Similar to the removal of numerous other protections for clean water and air proposed by this administration under the guise of “regulatory relief,” a proposed change in the Clean Water Act will have large biological, ecological and human health effects. If we substitute “removing “protections” for “regulations,” it gives the general public a clearer understanding of what’s at stake for human health and our environment.
Many important ecosystem components would be subject to conversions (e.g., filling, damming, development, etc.) under the proposed change without any avoidance, minimization or potential compensatory mitigation for the losses.
These ecosystem components include headwater streams (the uppermost streams in a river network, some of which flow only part of the time). According to an EPA report, these streams, which account for up to 60 percent of streams nationwide, help drain floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, help remove pollution, provide fish and wildlife habitats, sustain the health of downstream rivers, lakes and bays, play a critical role in maintaining the quality and supply of our drinking water and ensure a continual flow of surface waters. Headwater streams also provide critical food chain items not found anywhere else in the stream system.
Also removed from protection under the proposed rule change are “isolated wetlands.” This is an often-used but oxymoronic term. They are not isolated ecologically or hydrologically, but may not have a clear surface connection to flowing waters. These wetlands provide flood protection, filter pollution, help recharge critical groundwater reserves and provide essential wildlife habitat. In the Carolinas, these areas include iconic and disappearing ecotypes like Carolina Bays and pocosins that often support rare and endangered plants and animals. Catastrophic flooding that has caused millions of dollars of damage in North Carolina and South Carolina can be largely attributed to losses of these systems to development.
It is important to keep in mind that if the rule change were dropped, the streams and wetlands could still be modified under the CWA through the permit program operated by the Army Corps of Engineers (under Section 404 of the CWA). But decision-making would be subject to review for impact avoidance, minimization and compensatory mitigation.
More importantly, we need to understand that these systems are integrally tied to maintaining clean water, fish and wildlife habitats, healthy streams and flood protection.
Removing protections and thereby inducing loss of these parts of our aquatic ecosystem is poor science. As noted by the well-known ecologist, conservationist and author Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
The EPA is taking comments via ProtectSouthernWater.org.
Senior Fish and Wildlife Biologist
U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Retired)