Pollution even in a small stream or wetland can have disastrous consequences for people and wildlife.
It can migrate into the interconnected network of wetlands, streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater and the ocean. This migration not only destroys habitat but it also pollutes drinking water.
The Pennsylvania portion of the Lake Erie watershed encompasses an area of 508 square miles that includes 1,122 miles of streams, 55 of which empty directly into the lake. Our watershed focus this week is on the small streams, which are mistakenly considered by many as insignificant.
How many streams can you name? Do you know if they can support wildlife? Do you know why they are important for safe drinking water?
Surface waterways large or small, steady or intermittent, and groundwater aquifers, all play important roles in the water cycle’s ability to sustain communities environmentally and economically. Small streams and wetlands trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, filter pollutants, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. They also play an important role in clean drinking water, fishing, hunting, agriculture, recreation, energy, and manufacturing.
About 60 percent of the miles making up all smaller U.S. streams only flow seasonally, or after it rains or snow melts. Yet they are vital to the health of waters downstream and for people. Approximately 117 million people – one in three Americans – rely on these streams for their pubic drinking water systems. The rest rely on groundwater or larger rivers and lakes fed by these streams.
Protecting water must therefore be based on this interconnectedness rather than by the size or location of the waterway. When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it designated protection for “all waters of the United States.” However a loophole that resulted from Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 has left more than two million stream miles and 20 million wetland acres unprotected from oil, chemical and coal ash spills or from factory farm animal waste and other pollution. The question isn’t whether spills or leaks will happen, but when and where and why are there no consequences to keep them from happening?
To protect against such scenarios, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently proposed a Clean Water Act rule that addresses the loophole. You can learn more and comment on the proposal at www.epa.gov/uswaters and read the PA Sea Grant habitat assessment and learn more about PA Lake Erie Watershed streams at www.paseagrant.org.