Defining protected waters

In the late 1960s, our country’s fresh waters were in crisis.  Ohio’s Cuyahoga River and the Detroit’s Rouge River were prone to fires. Time Magazine declared Lake Erie dead.

Against this backdrop, the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted. It regulated pollution and provided money for improved sewage treatment. While it didn’t meet its goal of “making all of our waters swimmable and fishable by the year 1983” – it has made real progress.

The Clean Water Act aspires to protect the “waters of the United States.” Yet it never defines what this phrase means. Clearly, Congress intended to clean up navigable waters and their tributaries. But do protections extend to a marsh along a stream? A ditch in a farm field?

These ‘gray’ cases have ended up in the courts, resulting in a slow, expensive regulatory process. In an effort to reduce ambiguity, the EPA recently released a proposed definition of the “waters of the United States.”

“If the EPA’s proposal is adopted, I think it will help.”

Dave Strayer is a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

“The EPA has spent a lot of effort into making sure that this definition – this new definition – is scientifically defensible.”

The EPA is accepting comments on the definition through November 14th.

Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on November 11, 2014. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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