Temporary waterways in the United States could potentially lose protection under the Clean Water Act through the Environmental Protection Agency — 90 percent of New Mexico’s water comes from temporary waterways according to Cliff Dahm, a University of New Mexico biology professor.
Dahm said temporary waterways can be defined as any waterway that does not flow all year long. Some temporary waterways flow most of the year, but some only flow a few days out of the year.
The EPA has been making some changes under the new administration, Dahm said. One of the biggest initiatives is to remove temporary waterways from the Clean Water Act. In response to these events, a group of 17 individuals from seven different countries sent a letter to Science Magazine, a peer-reviewed journal.
According to the letter in Science Magazine, “Temporary waterways provide many ecosystem services, including water provision and purification, that contribute substantially to securing water quantity and quality. Fifty-eight percent of all waterways that provide drinking water to the continental U.S. are temporary or headwater streams, which support more than one-third of the U.S.’s population.”
Dahm said he is part of a group of researchers who have spent the past six years studying temporary waterways. He said there is a significant amount of research to be done and information to be studied because of all the roles temporary waterways play.
Rebecca Bixby, a professor and aquatic ecologist at UNM, said she is concerned about the impact this change in protection could have on the biodiversity in New Mexico. Many tributaries that contribute to the Rio Grande are temporary waterways, Bixby said, meaning that if they lose protection the water quality in the Rio Grande will be impacted.
“It will probably result in a change in biodiversity and (in the ability) to use these systems as drinking water,” Bixby said. “We rely on both surface water and groundwater here in Albuquerque. It will impact the biology, but also how we use this water.”
There is a longstanding history of temporary waterways that have rich ecosystems, and lack of protection by the EPA could put these areas at risk, Bixby said. In New Mexico these types of waterways recharge the groundwater that people, wildlife and crops use.
There are large numbers of plants and animals that only live in temporary waterways, Dham said. He said the habitats that come with this type of waterway do contain threatened and endangered species.
According to Dahm, areas all over the U.S. could experience negative impacts from this change in protection. He said many arid states, like New Mexico, get a significant portion of their water from temporary waterways.
In New Mexico, Dahm said the Rio Puerco, Rio Salado, Santa Fe River and the Galisteo River are all temporary waterways. The Rio Grande is not a temporary waterway — however, the tributaries draining into the Rio Grande would lose protection.
“This means a whole lot of things that protect our water quality would no longer to be actively considered,” Dahm said. “A lot of the protection that we have through the Clean Water Act to protect our predominant waterways will be lost.”
Bixby said a value cannot be put on biodiversity or how water can be used. These waterways are biologically and ecologically important, but they are also meaningful for the people that use them, she said.
However, if protection is lost on the federal level, the New Mexico state government could choose to intervene, Bixby said. He said water in New Mexico is monitored by the New Mexico Environment Department and could be protected by nonfederal government.
The process of removing protection of temporary waterways from the Clean Water Act legally requires public input before a decision is made, Dahm said, adding that if there was a big enough public discontent with this movement, the U.S. Congress could potentially pass a law protecting temporary waterways.
According to Dahm, temporary waterways only became protected three years ago when the original ruling stated that temporary waterways were part of the Clean Water Act — the EPA is moving to reverse this ruling.
“Scientifically this simply isn’t justifiable in terms of protecting the waterways in much of the U.S.,” Dahm said.
Dahm added that one of the biggest concerns is that these areas are important to sustaining water quality for people. These waterways could be polluted by gravel mines, landfills, and oil and gas drilling. Albuquerque’s water quality and sanitation would be impacted in addition to rural areas all over the state that rely on these waterways.
“People can get involved — you can contact the EPA and let them know what you think about this change in regulation. The other way people can make a difference is being aware of the role (of) temporary waterways, and that they are worthy of protection,” Dahm said. “It is not a good idea to put toxic materials and human waste in an area that could potentially transport it down stream.”
Megan Holmen is the assistant news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_holmen.