New EPA water rule protects life in the West
“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” — Wayne Aspinall
Aspinall had it mostly right. You could also add that in the West, water touches everything. Water is the single most important facet for life in the arid West. All life. Water is not only essential for agriculture, modern cities and recreation; it is the foundation of the living rivers and streams of Colorado and the myriad wildlife that depend on them.
Recently the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released a long awaited Clean Water rule that will resolve confusion created by the Supreme Court’s ambiguous decision in 2006. That ruling cast nearly 10,000 miles of streams and thousands of wetland acres in Colorado in limbo. This new rule will restore vital protections for headwater streams based on the science of how they work as dynamic, connected systems. That’s the “significant nexus” that connects tributaries and even ephemeral streams and wetlands to “navigable” waterways.
Critics of the new rule claim that it will vastly broaden the scope of bureaucratic and regulatory authority (read interference…). It will not. Agriculture, which arguably has the largest impacts to western rivers and streams, will still be mostly exempt. Critics also claim that the EPA and the Corps hasn’t “listened” and that this is just another federal “water grab.” That’s also not true, not by a long stretch. High-ranking EPA officials have held well-advertised and well-attended public meetings all across Colorado, including the West Slope, to get input and ideas. It looks like they listened.
Now that the rule is out these critics should read it carefully rather than reject it out of hand. They need to recognize that these protections are vital; that it’s not their water alone to despoil as they wish, but water that benefits and belongs to all of us. Most water used by agriculture and municipalities returns to the streams it came from and is used over and over again as it flows downstream. Ignoring that is the height of selfish irresponsibility.
I also know what’s at stake for Colorado and the West if this rule is blocked by Congress. Since the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling the rate of wetland loss has gone up, not down. Wetlands are vital for wildlife, especially here. The court’s ruling also left 68 percent of Colorado’s streams vulnerable to pollution and degradation from unregulated actions.
I’ve been hiking, fishing and hunting in Colorado and the West for more than 40 years. I’ve raised a family here, a family that also thinks that realistic environmental protections for our rivers, streams and wetlands are vital.
An important piece of the rule is recognizing the connectivity of seemingly disconnected streams. Streams are a lot more than the water and channel you see on the surface. Like beauty, the important stuff is often hidden below the surface. There are numerous complex interconnections underground, in the alluvial aquifers. A stream may look dry on the surface but many still run underground, downstream to “perennial” streams like the Colorado River.
There is an old saw that says if you are stuck in a desert without water, dig down in a dry stream near cottonwoods. You’ll hit water. That water is the hidden stream. It’s not isolated, it’s not disconnected and it’s moving. It will carry with it the pollutants and other human impacts from above down to the open river. That’s the significant nexus the Supreme Court asked for and that this new rule provides.
Nothing is more important to all of us in the West than water. Its intricate and complex connections are what tie our watersheds together, what makes life possible in this arid land. The science of these connections is relatively recent, but its importance to us, our farms, communities, economy and wildlife cannot be overstated.
Aspinall was right, in ways he couldn’t understand. In the West, when you touch water you literally touch everything in ways we couldn’t imagine just a few years ago. The new Clean Water Act ruling recognizes that, restoring real protections for streams and rivers that we all need.
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Intro: Brisa Chavez is lead educator and Hispanic engagement coordinator for Garfield County’s Public Health Services.