Wetlands: Branan and Burchell Provide Overview on Jurisdiction Changes

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On Wednesday, September 13, 2023, Professor Michael Burchell, PhD and Associate Professor Robert Andrew Branan, JD presented a webinar on recent changes in wetlands protection policy at the national and state level. The webinar – presented to N.C. Cooperative Extension personnel – was organized by the NC Water Resources Group. This link makes the video recording of the webinar available to the public.

The presentation concerns how recent policy changes impact a landowner’s decision to drain or otherwise fill in a wet area on their land, which – under federal and state law – may require a permit and mitigation. In his section, Dr. Burchell provides an overview of wetlands benefits and methods of identification, focusing on a wetland’s three main attributes, hydrology, soils and vegetation. His presentation provides numerous photographs of common wetland indicators.

For his part, Mr. Branan outlines the lineage of federal wetlands protection regulations emanating from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (a/k/a the Clean Water Act), with an emphasis on the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in defining the federal government’s jurisdiction over “waters of the United States” (including wetlands) over the past 50 years, culminating in this year’s Sackett v. EPA decision. Branan also updates on North Carolina’s recent policy change in 2023 Farm Act to align state wetlands protection with the federal limits of jurisdiction. One key theme: determining federal (and state) protection jurisdiction may still be challenging for regulators. With such terms such as “continuous surface connection” and “tributary” evading precise definition, questions will remain, perhaps leading to further litigation. While the Biden Administration amended its 2023 WOTUS rule on August 28 (in response to Sackett), time will tell on how the new limits on jurisdiction are implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers in the field.

Branan for his part emphasized a key point for Cooperative Extension agents, and for the landowners and farmers they serve: regardless of the arguable retreat in federal and state jurisdiction, interpreting the changes as an invitation for landowners to make their own determinations on whether filling or draining a wet-land feature requires a permit is a risky bet. The penalties remain severe. Nor should the Sackett ruling and 2023 Farm Act policy change indicate that regulators will “back off” investigating reported violations. Branan emphasized his belief that the 1985 Farm Bill’s “Swampbuster” provision – which disallows farm benefits to landowners and producers who convert a wetland – is not connected to the Clean Water Act (to which Sackett applies) or the Farm Act (which is likewise tied solely to the Clean Water Act jurisdiction and otherwise not controlling of federal Farm Bill legislation).

(North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission met last week to discuss the mandated rule changes, here is an article discussing the result of that meeting.)