How That Tiny Stream Flowing by Your Back Door is Important to the Whole World How That Tiny Stream Flowing by Your Back Door is Important to the Whole World

How That Tiny Stream Flowing by Your Back Door is Important to the Whole World

by Perrin Ireland

December 23, 2013

You know that little stream near your house that you can sometimes step into when it’s dry, and sometimes have to jump over, because it flows for a couple of weeks a year? Turns out it’s important for the clean water eventually coming out of your tap, flowing into your local lake where you like to fish, and basically any other clean water anywhere in the country, or around the globe.

This is what I learned while scribing the EPA Science Advisory Board Public Hearings this week, in a hotel conference room in our nation’s currently frigid, but ever welcoming capitol. Scientists and clean water experts gathered to review a report that the EPA put out earlier this year that, until this week, I honestly wouldn’t have thought I cared all that much about. It’s a 400-page jargon-packed insiders’ guide that goes into reverent detail on heretofore unknown to me “prairie pothole regions,” where migrating ducks apparently stop to feed while traveling home each year; definitions of different kinds of watersheds and their zones; and the difference between things like unidirectional and a bidirectional waters. Kinda tough stuff at first glance for anyone NOT deeply invested in the water world, but after sitting and drawing basically everything that got said for the last three days while patient, devoted scientists discussed the scientific evidence for how connected these waters are in the U.S., I understand what all the fuss is about.

Basically, since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, people understood that Congress, when they wrote the act, fundamentally appreciated the connectivity of water. They made choices to defend clean water that we could call governing by the precautionary principle—the assumption is that we know enough to know it might be silly to destroy a thriving wetland for a project we might not need in ten years. But in 2001 and then 2006, five of nine Supreme Court justices started asking for more scientific evidence that smaller, not-always-wet, or seemingly isolated bodies of water like prairie potholes, Carolina Bays, and ephemeral streams were in fact connected to, and most importantly, could IMPACT, downstream waters. 

So the EPA did a big literature review and created this report to describe how connected waters in the U.S. really are. The report will influence an updated set of requirements the EPA will make next year about what bodies of water are technically protected by the Clean Water Act. Without a strong ruling, headwater streams, watersheds, and intermittent streams will no longer be adequately protected. They can then be filled in, polluted, and generally destroyed without a permit under the federal law.

At the public hearings, the scientists clearly concluded after three days that “at sufficiently long time scales nearly all watersheds are connected downstream eventually.” An intermittent stream that’s dry most days of the year is still connected to larger bodies of water downstream, and has an impact on these waters, whether chemically, biologically, or just by water flow. That’s scientific consensus that what happens upstream winds up downstream. 

Protecting upstream, small bodies of water is important for human health downstream and drinking water downstream. Animals that depend on upstream waters for nurseries and downstream waters for nourishment go away when those upstream waters are destroyed, and that’s not just bad because they’re cute. It’s bad because if there are no animals, it means there’s not a robust ecosystem, and human health depends on robust ecosystems. Trippier still, clean water all across the globe depends on water that at its beginning is sometimes less than a foot wide, maybe not even visible on the surface, because of the nature of global water cycles. 

As Joy Zedler put it, “We all share the same finite water on the planet—it moves around the globe. The challenge is how we live on this piece of land without spoiling it. The question for decision-makers is how MUCH connection, not 'is there one?' " 

If you have a sweet little baby body of water that flows once in a while in your yard, live up near a headwater and see the bog turtles migrating each year, or you live near a bigger body of water, downstream, and you’ve seen the impacts of stuff from upstream coming downstream, tell me about it in comments. I’ve got a fever for more stories about this. Keep ‘em coming, and maybe we can make a difference before the EPA makes their ruling next year by telling them our stories, and how important our water is to us. As my colleague Rob Friedman says, “There are few things more grounding than a watershed, because almost everyone and everything lives in one. And if you abuse it, you're toast.” 

Tell President Obama to stand up to polluters and protect our streams.

More animated scribes here.

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How That Tiny Stream Flowing by Your Back Door is Important to the Whole World