Rio Hondo Land v. EPA, No. 19-9531 (10th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Petitioner-Appellant Rio Hondo petitioned the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal to review a decision of the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (“EAB”). Rio Hondo sought to vacate relaxed pollutant limitations in a 2017 permit issued by the EPA to an upstream waste water treatment plant. The waste water treatment plant served the Village of Ruidoso and City of Ruidoso Downs, and was an identified point source of pollutants into the Rio Ruidoso river. The Rio Ruidoso was classified under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) as marginally impaired for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The Rio Hondo river was downstream from the Rio Ruidoso river, and the Rio Hondo river flowed adjacent to the Rio Hondo ranch. Rio Hondo contended that reduced river water quality, including algae blooms, harmed its ability to make critical use of the river water. Rio Hondo contended two aspects of the EPA’s 2017 permit constitute impermissible backsliding under the CWA: (1) the permit does not include concentration-based limitations that prior permits included; and (2) the permit increased the mass-based limitation on nitrogen discharges. The 2017 permit relied on a 2016 Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) report prepared by the New Mexico Environment Department and adopted by the EPA. Rio Hondo previously challenged the 2016 TMDL in New Mexico state court and lost. The Tenth Circuit denied Rio Hondo's petition: Rio Hondo presented no new information which would cast doubt on the 2016 TMDL, and its challenge to the 2017 permit "boils down to a challenge of that underlying 2016 TMDL. The record demonstrates that the EPA reasonably relied on the 2016 TMDL in issuing the 2017 permit, did not abuse its discretion in creating the permit limits, and appropriately applied a statutory exception to the anti-backsliding provisions of the CWA."