January 15, 2015

What Is the Deal with WOTUS?

Joanna Mackenzie

Joanna Mackenzie

Research Assistant, Food System Policy

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Blue-green harmful algae blooms

Blue-green harmful algae blooms

With the new senators and representatives reporting to Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS) may be in jeopardy. WOTUS seeks to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act, which makes it the target of attacks by incoming lawmakers. This post provides the inside scoop on why that’s bad news, and why the nation’s most vulnerable and undervalued waters are vital to us all.

The Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972, authorized the federal government to protect the navigable waters of the United States. It was instrumental in cleaning up many of our nation’s rivers and lakes, which at the time were being decimated by pollution. Since then, however, there has been confusion and debate about which waters can or should be protected under this law, with the result that 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands are unprotected from pollution. [1] Costly legal battles in both 2001 and 2006 weakened the Clean Water Act’s ability to protect wetlands, streams, and other upstream waters, all of which play key roles in the freshwater system.[1]

In order to address these issues, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a revision to the Clean Water Act, commonly known as WOTUS, that would specifically protect wetlands, seasonal and rain-dependent streams, and some other types of waters that have a significant impact downstream.

So why is protecting wetlands and streams so important?

Seasonal and rain-dependent streams, headwaters and wetlands are vital to the economy, the environment, and the nation’s drinking water supply.[2] For example, upstream water systems, which include rain-fed and seasonal streams, headwaters, and wetlands, feed into public water supplies that provide 1 in 3 Americans with drinking water.[1] That’s about 117 million Americans who depend on clean streams for their drinking water. Check out this map to see if you are one of them. There’s a 30 percent chance you are!

Streams and wetlands also provide many environmental and social benefits. For example, they help keep the water supply free from pollution by trapping sediment and filtering contaminants.[1] They even mitigate flooding by slowing the release of floodwaters, and they replenish underground aquifers that are essential to growing the nation’s food. Still not convinced these waters are important? Local economies that rely on fishing, hunting, water recreation activities, agriculture and energy production all depend on healthy streams and wetlands![1]

WOTUS has seen fierce opposition from some of the big players in industrial agriculture, most notably the Farm Bureau, which launched a rather dramatic social media campaign against it. However, over 700,000 individuals and organizations, including environmental and clean water advocates, craft beer brewers (that’s right, you need clean water to make beer!), and some farmers have expressed support for the rule.

So what does Big Ag have to lose?

A nationwide survey of rivers, lakes and other bodies of water found that pollution from agricultural activities was the leading cause of damages to rivers and lakes, and the second largest cause of impaired wetlands.[3] This kind of agricultural pollution is called “non-point source pollution,” which means that the pollution stems from many diffuse causes, rather than a specific site or action. (Point source pollution would include oil spills or leaky sewage treatment plants; non-point source pollution is not traced back to a single source but instead to many sources.)

Agricultural activities can damage waters gradually over time when pesticides, fertilizers, manure and sediment from soil erosion run off into the streams and wetlands that feed into larger rivers and lakes.[3] Naturally, Big Ag is not happy about having to clean up their act. However, despite the expenses that might be incurred by reducing pollution and mitigating damages to upstream waters, a cost benefit analysis of the proposed rule found that it would provide net environmental and economic benefits to the public ranging from $226-236 million per year.[4]

A recent and extreme example of what can happen when this type of pollution gets out of hand occurred last summer in Toledo, Ohio. Nearly half a million people couldn’t drink their tap water due to an invasive algae bloom that took over parts of Lake Erie. Although algae blooms occur naturally, this one was abnormally massive partly due to high levels of nutrient run-off from surrounding agricultural operations. Nutrient run-off occurs when farmers apply more fertilizers, pesticides or manure than the soil can retain, which then get washed away by rain.

At this point the EPA is moving forward with the proposed rule and plans to finalize it by spring of 2015. However, the House has already passed legislation to stop it and the Senate is likely to follow suit. Although the public comment period is over, you can still make a difference by learning more about WOTUS here, or letting your State Senator know that clean streams and wetlands matter to you.


  1. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2014. “Waters of the United States.” Accessed at http://www2.epa.gov/uswaters.
  2. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2013. Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  3. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2005. Agricultural Non-Point Source Fact Sheet, EPA 841-F-05-001. Accessed at http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/agriculture_facts.cfm.
  4. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2014. Economic Analysis of Proposed Revised Definition of Waters of the United States. Accessed at http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/wus_proposed_rule_economic_analysis.pdf

Image: Blue-green harmful algae blooms, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.


One Comment

  1. Anything worth while doing to protect the good of all is time consuming and expensive. At time seemingly too restrictive. But the outcome….cleaner water, is a benefit to all of us and our future generationgs.

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