Beautiful Above, and Below, the Surface: Cleaning up Our Nation's Waterways

Picture your favorite waterway, river, lake or stream. Maybe it's the fishing hole you and your grandfather went to every summer for a camping trip. Or maybe it's the stream in the park behind your school. Perhaps it's somewhere you've never been, a lake in a national park, in a state far away, but yet you've been in awe of its beauty. On the surface, you might assume that these waters are pristine, healthy, and clean for use by people and wildlife alike. But dive a little deeper, and under that seemingly pristine surface you may get a first-hand look at the serious decline in the condition of our nation's waterways.

After years of Bush Administration loopholes to the Clean Water Act, polluters have enjoyed a free pass to dump pollutants into many of our cherished waterways, threatening our water for drinking, swimming, fishing, and enjoyment. These giveaways to polluters leave more than 59 percent of U.S. streams and 20 million acres of wetlands unprotected from toxic dumping and pollution, endangering the drinking water of 117 million Americans and 5,646 public water systems.

Rightly so, a majority of Americans are deeply concerned about their waters. Poll after poll shows that Americans cherish their local waterways, and in 2011 a Gallup nationwide poll revealed that more than three quarters of Americans, a total 77 percent of us, are worried about pollution in our drinking water.

Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to restore important protections that were previously in place. Earlier this year EPA proposed a rule, the 'Waters of the U.S.' rule, which would reaffirm Clean Water Act protections to many of our nation's waterways. And in Washington this week the agency's independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) is meeting to hear public comment on their most recent report, reviewing the connectivity of the nation's waterways.

What the SAB identified in its report was this: the nation's waterways are vitally connected -- what happens along a tributary does indeed impact larger downstream waters. It's clear that the health of these waterways are dependent on each other -- pollution in a smaller stream means pollution in the river downstream, threatening the health of communities along the way.

Now, you don't need a Ph.D. to know that water flows downstream. But the SAB report leaves no doubt that all our waters are connected -- what's under the surface really counts -- so for waters anywhere to be protected, we must protect waters everywhere.

President Obama and his administration can take a huge step to restore important protections to our waters in the coming year by swiftly adopting the Waters of the U.S. rule. In so doing his administration would have the support of environmentalists, parents, anglers, hunters, swimmers, community leaders, and all Americans who value clean water for drinking, fishing, or recreation, and will be appreciated by many generations to come.