By Aaron Conover
Conover is President of Roanoke Valley Trout Unlimited .
As avid trout anglers, my friends and I in the Roanoke Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited know the importance and value of headwater streams. These are the high mountain tributaries that feed our trout streams with cool, clean water.
Those same mountain streams are not only important for trout, however. These headwaters are the foundation for our larger streams and rivers, and eventually help fill up reservoirs — such as Carvins Cove and Spring Hollow — that provide drinking water for Virginians.
That is why we vehemently oppose the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to remove Clean Water Act protections from a vast network of important headwaters streams.
When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the intention was for headwaters streams to be included under the act’s protections. Those streams are connected to larger waters, and they cross borders between states, so a federal framework makes sense.
Unfortunately, that intent was challenged by special interests, resulting in controversial court cases that muddied the waters.
To clarify the scope of water protections, the EPA was charged with showing a “significant nexus” between headwaters and larger streams. The agency spent years gathering data to show that headwaters streams, even those that might not flow constantly, are connected to larger waters downstream.
In 2015 that effort culminated in the Clean Water Rule, a sensible regulation that protected headwaters, including those that might not flow all the time, while also taking into consideration the interests and needs of industry, including farmers and developers.
Then, shortly after taking office, President Trump ordered the EPA to “repeal and replace” the Clean Water Rule.
The new proposal, released late last year, seeks to remove Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams, which flow after rain and snow events.
This proposal would drastically reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act and put tens of thousands of stream miles in Virginia at risk. Trout Unlimited estimates that for every mapped stream mile in Virginia there is another half-mile of unmapped ephemeral stream. In all 35 percent of all stream miles in the Commonwealth would be left without the federal protection Congress intended when it passed the Clean Water Act.
If the EPA’s proposal goes into effect, clean drinking water will be at risk for 200 million Americans, including three of every four Virginians. And the health of all trout, here in Virginia and across America, would be in jeopardy.
In the summer of 2017, Roanoke experienced a stark lesson in how headwaters are connected to larger waters where we fish and play.
That summer an accidental chemical spill resulted in toxins flowing into a dry ditch. But then it rained, and that poison flowed into an ephemeral stream and then into Tinker Creek. The spill affected miles of Tinker Creek, killing thousands of fish.
The part-time stream that allowed the toxins to reach Tinker Creek is exactly the kind of stream the federal government is attempting to write out of Clean Water Act protections.
Protecting headwaters makes economic sense, too, because headwater streams help support Virginia’s vibrant outdoor recreation economy.
According to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation contributes $21.9 billion to Virginia’s economy and employs over 197,000 people.
Fishing is a large part of this economic engine, and anglers are absolutely dependent on clean water to ensure healthy fish populations. For those who work in the outdoor recreation industry, like myself, it is vital that we remain vigilant in protecting clean water.
And, again, these waters are the foundation for municipal water supplies. The cleaner the water is to start with, the lower the costs of ensuring that water is safe for customers.
Trout Unlimited has spent the past 60 years working to protect clean water and trout. Last year volunteers spent more than 700,0000 hours helping to restore streams. We are proud of the restoration work we do, but we also know that it is much more economical to protect something than it is to have to fix it once it is damaged.
Looking back to the days before 1972, it is easy to see why Trout Unlimited stands in opposition to attempts to weaken the critical water protections provided the Clean Water Act. Not just because we love trout, but because all Americans deserve clean, safe drinking water.
The EPA is accepting public comments on its proposal to weaken headwaters protections through April 15. I urge my fellow Virginians to tell the EPA that Virginians want to strengthen the Clean Water Act, not weaken it. We have come too far to turn back now.