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Waters of the US

2011 June 2

By Nancy Stoner

Water has always been a powerful force in my life. I grew up in a floodplain outside Waynesboro, Virginia, near the South River. My house was right next to the river, and one time the floods were so bad that I ended up going out the front door on a boat. It was scary: I saw a neighbor clinging to a tree with one arm and his child with the other.

Perhaps influenced by growing up near the water, I’ve spent my career working to protect rivers, lakes, and coastal waters from pollution. Because I care about clean water so deeply, it is gratifying to be a part of recent Obama Administration actions that will protect our country’s clean water.

The Clean Water Act empowers states, EPA, and citizens to protect America’s waters, which we call “waters of the United States.”

Over the last 10 years, two Supreme Court decisions have caused confusion about what waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. And this confusion has meant that some waters that should be protected are not. Lakes, small streams, streams that run for only part of the year, and wetlands not directly connected to the tributary system are most at risk.

If these waters are not clearly protected, flooding may pose greater risks to our communities in the future—and I know how damaging such floods can be. Every year, flooding causes about $1.9 billion in property damage. More than 117 million Americans get some or all of their drinking water from waters that are not clearly protected right now. Every dollar spent on source water protection saves about $27 in water treatment costs. Clean water is an essential priority for hunters and fishers: About 40 million anglers spend about $45 billion a year, and about 2.3 million people spend $1.3 billion per year hunting migratory birds.

That’s why EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed for public comment a guidance document that clarifies where the Clean Water Act applies. Our approach is based in science and makes common sense: protecting the smallest waters is the best and most cost-effective way to protect the bigger waters they flow into.

Our waters are a crucial part of our lives and our landscapes. The guidance and related information is on our web site.   I invite you to read this proposed guidance and let us know what you think.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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26 Responses leave one →
  1. posicionamiento web permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Muy interesante el contenido. Coincido exactamente con todo. Gracias!

  2. armansyahardanis permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Floods : water Power !!!

    Climate-Change impact makes somewhere in the world has greatly overflow of the water. The result are floods. In the future, we must change the disasters of the flood to be energy for the people…..

  3. Andy permalink
    June 2, 2011

    It might be helpful to talk a little about what it means for something to be protected as a water of the US. If it is not protected, can companies discharge waste into it without a permit? Can a non-protected water be filled in with dirt or debris without regard to the impacts of doing so? Maybe explain more of why we might want more waters to be protected!

  4. Howard permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Now is the time for strong action on the part of our leaders to prevent further damage to and to provide strong protection for America’s Water. If we wait much longer, there will be very little that can be done. Unfortunately, the hostile climate in Washington will conspire to prevent this from happening.

  5. declectic permalink
    June 2, 2011

    I agree with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers who proposes that the Clean Water Act protect the smallest waters as the best “and most cost-effective way to protect the bigger waters into which they flow. They base their proposition “in science and makes common sense.”

    After all, science has shown that human beings are at least 57% water and humans can live without food longer than without water. I believe as Serge Kahili King says, “We are all connected to everyone and everything in the universe. Therefore, everything one does as an individual affects the whole. All thoughts, words, images, prayers, blessings, and deeds are listened to by all that is.”

    To neglect smaller waters would be neglecting ourselves.

  6. Joel permalink
    June 3, 2011

    I think people yet missed to understand the importance of WATER. And 80% of our own body is water!

    Great article!

    Joel Marion

  7. Piper Crowell permalink
    June 3, 2011

    I want to thank EPA and the Army Corps for taking this important step for achieving clean water across the country. The draft guidance is critical to protecting some of our most cherished waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and Everglades. In addition it will secure protections to our drinking water sources and bolster local economies.

    Thanks EPA!

  8. Bill permalink
    June 3, 2011

    We need to include wetlands and headwater feeder streams when it comes to evaluating BMP’s and water quality issues. Look at the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Contaminants start flowing in from Indiana and Illinois. Pollutants know no political boundaries. We need to encompass the entire watershed.

  9. Pete permalink
    June 7, 2011

    Protection of water quality is paramount to providing for healthy, productive society. However, our resources need to be aimed at true “waters”. One could easily read into the Corp guidance that the waters of the US tag could be placed on surface drainige features (gullies, ephemeral drainages, etc.). Expending the country’s resources to protect these types of drainages seems misguided and waste of human and capital resources.

    So far as the flooding issue is concerned, it seems to be a stretch to tie this to the Cllean Water Act. Clearly, this is a water quantity issue. Quantity and flooding are most impacted by development patterns. Trying to use the Clean Water Act as a development control tool will be challenged – probably successfully. If development control and land use planning are EPA’s goals, EPA should pursue other legal means for this control. Trying to use the Clean Water Act to drive that agenda will most likely only result in court challenges, congressional intervention, and redirection of focus from need water quality programs to fighting over the intended scope fo the Clean Water Act.

    Lets focus on those surface water features that have a significant impact on downstream water quality. There is more than enough work to do on that front.

  10. J. Barry permalink
    June 7, 2011

    About 40 million anglers spend about $45 billion a year…and that’s just on beer!

  11. Rwaters permalink
    June 10, 2011

    I have learned a great deal since becoming a volunteer with Blue Thumb, an educational outreach division of the conservation department about water basin, streams, water cycle and urban run-off. They monitor creek micro organisms in and around the urban landscape with a group of highly dedicated volunteer staff. I first learned about BT when I took a Junior college course on water educations for Teachers and youth leaders (WET) who have a desire to raise awareness about conservation of natural resources and to make the connection of how humans impact wildlife and water by humanizing the environment. I started a similiar awareness outreach program born from a long period of unemployment in which I found myself having to conserve every where I could

  12. Dave permalink
    June 14, 2011

    Pete,

    Thank you for so eloquently bringing this point up. Here in the Southwest, the regulation of “waters of the US” has gone to the level of ridiculous. Trying to get permitting from the Corps is like chasing a moving target . . . first they say one thing, then they say another. Just when you submit everything exactly as they requested, they change the rules. In the meantime, a project is on hold; sometimes for up to two years!

    Flooding is definitely a concern, but that will not change much when small gullies are filled to create streets and driveways because Section 401 requires detention areas anyway. In small events, these detention areas are actually helping to restore ground water for us. Furthermore, sometimes it would be nice to get a little more runoff in a small event so water will actually recharge the tributaries.

    It seems to me there is a much bigger picture here and if the agencies would work together (yeah, right), we could actually do more to enhance long-term ground water recharge. Of course, this pertains mostly to the western states. Unfortunately, most decisions like this are based on everything east of the Mississippi River . . . different environment entirely, but therein lies the problem. An ephemeral stream in Virginia, if there is such a thing, is TOTALLY different than an ephemeral stream in Arizona. Blanket regulation won’t work, but it also can’t just be left up to the local Corps office to decide what they “interpret” the regulation to mean. Depending on the mood of the day, one could be chasing a moving target for months!

  13. Robert permalink
    June 17, 2011

    It needs to be pointed out that often the issue of waters of the US is used by government regulatory staff as a punitive measure to try & drive businesses out for the staff’s own misguided motives. In an very arid part of the country where there are no “navigable” (float a boat) waters for hundreds of miles, except where humans have put dams up, staff routinely attempts to create a negative atmosphere for family run dairies by citing some connection through dry gullies to a river 500-600 miles away. That’s not science based.

    I have loved the environmental movement since my teenage years, but the more I see of those who are truly active now, the more I find myself unable to believe anything that comes out of that community. I have personally observed that the most outspoken ones are literally mentally ill or liars. One woman had an, obviously, total misunderstanding of Blue Baby Syndrome (a ground water issue), and wrote in an email that her 10-year old son came in the house, drank some water, started coughing and turned blue so she had to rush him to the ER. That’s just nuts.

    The dairies in our area are small businesses, all run by families, who, for the most part, do their best to have clean, efficient operations. They take care of their cows, but when you have 25-30 employees, you can’t be there all the time. These operators, almost to a person, grew up milking cows, taking care of them, they are not “factory farm” operations.

    If EPA & state agencies truly cared about surface water & ground water, the public interests would be far better served by hiring a couple of people familiar with dairies who inspect them at least every 3 months & can see where the problems exist.

    Instead, now we have a system where people with bachelor & masters degrees in geology or environmental science, right out of college with no practical experience, are hired who start out with absolutely no knowledge of agriculture. They keep coming up with increasingly costly measures, that, honestly, have done virtually nothing to protect our waters in any way. And they stay in their offices except once every 3-4 years when they are forced to do site visite, so they have no real idea of what goes on. Talk about a waste of money.

    Those are the real issues. There’s no sincere attempt by folks at EPA to reach out to the “polluting” businesses &, through consensus, devise real, science-based solutions. I now understand the frustration with government bureaucracies because they cultivate petty dictators rather than problem solvers. Maybe there is no way to prevent that, but I wish we could find one so that we can all become more positive and productive. Because, if you run all the people out of business who are truly creating something real, we are in big trouble.

  14. James permalink
    June 19, 2011

    I think that protecting headwaters is the most important thing that could happen in the effort to protect our nations waters. It is a matter of pride in our nation, the health of the American people, and the prosperity of our economy to have clean water running through out nations veins!

    Thank you EPA. In response to RWaters “In an very arid part of the country where there are no “navigable” (float a boat) waters for hundreds of miles, except where humans have put dams up, staff routinely attempts to create a negative atmosphere for family run dairies by citing some connection through dry gullies to a river 500-600 miles away. That’s not science based.”

    I would like to add that if the “dry gullies” are even occasional “wet” and flow downhill (the direction water still runs), then they are connected. Agricultural waste products can accumulate in these “dry gullies” then be flushed in the larger rivers in high concentrations when the rains return. Don’t forget, those gullies were probably made by water to begin with.

  15. Steve permalink
    June 27, 2011

    Pete/Dave,

    I whole heartedly agree with both of you. If one looks at the discussions that took place when the CWA was first brought up, it was intended soley for those waters that had “true” commerce issues. The states have virtually no power over the waters that run through their jurisdictions. I agree that EPA needs to focus on the big picture, let the states handle the rest of the picture. We have niether the personnel, time, or money at the Fed level to move any sort of permit at an efficient rate.

    Industry has no problem being regulated, the problem industry has is the lack of efficieny on behalf of the agency, the inapropriate and inconsistent use of the federal policy, and the overall lack of understanding that in order for our economy to move, the agencies need to stop reinventing the wheel for every permitting issue.

    The basis of the CWA is noble and just…the implementation of the Act to stifle business, control land planning etc is an extreme misuse of power and flys in the face of everything the Act was intended to do.

    As stated previously, flooding is not a CWA issue…..allowing development in Flood palins without proper engineering/insurance etc is the issue. The lack of federal spending, will and understanding to upgrade our infrastructure to facilitate clean water distribution, and protect the public is a different discussion altogether.

  16. Robert Ressl permalink
    June 28, 2011

    The changes are needed to improve the clarity of what is being protected. However, also needed is implementation (enforcement) of the current and future rules. Implementation based on voluntary compliance seems to be the preferred method. It is inadequate and leads to terrible abuse of the rules and long term problems that are not being solved. Along with these changes we need more people who are enforcing the implementation of the rules. Look at nearly any federal program and so many of its problems can be traced back to abuse of the implementation caused by no one looking at and enforcing the proper implementation of the requirements. Medicare fraud, the fraudulent loans made that drove up housing prices and resulted in collapse of the market, storm water BMP’s that are for show (silt fence is a joke), the $1000 dollar hammer for space, etc. Every new or change in the regulations only results in more of the same because there are too few people enforcing and verifying the implementation of the regulations.

  17. Cliff permalink
    June 28, 2011

    The jurisdiction of the EPA and USACE relative to the CWA’s authority and definitions has long been debated (Is a cattail a wetland?). It is also acknowledged that environmental regulation is required to balance environmental, economic and political interests. For example, the Corps dredging projects across the country have caused untolled environmental harm and degredation. However, those activities facilitate economical transportation of goods and materials, resulting in lower prices for the consumer. There are sufficient federal, state and local controls in place to protect the environment, but to some extent they have been ignored, or trumped by political gain. Adding addtional regulation and bureaucracy in it self will not improve the environment, expansion of jurisdiction may take away from existing, productive oversite. We all complain about the price of gas, milk and bread. There are environmentally friendly best management practices developed for nearly all consumer driven activities, but they come with a price. True environmental stewrdship comes from the willingness to pay the real price of goods and services, which includes environmental protection.

  18. Jon permalink
    June 28, 2011

    “The Administration’s framework outlines a series of actions underway and planned across Federal agencies to ensure the integrity of the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming, and fishing, and that support farming, recreation, tourism and economic growth.”

    I am a government employee for 22 years whose job it is to insure compliance with these regulations, and develops and implements Best Management Practices (BMP’s) on the lands we manage. It is even difficult for me in consultation with various agencies to get consistent interpretations of the lines on the ground. I am all for abiding by these regulations and creating a clear line in the sand. Currently the USGS is developing a National Elevation Dataset, and if done properly to the scale necessary would aid in the delineation of the established boundaries. If more areas need inclusion or some need exclusion then the scientist/experts could decide from a standard on a set basis.

    The permitting process could be streamlined with a simple in or out of jurisdiction by using GPS coordinates typed into a map. The public could visualize and hopefully better understand why these areas need protection. This is a national issue whether on the east or west coast.

    And extract from http://www.epa.state.il.us/water/nutrient/index.html “U.S. EPA expects states to establish numeric water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen and to carry out the other pieces of the Clean Water Act framework, as appropriate. U.S. EPA’s Inspector General issued a finding in 2009 that U.S. EPA had not done enough to get state numeric nutrient water quality standards established. In response, U.S. EPA has developed a “corrective action plan” which includes a commitment to identify states where federal promulgation of nutrient water quality standards is required. U.S. EPA has been petitioned and sued by various environmental groups for failure of states to establish numeric nutrient standards, so there is mounting pressure on U.S. EPA and states to address nutrients by developing numeric nutrient water quality standards.
    States have concerns on the issue of numeric nutrient water quality standards. They raise two main points:
    1. There is not a straightforward relationship between nutrient concentration in the water and adverse effects, so a statewide “one size fits all” standard that meets the test of scientific defensibility is almost unachievable; and
    2. The Clean Water Act programs are effective for point sources but do not assure reductions from non-point sources that are often the predominant contributors of nutrients in a particular watershed. “

    I am concerned that we are keeping the exemptions for farmers with the problems with pesticide and sediment runoff. Most of these pesticides photo degrade on land but become trapped in the sediments in our waters. The NRCS has some good BMP’s to help with the farmers. I believe that we should have the exemptions with the farmers only if they abide by certain established BMP’s.

  19. Lorelei E permalink
    June 30, 2011

    It is vitally important to protect ALL water sources and watersheds. As our population continues to grow the demand for clean water grows as well. The small feeder streams that lead into larger ones are deserving of protection as well. Development and agriculture need to be regulated so that water sources and water sheds are not impacted.

  20. Kay B. Day permalink
    July 6, 2011

    States and local communities have a vested interest in protecting their waters. The federal government has, on more than one occasion, failed to do the job the central powers have assumed control over.

    The matter should be left to the states in accordance with the Tenth Amendment.

    Punitive measures are being considered for the state of Florida, for example, by the federal government. This will harm the species at the top of the eco-chain, humans, by inflicting damage on the economy by using questionable science.

    Protecting every body of water in the U.S. is not a power delegated to the federal government.

  21. Anonymous permalink
    July 28, 2011

    How will these waters be protected? I have seen first hand municipalities dumping raw sewage into our water system because it was financially economical to do so. I believe the permitting system can work but as we all know that can be bought out as well. I think too often the responsibility has been put to a government that is only looking at one side of the issues, I think the responsibility should be laid upon the people and industry first.

  22. August 16, 2011

    Regulation is fine, just quit making the individual land owner pay for it. Just try to get the EPA, USACOE or any state function that is suppose to provide regulation to do a wetland delineation on your property. Good luck, I’ve tried for seven years and all I got was advice to hire an environmentalist to do a study for the regulators to approve that cost me thousands. Either pay me for my property rights under the taking clause of the fifth amendment or work with me to benefit water quality, don’t force me to pay others.

  23. Peggy White permalink
    August 25, 2011

    I personally think it is a outrage for the federal government to put
    federal mandidates on what if’s. I have seen in my community water
    bills up to $90.00 a month for our seniors for a what if. We have
    continued to have federal government in to our lives we can only
    lay back and do nothing of what is best for area. Government should
    be for the people not against. Keep federal government out of Washing
    ton and Idaho. We have brains and can do a better job.

  24. Peggy White permalink
    August 25, 2011

    Bolster local Economics! Ha. I live in a Superfund site and EPA have
    been here for 20 some years. They have wasted YOUR TAX dollars
    in a clean up. $30 million plus. They have moved dirt and changed
    the criteria on several regulation plus ruin the infrastructure of our county.
    The locals lost all their jobs do to such harsh EPA rulings and destroyed
    our local economy. Try to let them come in to our life they are just
    like IRS. We need to change who they answer to. We are all grown
    adults and I personally found many lies or not all information handed
    out to the people. Take your chance with EPA. NEVER!!!!!! I serve as
    local elected official and seen way too much. Fire all of them.

  25. Luke permalink
    February 10, 2014

    This water bill is really great, I hope we can continue to protect and preserve our natural rivers, streams and lakes here in our country. Thank you for working so hard to be able to do this for our own benefit.

  26. Hernan permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Excelente artículo, comparto algunas cuestiones. En seovolución hablan de lo mismo con otro enfoque.

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