Time to Protect Our Streams and Wetlands

A small cascade along the Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch State Park. Photo by Avelino Maestas.
A new water study released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that 55 percent of our nation’s waterways are in poor condition for aquatic species. The report stated that 40 percent of the nation’s river and stream miles have high levels of phosphorus and 27 percent have high levels of nitrogen – nutrient pollution that triggers harmful algal blooms and depletes oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Some of the largest algal blooms occur in the Gulf of Mexico and have had dire effects on wildlife, degrading the coastal wetlands in Louisiana and the Florida Everglades.

To reverse this water quality degradation in our rivers, lakes, and bays, we must protect and restore the millions of small streams and wetlands that store and filter pollutants upstream, before they enter major waterways. Office of Water Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner put it best in announcing the study results (emphasis added):

 The health of our Nation’s rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, and this new science shows that America’s streams and rivers are under significant pressure.” As she went on to say, “We must continue to invest in protecting and restoring our nation’s streams and rivers as they are vital sources of our drinking water, provide many recreational opportunities, and play a critical role in the economy.”

These headwater streams and wetlands serve important ecological functions. They trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, filter pollutants, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. These streams and wetlands are also economic drivers because of their key role in providing agricultural and industrial water supplies, and support for fishing, hunting, boating, and other outdoor recreation and tourism industries. They also provide approximately 117 million people – one-third of the U.S. population – with some or all of their drinking water. Protecting these small streams and wetlands is essential to protecting downstream waters and the communities and economies that depend on them.

It is of the utmost importance for these waters to be protected now!

What’s truly in jeopardy?

About 60 percent of stream miles in the continental U.S. only flow seasonally or after rain. Approximately 20 percent of the wetlands – roughly 20 million acres – in the continental U.S. are not visibly connected to other waterways but have critical groundwater connections and provide many other benefits.

These streams and wetlands are the very foundation of our nation’s water resources and are absolutely vital to the health of waterways and communities that are downstream. Because they are often small, unnamed, not on maps and not always wet, these streams and wetlands are very vulnerable. With each mile of stream and acre of wetland destroyed, we are losing critical resources we depend on.

Next Steps

Last February, the Obama Administration was poised to issue its final Clean Water Act guidance, which will clarify protections for millions of wetland acres and stream miles. Then, suddenly, progress stalled at the White House. A process that should have taken 60 days has gone on more than a year! These guidelines are crucial for at-risk wetlands and streams to regain critical protections from polluters and developers.

Now more than ever, we must encourage officials to protect our iconic waters and important tributaries. Contact the Obama Administration today>>