Consider the term “bodies of water”. We are surrounded by them, we are them. Upstream, downstream, bloodstream. Water is in each breath we inhale, beneath the dirt trails we tread, and above us in the swollen gray clouds of summer storms. Water makes up about 75% of the human brain and 71% of the Earth’s surface. The connectivity of water swirls through our planet and all the beings who call it home in millions of intricate, beautiful, and vital interactions.
It would be foolish to think of bodies of water as isolated, when in fact they are highly integrated systems. Standing before a river you will see water between the banks moving downstream, perhaps sluggishly or in a hurry. What you may not see is the network of streams and wetlands that connect to this water body. What you will not see is the hyporheic zone, which includes saturated portions of the riverbed, floodplain, and stream banks where surface water mixes with underlying and adjacent groundwater, ultimately returning to the river (Harvey and Bencala, 1993). Hyporheic zones may go largely unnoticed by humans, yet they are important habitat for macroinvertebrates, fish, & microbes, they process carbon, and they impact stream chemistry. We cannot rely solely on our eyes to fully grasp the water exchange of aquatic ecosystems.
Water is an essential link between ecosystems, from mountain ridges to oyster reefs. However, we label and create geographical boundaries for our waters to simplify and compartmentalize our land and seascapes. When we view waterways as isolated entities that function separately from one another, we are denying the truth of the integrated systems that surround us. This simplification downplays the importance of our waterways as sources, sinks, and transporters of energy and materials. Regardless of whether we understand the in-depth science of the connectivity of water, acknowledging its fluid nature and role in connecting ecosystems is paramount to protecting it. This was made painfully obvious a few months ago when the Supreme Court redefined and restricted the Clean Water Act’s protection of waters of the United States in Sackett v. EPA.
This ruling removes protections from thousands of bodies of water and nearly half the wetlands in the contiguous United States that had been covered by the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) for nearly 50 years. A 5-member majority of the Supreme Court stated that the CWA only extends to bodies of water described “in ordinary parlance” as “streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes” and only applies to wetlands if they have “continuous surface connection” to those waters, thereby “making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the wetland begins”. This case disregards science and instead focuses on a less than elementary definition of “water”, ignoring the complex and integrated systems that make up large-scale aquatic ecosystem function. Protecting only what we can see is short-sighted and detrimental to the health of waters of the U.S.
Intermittent streams and many other tributaries are abandoned by this new ruling in a murky, gray-area of protection, although intermittent and ephemeral streams make up an estimated 59% of the total length of streams in the lower 48 states (Nadeau and Rains, 2007). Seasonal or precipitation-based flow is an important part of many water systems. Permanent bodies of water are only a glimpse of the water exchange that happens between surface water/groundwater interactions, pocket wetlands, intermittent and ephemeral streams, and fluid dynamics of these intricate ecosystems.
The Environmental Law Institute reviewed state laws and found that, “24 states rely entirely on the federal Clean Water Act for protection of these waters and do not independently protect them. 19 states have state laws protecting many of these waters, while 7 others have laws protecting at least some of the waters losing protection as a result of the Supreme Court’s action”. Maryland is one of the 19 states protecting many of the jeopardized bodies of water, yet comfort is hard to find, considering that water knows no state lines. Legislative action on the state level will need to occur with a rapidity and ferocity to save these vulnerable waters. Meanwhile, these unprotected waters are subjected to pollution, development, and filling/dredging due to the repealing of permit requirements and protections by Sackett v. EPA.
Underwood & Associates leads with science and is dedicated to working from rooftop to reef. Our philosophy is to reconnect broken water linkages, often by recovering the hyporheic zone and putting water back on the landscape. While we are disappointed and frustrated with the Court’s decision, we will continue to work with our local and Chesapeake Bay Watershed partners to protect and recover these overlooked ecosystems and their functions. We will also continue to work with regulators and policymakers to protect these critical ecosystems in perpetuity.
Connection weaves through our bodies of water like millions of delicate silk threads, dressing our planet in a display of beauty and function. Lest we forget, the health of our waters directly impacts humanity’s own ability to survive. Perhaps one day in the future we will use 100% of our 75% water-filled brains to value and protect water the way it deserves- for the sake of our planet, for the sake of our species.