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Are the Streams that Flow to Your Tap Protected from Pollution?

2013 October 29
Nancy Stoner

October 29, 2013
2:31 pm EDT

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Well, this picture tells the story of a much higher number – 117 million.

Map shows the percent of the U.S. population that gets some of its drinking water directly or indirectly from streams that are seasonal, rain-dependent or headwaters.


It has to do with types of streams – that are tiny headwaters or only flow after precipitation or in certain seasons – that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources. These often unknown, unnamed and under-appreciated streams have a tremendous impact on everything downstream, including rivers, lakes and coastal waters, as well as people.

This is where we get to the number: at least 117 million Americans get drinking water from these streams. That is more than one-third of the U.S. population.

To present this visually, we have used the National Hydrography Dataset to create a county-by-county map of the percent of the population that receives at least some of its drinking water from streams that are seasonal, rain-dependent or headwaters. It’s easy to tell upon first glance just how incredibly important these streams are for drinking water across the nation. Clicking on a specific county can tell the local story.

Now you can imagine how many people in homes, schools and businesses in your community are drinking water that came from streams. And you can imagine how important protection of these streams is to your health.

However, interpretations of Supreme Court rulings over the past decade have caused confusion about which streams are protected under the Clean Water Act.  So in September, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a draft rule to clarify the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review.

The agencies are clarifying protection for the network of smaller waters – including the seasonal and rain-dependent streams – that feed into larger ones, to keep downstream water safe from upstream pollutants, like sewage, toxins, or metals. 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. The proposed rule will provide clarity in determining where the Clean Water Act applies, including to many of these streams that are used for drinking water and ultimately flow to your tap.

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.

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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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Arman.- permalink
    October 29, 2013


    Water is expensive, but American people get it with cheapest…….!

  2. Eric permalink
    October 30, 2013

    I am confused about your methods here. I am familiar with Brown County, Wisconsin. Home of Green Bay. Their surface water withdrawal for public supply is from Lake Michigan (definitely not seasonal, rain-dependent, or headwaters). How are lake withdrawals accounted for in your analysis?

    • Nancy Stoner permalink*
      October 31, 2013

      Eric – Our analysis looked at what sources of water feed into drinking water intakes, for which we used mapped Source Protection Areas (SPAs) for each drinking water intake. A SPA is an area upstream from a drinking water source or intake that contributes surface water flow to the drinking water intake during a 24-hour period. We looked to see whether a SPA contained an intermittent, ephemeral, or headwater stream. As long as one intake in the public water system is fed by one of those stream types, our analysis included the population served by that system as getting some of its drinking water from streams that are seasonal, rain-dependent or headwaters. Hopefully this makes sense!

  3. gail permalink
    November 4, 2013

    We are local “water dogs” living creek side just 2 miles from the mouth of the Susquehanna River (longest non navigable in the US) in North Central, Pa. We all live downstream and water is our life core. Water rules and we all need to help protect it and use it wisely.

  4. Cecele Beringer permalink
    November 5, 2013

    Your Department needs to do a better job to protect the public from Farmers who bring their
    produce to markets after their vegetable gardens have been irrigated with the farms’ water
    supply (rivers,streams,lakes) that have been contaminated by Fracked Wells Waste Water.
    The nearby fields where cattle graze become contaminated. Fracked Waste Water also seeps
    towards the farms water supply which becomes contaminated by the field drainage and it
    becomes a dangerous source of water to irrigate the vegetable gardens. The result is that
    the public is dangerously threatened when eating the meat and produce from Farms with
    Fracked Wells. Therefore, Farmers must be prohibited from bringing their cattle to the
    packing houses –and/or produce to market for public consumption when it has arrived
    from a farm with a Fracked Well. Currently the food we are eating is unhealthy if it had
    arrived from a farm where a Fracked Well has been drilled and where the well’s waste water
    containing Methane, Toluene,Radioactive Elements. etc., etc., (many other chemicals
    we will never know due to the Halliburton Loophole in the 2005 Clean Water Act exist.
    Therefore,—for the public’s safety, please prohibit or have the FDA Commissioner
    prohibit Farmers from bringing their cattle and/or produce to markets if the Farm

  5. Mayor Nancy Chaney permalink
    November 10, 2013

    Thank you, Director Stoner. This is an important reminder to land use planners and policymakers that we must cooperate to manage watersheds across jurisdictional boundaries. My community of Moscow Idaho is within the Palouse Basin, bisected by the Idaho-Washington border. With declining groundwater and pressure for development, we are seeking alternate sources that could include surface water, including seasonal snow melt in a heavily agricultural area. Others (NOT ME!) are contemplating recharge of 20,000+ year-old groundwater with treated effluent, which potentially contains trace pharmaceuticals, plasticizers, and other endocrine disrupting, cancer-causing chemical constituents, which we are not yet obligated to measure or treat. The solutions will be complex and expensive, and EPA’s oversight is critical to a healthful, equitable, sustainable outcome. Stay the course! Nancy Chaney, Mayor, City of Moscow

  6. KaylenH permalink
    November 20, 2013

    I didn’t realize that all the water in my hometown came from streams that only flow seasonally or after rain. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if those streams all became contaminated. The impact on everyone’s lives would be devastating. I’m glad that the EPA and the Army Corps are working to improve the Clean Water Act so it can protect the safety of everyone’s water. It’s good to know that someone is looking out for the health of my hometown.

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