Full decision below
The Ninth Circuit has affirmed a district court opinion concluding that discharges from the Klamath Straits Drain into the Klamath River did not violate the Clean Water Act (ONRC Action v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 12-35831).
The case attracted a great deal of interest because of the nature of the legal issue, which has been before the Supreme Court, most notably in Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 710 (2013), which the appeals court panel said "provid[ed] a simpler path to resolving this appeal." The court continued:
In that case, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether "the flow of water out of a concrete channel within a river rank[s] as a 'discharge of a pollutant' " under the CWA. Id. at 711. The Court answered that question in the negative. It held that "pumping polluted water from one part of a water body into another part of the same body is not a discharge of pollutants under the CWA," id. at 711, citing to its prior decision in South Florida Water Management Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe, 541 U.S. 95, 109–12 (2004). The L.A. County Flood Control decision acknowledged that 'storm water is often heavily polluted.' 133 S. Ct. at 712. Nonetheless, it is the addition of pollutants from a point source that is prohibited under the CWA, and the Court held that "no pollutants are 'added' to a water body when water is merely transferred between different portions of that water body." Id. at 713. A water transfer counts as a discharge of pollutants under the CWA only if the two separate bodies of water are "meaningfully distinct water bodies." Id. (quoting Miccosukee, 541 U.S. at 112).
The court found that "The record in this case demonstrates that the waters of the KSD are not meaningfully distinct from those of the Klamath River."
Summary prepared by court staff (which constitutes no part of the opinion)
The panel affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the United States Bureau of Reclamation and other defendants in a citizen suit brought by an environmental group under the Clean Water Act, alleging defendants violated the Act by discharging pollutants from the Klamath Straits Drain into the Klamath River without a permit.
The Clean Water Act limits the “discharge of pollutants,” and makes unlawful the addition from a point source of any pollutant to navigable waters without a permit. The Klamath River is a navigable water. The Klamath Straits Drain moves water from Lower Klamath Lake back to the Klamath River, and is part of the Klamath Irrigation Project operated by the Bureau of Reclamation in parts of Oregon and California.
The panel held that because the waters flowing into the Klamath River from the Klamath Straits Drain were not “meaningfully distinct,” as that term was used in L.A. Cnty. Flood Dist. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 133 S. Ct. 710, 713 (2013) (holding that “no pollutants are ‘added’ to a water body when water is merely transferred between different portions of that water body”), a permit was not required under the Clean Water Act.