Final WOTUS Rule Will Muddy the Waters

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Contact: Michael Mittelholzer
mmittelholzer@nahb.org
(202) 266-8660

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This post has been updated.

In a blow to housing affordability and regulatory certainty for builders and other stakeholders, today the Biden administration established final regulations that will dramatically expand the definition of "waters of the United States" (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (CWA), even as the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide on the legality of key aspects of the rule.

"Rather than providing clarity and certainty for home builders and other affected stakeholders, this definition of WOTUS adds uncertainty and confusion to the regulatory process, raises housing costs and drastically increases federal overreach in the process," said NAHB Chairman Jerry Konter.

Regrettably, the final rule continues to rely upon a confusing and legally flawed theory of CWA federal jurisdiction known as the "significant nexus test" to potentially assert federal control over isolated wetlands, features that contain water only in response to rainfall events, and ephemeral streams impacting numerous activities, including home building.

The test's results are determined by a federal regulator who decides whether a specific feature, along with similarly situated features located across an entire watershed, significantly affects the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of a traditional navigable water.

In practice, the significant nexus test has proven extremely difficult to apply consistently in the field, leaving developers and builders unable to discern for themselves which isolated wetlands, ephemeral streams, or even human-made drainage features, like roadside ditches, are federally jurisdictional under the CWA.

Rule Could be Doused Before it is Even Implemented

NAHB believes the decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to finalize today's WOTUS definition is counterproductive and shortsighted, especially since the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling under Sackett v. EPA is squarely focused on the legality of the significant nexus test, which is a critical part of the final rule.

The new rule will go into effect on March 20, 2023, and the Sackett verdict could be issued before the rule is even implemented or a few short weeks thereafter. A victory for Sackett would force the EPA and Corps to go back to the drawing board on WOTUS.

In the meantime, the new WOTUS rule radically extends the areas in which home builders are required to get federal permits compared to the prior rule finalized during the Trump administration. It will result in continued regulatory barriers to affordable housing as single-family and multifamily developers struggle to find the developable land necessary to produce the new affordable housing units this nation desperately needs.

In short, the rule will generate bureaucratic and project delays, raising housing costs when the nation is already experiencing a housing affordability crisis.

Moreover, the final rule's continued reliance upon the significant nexus test when determining CWA jurisdiction over otherwise isolated and ephemeral features prevents states and local governments from acting as co-regulators, as intended by Congress when the CWA was drafted more than 40 years ago. And not only does the significant nexus test go well beyond the limits of federal jurisdiction set forth previously by the Supreme Court, it also results in duplicative and even conflicting wetlands requirements at the federal, state and local levels of government.

"The Biden administration has declared a housing affordability crisis, but if the administration is truly interested in knocking down barriers to affordable housing, it will direct the EPA and Corps to keep from implementing this rule until the Supreme Court issues its ruling in the Sackett case," said Konter.

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