water

The Importance of Snowpack

by Mike Kolian

In the United States, changes in snowpack currently represent one of the best documented hydrological signs of climate change. Snowpack is a key indicator and plays a vitally important role both in the environment and to society.

Snowpack accounts for a majority of water supply in many parts of the West as it stores vast amounts of water that is slowly released as temperatures rise in the spring and summer. Snowpack keeps the ground and soil moist by covering it longer into spring and summer which influences the onset of the fire season as well as the prevalence and severity of wildfires. In addition, hydro-electric power generation in the West is heavily reliant on water supplied by melting snowpack.

A very serious story is unfolding out West. This year, snowpack in the western U.S. is at record lows in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades of California, Oregon, and Washington, confirmed by the recent April 1st snowpack measurements. In fact, some snowpack sites in California and Washington were observed to be snow-free this spring for the first time since observations began.

Snowpack is measured in snow-water equivalent, which reflects the amount of water contained in the snowpack at a location (if the entire snowpack were to melt). This indicator is based on data from over 700 measurements sites across 11 western states and shows long-term rates of change for the month of April, which could reflect changes in winter snowfall as well as the timing of spring snowmelt.

map chart titled "Trends in April Snowpack in the Western United States 1955-2015." Charts shows mostly percentage reductions of snowpack over all mountains areas, ranging from 0 to -80 percent. Very few areas show small increases.

Over the last 60 years, there have been widespread temperature-related reductions in snowpack in the West, with the largest reductions occurring in lower elevation mountains in the Northwest and California. From 1955 to 2015, April snowpack declined at over 90 percent of the sites measured (see map). The average change across all sites amounts to about a 14 percent decline. Observations also indicate a decrease in total snowfall and a transition to more rain and less snow in both the West and Northeast in the last 50 years.

photo of a resevoir with water levels dropped way below usual level

Long-term trends in snowpack provide important evidence that climate-related shifts are underway, and highlight the seriousness of water-resource and drought issues that Western states such as California currently face.

Less snowpack means less water and less water means more serious impacts.

Explore more:

See this and other Snow and Ice indicators

Open the map in Google Earth (KMZ) (100K, Download Google Earth): http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_downloads/snowpack_april1.kmz

About the author: Mike Kolian is an environmental scientist with EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs, Climate Change Division. His deep roots managing long-term environmental monitoring programs form the basis of his appreciation for the important role they and their data play in scientifically based decision making.

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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Water Wednesday: “Mommy, Where Does It Go When I Flush?”

By Chrislyn Johnson

Last spring, when I was potty training my 3-year-old, he asked me where it goes after we flush the toilet. I thought about this before I answered him, because I have often overwhelmed the poor child with my answers. He once asked me “What is water?” and I told him it was two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

For most people, it is enough to be told that when you flush the toilet, it goes to the sewage treatment plant. Since I worked in wastewater regulation for a little while, I know it goes far beyond that, and I have trouble answering this seemingly simple question with a simple answer.

Once it goes down the drain, the water travels through a sometimes aging, sometimes modern, infrastructure of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. Treatment options vary, from open lagoons to all-inclusive mechanical plants, all with the same goal: to treat sewage so it can be released into the environment. Many modern facilities do this with an “activated sludge” process that uses bacteria to naturally break down the waste.

As it enters the plant, the solids are separated out by a grit screen and settling basins. Heavier solids like plastics, eggshells, and intact items are settled out and removed; then taken to the landfill. The next step is the primary clarifier, where the sewage moves slowly along so heavier particles and sludge can settle out. At the same time, grease and oils dumped down the drain float to the top and are skimmed off the surface.

After the clarifier, the water is moved to the main part of the treatment: the aeration basin. Bacteria feast on the nutrients to break down the sewage and remove chemicals in the wastewater as it bubbles and roils with oxygen. Depending on the plant, an additional tank is sometimes added to help remove nitrogen. Since the treated water goes back into rivers and streams, this additional step is helpful in removing nitrogen before it can cause problems. Nitrogen can cause algal blooms that not only can be toxic, but also consume a lot of oxygen during decomposition, which kills the fish.

Following the aeration and nitrogen removal processes, the water then flows into a secondary clarifier. Water trickles out from weirs at the top of the large, circular tanks of the clarifier. The water is disinfected, either by chemical means (such as chlorination, similar to bleach), or through newer alternatives like ultraviolet (UV) lights. Once disinfected, the treated water is released into a nearby river or stream.

Whereas the water treatment is nearly finished in the secondary clarifier, the sludge often has a few more steps to completion. The bacteria slowly settle to the bottom of the clarifier into what is called the sludge blanket. Some of the sludge blanket from the clarifier is recycled and added back into the incoming wastewater to begin the treatment reaction in the aeration basin. Depending on the type of plant, the remainder of the sludge travels to the digesters for either aerobic or anaerobic digestion (where the bacteria eat each other).

Aerobic digestion uses oxygen to further break down the sludge. It is nearly odorless, but also costly since the process has to be manually oxygenated. The other common alternative is anaerobic digestion, which is not so odorless since it produces methane. However, the methane can be captured and used to generate electricity to operate the plant. The waste heat from the generators even can be used to keep the anaerobic digesters at the correct operating temperature. After leaving the digesters, water is removed from the sludge, which can then be disposed of or used as a soil conditioner. With clean water going back to the stream or river, and sludge going back to the earth, the cycle is complete.

I thought about this intricate series of steps that mimics the breakdown processes wastes would undergo in nature, given sufficient time and space. I thought about how fortunate we are to live in a country where water quality is a high priority, and we can make a daily difference to protect our local waterways (see graphic below).

I also thought about my son’s level of understanding, as he impatiently asked me again, “Where it go?” With all of this in mind, I looked down at my innocent little boy and told him, “It goes to the sewage treatment plant, honey.”

Click image to see larger version.

Click image to see larger version.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri and loves all things nature. She also enjoys access to flush toilets.

Sources:
Scientific American
U.S. Census Bureau
World Health Organization

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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How An EPA Grant Transformed Our Lives and Environment

Many employers in Wisconsin can’t find applicants with the right skills and credentials to fill job openings. We refer to this as a skills mismatch – there are jobs available but those who are unemployed don’t have the industry certifications, licenses and credentials to qualify. We’ve engineered the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps (Great Lakes CCC) using the EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training grant program to position our training participants for career and college readiness. We believe individuals from under-represented populations can work in sectors related to environmental remediation while simultaneously ascending to positions of leadership where post-secondary education will be a prerequisite. .

In our Great Lakes CCC program, we start with public-private partnerships that give participants high-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experiences which translate into bona fide occupational credentials. We emphasize disaster planning and preparedness inherent in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hazardous waste courses and co-enroll our trainees into the AmeriCorps national service program where they also earn college scholarships. Individuals who previously thought post-secondary education was unattainable suddenly find themselves with scholarships they can use for tuition over the next several years.

For example, we put together a cross-sector partnership that utilizes bird species to detect contaminated sediments that impair the water quality of Lake Michigan estuaries. Under the leadership of the U.S. Geological Service, our training participants are in the process of monitoring tree swallow populations for the presence of contaminants that may be bio-accumulating in the species. When contaminants are identified, our training participants transition from the lab to the field to learn alongside remediation contractors who are responsible for the dredging and restoration operations.

Our training participants are individuals who face barriers to employment, and many of them have struggled to get an education or to find work. We’ve found that high-demand, portable, national credentials – the premise of EPA’s environmental job training grant program – are the solution to long-term employment for our trainees. The combination of multiple industry certifications creates new career opportunities. For instance, a commercial driver’s license overlaid with hazardous waste training positions them for occupations in great demand by trucking companies located between Milwaukee and Chicago. We believe everyone is employable – our multi-faceted credentialing approach has resulted in an average 80 percent placement rate and we anticipate sector partnerships and placement outcomes will climb further as we continue to fine tune our training.

About the author: Chris Litzau serves as the President of the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps (Great Lakes CCC), a regional job training and education program for disadvantaged individuals in southeastern Wisconsin. He is a tireless advocate for preparing young adults from under-resourced communities with national, portable credentials and skills necessary to achieve careers in emerging technologies. He has a strong interest in transitioning job training participants into the water sector. As the former Executive Director for 12 years at the Milwaukee Community Service Corps–an urban youth corps program that engages young adults aged 18 to 23 in community service and public infrastructure development projects—he assembled a team that included the U.S. EPA, Wisconsin DNR and CH2M HILL to pioneer the “Milwaukee Model” as an initiative to place brownfield job training participants in marine environments to assist in the clean-up of contaminated sediments from the Great Lakes and its tributaries.  

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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New Online Resources Available for Local Leaders and Community Members

During my 38 years at EPA, I’ve had a chance to work here in Washington, D.C., in Research Triangle Park, in Dallas, and in Atlanta. In each of my roles, I’ve had many opportunities to meet with local leaders who are working hard to address concerns in their communities. So I know protecting environmental quality and public health happens most directly at the local level.

That’s why making a visible difference in communities is one of our top priorities for EPA. We are looking for ways we can support local officials juggling multiple responsibilities, as well as residents eager for information they can use to take action and improve local conditions.

So I’m excited about a new resource we’ve launched specifically for local officials and citizens. The Community Resources website gives visitors easy access to three unique resources that can help with a variety of local environmental and public health issues:

  • The Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN) website offers information to help communities understand and meet federal and state environmental regulatory requirements. Developed in partnership with the International City / County Management Association, it’s one of several compliance assistance centers EPA supports. Along with media-specific information, LGEAN also includes information to help with issues ranging from sustainable environmental management to transportation to public safety.
  • The National Resource Network website offers practical solutions to help communities reach their goals for growth and economic development. Established by HUD in cooperation with the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities, it offers local government officials a Resource Library to help with practical solutions and analyses, as well as a “311 for Cities” service that enables them to request and quickly receive assistance on a wide range of topics.
  • And EPA’s Community Health website gives users resources to help improve local environmental health conditions. It provides access to information about beach closures, fish advisories, toxic emissions, and other public health issues. Visitors can also find information about applying for EPA grants and technical assistance.

We hope you’ll find this new site helpful. We invite you to check it out and then, click on the link to give us your feedback. We want to hear how we can improve the site to help local officials and community members across the country find the resources that are most important to them.

The Community Resources site is just one way we are working to make a visible difference in communities. Let me share a few examples of work happening on the ground around the country:

  • In Lawrence, Massachusetts, we awarded a brownfields grant that will help the community cleanup and revitalize a neighborhood marked by abandoned and polluted industrial properties. Check out this short video that features Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Massachusetts Rep. Niki Tsongas as they describe what this support will mean for the community.
  • In Wheeling, West Virginia, we joined local residents in exploring how it can transform an old apple orchard in an historic part of town into a regional hub for local foods. This work is part of the Local Foods, Local Places Initiative, which involves USDA and other federal agencies in helping communities develop local food systems as a means of revitalizing traditional downtowns and promoting economic diversification. Listen to what the Reinvent Wheeling’s Jack Dougherty has to say about this effort in this story by WV Public Radio.
  • In Fresno, California, we have been working with other state and federal agencies to help spur economic development and revitalization as part of the Obama Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative. A new EPA report drawing on that work describes 30 strategies to help local governments overcome obstacles and encourage infill development, particularly in distressed communities. As many communities across the country have learned, infill development saves money through the more efficient use of tax dollars, increases property values, and improves quality of life. We’re excited about how it can help Fresno, and many other communities that recognize the benefits of reinvesting and restoring what were once vibrant neighborhoods.

Whether working on tools and information to help communities address priority issues or working right alongside community leaders, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and I are proud of the work EPA is doing to help communities build a greener, healthier, more prosperous future. We look forward to sharing more examples of how we are supporting communities in reaching their goals.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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America’s Heartland Depends on Clean Water

By Mark Hague

The Heartland thrives on clean water, a resource we must both conserve and protect. Agricultural interests, public health officials, recreational small businesses, and all the rest of us rely on clean water for our lives and livelihoods. While EPA oversees the protection of water quality under the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, every Heartlander understands its value to our daily lives.

Mark Hague

Mark Hague

During the past 43 years, EPA, the states, and local partners have worked tirelessly to clean up once polluted rivers and streams. While we’ve come a long way and dealt with the biggest issues, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to solve what remains through a new Clean Water Rule.

This new rule will help us further ensure clean waters are available to everyone here in the Heartland and downstream. The rule more clearly protects the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources.

In developing the rule, we held more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country and reviewed more than one million public comments.

One of our most important challenges is protecting those smaller tributaries and wetlands that are a part of the vast interconnected system of some of our big rivers, like the Missouri and Mississippi. Our small waters are often out of sight, yet still serve an integral role in ensuring clean water for all Americans and our environment.

We rely on these smaller wetlands to provide uptake of nutrients, moderate flow in times of flooding, and serve as important habitat for species that spawn or rely on larger bodies of water, like the Missouri River.

Agriculture relies on clean water for livestock, crops, and irrigation. With the Clean Water Rule, EPA provides greater clarity and certainty to farmers and does not add economic burden on agriculture.

There is no doubt our water quality has improved. As a community and an agency, we must continue to protect both large and small tributaries. Clean water is a powerful economic driver affecting manufacturing, farming, tourism, recreation, and energy production. In fact, people who fish, hunt, and watch wildlife as a hobby spent $144.7 billion in 2011. That’s equal to one percent of the gross domestic product. The fact is, we rely on the flow of clean water to provide for this economic engine.

Finally, we all rely on the healthy ecosystems in these upstream waters to provide us with quiet, natural places to fish, boat, swim, and enjoy the outdoors. Hunters and anglers enjoy pristine places, and fishing rod makers and boat builders enjoy more business. And, of course, when drinking water is cleaner, people are healthier. We all win!

The Clean Water Rule will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Learn more at www.epa.gov/cleanwaterrule.

About the Author: Mark Hague serves as the Acting EPA Region 7 Administrator. He is responsible for overseeing the overall operations within the region and the implementation of federal environmental rules and regulations, and serves as a liaison with the public, elected officials, organizations, and others. Mark has 35 years of experience with EPA.

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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Wetlands Wednesday: Beyond Your Typical Ozarks Excursion

By Cynthia Cassel

Missouri is the fourth and final destination on our May tour of Region 7’s intriguing wetlands as we mark the 25th anniversary of National Wetlands Month. Following my journey to the prairie potholes and fens of Iowa in last week’s blog, we go down south to the breathtaking Show-Me State.

Since we had honeymooned in St. Louis (Paris was full), my husband and I decided to reenact the event on our fifth anniversary. Of course, my family doesn’t just “go somewhere.” It had to be a road trip through Missouri to arrive at a location four hours away. But I was pleased to take the long way ‘round after investigating the distinctive wetlands of the state: sinkhole ponds and hardwood swamps.

Sinkhole Ponds

Although we can easily appreciate the bounty of water and habitat the Ozarks provide, the rarer sinkhole pond is typical of a Missouri wetland. Sinkholes are natural depressions formed by the dissolution of underlying limestone layers or the collapse of a cavern roof. Since there are so many caves in the state, sinkholes form naturally.

Sinkhole PondsSinkhole wetlands are usually isolated and form in karst topography, which is caused when soluble rocks dissolve, such as limestone. Karst may form when rainwater, reacting with carbon dioxide from the air and forming carbonic acid, seeps through the soil into the rock. Drainage to a sinkhole is underground.

Wetter types of sinkhole wetlands can have non-woody plants, while the drier ones can be vegetated by trees or shrubs. These areas can provide habitat for amphibian and reptile breeding, depending on the amount and timing of the water supplied to them.

Hardwood Swamps

Hardwood SwampsThese beautiful bottomlands in southeast Missouri are truly an example of forest primeval, found along rivers and streams, generally in broad floodplains. Such ecosystems are commonly found wherever waterways at least occasionally cause flooding beyond the confines of their channels. They are deciduous forested wetlands, made up of different species of Gum, Oak and Bald Cypress trees, which have the ability to survive in areas that are either seasonally flooded or covered with water much of the year. Identifying features of these wetland systems are the fluted or flaring trunks that develop in several species, and the presence of knees, or aerial roots.

Hardwood swamps serve a critical role in the watershed by reducing the risk and severity of flooding to downstream communities by storing floodwater. In addition, these wetlands improve water quality by filtering and flushing nutrients, processing organic wastes, and reducing sediment before it reaches open water.

I hope you enjoyed our four-part journey to the wonderful wetlands of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. There’s so much more to see here in the Heartland. You could start by taking your own trip to Kansas’ two internationally recognized wetlands: Cheyenne Bottoms in Great Bend and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County. And if you’d like to continue your mini-education in wetland ecology, let me know!

About the Author: Cynthia Cassel has worked as a Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program grantee with EPA Region 7’s Wetlands and Streams Protection Team for 5½ years. She received her Bachelor of Science from Park University. Cynthia lives in Overland Park, Kan.

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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Protecting Regional Waters

Water bodies come in many shapes and sizes. As EPA and the U.S. Army developed the Clean Water Rule, the agencies relied on the latest science to determine what water bodies should be protected. Streams and their wetlands that clearly have an impact on the health of downstream waters are protected by the rule. In particular regions of the country, there are unique water bodies that are also scientifically shown to influence the health of downstream waters and therefore may be protected under the Clean Water Rule. These unique water bodies are critical resources for the surrounding communities – for fishing, hunting, and recreation; for their ability to filter pollution to streams and rivers; and reduce flooding.

PRAIRIE POTHOLES
Newprairie-potholesPrairie potholes are a complex of glacially formed wetlands, found from central Iowa through western Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, and North Dakota. Potholes accumulate and retain water, reducing floodwaters and filtering pollution before it goes downstream into nearby streams and rivers. Prairie potholes are also rich habitat for plants and wildlife. In particular they are vital to hunting in America, as they play host to 18 species of waterfowl. They are also are popular for birdwatching, with 96 species of songbirds, 36 species of waterbirds, 17 species of raptors and 5 species of upland game birds.

CAROLINA AND DELMARVA BAYS
NEWdelmarva-bayCarolina and Delmarva bays are ponded wetlands along the Atlantic coastal plain from northern Florida to New Jersey. Carolina bays are most abundant in North Carolina and South Carolina, while those found in the Delmarva Peninsula are commonly referred to as Delmarva bays. Bays typically are close to each other or to streams, and connect to each other and to downstream waters in large rain events. Carolina bays and Delmarva bays filter out nitrogen, which reduces the pollution entering groundwater and flowing downstream. These bays are important nursery grounds for amphibians and reptiles.

POCOSINS
NEWpocosinPocosins are evergreen shrub and tree-dominated landscapes that are found from Virginia to northern Florida, but mainly in North Carolina. Typically, there is no standing water present in these peat-accumulating wetlands, but a shallow water table leaves the soil saturated for much of the year. The slow movement of water through pocosins removes nutrient pollution and acidifies the water. This water is slowly released to downstream waters and estuaries, where it helps to maintain the proper salinity, nutrients, and acidity.

VERNAL POOLS
NewVernal-PoolsVernal pools are shallow, seasonal wetlands that accumulate water during colder, wetter months and gradually dry up during warmer, drier months. In California they typically occur as complexes of pools, connected to each other and to seasonal streams. Vernal pools are rich in biodiversity and wildlife moves between the pool complexes and streams and other downstream waters. With climate change increasing the severity of drought in the West and specifically California, the protection of upstream water resources is even more essential.

COASTAL PRAIRIE WETLANDS
NEWMatagorda-potholesAlong the Gulf of Mexico from western Louisiana to south Texas, freshwater wetlands occur as a mosaic of depressions, ridges, flats, and mounds on the landscape. Texas coastal prairie wetlands are locally abundant and function together to impact the health of downstream water bodies. Collectively as a complex, Texas coastal prairie wetlands can be connected to each other and contribute flow to downstream waters. Cumulatively, these wetlands control nutrient release levels and rates to downstream waters, as they capture, store, transform, and pulse releases of nutrients to those waters.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Protecting Clean Water While Respecting Agriculture

Rule does not create any new permitting requirements, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions

By Administrator Gina McCarthy and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy

Today, EPA and the Army finalized a rule under the Clean Water Act to protect the streams and wetlands we depend on for our health, our economy, and our way of life.

The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years—and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of waterways that were choked by industrial pollution, untreated sewage, and garbage for decades.

But Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 put protection of 60 percent of our nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands into question. At the same time, we understand much more today about how waters connect to each other than we did in decades past. Scientists, water quality experts, and local water managers are better able than ever before to pinpoint the waters that impact our health and the environment the most.

Members of Congress, farmers, ranchers, small business owners, hunters, anglers, and the public have called on EPA and the Army to make a rule to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies, and bring it in line with the law and the latest science. Today, we’re answering that call.

Every lake and every river depends on the streams and wetlands that feed it—and we can’t have healthy communities downstream without healthy headwaters upstream. The Clean Water Rule will protect streams and wetlands and provide greater clarity and certainty to farmers, all without creating any new permitting requirements for agriculture and while maintaining all existing exemptions and exclusions.

The agencies did extensive outreach on the Clean Water Rule, hosting more than 400 meetings across the country and receiving more than a million public comments. EPA officials visited farms in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont.

Our nation’s original conservationists—our farmers, ranchers, and foresters—were among the most crucial voices who weighed in during this process. Farmers have a critical job to do; our nation depends on them for food, fiber, and fuel, and they depend on clean water for their livelihoods.

Normal farming and ranching—including planting, harvesting, and moving livestock—have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, and the Clean Water Rule doesn’t change that. It respects producers’ crucial role in our economy and respects the law. We’d like give a few more specifics on our final rule, starting with what it doesn’t do.

  • The rule doesn’t add any new permitting requirements for agriculture.
  • It doesn’t protect new kinds of waters that the Clean Water Act didn’t historically cover. It doesn’t regulate most ditches and excludes groundwater, shallow subsurface flows, and tile drains. And it doesn’t change policy on irrigation or water transfers.
  • It doesn’t touch land use or private property rights. The Clean Water Rule only deals with the pollution and destruction of waterways.
  • Again, our rule doesn’t touch long-standing Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions for agriculture. It specifically recognizes the crucial role farmers play and actually adds exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction, and grass swales.

What the rule does is simple: it protects clean water, and it provides clarity on which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act so they can be protected from pollution and destruction.

Feedback from the agricultural community led us to define tributaries more clearly. The rule is precise about the streams being protected so that it can’t be interpreted to pick up erosion in a farmer’s field. The rule says a tributary has to show physical features of flowing water to warrant protection.

We also got feedback that our proposed definition of ditches was confusing. We’re only interested in the ones that act like tributaries and could carry pollution downstream—so we changed the definition in the final rule to focus on tributaries. So ditches that are not constructed in streams and that flow only when it rains are not covered.

We’ve also provided certainty in how far safeguards extend to nearby waters—the rule sets physical, measurable limits for the first time. For example, an adjacent water is protected if it’s within the 100-year floodplain and within 1,500 feet of a covered waterway. By setting bright lines, agricultural producers and others will know exactly where the Clean Water Act applies, and where it doesn’t.

Farmers and ranchers work hard every day to feed America and the world. In this final rule, we’ve provided additional certainty that they’ll retain all of their Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions—so they can continue to do their jobs, and continue to be conservation leaders.
We appreciate everyone’s input as we’ve worked together to finalize a Clean Water Rule that keeps pollution out of our water, while providing the additional clarity our economy needs. Learn more here.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Reasons We Need the Clean Water Rule

By EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy

Today, EPA and the Army are finalizing a Clean Water Rule to protect the streams and wetlands we rely on for our health, our economy, and our way of life.

As summer kicks off, many of us plan to be outside with our friends and families fishing, paddling, surfing, and swimming. And for the lakes and rivers we love to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them have to be clean, too. That’s just one of many reasons why this rule is so important. Here are several more:

Clean water is vital to our health. One in three Americans get drinking water from streams that lacked clear protection from pollution without the Clean Water Rule. Finalizing the rule helps protect 117 million Americans’ health.

Our economy depends on clean water. Major economic sectors—from manufacturing and energy production to agriculture, food service, tourism, and recreation—depend on clean water to function and flourish. Without clean water, business grinds to a halt—a reality too many local small business owners faced in Toledo last year when drinking water became contaminated for several days.

Clean water helps farms thrive, and the rule preserves commonsense agriculture exemptions. Farms across America depend on clean and reliable water for livestock, crops, and irrigation. Activities like planting, harvesting, and moving livestock across streams have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation; the Clean Water Rule doesn’t change that. The final rule doesn’t create any new permitting requirements for agriculture, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions, and even adds exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction, and grass swales—all to make clear our goal is to stay out of agriculture’s way. Just like before, a Clean Water Act permit is only needed if a water is going to be polluted or destroyed—and all exemptions for agriculture stay in place.

Climate change makes protection of water resources even more essential. Impacts from climate change like more intense droughts, storms, fires, and floods—not to mention warmer temperatures and sea level rise—threaten our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can protect communities by trapping floodwaters, retaining moisture during droughts, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife. With states like California in the midst of historic drought, it’s more important than ever that we protect the clean water we’ve got.

Clear protections mean cleaner water. The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years—and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of polluted waterways. But Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 threw protections into question for 60 percent of our nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands. Using the latest science, this rule clears up the confusion, providing greater certainty for the first time in more than a decade about which waters are important to protect.

Science shows us the most important waters to protect. In developing the Clean Water Rule, the Agencies used the latest science, including a report summarizing more than 1,200 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies—which showed small streams and wetlands play an important role in the health of larger downstream waterways like rivers and lakes.

You asked for greater clarity. Members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, scientists, and the public called on EPA and the Army to clarify which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. With this rule, the agencies are responding to those requests and addressing the Supreme Court decisions. EPA and the Army held hundreds of meetings with stakeholders across the country, reviewed over a million public comments, and listened carefully to perspectives from all sides. All of this input shaped and improved the final rule we’re announcing today.

Just as importantly, there are lots of things the rule doesn’t do. The rule only protects waters historically covered under the Clean Water Act. It doesn’t interfere with private property rights, and it only covers water—not land use. It also doesn’t regulate most ditches, doesn’t regulate groundwater or shallow subsurface flows, and doesn’t change policy on irrigation or water transfers.

These are just a few of the many reasons why clean water and this rule are important—learn more here, and share yours with #CleanWaterRules.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Conservation in Full Flower: How to Garden with Less Water

By Chrislyn Johnson

I love gardening and the beauty that annual flowers bring to a landscape. I also like to think of myself as being environmentally conscious. However, these two pursuits are not always in harmony when it comes to gardening if I want to conserve water.

Humming Bird and FlowersFlowers in the Heartland take a lot of water, especially annuals (which grow only one season). Once they are established, most annuals need about one inch of water per week, or half a gallon per square foot of garden space. That may not sound like a lot, but it adds up quickly. A typical garden 25 feet long and 4 feet wide along the front of your house will consume at least 25 gallons each week. Over the course of a growing season, that adds up to more than 750 gallons of precious water!

The reason annuals need a lot of water is based on their very nature. They have shallow root systems and spend their time and energy repeatedly blooming all summer. From the annual plants’ point of view, they have one chance to successfully produce viable seeds for the next year, so they don’t waste time in the growing phase. They will instead put their energy into producing big, showy flowers all summer long. Annuals need varying amounts of light and care to produce these beautiful blooms, but most tend to be sensitive to the amount of water they need.

There are four major factors that determine how much to water annuals, according to About.com:

  1. Weather: The heat, wind, rain, and humidity of their location all affect how well your plants will grow without added water. A plant in a hot, windy, and very sunny location will require more water than the same one in a partially shaded spot. The plant in the sunny location may receive rain, but if the soil is hard, it might not soak in. Plants need moisture at least 2-3 inches below the soil’s surface. Watering in the morning or evening provides the most benefit and retention. To keep this moisture from evaporating, many experienced gardeners use mulch, which has the additional advantage of keeping weeds out and making flower beds more attractive. Think about the conditions of where you are putting your plants and what that might mean for their care.
  1. Soil Quality: The type of soil you have – deep and rich loam, sandy, rocky, or clay – will make a difference in the amount of water your plant needs. While sandy soil drains well, it does not hold much water. Soil with a lot of clay can present other problems: it can hold too much water and cause your plants to rot, or it can be so dry that it is impenetrable to rain that just runs off the surface. The solution to most soil problems is adding organic matter such as compost, rotted manure, or aged grass clippings or leaves (leaf mold). Work 2-4 inches of organic matter into the top 8-10 inches of soil. Do this each year, because the organic matter will continue to decompose and is used up by the plants and organisms that live there.
  1. Ground or Container: Where plants are grown makes a difference. Your plants will need lots of water until their root systems are established. Container plants are best used for accents, since they will generally continue to need more water and care than their counterparts in flower beds, but this again depends on the other factors mentioned here.
  1. The Chosen Ones: The plants you choose will go a long way to decreasing the need for extra water usage. Traditional favorites add charm and are more drought-tolerant than many of the newer varieties. The bonus with these tried and true alternatives is that many grow directly from seeds that you can save from one year to another. So not only do you save water, but you also save money!  Below is a list of alternatives to the typical, water-loving garden center choices, many of which also make excellent cut flowers to bring indoors.
Common Name Scientific Name
Ageratum Ageratum houstonianum
Angelonia Angelonia angustifolia
Blanket flower Gaillardia pulchella
Calendula Calendula officianalis
Cockscomb Celosia cristata
Coleus Coleus spp.
Cosmos Cosmos bipinnatus, Cosmos sulphureus
Creeping zinnia Zinnia linearis
Dusty miller Senecio cineraria
Flowering tobacco Nicotiana alata
Foxglove Digitalis pupurea
Gazania Gazania splendens
Geranium Pelargonium x hortorum
Globe amaranth Gomphrena globosa
Madagascar periwinkle Catharanthus roseus
Marigold Tagetes erecta, Tagetes patula
Melampodium Melampodium paludosum
Moss rose Portulaca grandiflora
Ornamental kale Brassica oleracea
Ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum
Pansy Viola x wittrockiana
Petunia Petunia x hybrid
Salvia Salvia slendens, S. facinacea
Snapdragon Antirrhinum spp.
Statice Limonium spp.
Strawflower Helichrysum bracteatum
Sweet alyssum Lobularia maritime
Verbena Verbena spp. and hybrids
Wax begonia Begonia semperflorens-cultorum
Zinnia Zinnia elegans, Z. angustifolia

Does it seem like a big task? You don’t have to give up all of your favorites now. Just try a few of these and see what you think. Lean into the change at a pace that is comfortable for you, and you may find that you appreciate spending less time watering and more time just enjoying your garden.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri and loves all things nature. She is frustrated by clay soil.

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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