Sonoma County Water Coalition Comments on proposed “Waters of the United States” Definition

The Sonoma County Water Coalition (SCWC) comprises 31 organizations, representing more than 24,000 concerned citizens. SCWC is especially concerned about the preservation of a safe, economical and reliable water supply for all living things. SCWC also works to preserve healthy ecosystems, supports watershed restoration and protection and careful oversight of all public trust resources, including surface and groundwater quality and quantity.

SCWC supports the intent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (ACE) proposed rule for implementation of the United States Clean Water Act (CWA) by redefining “Waters of the United States” to accord with recent court decisions. As we read the proposed rule, the main stem streams traditionally defined as “Waters of the United States” are interstate streams, whether draining to the sea or to interior basins. SCWC also supports the interpretation of “significant nexus” as scientifically demonstrated relationships between tributary streams of mainstream rivers that they feed into, and all connected or adjacent ponds, lakes, and associated wetlands, whether or not intermittently watered, which are critical components for maintaining water quality in the whole system (p 22193, para 2).

Mainstream rivers consist of and depend on water from upstream complexes of tributary streams, commonly interconnected to ponds, lakes, and adjacent or contiguous wetlands, including isolated lakes, vernal pools and potholes. Each component contributes to sustaining the main stem river’s health and the biological diversity of large regions. This knowledge base has been built up over more than a century of increasingly sophisticated investigations.

SCWC member organizations deplore the trend in scientifically-uninformed legal decisions that have impelled EPA and ACE to remove intrastate rivers and streams, playa lakes and ponds, isolated lakes, vernal pools and prairie potholes, and coastal sloughs and flats from the designation “Waters of the United States.” Scientific studies have showed that all functioning riverine ecosystems support the health of coastal waters and land-locked territorial seas, including intrastate streams, and the inland playa lakes, into which they flow.

As complex interior systems become multiply impaired, they degrade the water bodies that receive them, potentially affecting ecosystems of inland fisheries that feed wildlife and perhaps human populations. The same can be said for vernal pools and potholes that are also wetlands, and coastal sloughs and sand or mudflats, which may support important shellfish populations that support human populations.

The most important aspect of this rulemaking is the intent to firmly base it in established peer-reviewed science, cited extensively in Appendix A of the proposed rule. But eventhough established peer reviewed science has shown that groundwater contributions are important to maintaining stream flow for many of the rivers defined as “Waters of the United States,” EPA and ACE have expressly eliminated groundwater from the consideration of significant nexus elements (p. 22193, para 7). [Winter, T.C., 2007. The Role of Ground Water in Generating Streamflow in Headwater Areas and in Maintaining Baseflow. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 43, DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-1688.2007.00003.x]. This is a significant omission, which should be reconsidered.

Interstate streams that receive substantial groundwater contributions to their headwaters flows should provide a significant nexus for assessing such waters as the eastern prairie potholes belt, western and southern vernal pools, and other similar land features. We suggest that groundwater in the western Minnesota prairie potholes region may significantly contribute to stream flow in several tributaries of the upper Mississippi River system, for instance. Without them, the Upper Mississippi might become a shriveled tributary to the main stem Missouri-Mississippi system. Laguna de Santa Rosa vernal pools have a significant nexus with the Russian River, because flooding and (or) high oceanic tides intermittently overflow into the Laguna, providing nutrients to the Russian River, and allowing anadromous fish to migrate into Laguna tributary streams.

We hope that this legal compartmentalization of the nation’s waters will stimulate public and private funding for additional studies that examine regional physical and biotic interrelationships of inter- and intra-state river systems. We also hope for additional studies to define the effect of ceasing to protect intrastate waters of the interior U.S. under CWA.

All our waterways and their supporting water bodies are important contributors to the ecosystems that support our lives. Other recent research has found that current stream restoration science remains inadequate for “recovering ecosystem functional integrity.” [Martin W. Doyle and F. Douglas Shields, 2012, Compensatory Mitigation for Streams Under the Clean Water Act: Reassessing Science and Redirecting Policy. Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA)1-16. DOI: 10.1111/j.1752- 1688.2011.00631.x]

This means that we must preserve the functional integrity of all our river systems, in every way possible.


Jane Nielson, Ph.D. PG Sonoma County Water Coalition