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New rule to ensure water quality

Over a decade ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency faced court challenges from industrial developers contesting the agencies’ interpretation of the protective reach of the Clean Water Act.
Two resulting Supreme Court rulings questioned the federal law’s application to small streams lacking year-round flow, or to wetlands and headwaters “isolated” from traditionally “navigable” waters.
Following the rulings, a Bush administration agency guidance left most of the country’s small streams and wetlands vulnerable to unmitigated pollution, development, burial under mountaintop mining waste or other degradation.
In a “Science” journal article in March, titled “Why should we care about temporary waterways?,” scientists from a number of U.S. and European institutions discussed some of the critical issues involved.
Under changing climate and increased water extraction, they show, even some large permanent rivers are now shifting to temporary flow.
And though the smaller streams that form the headwaters to downstream river systems flow only intermittently, they are an important part of the natural hydrology of these.
An example from the National Hydrography Database makes their importance very clear.
In Tennessee, of 18,464 stream miles with surface water intakes for public drinking water systems, 10,585 miles, or 57 percent, are made up of the small intermittent or headwater streams.
In 69 counties, they supply half or more of the drinking water source for 3.5 million people. Thus, allowing upstream water courses to be destroyed or degraded will diminish rivers’ downstream water output and make it less safe.
In their dry period, the courses of the small “Dry Creek” streams lack surface flow. Yet through shallow underground flows, as the scientists document, they typically connect to the downstream sections where flow is permanent, being unseen water conduits that help maintain the rivers.
Sometimes, as in Mountain City during a severe drought at the turn of the century, temporary streams can become direct and critically needed water sources, in emergency situations.
Indeed, in answer to their headline question, the scientists note that “failure to recognize, understand, and manage temporary waterways leads to serious degradation of (river) systems accompanied by negative impacts to the societies that depend upon them.”
In good news for the 3.5 million Tennesseans with high dependency on drinking water from intermittent streams, and for communities across the nation, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have developed a new, clean-water rule.
Reverting to the historical interpretation of the law, it proposes to fully protect most seasonal and rain-dependent streams, and most wetlands near rivers and streams.
While preserving the earlier exemptions and exclusions for agriculture, it notes that for 117 million Americans, restoration of protections for temporary streams will give greater assurance of healthfulness of the water they drink, and of the lakes and other water bodies they use for recreation.
Teddy Roosevelt knew and said as much more than 100 years ago, in 1908: “Each river system, from its headwaters in the forest to its mouth on the coast, is a single unit and should be treated as such” under the law.