessors intended to include the Eureka Reservoir in the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir argued that the Water Court erred in determining that Teton Canal’s predecessors did develop the diversion point described in the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir also asserted that the Water Court disregarded evidence clearly demonstrating that Teton Canal’s predecessors built the Glendora Canal, which corresponded with descriptions of the 1890 diversion point. The Court reviewed the evidence including maps and testimony from an engineer who had helped construct the Glendora Canal. The Court determined that the Teton Canal’s predecessors did develop the 1890 diversion point when they created the Glendora Canal. Thus, the Court held that the Water Court’s clearly erred in finding the predecessors had never developed the diversion point.

Teton Reservoir next argued that the 1890 Notice did not contemplate the Eureka Reservoir; rather, the 1891 Notice, which the court had since nullified, first asserted the Eureka Canal as a new diversion point. Conversely, Teton Canal argued that it consolidated its practices to include the Eureka Reservoir in the 1890 Notice. The Water Court found that the 1890 Notice contemplated multiple reservoirs including the Eureka Reservoir. On appeal, the Court assessed whether Teton Canal’s claims could relate back to the 1890 Notice. The Court reviewed the evidence and agreed with Teton Reservoir. The Court found that Teton Canal’s predecessors intended the Glendora Reservoir to be part of the 1890 Notice, but intended the Eureka Reservoir to be a part of the nullified 1891 Notice. The Court held the Water Court misinterpreted the nullified 1891 Notice and, therefore, the Water Court was incorrect in finding that Eureka Reservoir had a priority date of 1890.

The Court then addressed Teton Canal’s argument that the Eureka Reservoir is a part of the 1890 Notice because the diversion point “simply moved” to a point upstream following the nullification of the 1891 Notice. The Court noted that the law required “reasonable diligence” on the part of Teton Canal and its predecessors to develop the Eureka Reservoir. In analyzing the reasonable diligence prong, the Court examined evidence of the course of conduct of Teton Canal following the Perry court decree. Because Teton Canal took forty-five years to build the Eureka Reservoir, the Court concluded that Teton Canal failed to proceed with reasonable diligence in developing the Eureka Reservoir site. Therefore, the claims could not relate back to the 1890 Notice, and the Water Court erred in concluding that Teton Canal “aggressively pursued” the development of the reservoir.

Finally, the Court considered what priority date it should assign to the Eureka Reservoir. Teton Reservoir asserted the year should be 1936, the year when construction on the reservoir began. Because Teton Canal did not provide an alternate date, the Court remanded this question to the Water Court.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the Water Court and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Brian Hinkle

Image: Eureka Reservoir, Montana.  Flickr user Sam Beebe, Creative Commons.

Eureka Cnty. v. State Eng’r of Nev., 359 P.3d 1114 (Nev. 2015) (holding that the State Water Engineer provided insufficient evidence to support his finding that the applicant could mitigate the impact of appropriation on existing water rights).

In 2005, General Moly, Inc. (“General Moly”) began to apply for water rights in anticipation of the molybdenum mine that it sought to construct in Eureka County (“Eureka”). The following year, General Moly created a subsidiary, Kobeh Valley Ranch, LLC (“KVR”), to take charge of the proposed mine’s water rights. KVR submitted multiple applications for water rights between 2006 and 2010.

Eureka and several senior water rights holders in the area objected to KVR’s applications because, inter alia, they conflicted with existing rights. The Nevada State Engineer (“Engineer”) held several hearings on the matter and ultimately found that, although KVR’s applications would impact existing rights, KVR could fully mitigate the impact. Thus, the Engineer granted all of KVR’s applications and required that KVR develop a mitigation plan (“3M Plan”) to alleviate any impact.

Eureka, as well as Kenneth F. Benson, Diamond Cattle Company, LLC, and Michel and Margaret Ann Etcheverry Family, LP (“Benson-Etcheverry”), petitioned the Seventh Judicial District Court, Eureka County (“district court”) for judicial review of Engineer’s ruling. The district court did not grant the petition because it found that the Engineer’s ruling had substantial evidence and that conflict avoidance through mitigation comported with the requirements of the Nevada statute. Eureka and Benson-Etcheverry appealed the district court’s denial of judicial review to the Nevada Supreme Court (“Court”) and asked the Court to determine whether the Engineer may consider mitigation abilities when assessing the conflicts between a proposed water right application and existing rights.

The Court first addressed whether the Engineer complied with the controlling state statute, Nevada Revised Statute § 533.370. The statute requires that “where [a] proposed use or change conflicts with existing rights . . . the State Engineer shall reject the application and refuse to issue the requested permit.” The Court declined to decide if the statute allowed the Engineer to grant applications on the condition of future mitigation. Instead, the Court focused on whether Engineer’s ruling had substantial evidence.

The Court analyzed the record and found that although the Engineer labeled existing water right holders as “likely to be impacted,” expert testimony portrayed this labeling as a significant understatement. Specifically, two experts for KVR admitted that the proposed pumping would cause flows to cease and stock watering wells to dry up. Because the requested appropriations could “completely deplete” the water sources underlying existing rights, the Court ruled that KVR’s applications fit undeniably within the statutory requirement of a “conflict.”

Next, the Court considered the Engineer’s evidentiary support for his reliance upon the 3M Plan to resolve the water rights conflicts. The Court limited its analysis to a determination of whether substantial evidence supported the Engineer’s decisions. The Engineer found that “flow loss can be adequately and fully mitigated by [KVR] should predicted impacts occur[,]” but neither the Engineer nor KVR articulated which techniques would comprise this mitigation plan or what evidence suggested that mitigation would truly restore senior water rights. The Court found that rather than requiring KVR to propose a mitigation plan before he granted appropriation rights, the Engineer required KVR to submit such a plan after he granted all of its change and use permits. The Court warned that granting water rights before submission of a mitigation plan could interfere with the due process rights of those who wish to protest an application because the challenge could only result in vacating the mitigation proposal. The Court did not adopt Engineer’s and KVR’s assumption that an effective 3M Plan could circumvent the statute’s “conflict” stricture. Instead, the Court ruled that Engineer provided insufficient evidence to support his theory of mitigation and thereby violated the requirements of the state statute by granting KVR its applications in spite of imminent impact.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the district court and remanded the case.


The featured image is of an open pit mine in southern Arizona.  This photo is from the public domain.

ONRC Action v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 798 F.3d 933 (9th Cir. 2015) (holding that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the Bureau of Reclamation because the two water sources at issue were not “meaningfully distinct” and did not require the governmental entity to obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act).

In 2012, ONRC Action, an Oregon-based environmental group, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon contending that the Bureau of Reclamation (“Bureau”) discharged pollutants from the Klamath Straits Drain (“KSD”) into the Klamath River without a permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Bureau filed a motion for summary judgment and ONRC Action filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. A magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation in favor of the Bureau because of the Water Transfers Rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) adopted through regulation. The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation finding summary judgment in favor of the Bureau and denying ONRC Action’s motion for partial summary judgment. ONRC Action appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”).

In 1905, Congress authorized the Klamath Irrigation Project (“Project”) to provide irrigation to approximately 210,000 acres of land in Oregon and California through a system of dams, pumps, drains, tunnels, and canals. The Project draws water from the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake, and eventually conveys the water from Lower Klamath Lake back into the Klamath River through the KSD. In the early 20th Century a natural waterway called the Klamath Straits connected the Lower Klamath Lake and the Klamath River. A local railroad severed the Klamath Straits in 1917, but the Bureau restored flow in the 1940s when it created the KSD. The KSD includes two pumping stations that keep water flowing within a certain operating range; however, the pumps are not always active. The KSD generally follows the historic pathway of the Klamath Straits, with only a slight deviation passing through marshland that acted as a historical hydrological connection between the water bodies.

To resolve whether the district court correctly granted summary judgment in favor of the Bureau, the Court looked to recent Supreme Court precedent in determining whether Lower Klamath Lake and Klamath River were “meaningfully distinct” water sources. The Court cited Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (“L.A. County”), where the Supreme Court held that pumping water between different parts of a water body is not a discharge of pollutants under the CWA. The Supreme Court went on to add that a water transfer is a discharge of pollutants only if the bodies of water are “meaningfully distinct.” As a result of the Supreme Court’s holding in L.A. County, the Court did not rule on whether the Water Transfers Rule applied to the KSD discharge, nor whether the rule was within the EPA’s authority.

Finally, the Court compared the KSD-Klamath River transfer to L.A. County and South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe. Like the riverbed in L.A. County, the KSD is an improved version of a natural waterway that previously existed. Further, the water that the KSD transfers into the Klamath River originated in that river. The last point the Court made is that if the Bureau removed the pumps and headgates it placed in the 1940s the Klamath Straits would convey water between the Klamath River and Lower Klamath Lake, finalizing the argument that the waters are not meaningfully distinct. The Court emphasized this point because whether the CWA required the Bureau to obtain a permit turned on whether the two water bodies were meaningfully distinct.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the Bureau.

Featured image is of the Klamath River in California.  The image is part of the public domain.

Alaska Eskimo Whaling Comm’n v. U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency, 791 F.3d 1088 (9th Cir. 2015) (holding the Clean Water Act neither requires the EPA to satisfy each of the criteria in the statute when issuing an oil exploration waste discharge permit, nor determine reasonable alternatives to on-site disposal of wastes, and that the Clean Water Act does not require the EPA to incorporate the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and oil companies’ agreed migrating measures into discharge permits).

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (“AEWC”) represents several native Alaskan villages engaged in subsistence hunting of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea. The AEWC challenged a wastewater discharge permit (“Permit”) that the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) issued to oil exploration companies. The Permit authorized discharge of thirteen waste streams into the Beaufort Sea. The Permit mandated limitations and monitoring requirements, which barred discharge during the fall bowhead whale-hunting season. Despite these measures, the AEWC claimed that the EPA failed to adequately consider how the authorized discharges would impose on subsistence communities’ fall whale hunt. The AEWC contended that the discharges would divert the whales further from their migratory routes, making the hunt less productive and more dangerous.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Court”) had jurisdiction to review the Permit, in accordance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) provisions within the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). AEWC petitioned the Court to remand the Permit to the EPA for further proceedings leading to additional restrictions.

The Court reviewed the action under the arbitrary and capricious standard of the Administrative Procedure Act, which generally states that the EPA’s action is presumed to be valid and must be affirmed if a “reasonable basis” exists for its decisions.

The EPA produced three documents to explain its decision: (i) the Response to Comments, which included all the comments the EPA received from the community when drafting the Permit; (ii) its Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation (“ODCE”); and (iii) its Environmental Justice Analysis.

In the Response to Comments, the EPA wrote that non-contact cooling water would not cause an unreasonable degradation to the marine environment because its analysis indicated the discharge’s temperature would dissipate within “100 meters of the discharge location.” In the ODCE, the EPA stated that authorized discharges would dissipate and dilute to “approximately 600:1 at 100 meters from the discharge point.” However, the day before oral argument, the EPA submitted a letter to the Court that acknowledged a mistake in the record, in which the model it cited in support of its statements did not include non-contact cooling water, but actually referred to drilling-related effluents.

Faced with this discovery, the Court remanded to the EPA to reconsider its determination that non-contact cooling water discharge would not cause “unreasonable degradation of the marine environment,” and to submit specific evidence regarding the effects of that discharge on the bowhead whale migration.

The AEWC next argued that the EPA failed to base its decision on two considerations listed in the CWA for determining degradation of marine waters. The Court determined that the CWA set forth considerations that the EPA must follow when “promulgating its own regulations, not the criteria that EPA must apply to each permitting decision it makes.” The Court concluded that those criteria did not apply to this case.

Finally, the Court weighed whether the EPA’s application of its regulatory criteria was arbitrary or capricious. To begin this inquiry, the Court examined 40 C.F.R § 125.123 that provides criteria under which the EPA issues discharge permits. Paragraph (a) of the statute states that “[i]f the director on the basis of available information . . . determines prior to permit issuance that the discharge will not cause unreasonable degradation of the marine environment after application of any necessary conditions . . . he may issue an NPDES permit containing such conditions.”

In support of its position, the AEWC first contended that paragraph (c) of the statute applied to this case. That paragraph stipulates that the EPA must determine there were no other reasonable alternatives other than on-site disposal of materials. However, the Court held that there was no evidence in the record, nor in the regulations, to support the claim that paragraph (c) applied to this proceeding.

Second, the AEWC argued the evidence did not support a finding that discharges other than non-contact cooling water will not cause an “unreasonable degradation of the marine environment.” The AEWC’s challenge of the EPA’s evidentiary analysis was based on two CWA criteria: i) the potential impact the discharge will have on human health; and ii) “[s]uch other factors relating to the effects of the discharge as may be appropriate.”

The Court disagreed with the AEWC, holding that the record was “replete with evidence” that the EPA fully considered the AEWC’s concerns and that it considered the CWA’s criteria in making its determination. Therefore, the Court held that the EPA was not arbitrary or capricious in issuing the Permit.

Third, the AEWC argued that the EPA did not provide a rational explanation of how the EPA’s monitoring program would prevent conflict with subsistence use and that the EPA acted arbitrary and irrational in relying on such monitoring programs. Again, the Court disagreed with the AEWC. It found that the detailed description of the monitoring program included requirements for monthly monitoring, post-drilling reports, and ongoing monitoring of marine mammal deflection during discharges. Based on these requirements, the Court held there was no basis for concluding that the EPA’s design and implementation of the monitoring program was arbitrary or capricious.

Finally, the AEWC contended that the EPA should adopt the same mitigation measures that the National Marine Fisheries Services (“NMFS”) adopted. These are the same measures the AEWC, Shell Gulf Oil of Mexico, and Shell Offshore, Inc. agreed to in a separate Conflict Avoidance Agreement. The Court held that the EPA was not required to adopt those terms because the AEWC identified no legal authority requiring such measures. The Court found no measures that would mandate the EPA to incorporate the NMFS mitigation measure or the Conflict Avoidance Agreement into the Permit.

Accordingly, the Court remanded to the EPA for a determination of whether the discharge of non-contact cooling water would cause an “unreasonable degradation of the marine environment,” and denied the petition in all other respects.

Featured image is from 1899 and is of whalers on the Arctic Ocean.