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Proposed Rule Protects Headwater Streams and Wetlands

Posted: 03/25/2014
By: Megan Hooker

The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corp of Engineers released a proposed rule today that will clarify protections under the Clean Water Act for headwater streams and wetlands.

Many of the rivers and streams we recreate on are safe to paddle today because of the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollution discharges. The Clean Water Act protects recreation, the stream environment, riparian property owners, drinking water sources, and significant economic activity from the impacts of unregulated pollution. 

Over a decade ago, the Clean Water Act had broad application for rivers, streams, and wetlands. Narrow interpretations of two Supreme Court decisions jeopardized that broad coverage and have placed headwater streams and wetlands in regulatory limbo. The proposed rule comes at the request of members of Congress, state and local agencies, conservation groups, recreationists, businesses, farmers and the public to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies. Ensuring that the Clean Water Act covers headwater rivers and streams is incredibly important for everyone that paddles upstream and lives downstream.

The proposed rule only provides clarification about which waters the Clean Water Act applies to, and does not protect any new types of waters. It is consistent with the Supreme Court's narrower reading of where the Act applies, which includes wetlands with a hydrologic connection to rivers and streams, including those rivers and streams that flow seasonally. While the rule restores protections to all streams and most wetlands, it actually shrinks the protections that Clean Water Act once provided overall, and preserves existing exemptions for farming, mining and other land use activities.

American Whitewater's National Stewardship Director Kevin Colburn emphasized how important it is that the proposed rule confirms that the Clean Water Act applies to headwater streams and related wetlands. "The recreational, ecological, and economic benefits of clarifying Clean Water Act protection for headwater streams are enormous," said Colburn. "The new rule will protect the quality of water in our taps, flowing through our communities, and under our boats."

The nation's headwater rivers and streams are particularly important in providing clean cold drinking water for millions of Americans. These same streams offer world-class recreation opportunities that improve the quality of life and economic viability for countless communities. "Kayakers and rafters spend more time in direct contact with headwater streams than just about anyone, which makes water quality very important to paddlers," Colburn explained. "This proposed rule promises to protect the safety of our rivers for paddling, fishing, swimming, and even just dipping your toes in,” he said.

The proposed guidance is consistent with the intent and letter of the Clean Water Act as well as the recent lawsuits, and proposes broad coverage of most water bodies. Importantly, it proposes that the Clean Water Act should cover all "traditionally navigable" streams and tributaries to those streams. It defines traditionally navigable streams as those capable of supporting kayaking, canoeing or rafting. In essence, your exploration and documentation of rivers can lead to water quality protection under the proposed guidance.

American Whitewater believes that linking public use and water quality protections makes good sense. We also feel that since water flows downhill, it is common sense to protect wetlands and tributaries connected to traditionally navigable waters. The public will have 90 days to provide comment on the proposed rule once it has been published in the Federal Register. Stay tuned to American Whitewater for our comments and updated thoughts on the rule. For more information about the rule, visit  


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