More Than a Drop in the Bucket

Making sure the Clean Water Act covers small streams and headwaters would protect the drinking water of millions of Americans.

January 28, 2015

This story was originally published on March 25, 2014, and has been updated to reflect recent developments.

Somewhere way up in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, it’s raining. Tiny puddles form. Those puddles join up and create a trickle. A trickle becomes a stream, a stream becomes a river. And before those raindrops know it, they’re on a winding 2,000-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico—nourishing countless ecosystems and cities along the way.

This is the water cycle as we know it. It’s tough to imagine the Mississippi River as anything other than a writhing, roiling water beast, but even that great torrent owes its origin to drops of rain that fell hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away.

As the Mississippi and all the other rivers in this country wind their way to the sea, we draw water from them, sometimes for industry but often for drinking, cooking, bathing, and—when we’re really having fun—for water jet-packs. It’s common sense to want to protect the rivers and reservoirs that serve as our water sources, which is why Americans are such great fans of the 1972 Clean Water Act (despite industry efforts to undermine it).

Because all that water comes from somewhere else, though, it means we need to protect every inch of the conveyor belt, not just the part of the river next to our intake valves. After all, how can a river stay clean if the streams that dump into it are poisoned?

But that’s exactly the situation created by a couple of Supreme Court decisions and Bush-era agency rulings from the last decade. Those actions created confusion about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. Do headwaters count? What about streams that dry up and disappear at certain times of the year? If you think those small water sources probably don’t matter much, you’d be wrong. They contribute to the drinking water of more than a third of the U.S. population, or 117 million people. (Click on this map to see if you’re one of them.)

Industry has taken advantage of the confusion by dumping bad stuff into those headwaters and small streams—including carcinogenic chemicals, crude oil, and dangerous bacteria—with little fear of being held accountable. The New York Times reported that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations in a four-year span couldn’t be prosecuted due to the loopholes in the Clean Water Act.

The Obama administration wants to take an important step toward closing those loopholes, with a proposed rule change that would clarify which waters are protected. "This rule does not expand the Clean Water Act," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy made clear during a press call with reporters when announcing the proposed rule, which is expected to be finalized this spring. It simply reasserts that historically covered waters are still under the EPA’s jurisdiction, and the agency would need to approve any project that might pollute the protected waterways (though exemptions remain in place for normal farming, ranching, and forestry practices).

This is good news for pretty much everyone except the polluters who make a quick buck by dumping their crap into the environment. (Which reminds me of another water issue that needs some attention.) The EPA's proposed revisions are supported by nearly everyone (as recent poll results make clear), from environmentalists and public health professionals to farmers, fishermen, and brewers (beer needs clean water, too!). An earlier version of the draft guidelines introduced in 2011 garnered more than 230,000 comments, most in support of the clarifications. But that doesn’t mean the proposed changes are in any way certain.

After Republicans took control of Congress following the 2014 midterm elections, they targeted the Clean Water Act clarifications as something they intended to block. At a rare joint congressional hearing today, GOP members took aim at the rule, while the EPA's McCarthy defended it. "Sixty percent of streams and millions of acres of wetlands across the country aren’t clearly protected from pollution and destruction," she said. "One in three Americans get their drinking water from these streams that are vulnerable...We need healthy headwaters upstream."

Remember, there would be no torrential rivers without a billion little drops of rain.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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