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Navigable Waters

The phrase "navigable waters" is written all over the Clean Water Act. In the Clean Water Act, Navigable Waters is defined as any water with significant passage to navigable waters are covered by the US Clean Water Act. The definition of navigable water pursuant to the Clean Water Act is known for its lack of clarity.

Businesses and vessels that dump their refuse into a body of water need to know what waters are and are not covered by the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act broadly defines which bodies of water apply. The Phrase "navigable water" is connected to the idea of waters with significant nexus to waters that are easily traveled by boat.

Essentially, this means any body of water that empties to larger bodies of water that allow for boat travel. The navigable water clause of the Clean Water Act has been the source of many headaches over the years as businesses dumped toxic pollutants into bodies of water they believed were not connected to navigable water. The clause provides positive defense against violations of the Clean Water Act.

A lawyer, on behalf of the polluting company, can argue that the body of water into which the toxic substances were dumped did not have significant enough connections to major maritime travel routes.

The navigable water act remained unclear until 2006. In a contentious 5-4 decision, in the case of Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court had trouble deciding the proper definition of wetlands. In 1989, landowner John A. Rapanos backfilled wetlands on a parcel of land that he owned.

The 54 acre parcel of land that he owned had saturated soil sometimes that would form after a series of rainstorms. The nearest major body of water was approximately 11 miles away. The EPA defined the water on Rapanos' land as "waters of the United States." As waters of the United States, Rapanos would need an EPA permit to back fill his small body of water in Michigan. Rapanos possibly faced time in jail for his refusal to be use a permit to backfill his own wetlands.

The Court struggled to define Rapanos wetlands as having significant enough connections to navigable water. The Clean Water Act, as written in 2006, included non-continuous and minor bodies of water such as intermittent streams, wetlands, sloughs, and prairie potholes.

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the majority opinion; he defined navigable waters as "only those relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographic features commonly known as lakes, streams, oceans, and rivers. The Court decided that this was the only reasonable definition of "significant nexus to navigable water"

NEXT: Violations of the Clean Water Act

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