I had a perfectly good plan last year: winnow down all the streams in the US to the last best ones, the ones science say are least disturbed, their annual pattern of flow today most similar to the historic record. Add in the nation’s system of Wild and Scenic Rivers, and spend the rest of my life focusing on those…
But there’s better data out there, more exhaustive- not just the great streams, the nice streams, the ones which are protected. There’s data on the streams that should be protected, if only we had the will- political, social, or otherwise- to do so. I’m anal about these sorts of things, so I dumped them into the existing list: something like 2,110 streams across the nation, notable for their ecological, fisheries, or cultural significance. It’s a couple lifetimes worth of work, but I’m happy to try. You can check out my progress on the Last Best Streams page.
The road splits a square mile of wet green meadow frosted with flowers of pink milkweed.
We pat our own shoulders splitting the world into binaries without fretting the shades of gray. It shows in our legislation. Land that’s dry year-round doesn’t fall under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, land that’s always under water does. In between are the places saturated six or eight months of the year, unassumingly gathering the energy in nutrients driving the permanent lakes and rivers they feed. These temporary waters buffer downstream rivers and estuaries, filtering nutrients and contaminants. A chemical or fertilizer spill on this highway may kill wetland vegetation, but it’ll stay put.
This river’s adjacent wetlands function as a colossal sponge, meting snowmelt and rainwater out over the growing season. The cool groundwater augments surface flow, providing conditions for smallmouth bass, muskellunge, and walleye fisheries. Temporary streams are important habitat for species and communities evolved to exploit annual extremes in water availability, from insects and frogs to fish to waterfowl and migratory birds. It’s not that these places serve no important function, they just don’t fit our definition of waters worth protecting.
And so, they’re not.
Rivers are trees; the trunk can’t be supported without healthy limbs and leaves. It took more than forty years of careful research for scientists to convince policymakers of the intrinsic link between permanent rivers and lakes and their seasonal streams and wetlands. The effort culminated with revision of the “Waters of the United States” rule in 2015, stating waters with a measurable impact on permanent lakes and streams (the legalese term is “significant nexus”) fall under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. Developers, industrial agriculture, and a handful of presidential candidates predictably cried foul, mis-characterizing the rule as an assault against private property rights designed to regulate the most inconsequential “puddles” on the landscape.
Perhaps the most literal consequence of the new administration’s “Drain the Swamp” mantra was in repealing the rule earlier this year, ignoring scientific consensus to further political ideology. Replacing the rule requires public comment, and you can convey your concerns here.
I know it sometimes feels like we’re shouting into the void, but after August 28th, you won’t get another chance.