Pesticides, Water Quality, and the Public Trust Doctrine

Date01 October 2015
Water Quality,
and the Public
Trust Doctrine
by Joel Reschly
Joel Reschly holds a 2015 J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law
School with a certicate in environmental and natural resources
law. is Article won the 2014–2015 Beveridge & Diamond
Constitutional Environmental Law Writing Competition.
e public trust doctrine is an ancient legal principle
undergoing a modern resurgence. Under it, govern-
ments hold certain natural resources in trust for the
benet of present and future generations, and have a
judicially enforceable legal obligation to protect trust
resources and the public’s interest in them. is Article
argues that courts could use the public trust doctrine
to enforce regulation of water pollution caused by
pesticides because the current regulatory framework
is insucient to protect human health, the environ-
ment, wildlife, or water quality. e author also argues
that the federal environmental statutes regulating pes-
ticides do not preempt the public trust doctrine, at
least when the claim is brought under state law.
I. Introduction
America ns apply over one-half billion pounds of pesticides
each year—80% of which is for agricu ltural purposes, to
increase crop production and reduce insect-borne diseas-
es.1 A recent study of major rivers and streams by the
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) detected one or more
pesticides in over 90% of the surface waters sampled
and in one-third of major aquifers.2 Federal regulation of
pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, a nd
Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)3 is not based on human health
or safety4; instead, FIFRA uses a risk-benet approach
that allows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) to register pesticides that oer sucient economic
benets.5 Federa l regu lation of d ischar ges to water under
the Clean Water Act (CWA)6 divides the source s of water
pollution into point sou rces a nd nonpoint sources, regu-
lating only point source discharges. e source of pol-
lution is irrelevant, however, to the environment and to
the wildlife it reaches. If pest icide regulation were instead
based on the adverse eects it causes to public natural
resources, water quality would improve and stabilize
throughout the United States.
Both point source and nonpoint source discharges of
pesticides adversely aect water quality and wildlife. Until
2009, EPA exempted certain point source discharges of pes-
ticides applied directly to waters of the United States7 from
national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES)
permitting requirements if the applicator used the pesticide
in compliance with FIFRA. e U.S. Court of Appeals for
  
guidance and edits to this Article.
1. U.S. G S (USGS), P  U.S. S  R-
: O  T D 1992–2011 (2014) [hereinafter
USGS S]; Press Release, USGS, 20-Year Study Shows Levels of Pesti-
cides Still a Concern for Aquatic Life in U.S. Rivers and Streams (Sept. 11,
2014) [hereinafter USGS Press Release], available at
2. USGS S, supra note 1. e study tested water samples for pesticides
and pesticide degradates, also known as pesticide breakdown products, the
still-toxic compounds that break down in the environment until eventually
reaching undetectable levels. Id. Budget constraints limited the monitoring
to fewer than one-half of the more than 400 pesticides used in agriculture.
USGS Press Release, supra note 1.
3. 7 U.S.C. §§136–136y (2012), ELR S. FIFRA §§2–35.
4. N C.  A  P, N G
 S 1 (2002) [hereinafter N G  S], available
general-reports- and-publications /journal-of-pest icide-reform/jour nal-of-
5. Id.
6. 33 U.S.C. §§12511387 (2012), ELR S. FWPCA §§101–607.
7. ese discharges included applications of pesticides on, over, or near juris-
dictional waters for the purpose of pest control. National Cotton Council
of Am., Inc. v. U.S. EPA, 553 F.3d 927, 931–32, 39 ELR 20006 (6th Cir.
2009), reh’g denied (2009), cert. denied, 130 S. Ct. 1505 (2010) (citing 40
Copyright © 2015 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
10-2015 NEWS & ANALYSIS 45 ELR 10939
the Sixth Circuit struck down EPAs exemption in 
tection Agency.8 e Obama Administration chose not to
appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the indus-
try’s petition for certiorari, eectively making a signicant
number of point source pesticide discharges nationwide
newly subject to NPDES permit requirements.9 According
to EPA calculations, the     r uling
will increase by 65% the annual number of total discharges
subject to CWA jurisdiction.10
In response to the Sixth Circuit’s decision, in 2011, EPA
issued the Pesticide General Permit (PGP)11 to regulate
without individual permit requirements most direct-to-
water pesticide discharges.12 As discussed below, it is quite
uncertain whether discharges subject to this general per-
mit will actually protect water quality or wildlife. Further,
industry groups have backed several bills in the U.S. Con-
gress to negate   and remove t he
need for a PGP.13 Uncertainty also surrounds other point
source discharges of pesticides, such a s some aerial sprays,
which are currently considered a point source and therefore
subject to CWA permit requirements, but only in the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.14
8. , 553 F.3d 927.
9. See Charles Franklin, 
, 26 N. R  E’ 18, 19 (Summer 2011);
Elisabeth A. Holmes & Charles M. Tebbutt, 
Story Behind National Cotton Council of America v. U.S. EPA, 41 ELR
10946 (Oct. 2011).
10. Brandon W. Neuschafer, -
der the Clean Water Act, 26 N. R  E’ 23, 23 (2011).
11. Final National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Pesticide
General Permit for Point Source Discharges From the Application of Pesti-
cides, 76 Fed. Reg. 68750 (Nov. 7, 2011).
12. U.S. EPA, Pesticide General Permit (PGP) for Discharges From the Applica-
tion of Pesticides 2011 [hereinafter PGP], available at
npdes/pubs/nal_pgp.pdf. e permit provides coverage for four “pesticide
use patterns”: mosquito and other ying insect pest control; weed and algae
pest control; animal pest control; and forest canopy pest control. Id. §1.1.1.
When operators satisfy its terms, the PGP authorizes eligible point source
discharges under the CWA. Id. at 1 (“In compliance with the [CWA], any
Operator of a point source discharge of pollutants (i.e., discharge) resulting
from the application of pesticides and eligible for permit coverage under
Part 1.1 ... is authorized to discharge to Waters of the United States in ac-
cordance with the requirements of this permit.”).
13. See, e.g., To Amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide
Act to Improve the Use of Certain Registered Pesticides, H.R. 6087, 111th
Cong. §2 (2010); A Bill to Amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and
Rodenticide Act to Improve the Use of Cer tain Registered Pesticides, S.
3735, 111th Cong. §2 (2010).
14. See, e.g., League of Wilderness Defenders/Blue Mountains Biodiversity Proj-
ect v. Forsgren, 309 F.3d 1181, 1190 (9th Cir. 2002) (holding that the U.S.
Forest Service’s aerial pesticide spraying over forests and streams was a point
source discharge requiring an NPDES permit, because the discharge “clearly
meets the statutory denition of a point source” and allowing EPA to dene
it as nonpoint source would “contravene the intent of Congress”). 
notes 116–18 and accompanying text for a brief discussion of aerial pesti-
cide spraying. Aerial sprays that meet one of the four pesticide use patterns
would be covered under the PGP. See PGP, supra note 12, §1.1.1.
A 2012 repor t by the Con gressional Resea rch Service
estim ates that nonpoint sourc e pollution “represents
more than 50% of the nation’s rem aini ng water pollu-
tion problems.”15 Operators16 typic ally apply p esticides
over large areas, meaning t hat mos t pesticide d ischarges
are nonpoint sou rce discharges because they do not orig-
inate from a “conned and discre te conveyance.”17 e
result is the same even when excess amounts of p esti-
cides reach jur isdictional waters via runo ; this regula-
tory gap occur s becau se the CWA denes “point source”
to exclude “a gricu ltura l stormwater discharges and
return ows from irrig ated agriculture.”18 Ultim ately,
these jurisdiction al limits in the CWA prevent the stat-
ute from achieving it s stated g oals19 of “restor[ing ] and
mainta in[ing] the chemical, physic al, and biological
integrit y of the Nation’s waters.”20
In 1987, Congress recognized the problem of nonpoint
source pollution when it amended the CWA, eectively
codifying states’ existing police power authority to control
sources of runo, including agricultural pollution.21 How-
ever, state-developed controls authorized by CWA §319
are voluntary and yield mixed results,22 and states face
enormous politica l pressure from the a gricultural indus-
try, which vigorously resists attempts to regu late nonpoint
source pollution.23
Courts are less burdened by political pressure and lob-
bying than are legislatures and agencies, at both the federal
and state levels. e public trust doctrine empowers mem-
bers of the public24 to seek protection for public resources
15. See C C, C. R S., RL30030, C W
A: A S   L 4 (2012), available at http://aquadoc.type-les/cwa_summary_crs_nov2012-1.pdf.
16.  Part II.B., for the denition of an “operator.”
17. 33 U.S.C. §1362(14) (2012).
18. Id.
19. See Jan G. Laitos & Heidi Ruckriegle, e Clean Water Act and the Challenge
, 37 V. L. R. 1033, 1035–38 (2013):
Since agriculture is exempt from most CWA controls ... pollution-
causing agricultural activities are classied as unregulated nonpoint
sources. A regulatory gap is thereby created: e CWA species
technology-based solutions to industrial discharges and sewage
euent from discrete point source conveyances, but it provides
no direct mechanisms to control the agriculture-based nonpoint
source pollution entering “waters of the United States.
21. 33 U.S.C. §1329 (2012).
22. See Robert W. Adler,      
Futures, 25 E E. L.  P’ J. 77, 80 (2002); Véronique Jar-
rell-King, 
, 23 V.
E. L.J. 1, 19 (2012) (noting the “lack of consequences for failure to
comply with §319”).
23. Jarrell-King, supra note 22.
24. Standing can limit an individual’s ability as a beneciary of the trust to
sue under the public trust doctrine. Compare Marks v. Whitney, 6 Cal. 3d
251, 261–62, 2 ELR 20049 (Cal. 1971) (determining that the plainti had
standing “as a member of the general public”), with Robinson v. Kunach,
251 N.W.2d 449, 455, 7 ELR 20365 (Wis. 1977) (limiting public trust
standing to plaintis with statutory permission to assert the trust).
Copyright © 2015 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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