How the Meaning of a Word Can Make You Sick

Jared Mott, IWLA Conservation Director
Wetland in Wisconsin

Among Americans, few pollution concerns top our worry about water pollution. According to a recent Gallup poll, majorities of Americans are greatly concerned about pollution of drinking water, as well as pollution of lakes, rivers and reservoirs. These concerns eclipsed all other environmental issues tested.

One reason for these strong feelings about clean water is how we have recently begun to truly understand and recognize the role it plays in human health. We interact with water every day of our lives and depend on it to stay healthy. We intuitively understand that the built infrastructure that delivers water to our homes is vital for healthy communities. But what about the natural infrastructure that purifies our water before it ever comes in contact with the intakes, pipes and treatment facilities that bring the water to our faucets?

I’m talking, of course, about wetlands. We’ve known for decades that wetlands are nature’s water filtration system. They slow water flow, allowing sediment and other particulates to settle out, which improves water quality. Wetlands trap pollutants such as phosphorus and heavy metals in their soils, transform dissolved nitrogen into nitrogen gas, and break down suspended solids to neutralize harmful bacteria. They help ensure Americans have clean drinking water by filtering and purifying water before it ever comes into contact with our built infrastructure.

Unfortunately, within the last year, about half the wetlands in the U.S. have lost the protections previously afforded by the Clean Water Act. In April of 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule that changed the definition of the term “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS). WOTUS is how the Clean Water Act defines its jurisdiction, so by changing the definition, EPA was really saying which waters would be protected by the Act. And with that rule change, EPA said that only wetlands that had a “continuous surface connection” to a larger water feature, like a river or ocean, would be protected. But many of the wetlands in the U.S. are not connected to other waterbodies. In fact, EPA’s new WOTUS definition removed federal protections from about half of the wetlands in the United States!

Wetlands help ensure Americans have clean drinking water by filtering and purifying water before it ever comes into contact with our built infrastructure.

By taking away Clean Water Act protections for these wetlands, EPA has declared that polluters no longer need a permit to dredge or fill them. And, now that those federal protections are gone, state regulations protecting wetlands are under increasing strain as they try to pick up the slack.

But most states cannot simply step in where the feds have stepped out. Some states relied on federal protections for wetlands and never adopted their own. Other states passed laws declaring that state regulations could be no more stringent than federal regulations, meaning that state regulators are barred from protecting the wetlands that the new WOTUS definition leaves in the cold.

Even worse, some states, like Indiana, used the new WOTUS definition as an excuse to try to remove state protections for the wetlands that are now left out of the Clean Water Act. This has a real-world effect on our drinking water, because it means that fewer wetlands will be available to improve water quality. Those destroyed wetlands won’t be storing floodwaters, providing wildlife habitat or sequestering carbon anymore, either.

Americans deserve clean drinking water, in addition to the host of other benefits provided by wetlands. And there’s a lot of buzz around infrastructure these days, for good reason. Our built drinking water infrastructure does need improvement. But wetlands are the natural infrastructure that help ensure good water quality and clean drinking water for all Americans. We cannot expect to have clean water in our homes if we don’t do all we can to protect clean water at its source.

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