08/08/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

Intermittent Streams

Some members of Congress are highly critical of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to strengthen protection of the nation's 357 thousand miles of intermittent streams. The lawmakers contend the EPA is engaged in drastic overreach.

It should be noted, however, that many of the streams in question are under developmental pressure or have already been lost to commercial activity. Yet these lawmakers' complain that the EPA's proposed Clean Water Act rule clarification for regulating small seasonal streams would stifle economic development with frivolous protective restraints. They sarcastically raise the specter of even transient puddles from rainfall requiring a Clean Water Act permit to be addressed.

There is no question that the proposed EPA rule was drafted to clarify the Agency's jurisdiction and avoid a business being brought to a standstill by the need to obtain a federal permit for a temporary wet area not in the government's purview.

That said, the strengthened aspect of the protective rule is sorely needed, because the nation's small seasonal streams, which constitute 80 percent of the national stream network, are in trouble. Official estimates are that 60 percent of the small streams and 20 million acres of adjacent wetlands are at risk from human agricultural and industrial activity.

Why are these small streams that are filled with water only part of the year especially important? You have only to recall the recent plight of Toledo, Ohio where 400,000 people were temporarily deprived of drinking water because of pollution in Lake Erie.

The 130 mile long Maumee River contributes only five percent of the water flowing into Lake Erie. But the river is responsible for 80 percent of the phosphorous load that is creating the toxic algae contaminating the lake and Toledo's drinking water supply.

And this is where strengthened governmental protection of intermittent streams enters the picture. These temporary waterways in their natural state (as opposed to being dredged and filled by human beings) are capable of filtering pollutants that might otherwise seep into major tributaries and other large bodies of water. The small streams also recycle agricultural nutrient runoff as well as maintain the quality and supply of drinking waters since they flow into and replenish major tributaries such as the Maumee.

These seasonal steams often nurture adjacent wetlands that are important natural sponges for absorbing pollutants and thus enhancing water quality.

Obviously, the Maumee did not have enough seasonal streams to mitigate its adverse effect on Toledo. Moreover, the city's temporary drinking water crisis was just a preview of what awaits many other communities if our stream network does not receive better custodial care.
To the members of Congress balking at the idea of tightening the Clean Water Act, take a deep breath and remember -- don't let the size of small streams obscure the magnitude of their importance.