Science, Not Politics, Should Guide Clean Water Act Clarification

560 292 Stroud Water Research Center


Beverly M. Payton, Communications Director

On May 19, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on a bill which would require the EPA to withdraw its proposed “waters of the United States” rule.

Fresh water is our most precious natural resource, as essential to life as the air we breathe. Fortunately, most of us in the United States don’t have to give it much thought, thanks, in large part, to the federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972.

But ongoing confusion over what “Waters of the United States” fall under the law’s jurisdiction spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose a clarification.

This would enable the agency to better protect our wetlands, small streams and other important watershed features without being dragged into court every time someone wanted to avoid compliance by exploiting an ambiguity.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s proposal has been barraged by an army of opponents ever since it was first introduced last year. Developers, property rights groups, the American Farm Bureau, the fertilizer industry and a number of politicians have been attacking the proposed clarification, using inflammatory language like “overreach,” and “land grab.”

On May 19, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on a bill (S 1140), deceptively titled the “Federal Water Quality Protection Act,” which would derail the near-final EPA rulemaking on “waters of the United States” by requiring the EPA to withdraw its proposed rule.

It would also prohibit the agency’s future rule-making ability, by forbidding anything that does not meet its “principles.”

These “principles” disregard the strong scientific evidence supporting the EPA’s proposal to include all tributaries, intermittent and headwater streams within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. This Senate bill is similar to one (HR 1732) the House passed last week.

I can only hope that federal legislators will be inundated with a public cry of outrage over this measure. Our freshwater resources are too vital and precious to be subject to the vagaries of state and local authorities or to the whims of private landowners.

Those of us who have spent our careers studying streams and wetlands know that the EPA’s proposed clarification is informed by decades of scientific research about freshwater ecosystems, such as the work our scientists have been doing since 1967.

The River Continuum Concept, published in 1980 by a team of scientists led by Stroud Water Research Center, is a foundational concept in freshwater ecology. It states that a river system represents a physical, chemical, and biological continuum from the smallest headwater streams to the main stem river at its confluence with the estuary. Subsequent research around the world has not only supported this concept but demonstrated that, in fact, small headwater streams are the most critical and most vulnerable parts of a river.

Our scientists were among the many who participated in the scientific advisory panel that helped the EPA’s Office of Research and Development conduct a comprehensive review of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed publications in the scientific literature. This report (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015) concludes:

“The scientific literature clearly demonstrates that streams, regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, are connected to downstream waters in ways that strongly influence their function […]. The incremental contributions of individual streams and wetlands are cumulative across entire watersheds.”

More than 85 percent of the nation’s stream miles are small enough to jump across and many — if not most — of these flow through private property. So, while opponents may object to the EPA having jurisdiction over streams on private land, landowners should not have the right to pollute streams running through their property, even if they flow intermittently.

The science tells us that watersheds with protected wetlands, streamside forest buffers and other best management practices can support both humans and wildlife in a sustainable way. They trap and store sediments; filter out contaminants; reduce the frequency and severity of flooding by slowing the release of storm water; mitigate thermal pollution caused by deforestation, industrial inputs and water diversions; and replenish underground aquifers.

For decades, science has demonstrated the necessity of a holistic approach to understanding, protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems. This requires a nationwide effort. Water, like air, transcends state, legislative and private property boundaries. Whatever happens upstream affects us all.

Last year there were many freshwater emergencies that should shake us out of complacency:

The alarm has sounded many times. We hit the snooze button at our peril.

If you care about having clean, safe fresh water, please contact your U.S. congressman today and tell him or her to support the EPA’s waters of the United States clarification.

Bernard Sweeney, Ph.D., is director and president of Stroud Water Research Center, a nonprofit organization, based in Avondale, Pennsylvania, focused on freshwater research, environmental public education and watershed restoration. The website address is