Weakening the Clean Water Act Would Be Otter Nonsense

If you are feeling a bit down, try a dose of river otter. Watching these acrobatic clowns tobogganing over hills, wrestling or playing tag and hearing them “chuckle” can lift many a low spirit (see video clip below).

Otter in Yellowstone National Park
The North American river otter can be seen at Trout Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

Many people might take these endearing, iconic North American inhabitants for granted, but they were once nearly wiped out in many portions of the United States. And now, given recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that may reinterpret what U.S. waters are protected under the Clean Water Act, they are potentially once again at risk.

Clean Water Paws-itively Necessary for Otters

Otters are good indicators of water quality. As predators, they are high up on the food chain. Scientists have found pollutants such as PCBs and mercury accumulate in otters’ tissues over time, as the animals consume fish, frogs, crayfish, mollusks and other invertebrates, which have in turn also ingested pollutants from their own foods.

To survive, otters need clean water in relatively specific, undisturbed environments. This and their small numbers spread across wide ranges have made them extremely vulnerable to pollution, habitat destruction and historical, unregulated trapping. By the mid-1970s, the North American otter had severely declined and disappeared throughout portions of central United States. This prompted 22 states to initiate programs that reintroduced more than 4,000 otters back into their natural range.

Otters being released in Pennsylvania.
River otters being released along the Juniata River in south-central Pennsylvania became a community affair.

Tom Serfass, a leading river otter researcher and professor of wildlife ecology at Frostburg State University in Maryland has been studying the animals since he was a graduate student in 1979. “I’ve always enjoyed the antics of the otter.” Serfass has been involved in river otter reintroduction programs in Pennsylvania, New York and New Mexico. He says he has seen a rebound of U.S. otter populations as a result of such programs, more informed management and improvements in their aquatic habitats from regulations such as the Clean Water Act. Today, the North American river otter, one of 13 otter species worldwide, is once again found in every continental U.S. state.

Recent Supreme Court decisions, however, have caused confusion over which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Court’s interpretation of the law says only “navigable waters” or those closely connected to them are protected, leaving some lakes, more than half of the nations’ stream miles and millions of acres of wetlands at risk. In addition to affecting much of our own sources of water for drinking, fishing and farming, this may undermine more than three decades of recovery efforts for river otters.

Serfass led the 1982 reintroduction project of 153 otters into seven river drainages in Pennsylvania. The resident otter populations had declined as a result of unregulated trapping and degraded aquatic habitats. This included the Casselman River and its tributaries in western Maryland and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Otter peeking out from release tube.Beginning in the late 1800s, seepage from local coal mine operations into these waterways eventually made the river water so acidic that it could no longer support aquatic life. Government and private conservation organizations, including angling groups, banded together in the 1990s to stop the drainage from the mines and the river habitat rebounded. Serfass and his team were able to reintroduce otters to the river habitat about 10 years ago and otters continue to thrive in the area.

Not Out of Danger

While the reintroduction of the North American otter is a great conservation success story, these animals have not yet been able to recolonize all of their former historic range. In some cases, this has been related to severe water quality issues, but other U.S. populations may just need more time. For example, only recently have otters begun to move into North Dakota from nearby Minnesota, a healthy native population.

Meanwhile, those populations that are considered stable are not necessarily out of danger. For instance, Serfass says, “The majority of otters used in the reintroduction projects were obtained from coastal Louisiana, the very same area that has been impacted by the recent oil spill. We don’t know the impact of the oil spill on otters, but this event indicates how quickly a thriving population could potentially be impacted by an unexpected event.” In addition, development is continuously shrinking coastal and other habitats the otters need to survive.

What we have done for the otter was to put proper protections of its aquatic habitats in place that allowed these reintroductions to succeed. Weakening the Clean Water Act would be detrimental not just for the otter but the great variety of species that depend on healthy waterways, including ourselves. NWF attorney Jim Murphy told National Wildlife magazine in its April/May issue that “the Clean Water Act has been one of the most successful environmental laws we’ve ever had. … Until we restore [it], many areas are going to find themselves with polluted water.”

In 2009, the Clean Water Restoration Act was introduced to remove the word “navigable” and restore the law to its original 1972 mandates.  The Obama Administration recently took a first step to restore Clean Water Act protections to many of the waters that were protected prior to the Supreme Court’s rulings. On Wednesday, April 27, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers released draft Clean Water Act guidance. While the Administration must act within the bounds of these Court decisions, successful administration action will restore and clarify protections for millions of wetland acres and stream miles, placing these restored protections on a much more secure legal and scientific foundation.

This would be a simple fix to what could be a very messy problem for all of us, including the North American river otter. And who would want to be visiting their favorite woodland river, wetland or coastal area and have to ask, “Where are the clowns?”

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Credit: Sadie Stevens, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts Amherst