Newswise — A group of aquatic scientists and policy experts, including Amy D. Rosemond of the University of Georgia, warns that the Navigable Waters Protection Rule recently adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could profoundly degrade the nation’s water quality.

In a Policy Forum published in Science, they write that the new rule ignores scientific evidence to redefine which streams and wetlands qualify as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) and are thus protected by the federal Clean Water Act.

“This is the biggest blow to maintaining water quality in the U.S. that I have seen in my lifetime,” said Rosemond, a professor in the Odum School of Ecology. “The Clean Water Act is the main legislation that ensures water quality in the U.S. through protection of designated waters. If waters are removed from this designation, as the NWPR does, they can be polluted or destroyed for short-term economic gain.”

The new definition of WOTUS excludes waterbodies that aren’t visibly connected with others, such as ephemeral streams—those that flow only at certain times of year or after rainstorms—and non-floodplain wetlands. The result is that millions of miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands are newly vulnerable to pollution, dredging, filling and other destructive activities.

Rosemond said that even if there is no visible or permanent surface connection between them, many waterbodies are connected by groundwater. Pollutants introduced into these streams or wetlands can travel for miles throughout entire watersheds.

“There is biological, chemical and physical connectivity beyond visual amounts of surface flow,” she said. “Everything essentially moves downstream, and that happens in water pulses as well as in continuous water flow.”

And just because streams and wetlands are small doesn’t mean they’re not important. Ephemeral streams and seemingly isolated wetlands perform valuable ecosystem services like filtration of pollutants, flood control and provision of wildlife habitat. The services provided by isolated wetlands alone are estimated at $673 billion per year, according to the authors.

Rosemond said that human well-being depends on harnessing the connections between water bodies. 

“Streams and wetlands can be used and enhanced to work with other types of infrastructure to avoid downstream flooding and save money and lives,” she said. “In addition, economies around boating, fishing and bird-watching, as well as simply swimming and playing in clean water, all depend on water purification and animal migration. These benefits come from upstream-downstream connections that can now be severed by the NWPR adoption.” 

The authors argue that in ignoring the growing body of research-based evidence about these functional connections, the new rule weakens the protections promised by the Clean Water Act.

“The need to support clean water has never been greater,” said Rosemond.  “Roughly 70% of U.S. streams are in only fair or poor condition and many lakes are experiencing toxic algal blooms from excess nutrient pollution. The control of pollution in a stream system takes place in all the small headwater streams and wetlands that flow into larger rivers and make their way to downstream lakes or coasts. We need those headwater streams working like we never have before, not removed from protection.” 


The Policy Forum’s co-authors are S. Mažeika P. Sullivan of The Ohio State University, Mark Rains of the University of South Florida, Amanda D. Rodewald of Cornell University and William W. Buzbee of the Georgetown University Law Center.