Supreme Court Establishes "Functional Equivalent” Standard for Permitting Discharges to Groundwater Under the Clean Water Act
Today, the Supreme Court altered Clean Water Act jurisprudence when it vacated and remanded a closely-watched Ninth Circuit decision which pertained to the federal government’s authority to oversee of the migration of pollution through groundwater to navigable waters. See County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et al., No. 18-260, 590 U.S. ____ (Apr. 23, 2020). In writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Breyer presented the central issue of the litigation as “whether the [Clean Water] Act ‘requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source,’ here, ‘groundwater.’” Id. at 1 (internal citations omitted). The Court held that a permit issued under the Clean Water Act is required “if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.” Id. Because the “functional equivalent” standard is slightly amorphous, the Court introduced several factors to aid courts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the regulated community in making permitting determinations. See Breyer Factors, below.
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