When the Obama administration issued its final Waters of the United States rule last week, it restored protections to about 60 percent of the streams, wetlands and other waterways that supply drinking water for 117 million Americans. At the time, environmentalists lauded the rulemaking is for its expected benefits to municipal water supplies, inland fish and wildlife habitats, and businesses and industries requiring clean water.
Less discussed, however, was the way these new rules could benefit America’s oceans and coastal regions, and the multitude of businesses that depend on them.
The new rule confirms that small streams and wetlands “that are scientifically shown to have the greatest impact on downstream water quality and form the foundation of [the United States’] water resources” are now protected from discrete sources of pollution like sewage and factory effluent pipes under the Clean Water Act, according to the EPA’s summary fact sheet on the rule.
To inform the rulemaking, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a comprehensive study on the connectivity of streams and wetlands to downstream waters, and concluded that “incremental contributions of individual streams and wetlands are cumulative across entire watersheds.” As the ultimate destination of most watersheds, coastal waters will reap the sum of these incremental water quality protections.
“Our ocean is impacted by the estuaries and bays that flow into it, and those bays in turn are impacted by the streams and wetlands that flow into them,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, a spokesperson for Environment America. “Fully protecting our coastal waters means fully protecting the wetlands and streams they depend on.”
Ouzts isn’t the only one speaking out about how the new regulations could benefit the ocean. In a statement expressing support for the rule, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) highlighted the rule’s connection to the Ocean State’s offshore water quality.
“We all have a stake in ensuring that our nation’s waters remain clean and safe,” he said. “What happens upstream affects drinking water supplies and coastal waters, like Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.”
While the new regulations expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, they still don’t apply to so-called non-point source pollution such as that from farms or livestock operations, which are exempt from most Clean Water Act standards.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that inland agricultural runoff contributes 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient pollution that creates a massive annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This area is typically described by comparing its size to entire states. In 2005, the dead zone was bigger than New Jersey. Last year, it was the size of Connecticut.
“[D]ead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico dramatically affect ocean health,” Ouzts said. “Protecting the thousands of streams that flow into those waters will help reduce the pollution contributing to those dead zones.”
Yet until non-point sources are controlled, coastal water will still be subject to pollution as a result of upstream activities.
Elise Shulman is a communications associate for Oceans at the Center for American Progress. Michael Conathan and Shiva Polefka, also of the Center, contributed to this report.