Celebrating Clean Water for America's National Parks

05/28/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Our nation and its national parks will have cleaner water thanks to President Obama. The Obama Administration just wrapped up a multi-year effort that protects the drinking water for 117 million Americans, as well as the waterways found in and around hundreds of national parks across the country. After a decade of confusion, the Clean Water Rule finally provides the clear science-based and legal framework needed to better understand which streams, wetlands and other waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act, and is an important step for leaving a lasting national parks legacy.

The health of America's national parks is directly linked to the health of the waters that surround and flow through them. Clean water is vital for healthy people, healthy national parks and a healthy economy. We need clean water for drinking, work and play. Clean water drives industries and supports robust tourism economies across the country.

But for too long, our nation's waters have been at risk of pollution -- or worse, destruction. Healthy wetlands and small waterways upstream improve water quality in parks and throughout the country by filtering polluted water from farm fields and city streets that otherwise would flow into larger waterways and communities. These small waterways also reduce flooding and provide vital habitat for wildlife and fish.

Protecting these waters is not easy. More than half of our 407 national parks have waterways that are considered "impaired" under the Clean Water Act, meaning they do not meet healthy water quality standards for activities like fishing or swimming. Much of the activities happening outside our parks impact water quality and water quantity inside them, such as encroaching development, pollution, demands for water use and climate change.

Our urban national parks continue to suffer from threats from outside their boundaries too. Around 90 percent of the waterways in the National Capital Parks Region are polluted, including Rock Creek Park and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the Mississippi River flows through the cities and the southern half of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, carrying massive amounts of runoff. And Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, one of our most visited national protected areas, is also one of our most polluted, largely due to the influx of treated wastewater, stormwater and sewage overflows, historic leaching from nearby landfills, and impacts of urban development.

For decades, the National Parks Conservation Association and our more than one million members and supporters have pushed for clean water in our national parks to protect our health, wildlife and park resources. Clean water is essential for providing park visitors with unrivaled experiences while they are there. Whether they are snorkeling at Virgin Islands National Park, fishing at Glacier National Park, or geyser-viewing at Yellowstone National Park -- national park visitors consistently rank water quality or water access as one of the top five most valued attributes when visiting these treasured places.

As an avid sailor, a mother and grandmother, and a former elected official, I have worked for more than 30 years to improve the water quality and overall health of our waterways, especially within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is an important and long overdue step in ensuring clean water for people, parks and local communities.

As we prepare for the 100th anniversary of the National Park System next year, let's have the centennial be the start of a new commitment to clean water in our parks and across the country.