Water is essential for wildlife and our way of life, but water bodies across the country are increasingly at risk. Many freshwater wildlife species – including fish, turtles, and mussels – face the possibility of extinction in the coming decades from water pollution, invasive species, as well as habitat loss caused by development or dams.
Climate change is bringing more intense storms, floods, and droughts at the same time that intensifying industrial agriculture, development, and consumption threaten water quality and quantity. We need to step up our efforts to protect and restore our waters so we can continue to enjoy the benefits and protections they offer us all.
Wetlands’ shallow, nutrient-rich waters create a rich food web that supports a vast number of species, from fish to mammals to turtles. For example, nearly half of the United States’ threatened and endangered species use wetlands while many birds breeding in the United States do so in or near wetlands.
Wetlands are also important for people. A large portion of the fish and shellfish we eat depend on wetlands, as do blueberries, cranberries, and wild rice. By acting as natural sponges, trapping and then slowly releasing rainwater, wetlands help to control floods and lessen droughts. They also work as nature’s kidneys, filtering pollution to keep drinking water clean.
Unfortunately, we have lost more than half our wetlands since colonization of the United States. Just in the two decades before the Clean Water Act was passed, the nation lost an area of wetlands twice the size of New Jersey.
The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 dramatically slowed wetlands loss–but did not stop it entirely. Unfortunately, a 2023 Supreme Court decision resulted in the removal of roughly 60 percent of the nation’s wetlands from protection under federal law.
Unless Congress restores these protections, the risk of flooding will increase, mounting pollution will impact the areas we recreate and the water we drink, and vital wildlife habitats across the country will be lost.
Our nation’s streams support a staggering diversity of fish and wildlife species. For example, salmon and steelhead swim up rivers and into small headwater streams to reproduce. Since the Clean Water Act was passed, the number of streams meeting water quality standards has doubled.
Unfortunately, as a result of the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision, federal protections for streams that do not flow year round have been undermined. The EPA estimates that the Supreme Court has restricted its ability to protect millions of miles of streams that only flow for part of the year. This puts the drinking water supplies of one-third of all Americans at risk, increases flood risk, and means that countless streams relied on by trout and other wildlife could be buried or polluted with no federal safeguards.
Floodplains – the flatter areas cradling rivers and streams – are one of nature's best defenses against flooding. They also filter pollutants and provide invaluable habitat for wildlife.
However, instead of protecting floodplains in their natural state, outdated federal flood and disaster policies have failed to discourage development within them. Today, more than 40 million Americans currently live in a high risk flood zone – and many are unaware of the risk.
Healthy coastal ecosystems support an incredible array of wildlife species and are critical for our nation’s quality of life. But our coastlines are increasingly hardened and bulldozed for developments and polluted by industry while facing threats from sea level rise, increasingly intense hurricanes, and loss of important habitats both on land and under the water.
The habitats that we are losing – dunes, oyster reefs, coastal wetlands, seagrass beds and coral reefs – are critical for protecting coastal communities from storms. They also provide essential nursery and foraging habitat for ocean wildlife, such as reef fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals. But like with floodplains, federal flood insurance policies have historically subsidized construction in coastal areas, putting people at risk and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
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