California’s Central Valley is home to fertile agricultural land, though it receives little rainfall. The federal government helped alleviate this problem by constructing irrigation and drainage projects to provide water to the region. A diverse group of plaintiffs sued the United States Bureau of Reclamation and San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority on the grounds that the drainage system discharged pollutants into the surrounding waters, violating the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The plaintiffs appealed rulings by the district court in favor of the defendants.
BackgroundThe Central Valley Project (“CVP”) transferred water from the Sacramento River to southern regions of the Central Valley. Water projects that bring fresh water to agricultural areas must remove the salty water that remains after crops are irrigated away from the service area. The Grasslands Bypass Project (“the Project”) performed this necessary function, to prevent the leaching of selenium and salt-rich soils into the groundwater. The Project was “designed to collect and convey contaminated groundwater from lands adjacent to and upstream of the Drain to Mud Slough.” Both plaintiffs and defendants acknowledged the Drain discharges substantial amounts of selenium and other pollutants into the Mud Slough, San Joaquin River, and Bay-Delta Estuary.
AnalysisThe Clean Water Act requires government agencies to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit before discharging pollutants from a point source into navigable waters of the United States. The dispute between the parties is whether the Drain’s discharges required defendants to obtain an NPDES permit, or whether the discharges were exempt from the permit requirements. Plaintiffs argued the district court erred in its interpretation of CWA § 1342(l)(1). Plaintiffs argued the district court erred by placing the burden of proof on the plaintiffs to show the Drain’s discharges were not exempt.
Plaintiffs argued the district court erred in interpreting the term “discharges…from irrigated agriculture.” In the pretrial order, the district court stated the plaintiffs bore the burden of proving that the discharges were not exempt from CWA’s permitting requirement. The U.S. Court of Appeals, however, agreed with the plaintiffs that the burden was on the defendants to prove the discharges were not covered by an exception to the NPDES. The appellate court cited the case N. California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, 496 F.3d 993, 1001 (9th Cir. 2007), which held that once a plaintiff establishes the elements of a violation under the CWA, the burden to demonstrate an exception to the CWA is placed on the defendant.
The plaintiffs argued that the district court interpreted NPDES incorrectly. The district court stated that NPDES exempted discharges related to crop production from the CWA’s permitting requirement. However, the Court of Appeals noted that NPDES’ statutory text, its context, legislative history, and prior case law demonstrate Congress intended to define “irrigated agriculture” broadly. The Court of Appeals held that the district court’s interpretation of “irrigated agriculture” was accurate.
The third error plaintiffs argued the district court made was interpreting the word “entirely” to mean “most.” The district court rejected the literal interpretation of “entirely” believing “it would lead to an absurd result.” The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court. The Court of Appeals concluded Congress used the word “entirely” to limit the scope of its statutory interpretation. The court stated that Congress intended for NPDES to require permits for discharges “that include return flows from activities unrelated to crop production.”