EPA Science: Supporting the Waters of the U.S.

One of the great environmental success stories of our time is the Clean Water Act. Forty years ago, the condition of U.S. rivers, streams, lakes, coastal areas and other water resources was a national concern.

Things started to improve after the newly-established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was given direction “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” through major revisions to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (now the Clean Water Act).

But over the past decade, court decisions have created uncertainty about the Clean Water Act’s protection of certain streams and wetlands from pollution and development. In particular, the confusion centers on questions surrounding small streams and wetlands—some of which only flow after precipitation or dry up during parts of the year—and what role they play in the health of larger water bodies nearby or downstream.

This week, EPA’s Science Advisory Board released for public comment a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.” This draft report synthesizes more than 1,000 peer-reviewed pieces of scientific literature about how smaller, isolated water bodies are connected to larger ones and represents the state-of-the-science on the connectivity and isolation of waters in the United States. The draft report makes three main conclusions: 

  • Streams, regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, are connected to and have important effects on downstream waters.
  • Wetlands and open-waters in floodplains of streams and rivers and in riparian areas (transition areas between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems) are integrated with streams and rivers. They strongly influence downstream waters by affecting the flow of water, introducing nonpoint source pollution, and exchanging biological species.
  • There is insufficient information to generalize about wetlands and open-waters located outside of riparian areas and floodplains and their connectivity to downstream waters.

Through public comment and independent peer review by the Science Advisory Board, we’re seeking input on the literature summarized in the report and its conclusions.

The final version of this report will serve as a basis for a joint EPA and Army Corps of Engineers rulemaking aimed at clarifying the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. A draft of this rule was sent today to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review. The proposed joint rule will provide greater consistency, certainty, and predictability nationwide by providing clarity for determining where the Clean Water Act applies and where it does not. These improvements are necessary to reduce costs and minimize delays in the permit process and protect waters that are vital to public health, the environment and economy.

When final, EPA’s science report on connectivity will provide the science foundation for agency decisions concerning the implementation of the Clean Water Act. The final rule will provide clarification for how that science is translated to policy. Together, the science and rulemaking ensure that the Agency’s success story of protecting the nation’s water will continue.

Nancy Stoner is EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Water. Since February 1, 2010, Nancy Stoner has been serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water. Ms. Stoner’s extensive career in environmental policy and law began in 1987 as a trial attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently Ms. Stoner served as the Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Water Program. Ms. Stoner is a 1986 graduate of Yale Law School and a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia.

Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has over 29 years of management experience in both government and the private sector, with broad experience in leading organizational change and improvement, policy development, resource management, information management and technology. Mr. Kadeli graduated from George Mason University in 1983 with a B.A. in International Relations. In 1986, he earned an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University.