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Streams Take Me By Surprise

2013 March 19

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Travis Loop

As a teenager I spent a lot of time exploring the Catoctin Mountains in central Maryland. I especially loved a section of the mountains that was accessible by a few rough gravel roads and criss-crossed by a network of unmarked trails. I will always remember the time I was hiking and stopped in my tracks when I discovered water where it hadn’t been before. I realized that it had rained heavily the day prior and I had never been on that trail after rainfall.

Almost 20 years later, I’ve learned that these type of streams – that only flow after precipitation or in certain seasons – actually form the foundation of our nation’s water resources. It’s staggering that almost 60 percent of stream miles in the continental U.S., or more than 207,000 miles, only flow seasonally or after storms. These unknown, unnamed and underappreciated streams – like the one I discovered in the Maryland mountains – have a tremendous impact on everything downstream, including rivers, lakes and coastal waters, as well as people.

In fact, the stream I discovered was in the Frederick City Watershed, an area of 7,000 acres used as the source for about 20 percent of the drinking water for residents. So the water in that stream eventually came out of a tap and into someone’s glass. This isn’t unique to Frederick, MD. Approximately 117 million people– over one-third of the U.S. population – get part of their drinking water from these streams.

But these streams are important for many reasons. They are vital for recharging the groundwater supply because water enters through stream beds. Also, because these streams can store a lot of water, they help protect downstream communities from floods.  Seasonal and rain-dependent streams filter pollution and sediment, preventing them from traveling downstream and harming other waterways. One study estimated that small streams can remove 20 to 40 percent of the nitrogen that otherwise would pollute downstream waters. Additionally, protecting these streams is important for the economy, particularly for their key role in supporting fishing, hunting, agriculture and recreation.

Unfortunately, because they are often small, unnamed, not on maps and not always wet, these streams are very vulnerable. And they probably are important in your community. Now I live in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and I just discovered that 75 percent of the streams only flow seasonally or after rain. These streams just keep taking me by surprise.

About the author:  Travis Loop is the director of communications for EPA’s Office of Water.

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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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Arman.- permalink
    March 19, 2013


    I am so sad to feel most of the people in my country who have not interest with their problem. They don’t know that disaster, water supply, is worst and must be repaired. And last but not least, to change their perception what the water is. I hope this article can blow its message and should caught by my people. Great article…….!!!!

  2. Russ Cohen permalink
    March 19, 2013

    Nice posting, Travis. Here in Massachusetts, it’s the smaller streams where most of our best remaining wild trout fisheries are located. Trout will opportunistically move into ephemeral and intermittent streams as long as flow, temperature and other conditions are suitable for them.

    I’ve posted a fact sheet on the importance of protecting naturally-vegetated areas along smaller streams at this link:

  3. Brad Horchem permalink
    March 19, 2013


    Nice blog! It’s easy to underestimate the importance of our intermittent streams.

  4. drjustyna permalink
    March 20, 2013

    Nice blog. I will keep visiting this website very often. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog.

  5. Gianni Nocchi permalink
    March 21, 2013

    wonderful article! :D

  6. Nelson Brooke permalink
    March 22, 2013

    I too grew up playing in the mountains, of Alabama. Catching crawfish in streams was my favorite hobby. Today, as a Riverkeeper, I fully understand the importance of our headwater and ephemeral streams to the overall health of our rivers, groundwater, and drinking water supplies. What amazes me though, is that our state environmental agency – the Alabama Department of Environmental Management – doesn’t seem to understand this critical concept.

    ADEM, the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are allowing strip mines to blow up mountains and mine through streams in the Black Warrior River basin – effectively allowing the wholesale destruction of the southern Appalachian Mountains and the vital streams flowing from them. What’s left of these streams is turned into a waste treatment system for polluted coal mine runoff when they build sediment ponds instream. Mountaintop removal is alive and well in Alabama.

    Our water quality and quantity are therefore diminishing. A glaring example of Alabama’s failure to understand the importance of stream protection for swimming, fishing, and drinking water is the proposed Shepherd Bend Mine. These agencies have issued permits to this 1,773 acre coal mine on a bend of the Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork – immediately adjacent to a major municipal drinking water supply intake for 200,000 people every day. 29 streams in Shepherd Bend will be impacted by the mine, and will discharge polluted water into one of the greater Birmingham area’s major drinking water supplies.

    I’m glad EPA understands the importance of protecting America’s streams, but I wish our state (EPA) delegated authority did too. Shepherd Bend Mine sets a terrible precedent for streams, rivers, and drinking water supplies nationwide. Won’t EPA please step in and make its voice heard?

  7. Nelson Brooke permalink
    March 22, 2013

    And a link:

    Help Protect Birmingham, Alabama’s Drinking Water Supply!

    Source water protection is key to maintaining healthy water supplies around the globe. This coal mine threat sets terrible precedent that should not be ignored.

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