EPA rolls back critical protections for streams & wetlands

EPA rolls back critical protections for streams & wetlands

As a member of the international WATERKEEPER® Alliance, Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper’s mission is to advocate for clean water within the Clark Fork & Pend Oreille watershed of north Idaho.

We are deeply concerned and upset at the recent decisions made by our governmental leaders.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on January 23rd, 2020 that the federal government will drastically reduce the protection of U.S. waterways by decreasing federal limits of known pollutants entering smaller waterways, wetlands, and groundwater throughout the United States.

This new rule, for the first time in almost 50 years, will allow developers and landowners to discharge pollutants including pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial chemicals directly into thousands of waterways across the US – destroying wildlife habitat and allowing thousands of acres of pristine wetland to be filled in.

We believe that this is a ludicrous decision, a huge step backwards, and must be stopped!

It is clear that federal regulations are necessary to protect our water — as proven with the improvement to our waterways since the adoption of the Clean Water Act in 1972. It wasn’t that long ago on June 22nd, 1969 when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio was so polluted it caught fire due to sparks from a passing train. This river had caught fire more than a dozen times prior to this particular event and was the impetus behind the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the subsequent adoption of the Clean Water Act.

Water does not obey state lines or arbitrary boundaries, it goes where it wants. Watersheds are vast areas of land that are in need of constant and consistent protection from polluters and misusers.

This is especially relevant to our area in the Northern Idaho Panhandle, where we are squeezed between borders with Montana, Washington, and British Columbia. Without federal regulations, differences between state and local governments easily affect neighboring states and their waterways.

We need not look far in the Panhandle of Idaho to see the effects of insufficient environmental regulations. Lake Coeur d’ Alene is currently struggling to deal with 750 million cubic yards of contaminated toxic mine tailings that reside in the bottom of the lake due to extensive mining over a 100 year period of time. Unfortunately this has resulted in questionable swimming conditions, as well as a myriad of other environmental concerns. Imagine the effect on the 90% of the tributaries to the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water for multiple states, that just lost any type of oversight?

We need to engage as a citizenry and demand of our elected officials that they need to take whatever steps necessary to protect our most valuable resources. This drastic reduction in regulatory oversight, which we were just witness to, is a major setback in the fight to preserve and protect our waterways.

U.S. Geological Survey map of the Lake Pend Oreille basin

According to a study done by Trout Unlimited, an estimated additional 1.4 miles of unmapped ephemeral streams exist for every mile of mapped stream in the Lake Pend Oreille basin. And in the USGS High Resolution National Hydrography Dataset, there are 1,726 miles of mapped streams in our basin.

This would amount to approximately 2,416 miles of ephemeral streams in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed.

Under this new rule, these streams could become polluted and then eventually drain into our lake, bringing with them fertilizers, pesticides, and other toxins to our pristine lake. To learn more about the study done by Trout Unlimited and the impacts of this new rule, check out their informative website here. They also include an easy to use form that helps you contact your elected officials and urge them to take action to protect our right to clean water.

Protecting the chemical, physical, and biological makeup of our water is absolutely critical to human health and any reduction in the oversight of such a valuable resource is irresponsible and will be problematic for years to come.

Get Involved Now!

Update February 4th, 2020:

The following is the abstract from an EPA study in 2008 titled “The Ecological and Hydrological Significance of Ephemeral and Intermittent Streams in the Arid and Semi-arid American Southwest”.

What made them change their minds regarding the importance of these types of waterways? This study may be focused on the American Southwest, but the importance of ephemeral and intermittent streams is relevant across the globe.

This report represents a state-of-the-art synthesis of current knowledge of the ecology and hydrology of ephemeral (dry washes) and intermittent streams in the American Southwest, and may have important bearing on establishing nexus to traditional navigable waters (TNW) and defining connectivity relative to the Clean Water Act.

Ephemeral and intermittent streams make up approximately 59% of all streams in the United States (excluding Alaska), and over 81% in the arid and semi-arid Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and California) according to the U.S. Geological Survey National Hydrography Dataset. They are often the headwaters or major tributaries of perennial streams in the Southwest.

This comprehensive review of the present scientific understanding of the ecology and hydrology of ephemeral and intermittent streams will help place them in a watershed context, thereby highlighting their importance in maintaining water quality, overall watershed function or health, and provisioning of the essential human and biological requirements of clean water. Ephemeral and intermittent streams provide the same ecological and hydrological functions as perennial streams by moving water, nutrients, and sediment throughout the watershed.

When functioning properly, these streams provide landscape hydrologic connections; stream energy dissipation during high-water flows to reduce erosion and improve water quality; surface and subsurface water storage and exchange; ground-water recharge and discharge; sediment transport, storage, and deposition to aid in floodplain maintenance and development; nutrient storage and cycling; wildlife habitat and migration corridors; support for vegetation communities to help stabilize stream banks and provide wildlife services; and water supply and water-quality filtering. They provide a wide array of ecological functions including forage, cover, nesting, and movement corridors for wildlife.

Because of the relatively higher moisture content in arid and semi-arid region streams, vegetation and wildlife abundance and diversity in and near them is proportionally higher than in the surrounding uplands. In the rapidly developing southwest, land management decisions must employ a watershed-scale approach that addresses overall watershed function and water quality.

Ephemeral and intermittent stream systems comprise a large portion of southwestern watersheds, and contribute to the hydrological, biogeochemical, and ecological health of a watershed. Given their importance and vast extent, it is concluded that an individual ephemeral or intermittent stream segment should not be examined in isolation. Consideration of the cumulative impacts from anthropogenic uses on these streams is critical in watershed-based assessments and land management decisions to maintain overall watershed health and water quality.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008

Read the full study here!

Update February, 18th 2020

The Waterkeeper Alliance and other conservation groups have published a formal notice of intent to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the new ruling that would dramatically reduce Clean Water Act protections for US waterways.

Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance stated that, “This reverses more than 40 years of progress and settled law. Because the rule establishes arbitrary categories of protected waters, EPA and the Army Corps do not have the data necessary to fully identify the waters that will lose protection and they haven’t even assessed the impacts of leaving these waters unprotected where adequate data is available. Their actions are not only reckless—they are illegal.”

Additionally, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated both the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. These laws require the federal government to “look before you leap” in order to ensure that the environmental consequences of a particular action will not cause unintended environmental damage.

Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper is proud to be a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance and will support the organizations that are fighting to protect our waterways. The organizations, along with the Waterkeeper Alliance, that submitted the notice of intent include: the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Humboldt Baykeeper, Lake Worth Waterkeeper, Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, Monterey Coastkeeper—A Program of the Otter Project, Rio Grande Waterkeeper, Sound Rivers (Upper Neuse, Lower Neuse, and Pamlico-Tar Riverkeepers), Russian Riverkeeper, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, and Snake River Waterkeeper.