• Alyssa Barton

All Waters Are Connected: Speak Up Against the Dirty Water Rule

Updated: Feb 17


Rain falls from the sky and lands on the earth. Some precipitation falls as snow on our mountaintops, adding to glaciers that will melt each summer and contribute to seasonal streamflows. Some falls in wet drops replenishing surface water including ponds, lakes, rivers and more, seeping through the ground to help recharge our groundwater aquifers. Groundwater can flow back to surface water, be taken up by plants, or flow out to the ocean. Plants and trees breathe and transpire, returning water to the atmosphere. Through evaporation, condensation returns water from the oceans back up into the atmosphere again.

The water we drink, recreate in and on, and live next to has circulated through the hydrologic cycle again and again since time immemorial. In a sense, even the water within our bodies is not our own: we sweat, cry, and urinate water back into this never-ending cycle.

The Clean Water Act is the key law protecting surface water from pollution in the United States. Passed in 1972, the goals of the Clean Water Act are to eliminate the discharge of pollutants by 1985, and to ensure that our waters are healthy enough to protect fish, shellfish, wildlife and recreation by July 1, 1983. But oddly, we passed the Safe Drinking Water Act to address drinking water separately. By parsing out which waters should be protected from pollution versus which should be safe to drink, we drew an arbitrary distinction between waters that are ultimately all connected. Likewise, by distinguishing different types of waters that should or shouldn’t be protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act, we ignore the fundamental connectivity of water at the risk of harming people and the environment.

The Clean Water Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create or oversee the creation of water quality standards by states, to develop and run a permitting system for polluters that discharge to protected waters, and to create, implement and enforce rules for certain types of water polluters, or “dischargers.” The Clean Water Act protects “Waters of the United States” from pollution. Regulated dischargers can protect people and the environment by obtaining a valid Clean Water Act permit to discharge pollutants to a Water of the United States, and by complying with permit terms and other regulations that limit the amount of pollutants they discharge to safe amounts.

Debates have raged for decades between those who bear the long-term costs of pollution and those who bear the immediate costs of having their pollution regulated about how much pollution is safe and about which waters merit protection under the Clean Water Act. In particular, one hot topic of debate is the definition of the original scope of the Clean Water Act, namely, which waters are Waters of the United States.

Under President Trump, the EPA is currently working to dramatically reduce which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act by repealing and revising the Waters of the United States definition. There is a federal rulemaking currently pending, coined “the Dirty Water Rule” by those who want to see less pollution in our waters, that seeks to strip protections from millions of miles of rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes, and other waters nationwide. This revision could declare open season on our public waters for polluters to dump pollution into communities without recourse.


People need clean water.

There was bipartisan support for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and there is bipartisan support for clean water now. Records from Congress and conversations that took place during the creation of the Clean Water Act clearly demonstrate that Congress wanted the Clean water Act to be read as broadly, and to protect as many waters, as possible.

The logic and importance of maintaining a broad definition of Waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act cannot be overstated. Pollution upstream adversely impacts downstream waters and water users. Furthermore, we know that toxic pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities. By stripping existing protections for waters from pollution, EPA risks harming communities already struggling under a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards. EPA’s Dirty Water Rule also threatens tribes and first nations that consume more fish in their diet.

Since the 1980’s when the term “environmental justice” was coined, an ever-growing body of literature that has found that both polluters and pollution – including hazardous waste sites and toxic cleanups - are disproportionately located in communities of color. In some places, hydraulic-fracturing oil wells are more likely to be sited in those neighborhoods. Researchers have found the presence of benzene and other dangerous aromatic chemicals to be linked to race. Strong racial disparities are suspected in the prevalence of lead poisoning as well. EPA’s actions will disproportionately impact people of color, adding the burden of water pollution on those with the least mobility, least resources, and the most exposure or risk of air and environmental pollution and health risks.

Some tribes and first nations, as well as other ethnic fisher communities, hunt for and consume fish from our waters as part of their normal and customary diet. Because these populations consume a far greater quantity of fish – including salmon – that are exposed to and often contain toxic chemicals, Washington and Oregon states have implemented stronger water quality protections. Washington and Oregon utilize a fish consumption rate of 170 grams per day to reflect that much stronger water quality standards are needed to protect those that consume more fish. The Waters of the United States definition should be expanded, not gutted.

Wildlife needs clean water.

The creatures on our planet will survive by virtue of our actions. I recently wrote about the fact that the earth is undergoing a rapid, global die-off of many species due to human activity, a sixth “mass extinction” event. With over 8 billion people on our planet, it is undeniable that humans are impacting every place and environment on planet earth. With intentional action, we have the power to protect them for generations to come. The pollution of our waters contributes to global extinction rates, and we can stop it. In the Pacific Northwest, two iconic species – orca and salmon – demonstrate the imperative for us to curb water pollution by implementing stronger water protections.

There are eight species of salmon in Washington State. Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho also home to several species. Due to multiple human-caused threats, the salmon of the Pacific Northwest are at all-time lows. Historically, adult salmon returns to the Columbia Basin were at least 10 to 16 million fish annually. Yet Puget Sound Chinook salmon are currently at only 10% of their historic numbers; in some river basins populations are as low as 1% of their historic returns.

Fifteen different salmon and steelhead stocks in Washington State are listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Washington State alone spends millions of dollars each year on salmon recovery. The continued existence of these species, and the funding spent to recover them, are threatened by the Dirty Water Rule because salmon are particularly susceptible to toxic pollution, including stormwater pollution. Salmon utilize and benefit from the intermittent streams that are at risk under the Dirty Water Rule they require clean, cold water to survive.

For Coho, depending on the creek, 60 percent to 90 percent of the fall run of females die each year with their bellies still full of eggs due to the toxicity of the water in Washington state. Studies by the Washington Stormwater Center out of the University of Washington, Tacoma, show that a cocktail of chemicals coming from tires running on our roads is lethal to Coho salmon. Salmon are fatty fish; toxics they consume are stored in that fat. Toxic chemicals like PCBs (which can cause cancer) bioaccumulate in salmon and biomagnify up the food chain in the creatures that consume them – including people and orca whales.

As of January 11, 2019, the Southern Resident orca whale population totaled 75 whales. Think “Free Willy” if you’re old enough to remember the Disney movie. Not only are these whales one of the most endangered marine species in the world, they are of great personal and cultural significance, ecological importance, and research and economic value to many communities in the Pacific Northwest. Restoring orcas and preventing their extinction is of the utmost importance.

In March of 2018, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington established an Orca Recovery Task Force to address these threats to orca survival, and to prepare a report and recommendations to the legislature to implement a long-term plan of action to recover the species. The Task Force identified three primary threats to orca recovery. Two are toxic pollution and lack of prey. Southern Resident orcas primarily rely on Chinook salmon for their diet, although new research has shown that the orcas will also consume Chum and Coho salmon (especially during the fall). Restoring Chinook and other salmon is of paramount importance for the long-term recovery of Southern Resident orcas.

The Orca Recovery Task Force also recognized that the more cost-effective approach to saving our salmon and orcas is to prevent contaminants from entering the environment in the first place. We have always known that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With the majority of salmon-bearing waters in the Pacific Northwest already listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act, the salmon and orcas of the Pacific Northwest cannot afford for the waters they live in to be further degraded.


The EPA’s Dirty Water Rule will dramatically narrow the definition of which Waters of the United States are protected by the Clean Water Act. The Army Corps has admitted that the Dirty Water Rule seeks to strip federal protections from at least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands nationwide. In fact, federal agencies don't have adequate data to identify all the waters that would lose protection or the impact of those losses. It could be much more.

The Clean Water Act is unique in providing citizens the opportunity to stop pollution with its citizen’s suit provision. Under the Trump Administration’s proposed changes, people who wish to protect local waterways or wetlands that no longer qualify as Waters of the United States would no longer have the right to legally advocate to stop pollution under the Clean Water Act. We would be robbed of our rights to seek redress for toxic pollution in our communities.

The Dirty Water Rule should be Withdrawn.

The Dirty Water Rule threatens to undermine the goals of the Clean Water Act – to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters – long before we have reached our goal. Close to 70 percent of the waters assessed by EPA in the United States are already classified as threatened or impaired, and we have not even completed assessments of all of our waters to date. EPA should withdraw the Dirty Water Rule from the record. You can ask them to do so, and voice your concerns, here: https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149-0003

By excluding over a dozen categories of waters from the purview of the Clean Water Act for the first time in history, EPA denies this fundamental truth: all waters are connected. It’s up to us to remind them.

#cleanwater #pollution #takeaction #environment

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©2020 by Alyssa Barton