This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could release a rule to clarify which waters of the United States are protected by the Clean Water Act.
Since 2000, at least 20 million wetland acres and nearly 60 percent of the stream miles in the continental United States have been without federal protection from pollution and destruction due to two Supreme Court rulings and badly flawed policy from the George W. Bush administration.
One basis for reducing protections for upstream waters was a perceived lack of certainty about whether or not they were connected to downstream waters. The Environmental Protection Agency directly addressed this with a recent draft report reviewing the scientific evidence on the Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters. The League submitted comments supporting this report and the League’s Clean Water Program Director, Leah Miller, testified before EPA’s Science Advisory Board on this topic. In her comments, Miller provided examples in which League water quality monitors traced pollution problems to runoff and groundwater connections. “There is no direct pipe or channel linking these pollution sources with the waterways our volunteers monitored,” said Miller. “Yet these pollutants entered the waterways through the same types of hydrologic connections that the report shows exist between waters that have lost Clean Water Act protections and larger waterways that are still protected. Our data show that pollution originating within small headwater tributaries contributes to the very significant water quality problems in larger waterways.” She urged the panel “to consider the experience of thousands of volunteer monitors across the country as further evidence that we cannot protect the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of our large rivers without first protecting the small streams and wetlands that feed them.”
The draft rule should apply this science to the Clean Water Act by protecting streams and wetlands that have been without protection for up to a decade. It may also provide a mechanism by which wetlands that are not as obviously linked to downstream waters can be protected if evidence indicates that connections do exist.
There will be a public comment period when the draft rule is released. Hunters, anglers, and other outdoorsmen and women will need to mobilize in support of these protections. Clean water is not only important for drinking water and wildlife, it provides the basis for all of our waterborne recreational pursuits such as fishing and boating, which in turn provide a big economic boost to the communities where they take place. Wetlands are critical breeding habitat for waterfowl, and small streams not only contribute to clean water but provide important habitat for fish and other aquatic species as well.