If the court buys the Michigan landowners' arguments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to stop using rules that have been on the books for 30 years to protect wetlands and water quality in all the nation's streams. The states would then assume responsibility for regulating wetland developments and pollution discharges into ditches and streams.
The result would likely be a patchwork of state regulations that could stymie federal efforts to clean up pollution in interstate bodies of water like the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River, critics say. Downstream states, like Louisiana, would be at the mercy of upstream states, like Iowa, to do their part to limit polluters, critics say. Attorneys general from 34 states and the District of Columbia have filed court briefs asking that federal controls be maintained.
"These federal environmental laws were designed to help keep peace among the states, to give them a way to address upstream pollution problems coming from their neighbors," said Howard Fox, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice. "In Louisiana, pollution comes as far away as Wyoming and Minnesota."
Rob Rivett, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation who is representing Rapanos, said states could create interstate compacts to deal with pollution problems. Under the Constitution, Congress cannot interfere with states' regulation of local land and water uses unless those uses impact interstate commerce, he said. Federal agencies can regulate only those wetlands and waters next to larger rivers and lakes that traditionally have been used by boats in interstate commerce, he said.
"The Corps of Engineers is trying to turn (the Clean Water Act) into a federal land-use control program," Rivett said.