An Upstream Battle For Our Rivers
Especially in the fall, one of my favorite weekend activities is to take a hike around Great Falls National Park along the Potomac River. The rushing water always reminds me how close we are to nature, even here in Washington, DC. Even though the ‘Nation’s river’ sometimes gets a bad reputation for being smelly or polluted or full of trash – as with many urban rivers – I’m realizing how much my experience here has been shaped by the river.
From walking along the banks by the National Mall when the cherry blossoms are blooming to going out on a friend’s sail boat to even competing in last year’s Dragon Boat race, I’ve been around and on (although not yet in) the Potomac countless times. As a resident of Arlington County in Virginia, I even get most of my drinking water from the Potomac. Although I like to take the drive up to Great Falls, I really just have to pour myself a glass of water to get close to the river.
Protecting the Potomac River alone, a navigable river by almost anyone’s standards, is unlikely to be enough for the river to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act: ‘to protect and restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.’ In other words, to keep our waters safe and healthy enough to fish and swim in and to use as a source of drinking water. What happens upstream, in small streams and wetlands, impacts the quality and health of downstream tributaries and larger rivers like the Potomac.
If the Senate passes the Barrasso-Heller amendment, protections for small streams and wetlands across the country which are inextricably linked to the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of downstream waters may be at risk. This amendment to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 2354) effectively prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act following two Supreme Court decisions which put protections for some waters into question.
For almost thirty years, the Clean Water Act was interpreted to provide comprehensive protections for all of the water bodies across the country, from the smallest headwater streams to the Mississippi River. Preventing the Corps from addressing and clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act may put the small streams and wetlands that are a source of drinking water for 117 million Americans at risk.