WASHINGTON (October 22, 2008) – Wetlands and streams in the Mississippi River Basin are at increased risk of pollution and destruction, according to a new report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Many of these bodies of water were historically covered under the Clean Water Act, but a series of misguided Supreme Court decisions have left them facing increased threats from pollutants including those that cause “dead zones.”
“Congress must take immediate action to restore protection to roughly 20 million acres of America’s wetlands and thousands of headwater streams,” said Jon Devine, senior attorney in NRDC’s Water Program. “The health of one of America’s greatest natural resources, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf Coast depends on restoring safeguards to stop pollution.”
Each summer, enormous quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus flow down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. These pollutants contribute to the formation of a “dead zone” in the Gulf, an area where the bottom layer of water is so oxygen-depleted that most aquatic life cannot survive. Typically, the Gulf “dead zone” stretches west from where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf towards Texas, making it the largest in the U.S. and the second largest human-caused dead zone in the world. In 2007, it grew, covering an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
According to the report, “Missing Protection: Polluting the Mississippi River Basin’s Small Streams and Wetlands,”countless streams, rivers, lakes and other waterways are in danger of pollution and destruction. Two recent Supreme Court rulings, along with policy directives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have raised questions about whether the Clean Water Act’s protections extend to a host of “non-navigable” and “isolated” waterways. This loophole is particularly troubling in relation to the problem of nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin.
Small waterways such as wetlands and streams have important roles both as conduits and as sinks for this nutrient pollution. Evidence shows that while many of the nutrient pollution that reaches the Gulf comes from runoff that enters headwater streams, small streams and wetlands can also intercept and remove nutrients from the water before they get to major river systems and the Gulf. They also provide drinking water, prevent floods, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and filter out other pollutants.
According to NRDC, Congress must pass the broadly-supported Clean Water Restoration Act, a bill that will re-establish protections for the nation’s water bodies by:
(1) Reaffirming the historic understanding of the Clean Water Act that the law extends beyond traditionally navigable waters;
(2) Ensuring the law’s protections apply to all of the waters of the United States that had been covered by the agencies’ longstanding regulations; and,
(3) Explaining why Congress has ample constitutional authority over the nation’s waters, as defined in the Act, including so-called “isolated” waters, headwater streams, small rivers, ponds, lakes and wetlands.
To help limit the damage until Congress can fix the law, the report also urges that the EPA and the Army Corps must immediately enforce the existing law to the fullest extent that the Supreme Court’s decisions allow.