A federal judge in Washington on Monday reinstated the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule nationwide, a ruling that conflicts with other federal court orders that bar enforcing the rule in most states, including Idaho.
Western Washington District Judge John Coughenour wrote that the Trump administration made a serious procedural error by shelving the rule and going back to the pre-2015 definition of Waters of the United States.
His opinion was in step with a ruling in August by a South Carolina federal judge. In both cases, the judges declined to limit their orders to their regions and instead applied their rulings nationwide.
District judges in Texas, Georgia and North Dakota, however, have prohibited the rule from being applied in a total of 28 states. Meanwhile, farmers in 22 states — including Oregon, Washington and California — are officially working under the Obama definition of which waters fall under the Clean Water Act.
The American Farm Bureau Federation intervened in the Washington and South Carolina cases to support reinstating the pre-2015 rule. A Farm Bureau spokesman had a nonchalant response when asked if the organization had a comment Monday about Coughenour’s ruling and the apparent setback. “Nah,” he wrote in an email. “It’s effectively the status quo.”
The Waters of the U.S. definition guides how far the Clean Water Act reaches onto farms and ranches. The Farm Bureau maintains the Obama rule exceeds what Congress intended and would regulate dried-up ditches and barely damp ground nearly a mile from waterways.
Coughenour didn’t pass judgment on that claim. A Reagan appointee, Coughenour faulted Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency for suspending the Obama rule without taking public comments on the rule’s merits. Instead, the EPA only took comments on the delay in implementing the rule until at least Feb. 6, 2020.
Coughenour’s ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups that alleges the Obama rule wasn’t strict enough. Puget Soundkeeper Executive Director Chris Wilke said Monday that the ruling was a “procedural step.”
“Now, I think we can focus on the substance of the 2015 rule,” he said.
An EPA spokeswoman said in an email the agency was reviewing Coughenour’s ruling. The EPA and Farm Bureau have indicated they will appeal the South Carolina ruling by Judge David Norton to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The EPA argues delaying the Obama rule makes sense because the agency is reconsidering it and courts are issuing contradictory orders. Coughenour and Norton, appointed by George H.W. Bush, rejected the EPA’s arguments and both cited a case in which farm groups successfully challenged a move by the Obama administration in 2009 to delay implementing rules regarding the hiring of seasonal foreign workers.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers say they recognize the uncertainty the court rulings have created. According to an EPA statement, “implementation issues that arise are being handled on a case-by-case basis.”