Sixth Circuit Limits Reach of Clean Water Act to Groundwater Discharges, Creates Circuit Split on Proper Scope of CWA

David J. Oberly

Why It Matters

In recent years, the question of whether groundwater that migrates into federally protected navigable waters falls under the purview of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) has been fiercely debated and heavily litigated across the country. To date, the Fourth and Ninth Circuits have both interpreted the CWA broadly, ruling that the CWA extends to reach groundwater discharges. Just recently, however, the Sixth Circuit in Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Company, No. 18-5115 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018) and Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, No. 17-6155 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018) weighed in on the issue, and rejected the theory that pollutants reaching navigable waters as a result of passing through groundwater (or soil) are discharges that fall under the auspices of the CWA. The Sixth Circuit decisions are noteworthy, as they create a clear conflict among the federal circuit courts regarding the scope of the CWA and, more specifically, whether the Act reaches the issue of groundwater discharges, further increasing the likelihood that the United States Supreme Court will take up the matter to issue a decisive ruling on the proper scope of the CWA and provide a definitive resolution to this hotly contested issue of environmental law. Continue reading “Sixth Circuit Limits Reach of Clean Water Act to Groundwater Discharges, Creates Circuit Split on Proper Scope of CWA”