water resources

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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Around the Water Cooler: Watersheds and Climate Change

To celebrate Earth Day, all this week and into next we will be highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters feature articles. Today’s “Around the Water Cooler” addition illustrates the connection between climate change and water.

Climate Change and Watersheds: Exploring the Links
EPA researchers are using climate models and watershed simulations to better understand how climate change will affect streams and rivers.

A warming climate threatens hotter summers and more extreme storms. We know we may need to upgrade our air conditioning systems and make emergency preparedness kits, but aside from temperatures and storms, what are other ways we will be affected by climate change?

Map showing the 20 watersheds EPA researchers studied. Click on the image for a large version.

EPA water scientists and their partners are studying how climate change may affect watersheds—the network of rivers and streams that feed into larger water bodies such as big rivers, lakes, and oceans. A recent EPA report, referred to as the 20 Watersheds Report, combines climate change models and watershed simulations to develop a better understanding of what changes to streams and rivers we might expect over the next several decades.

“A key thing that’s unique about this work is the scope; we applied a consistent set of methods and models to 20 large watersheds throughout the nation,” says lead scientist Tom Johnson.

Johnson’s team of researchers used different climate change scenarios to model changes in streamflow volume and water quality in the 20 chosen watersheds.

“Climate can be defined loosely as average weather,” Johnson explains. “Climate change scenarios describe potential future changes in climate, like temperature or precipitation.”

For a given climate change scenario, watershed simulations were used to determine changes in streamflow (the actual volume of water running through the streams) and in nutrient and sediment pollution levels.

In addition to climate change scenarios, researchers also took into account urban and residential land development scenarios in their watershed simulations. The ways people use and alter the land (such as building roadways, parking lots, etc) will also have an impact on water resources. The land development scenarios used were based on projected changes in population and housing density in the study watersheds.

Research results show a great variety in watershed responses to climate and urban development scenarios in different parts of the country. Generally, simulations suggest certain trends for streamflow: that flow amount decreases in the Rockies and interior southwest, but increases in the northeast. Results also show higher peaks in streamflow that can increase stream bank erosion and sediment transport, as well as potentially increase nutrient pollutants. Overall, the research shows that the potential changes in streamflow and water quality response in many areas could be very large.

“This information can be used by water managers to better understand if and how things like water quality and aquatic ecosystems might be vulnerable, and to help guide the development of response strategies for managing any potential risk,” says Johnson.

For example, where water is suggested to be scarce, managers can plan alternative water supply methods; where water is expected to become highly polluted from nutrients and sediment, managers can take action now to limit the actual impact of these pollutants on the water resource.

The findings of EPA’s 20 Watersheds Report will help water and resource managers recognize the changing conditions of streams and rivers and identify any future conditions that may need addressing.

Learn More



EPA Climate Change Research

EPA Water and Climate Research

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Posuwageh – The Water Meeting Place – Provides Inspiration

By Ellen Gilinsky

What a perfect setting for the 2011National Tribal Water Quality Conference – the Posuwageh, or water meeting place, on the Pueblo of Pojoaque outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The land of big skies, open spaces and tribal traditions played host to a meeting of tribal water quality coordinators and EPA water professionals from across the country. I was honored to be asked to give the official welcome to the conference on behalf of EPA and to participate with over 300 attendees who were focusing their time and energy on coming together to learn and discuss how Clean Water Act programs can protect and restore water resources in Indian Country.

From the welcoming prayer and the first drumbeats and ritual dance of the Pojoaque Tribe, through the excellent sessions on maximizing the benefits of Clean Water Act programs, to the hands-on learning during the well-planned field trips, our water meeting place was truly a melding of traditions, culture and partnership.

The words of the keynote speaker for the conference – Dr. Daniel Wildcat of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas – particularly resonated with me. He challenged the group to use “Indigenuity” – their indigenous ingenuity – to address problems of water quality and quantity on tribal lands. The traditional ecological knowledge passed down from generation to generation on how tribes deal with different and changing landscapes makes tribes uniquely qualified to preserve and protect water resources. To me, this is reminiscent of the saying that history repeats itself unless we learn from it. We need to listen to the people of the land and learn from them the consequences of declining water quality and overuse of the water resources that they rely on for their life and livelihood.

What became clear to me on my trip is the strong connection between people and place. Our tribal partners demonstrate that a respect for the land and the people can coexist and in truth are interconnected. We can learn from the experiences of the tribal people and their environmental professionals just as they can benefit from working with EPA on technology transfer and grant funding to monitor and protect their waters. This is what the partnership of the Posuwageh is all about.

About the author: Ellen Gilinsky is a Senior Advisor in 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.