Court: EPA may regulate water quality on navigable rivers

Published June 1, 2000

The U.S. District Court in San Francisco has ruled that the Clean Water Act of 1972 gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set water-quality standards for every navigable river in America.

According to Judge William Alsup, author of the 28-page decision in Pronsolino v. Marcus, “States, however, should decide what land-management practices should be adopted to mitigate runoff.” Thus the ruling seems to please both EPA and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which had joined the Pronsolino family of northern California as plaintiffs in the case.

EPA has long held that it has the authority to identify waters impaired by nonpoint sources of pollution, and to develop total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for those waters. While Alsup concurred that nonpoint sources of pollution are included in the scope of the Clean Water Act, he did note that the TMDLs are to be considered only advisory to the states, noting states “could even refuse to implement a TMDL”.

TMDL refers to the total amount of nonpoint sources of pollution–such as run-off from urban areas, agriculture, and timber harvesting–that may enter a waterway. “The results of this case lend considerable support to our position that the EPA does not have direct authority to regulate nonpoint sources under the Clean Water Act,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We welcome EPA’s admission in this case that it has no direct Clean Water Act authority over agricultural and other nonpoint activities.”

The case was filed by Guido and Betty Pronsolino, who were joined by the AFBF, the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, and the California Farm Bureau Federation. The Pronsolinos claimed EPA’s TMDL guidelines severely restricted their ability to manage, restore, and harvest timber from their ranch along the Garcia River. The plaintiffs alleged that EPA’s TMDL guidelines were considered mandates to the states, and therefore unlawful since states have sole authority to regulate agricultural activities.