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Press Release
June 11, 2003

Press contact: Nancy Stoner, 202-289-2394
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Limiting Clean Water Act Protection Could Contaminate Drinking Water

Earlier this year, the Bush administration initiated a process to rewrite Clean Water Act rules to limit the scope of the law. If the administration sides with industry, thousands of streams, wetlands and other waters that filter pollution out of drinking water sources would no longer be protected, allowing industry to dredge, fill or dump waste into them. Unregulated contamination from sewage, oil, hazardous chemicals and other pollution would threaten our drinking water supplies and public health. Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems would be especially at risk from exposure to unsafe, contaminated drinking water.

Tap water quality depends on the health of our waterways. The water we drink comes from surface waters, such as rivers and lakes, or groundwater, underground aquifers or wells. Any number of lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands feed, cleanse and carry the water to our faucets.

Watersheds are made up of a complex network of interconnected streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and wetlands. Congress and the courts have long held that the Clean Water Act protects all of these types of waters from destruction or degradation. Regardless, the Bush administration, by initiating this rulemaking, could eliminate Clean Water Act protections for many historically protected waters, including freshwater wetlands, headwater streams and seasonal (or intermittent or ephemeral) waters. Headwater streams and wetlands provide most of the volume of surface and underground source waters and filter pollution, protecting drinking water quality.

The Bush administration's plan could eliminate protections for the smallest streams, which are the ultimate source of more than two-thirds of the drinking water within the Chesapeake Bay. The residents of the Washington, D.C., rely on the Potomac River watershed and its maze of small streams for their drinking water source.

Exempting headwaters, wetlands, seasonal streams and other waters from Clean Water Act protection makes no scientific sense. It would result in reduced drinking water supplies, degraded water quality and higher treatment costs, as well as increased levels of nutrients, sediments, heavy metals and other contaminants in our drinking water source waters.

How Limiting the Scope of the Clean Water Act Might Affect the Drinking Water of 15 U.S. Cities:

The Bush administration's plan could eliminate protection for intermittent and ephemeral streams, which poses major risks to Albuquerque's water supply, the Santa Fe Aquifer. The aquifer is replenished by Rio Grande River tributaries and arroyos, which are streams and gullies that are dry part of the year.

The Atlanta metropolitan area gets most of its drinking water from the small mountain headwater streams that feed into the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries. The Bush administration's plan could eliminate protections for these small streams.

The Bush administration plan would threaten Baltimore's drinking water supply. The city's drinking water sources are the Gunpowder and Patapsco watersheds in which more than 90 percent of total stream miles are composed of creeks and small streams that could lose Clean Water Act protection.

The numerous tributaries that feed the Boston metropolitan area's drinking water reservoirs, the Quabbin and the Wachusett, could lose federal protection under the Bush administration proposal. For example, the Chicopee River watershed, of which the Quabbin Reservoir is part, includes 135 rivers, 842 streams and numerous wetlands. The state relies, in part, on federal programs to protect these resources.

Illinois has already lost 90 percent of its original wetlands acreage and could lose much more under the Bush administration plan. So-called "isolated" wetlands compose about 60 percent of the state's current wetlands and 12 percent of the state's wetland acreage and provide critical functions, including protecting drinking water quality.

Denver's drinking water supply mostly comes from snowmelt and precipitation in the Rocky Mountains that is carried downstream via intermittent headwater streams and canals and ultimately transferred to the state's eastern slope. The Bush administration's plan threatens these headwater streams.

Although Michigan has an independent regulatory program to protect its wetlands, it does not cover noncontiguous wetlands or wetlands smaller than 5 acres if they are in counties with populations of at least 100,000 people until the state completes a wetlands inventory. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the state to complete the inventory but gave it five years to do so. Until then, countless small and "isolated" wetlands are at risk, regardless of the fact that they perform critical functions, including protecting drinking water quality.

The Bush administration plan could destroy many of the state's wetlands that do not directly connect to surface water even though they help keep groundwater drinking water clean. For example, there are about 20,000 playa lakes in the Texas panhandle. These shallow ponds filter 20 percent to 80 percent of collected water in the Ogallala aquifer, which provides drinking water to many state residents.

Manchester, N.H.
Rivers and numerous tributaries feed the main branch of the Merrimack River in New Hampshire, the source of Manchester's drinking water. If the Bush administration is successful in weakening federal protection for these streams, in-state political pressure could weaken New Hampshire's own stream protection program.

New Orleans
The source of New Orleans' drinking water and that of 69 other cities and towns in Louisiana is the Mississippi River, which includes a maze of tributaries in the lower Mississippi Delta and Wet Prairie. The Bush administration's plan would threaten these tributaries with pollution and destruction because the state relies on the federal Clean Water Act to protect its streams.

Headwater streams are critical to New Jersey's drinking water supply, but there is no independent state authority that protects streams. The Bush administration plan would threaten the headwater and tributary streams of the Highlands in southern New York and northern New Jersey -- the main water supply for the 3.8 million residents in northeastern New Jersey, including Newark.

Philadelphia's drinking water sources are the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the watersheds of which include numerous small headwater streams and small wetland areas. The Bush administration plan threatens to withdraw protection of these steams.

The Bush administration's plan could eliminate protection for intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams, which would threaten Phoenix's water supply. Phoenix gets most of its drinking water supply from the Salt and Verde rivers, which are fed by mountain springs and numerous perennial, ephemeral and intermittent creeks and rivers.

Tributaries are crucial to Washington state's drinking water. Already 450 of the state's rivers in 17 different watersheds suffer from low flows all or part of the year. This situation would be exacerbated under the Bush administration plan, which would allow industry to fill or pollute these streams, because the state relies on the federal Clean Water Act to ensure stream protection.

Washington, D.C.
The Bush administration's plan could eliminate protections for the smallest streams, which are the ultimate source of more than two-thirds of the drinking water within the Chesapeake Bay. The residents of the Washington, D.C., rely on the Potomac River watershed and its maze of small streams for their drinking water source.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
What's on Tap: Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities
Bush Administration: "Honey I Shrunk the Clean Water Act"
Bush Administration Plans to Limit Scope of Clean Water Act

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