Study Shows Southwest Waters at High Risk of Pollution, Destruction

Recent government guidance based on two major Supreme Court cases has severely weakened Clean Water Act safeguards New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and southern California

02-14-2008 // Jim Murphy

A new report shows an alarmingly high percentage of southwest waters are at risk from pollution and destruction because they may no longer be protected by the Clean Water Act. Recent government guidance based on two major Supreme Court cases has severely weakened Clean Water Act safeguards New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and southern California.

"For people living in the arid southwest, water is our most precious natural resource," said Jeremy Vesbach, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. "The government failure to protect these waters is akin to allowing poisoning of the roots while attempting to protect the tree. It just doesn't make sense."

Throughout the southwest, ephemeral streams, intermittent streams, wetlands and playas lakes provide habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. The destruction or pollution of these aquatic habitats could have serious economic impacts for the region. In 2006, 20 million people fished, hunted or watched wildlife in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and California, generating more than $19 billion.

"The threat to waters in the southwest is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the country. In Arizona, for example, 96 percent of stream miles are no longer assured basic federal safeguards against filling or toxics dumping," said Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation wetlands counsel and co-author of the report. "These water resources are not renewable. Once they are gone, they are gone forever."

Administration guidance implementing two recent split decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have put many of America's wetlands, streams, lakes and ponds at risk by effectively removing Clean Water Act safeguards for many waters and creating uncertainty as to whether numerous others remain protected. These directives have effectively removed Clean Water Act protections for 20 million acres of the nation's so-called "isolated" wetlands and put many others at risk. Additionally, about 60 percent of stream miles in the United States which do not flow year-round could also lose protection. In the southwest, the potential for damage is exacerbated by a scarcity of water, weak state-level protections, drought and the challenges of climate change.

As a result of both the aridity and geography of the southwest, most of the wetlands in the region on considered "geographically isolated." Two of the most important types of wetlands in the region are playa lakes and desert springs. The southwest has the world's highest density of playas, with Texas having almost 20,000 and New Mexico with roughly 4,000. These wetland habitats are extremely important to waterfowl and other migratory waterbirds in the region, yet nearly all playa lakes are now without Clean Water Act Protection.

"Wetlands in the southwest provide vital habitat for millions of Pacific Flyway ducks and Central flyway ducks and numerous waterfowl species," said Scott Yaich, Ph.D., director of conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited and co-author of the report. "While states in the southwest do not have abundant wetlands and other waters compared to many other states, their limited wetlands provide important habitats that are at times filled with ducks."

"Healthy streams, wetlands and lakes mean healthy people and abundant populations of fish and wildlife," said Helen Neville, Ph.D, a research scientist with Trout Unlimited and co-author of the report. "Weakening protections for these waters puts us all at risk."

There is a solution to the problem of waters losing protection under the Clean Water Act. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Representatives Oberstar (D-MN), Dingell (D-MI) and Ehlers (R-MI) introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007, which will restore Clean Water Act safeguards to all of America's water bodies and will clearly affirm the original intent of the law. The Clean Water Restoration Act will help return us to the path of protecting our nation's wetlands, lakes and streams for wildlife and for our children's future.

Contact: Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation, 802 229-0650, jmurphy@nwf.org
Scott Yaich, Ducks Unlimited, (901) 758-3874, syaich@ducks.org

Related Resources
  • Supporting Document
    SW Waters at Risk (pdf)

    Study Shows Southwest Waters at High Risk of Pollution, Destruction.

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