New Freshwater Challenge to Restore and Protect Our Waters

During Earth Week, the White House announced a bold new national goal to protect, restore, and reconnect eight million acres of wetlands and 100,000 miles of our nation’s rivers and streams by 2030. The National Wildlife Federation joined over 100 organizations, states, Tribes, cities, local communities, and other entities to support the America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge, which builds on the longstanding bipartisan policy of no net loss of wetlands. This commitment is a strong step forward to reconnect, restore, and protect wetlands and streams in a world where federal protections for these vulnerable and important waters have been significantly weakened. 

Wildlife like bears rely on clean water for drinking, fishing, and swimming – just like us! Photo by Tommaso Balestrini/NWF Photo Contest.

America’s Waters are Critical for People and Wildlife Alike

From the Everglades to Puget Sound – and all the bogs, brooks, and marshes in between – America’s wetlands, rivers, estuaries, and streams are critical for fish, wildlife, and people. Communities rely on these features for drinking water and flood protection, as well as access to fishing, hunting, recreation, and cultural traditions. Although wetlands cover only 6% of the Earth’s land surface, 40% of all plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands.

More than a third of all federally endangered or threatened species live only in wetlands and half use wetlands at some point in their lives. Freshwater wetlands store and slowly release water downstream, naturally protecting communities from flooding, shoring up water supplies in times of drought, reducing wildfire risk, and cleaning drinking water before it flows out of our taps.

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, similar to coral reefs and tropical rainforests. From moose to trout, wildlife big and small rely on these waters for habitat, nesting, food, and shelter. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Diane Higdem.

Similarly, small and headwater streams are the capillaries that feed our larger watersheds, supporting native fisheries, supplying drinking water, and absorbing floodwaters. Coastal estuaries and mangrove forests serve as the first line of defense against storm surges and provide important habitat and shelter for fish and wildlife, from oysters to dolphins.

The commercial salmon fishing industry depends on small streams and streams that do not flow year-round, which serve as spawning areas for salmon as far as 900 miles inland.

Wetlands and Streams More at Risk Than Ever

Despite their importance, these waters are at risk. The United States has lost over half of our wetlands since European colonization. The latest Wetlands Status and Trends report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that this trend is continuing. Despite progress made since the passage of the Clean Water Act, between 2009-2019, the rate of wetland loss has increased by 50%. During the last decade, an area of vegetated wetlands greater than the size of Rhode Island disappeared from the landscape.

Activities like development and agricultural practices that drain wetlands and fill them in are primarily driving wetlands loss, but climate change is in play too. While climate change is making flood-absorbing wetlands and seasonal or precipitation dependent streams all the more important, particularly in the arid west where most Western states are experiencing long-term drought conditions, it is also causing wetland loss.

Development and dryer conditions are causing important wetlands features, like the Prairie Potholes of the Great Plains that serve as America’s duck factory, to dry up and disappear. By the end of this century, we are on track to lose up to 90% of coastal wetlands that protect communities from storm surge and provide valuable habitat due to sea level rise.

Seasonal and precipitation-dependent streams are the backbone of every watershed – they provide drinking water to roughly 117 million people. A major source of water in rivers in the Southwest is from groundwater released into streams that only flow part of the year. In Arizona, wildlife like the javelina concentrate near these streams. Photo by Audrey Windle/NWF Photo Contest.

The latest Wetlands Status and Trends report makes clear that we need to change our approach to wetlands conservation in the United States. Unfortunately, the Sackett v. EPA Supreme Court decision last year erased longstanding federal Clean Water Act protections for waters, including 63% of our nation’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams.

The loss of federal protections means many wetlands and streams can be polluted and destroyed at will. Although many states and tribal governments have programs that separately protect some wetlands and streams, many other states do not or lack the resources to adequately do so. The result is that countless streams and wetlands have little to no protection. Without action, this will lead to polluted waterways, increased floods, and loss of wildlife.

Three white pelicans flying over wetlands at Bear River National Wildlife Refuge in Utah. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, wetlands play an enormous and low cost role in absorbing floodwaters. One single acre of wetland can store 1 to 1.5 million gallons of floodwaters that would otherwise quickly rush downstream. Photo by USFWS/Flickr.

Freshwater Challenge Will Help Protect Vulnerable Waters

The Administration’s commitment to reconnect, restore and protect 8 million miles of wetlands and 100,000 miles of rivers and streams by 2030 will help federal agencies and state, Tribal, and local communities work together to protect streams and wetlands across the country. The America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge reaffirms the importance of halting wetlands decline and calls on all states, Tribal governments, and entities to advance their own policies and strategies for conserving and restoring America’s freshwater systems.

The partnership urges participants to utilize and leverage all of the tools and approaches available to protect the most at-risk waters. Achieving these goals will be a strong step forward to protect and restore waters now left vulnerable in light of the Sackett decision.

The Pacific chorus frog’s habitat stretches from British Columbia to Baja California. They rely on slow-moving streams, permanent and seasonal (vernal) pools, wetlands, marshes, swamps and other waters for breeding habitat. Photo by Teal Waterstrat/USFWS.

It is more important now than ever that we move forward to defend clean water and restore protections for our nation’s wetlands, rivers, and streams at every level. Clean drinking water, safe recreation and fishing, community resilience to floods and droughts, and healthy habitat for wildlife depend on it.

Tell your decision makers to support efforts to restore and protect wetlands.