The Path of Pollutants Under the Clean Water Act

Ted Harrington, MJLST Staffer

In 1972, the Clean Water Act set forth a lofty goal—to “[r]estore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” (33 U.S.C. §1251(a)). Yet, the Clean Water Act only regulates point sources that discharge pollutants into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. §1251(a)(1)). As a result, many forms of water pollution escape federal jurisdiction, most notably, groundwater. This is because CWA regulation depends on how a pollutant reaches navigable water, instead of focusing on the end result. This added constraint is hardly logical when juxtaposed against the stated goal.

For example, if a pollutant is discharged into groundwater, and eventually reaches navigable Water Body B, the CWA does not have the ability to regulate the groundwater. In other terms, if the polluted effluent passes through groundwater, considered a “nonpoint source,” before it reaches Water Body B, no CWA regulation occurs.

To combat this issue, Federal District Courts in Hawai’i, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania have begun adopting the “Conduit Theory” (See Allison Kvien note Volume 16). The conduit theory states that if a body of water (groundwater) simply acts as a conduit, it should be viewed as an extension of the point source from which it is receiving the pollutant. This theory directs its attention to the ultimate result—the pollution of Water Body B. It is only logical that if Water Body B is being polluted, the source should fall under CWA jurisdiction. Why should we leave a source of pollution unregulated simply because the effluent isn’t being directly discharged into a navigable water? As the Court in Rapanos v. United States noted, “The [Clean Water] Act does not forbid the ‘addition of any pollutant directly to navigable waters from any point source,’ but rather the ‘addition of any pollutant to navigable waters.’”

The issue of groundwater as a pollutant is receiving increasing attention in the courts. In the Northern District of Iowa, a case concerning the discharge of groundwater through tile drains is currently in litigation‑ Board of Water Works v. Sac County Board of Supervisors. This could be an opportunity for Iowa to take one of the first stances on the conduit theory in the 8th Circuit. Stay tuned!

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