Scientists defend headwater protections

Scientists, including MSU's Dana Infante, rally to put science back at the forefront of the nation's revised protections of streams and their valuable ecosystems.

Riparian substrate habitat, Flat River
Riparian substrate habitat, Flat River

The Trump Administration’s intent to roll back Clean Water Act protections has natural resource experts sounding alarms in concern for the streams which serve as main arteries support for fish, wildlife and the economic efforts that depend on them.

The report co-authored by Michigan State University Fisheries and Wildlife Associate Professor Dana Infante, highlights the loss of ecosystem services, the increased threat to imperiled species, impacts to commercial and recreational fisheries, and the loss of cultural values from reduced Clean Water Act protections for headwater ecosystems. The paper appears in Fisheries, the magazine of the  American Fisheries Society.

Headwater streams, Infante said, are vital components of watersheds.  Despite their small size they comprise approximately 79% of all river length in the United States. Headwaters deliver water, sediments and organic material to downstream waters. They contribute to nutrient cycling and overall water quality. They enhance flood protection and mitigation; and provide recreational opportunities.  Many freshwater fish spawn and rear their offspring in headwaters which also are home to invertebrates, amphibians, birds and other wildlife.

While the Clean Water rule, finalized in 2015, was based on best scientific evidence, it has being replaced by a new Waters of the U.S. rule in December 2018 that excludes wetlands and headwater streams that make up more than 80 percent of the length of river networks and more than 6 million hectares of non-floodplain wetlands in the lower 48 states. 

“The loss of Clean Water Act protections for headwaters would have far reaching implications for fish, wildlife and their habitats, as well as economies dependent on those systems,” Infante said. “The proposed changes in legislation that would remove protection of these waterbodies will have far-reaching implications throughout entire river networks, beginning in headwaters, continuing through main stems, and ultimately influencing receiving water bodies likes lakes and oceans.”

The papers authors recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency and the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conduct a formal ecological and economic risk assessment to quantify the effects of the narrower rule.

Rule change threatens ecological lifelines in US from Research Square on Vimeo.

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