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Clean Water Act: What Do the Proposed Changes Mean for Conservation?

Fresh water is a precious resource. Whether it’s to drink or to live in, people and wildlife need an abundant supply of clean, safe fresh water to survive. Now proposed changes to the Clean Water Act of 1972 would revoke protection of some of the most fragile, yet essential, sources of that water. Find out how you can take action.

Anyone who has stood on the shore of one of the Great Lakes or enjoyed the views of Lake Michigan at Shedd Aquarium will have seen true majestic beauty. What many don’t realize is that they’re gazing out at liquid gold.

Rocks along the south shoreline of Lake Michigan north of the city
Rainbow trout have a long, stocky bodies and can grow to lengths of 6 to 16 inches.

Less than 1 percent of the world’s water is fresh and accessible. Of that 1 percent, one-fifth sits in our Great Lakes. Freshwater habitats also house an incredible proportion of the world’s biodiversity: more than 10 percent of all known animals and about 50 percent of all known fish species.

Today, freshwater habitats—and the biodiversity that depends on them—are at risk of pollution exposure due to proposed changes to the Clean Water Act.

Shedd Aquarium stands with numerous clean water advocates—including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, fellow aquariums and even beer brewers—all asking the Environmental Protection Agency’s appointed leadership to uphold the existing rules within the Clean Water Act and demonstrate a commitment to science-based conservation.

A lake hidden amidst a dense green forest is viewed from rocky cliffs above in Carbondale, Illinois. The lake and the surrounding trees are limned in hazy summer sunlight.
A frog sits on a piece of wood in Carbondale, Illinois, the spring sunshine painting its dappled brown and white body in a warm glow.

A new definition for protections

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was issued a presidential executive order to review the Clean Water Act. Two years later, on Valentine’s Day 2019, the EPA published its proposed changes, removing protections for many wetlands and streams that were formerly safeguarded as “Waters of the United States.”

What is most notable about the proposed definition is not what it protects but rather what it excludes.

It would remove Clean Water Act protections for all ephemeral tributaries—those that flow in direct response to rain events. It would also drop protections for intermittent waterbodies—those that are wet part of the year rather than every day, like vernal ponds—and even small perennial streams that have year-round flow.

A gaggle of wood ducklings, covered in baby fluff, sit with their mother in their habitat at the Great Lakes Gallery.
A kayaker on the Chicago river.

What would changes do to conservation efforts?

An estimated 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands would lose their protections, reversing decades of progress made in restoring and safeguarding them. Think of intermittent and ephemeral streams like the capillaries in your body. Although they are small, they play a vital role in our overall health. The same applies to small headwater streams, which feed the larger creeks and rivers we more commonly recognize.

By removing protections for small waters where runoff enters, the health of all fresh water is effectively put at risk. These habitats are vitally important to the wild counterparts of animals that call Shedd home:

  • American alligators, which were saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act, use wetlands as nursery sites for hatchlings and juveniles.
  • Spotted salamanders spend most of their lives on land but depend on vernal pools (temporary spring wetlands) for breeding.
  • Amphibians like the American bullfrog breathe through their porous skin, which makes them extremely vulnerable to soil, air and water pollution.
  • Yellow perch live in large schools in the shallow waters of the Great Lakes as well as in ponds, creeks and slow-flowing rivers throughout the northern United States and Canada.

For nearly 50 years, the Clean Water Act has protected waterways, big and small, across the United States, helping support important freshwater ecosystems and the wildlife within them. In that time, the number of clean waterways has doubled, and the annual rate of wetland loss has dropped 80 percent. The Clean Water Act has been so successful that younger Americans might not remember polluted rivers and streams devoid of wildlife. Conservation efforts, including success stories like the once-near-extinction of the wood duck, have prioritized protecting aquatic ecosystems to ensure wildlife have safe havens within their habitat range.

A photograph of a lakeshore, viewed just where the water washes up onto the sand. Seagulls stand in the shimmering, shallow water and in the background a sandy beach slopes gently into the lake, studded with trees and people.

What can you do?
It is crucial now, more than ever, to protect the founding principles of the Clean Water Act. Rules that impact wildlife and their habitat should be based on the best available science. The best science recognizes that ephemeral and intermittent water bodies are essential for aquatic wildlife and provide important ecological and hydrological functions that affect downstream waters that we—humans and wildlife—depend on.

You have the power to help make a difference.

Join us in urging the EPA to uphold the current definition of WOTUS within the Clean Water Act. By signing our petition you can help us speak up for wildlife who don’t have voices of their own.