University of Southern California

For the Birds: The Statutory Limits of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Authority over Intrastate Waters After SWANCC

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Note by Jennifer DeButts Cantrell
From Volume 77, Number 6 (September, 2004)

Every year the Army Corps of Engineers receives over 74,500 applications for permits under section 404(a) of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the provision regulating the discharge of fill or dredged material into the nation’s waters. Consequently, when the Supreme Court granted certiorari for Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“SWANCC”) – a case potentially affecting the status of millions of acres of American wetlands – property owners, developers, and environmentalists alike were wise to stand up and take notice.

The SWANCC case involved a Chicago-area consortium of municipalities that sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) for denying them a permit to develop a landfill on an abandoned mining site because the Corps had determined the land in question was inhabited by migratory birds. The central issue presented in SWANCC was whether this “Migratory Bird Rule” – a regulation promulgated in 1986 giving the Corps authority over wetlands populated by migrating birds – was a proper exercise of jurisdiction under the CWA. The municipalities argued that the rule exceeded the Corps’ authority because the CWA was meant to only regulate waters that are navigable or that adjoin navigable waterways. On the other hand, the Corps argued that its jurisdiction is not limited by traditional notions of navigability; rather it has authority over the nation’s waters to the fullest extent of the Commerce Clause.

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