2020 brought with it quite a few surprising changes that have preoccupied our minds and our lives as we try to focus in this rapidly changing world. We came close to World War III, Australia caught fire, Coronavirus has made its way out of China. One event that probably didn’t change your day much, but which you might have heard about, was the Trump administration’s roll back of EPA waterway protections. In fact, this January’s rule affecting waterways will probably have the largest effect on our community out of all these headlines, in both the short and long term.
Water protections have been part of our nation’s history since 1948. The most important protections came about in the early 1970’s when the Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed to regulate what was dumped into water- ways, set water quality standards, and fund sewage treatment plants. Clean waterways and water access are a critical part of any developed country and these regulations did wonders cleaning up the environment, improving public health, and encouraging biodiversity.
In 2015 the Clean Water Rule was passed, attempting to provide clarity to the 1972 CWA, emphasizing the inclusion of streams and wetlands. This is important to our community, to Arizona, and to the entire western United States, as we don’t have massive rivers running through our towns, due to our lack of rainfall. The new 2020 ruling rolls back protections to intermittent or ephemeral streams and wetlands (which includes most of the water sources in Arizona, including ours), allowing any industry, or individual to pollute quite easily. This impacts over 3,000 watersheds in the western United States.
The only waterways not affected in Arizona are just along the Colorado River, leaving the rest of the state vulnerable. For example, in Santa Cruz County none of our water comes from the Colorado River, and we essentially have lost all our local protections. With an administration that is fast tracking mining and other big industry processes, this is especially dangerous for our water quality.
A watershed defines the area from which you receive your domestic water, either from stream, river, lake, or well. For example, If you lived in St. Louis, Missouri, you’d be part of the massive Mississippi River watershed. Here in Santa Cruz County we’re in a delicate little watershed called the Upper Santa Cruz. We depend on water from between the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains to seep into our ground water so we can access it through wells. Years ago we had many more perennial streams in our landscape, but over the last hundred years of land use the surface flow separated itself from the groundwater flow, and we might never restore that connectivity again for rivers like the Santa Cruz, which once flowed all the way from our high elevation watersheds into Mexico and back out to Tucson.
Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN) is a watershed restoration non-profit working in our community that builds rock structures, plants native flora in the wild to prevent erosion and bring back perennial waterways, increase biodiversity, and engages our communities in the process.
According to BRN’s director, Kurt Vaughn, 95% of the miles of Arizona’s historically flowing waterways are now intermittent or ephemeral. Because of the administration’s changes to the rules, our most at-risk waterways will no longer be covered by the Clean Water Act. In an already arid state these waterways are suffering from historical land mismanagement and current groundwater overuse. We need to be moving in the direction of safeguarding current flows and working on historic solutions to bring back flowing streams. These rollbacks make that goal much harder to reach.
However, as with all matters that go through our government, we are not helpless, and not all is lost. In the short term, you can contact the Arizona Department of Water Quality at email@example.com, and express concern and ask for clarification of how this will affect our community. You can become involved and support local and regional watchdog organizations such as Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity which keep communities informed about threats to our waterways and habitat, and, as always, you can contact your state representatives and senators. Oh, and please vote.