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Perrin Ireland’s Blog

How that tiny stream flowing by your back door is important to the whole world

Perrin Ireland

Posted January 16, 2014

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This post originally appeared on GOOD.



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 a few weeks ago, in a hotel conference room in our nation’s ever-welcoming capitol. Scientists and clean water experts gathered to review a report that the EPA put out earlier this year that, until the public hearings, 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 three day duration of the hearings as 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. 

Waters of the US Experts Weigh In.

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. 

WOTUS Experts Two

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.

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Darren BouwmeesterJan 18 2014 05:49 PM

This is totally something we take for granted, our water supply. Our government seems almost disinterested and most people are blithely unaware. If only population was the only pressure on our water supply.

I would only disagree with the final conclusion, if we abuse our watershed, we're not just toast, we're burnt toast

Kirk @ River MudJan 19 2014 09:47 AM

Lost in this is a special call to conservationists-a call to hold the regulators accountable. EPA has been talking big about "what we're gonna do about nonpoint source pollution NEXT YEAR" for 40 years now. On the unusual occasion that EPA and Corps do promulgate aggressive nonpoint legislation, it's been poorly written ad has gone down in litigative flames. Recall that CWA provisions have been reviewed 7 times by SCOTUS. EPA lost 6 of those because of poorly written regulations not properly tied to federal law. We must demand more from EPA than "great new rules" that will just be destroyed i court, then abandoned like an orphan. Look up the "migratory bird rule" for an example of a good idea, poorly executed, and laughed out of court.

Jennifer ChambersJan 22 2014 05:10 PM

I wrote a children's book, Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle, that explains to children the impact pollution, in particular litter, has on the animals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Atlantic Ocean. The story starts on a street and kids learn how far one water bottle can travel and the impact it has on multiple ecosystems. Most trash eventually finds a home in a stream, river or the ocean. Find out more about my book at,

David AndersonJan 23 2014 08:48 AM

I am making a video documentary that is mainly about the Hudson River, and it also included Fracking. I would like a person who is knowledgeable about the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act to give me an on-camera interview about those laws and how they relate to Fracking.
I have also heard that doctors treating sick Frack-workers must sign a non-disclosure agreement that they will not divulge the sickness or the treatment. Is that true?

Rick MonkJan 23 2014 12:52 PM

Perrin: Great pictures! And an enjoyable read. I hope you got to see something other than the conference room walls while in DC -- perhaps some of the beautiful rivers and streams in peril in our area? Keep up the good work.

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