Clean Water Act Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Crucial to Protect Water Quality

January 23, 2020

The Honorable John Barrasso
Committee on Environment and Public Works
U.S. Senate
410 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Thomas R. Carper
Ranking Member
Committee on Environment and Public Works
U.S. Senate
410 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Barrasso and Ranking Member Carper:

Thank you for holding a hearing on the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) Nonpoint Source Management Program. The American Fisheries Society (AFS) is the world’s oldest and largest professional society of fishery and aquatic scientists and managers. The Society seeks to improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals.

We write to express support for the Nonpoint Source (Section 319) Program, share our concern for water quality in light of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule released today, and urge you to consider how climate change will exacerbate our nation’s water quality challenges.

Why Federal Leadership in Nonpoint Pollution Control is Needed
Section 319 is an essential program for several reasons. Nationwide, diffuse pollutants, particularly nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus) and fine sediments continue to degrade the structure and function of our nation’s aquatic resources. Land use remains the major stressor to water quality (Hughes et al. 2019; IPBES 2019). Weakly regulated pollutants associated with agricultural land use are a major contributor to losses in aquatic ecosystem condition. For instance, the USEPA (2016) reported that the Nation’s streams and rivers are burdened by excessive and damaging levels of phosphorus (476,000 miles or 40% of stream miles), nitrogen (329,000 miles; 28%;), riparian vegetation disturbance (284,000 miles; 24%), and sedimentation (177,000 miles; 15%;). Streams and rivers under these conditions support less diverse and impaired aquatic biota, including fish assemblages critical to productive fisheries (Colvin et al. 2019). These national trends can be observed even more starkly at a local or regional scale. For example, in the Willamette Valley; agriculture has been closely linked with negative biological effects on streams and lakes in the upper Mississippi River basin (Deweber et al. 2019); Tennessee-Mississippi basins (Perkin et al. 2019); Kansas River basin (Bruckerhoff and Gido 2019); and Northern Forests, Eastern Temperate Forests, and Great Plains ecoregions (Jacobson et al. 2019).

Because water pollution does not respect political boundaries, it is critically important to continue federal leadership and funding to help states, tribes, and territories to reduce and mitigate diffuse pollution. Section 319 helps focus state, tribal, territorial, and local efforts on reducing nonpoint source pollution through grant money for technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects and monitoring to assess the success of specific diffuse source implementation projects.

Impact of the New WOTUS Definition
However, the Section 319 program can only be successful if the CWA, in its entirety, can achieve its mandate “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” The newly finalized redefinition of “Waters of the US” removes protection for millions of stream miles and acres of wetlands that maintain watershed integrity and keep waters and watersheds healthy. This new definition makes it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the objectives of the CWA (Sullivan et al. 2019).

Polluted and degraded aquatic ecosystems have strong effects on fisheries, water-based recreation, and the economy. America’s anglers are estimated to spend $49.8 billion per year in retail sales associated with their sport. With a total annual economic impact of $125 billion, fishing supports more than 800,000 jobs and generates $38 billion in wages and $16 billion in federal, state and local taxes. (ASA 2018). Blue-ribbon trout streams in two Idaho and Wyoming river basins yielded $12 million and $29 million in county income and 341 and 851 jobs in 2004, respectively—markedly more income and jobs than that provided by agriculture, mining, or fossil fuel extraction in those counties (Hughes 2015).

The loss of protections for our nation’s most vulnerable waters will have far-reaching implications for fish, wildlife, and their habitats. The new WOTUS rule is simply inconsistent with the best-available science (Sullivan et al. 2019). By failing to recognize chemical and biological connectivity (and the full scope of hydrological connectivity) in the re-definition of WOTUS, valuable ecosystem services including protecting water quality, recharging aquifers, transporting and cycling of organic material, and maintaining habitats for endangered species are in great peril. These and other ecosystem services depend on watershed and waterbody connectivity.

It is particularly concerning that the new WOTUS rule eliminates protections from many headwater streams and wetlands across the country. Headwater aquatic ecosystems act as a conveyor of nutrients, a path for migrating fish and wildlife, and a drainage and storage system for floodwaters. Most diffuse pollutants enter headwaters because of the extent of headwaters and their close connections with landscapes and land uses (Colvin et al. 2019). It is critically important to protect headwaters from the effects of land mismanagement and intensive and extensive land uses such as agriculture, livestock grazing, silviculture, mining, and urbanization to maintain water quality. Climate change and land use intensification has already shifted waters that were permanent to intermittent and intermittent to ephemeral. Under the revised WOTUS, more waters will lose protection, thus severely undermining our nation’s water quality and fisheries. Such changes have, and will increasingly, hinder effective Section 319 protections and increase the need for even more funding to avoid massive degradation of surface and ground waters.

Climate Change Exacerbates Waterway Impairment
Natural resilience mechanisms that maintain aquatic ecosystem condition and diverse native fish assemblages and highly valued fisheries will be further stressed by climate change. Climate change is accelerating and intensifying water pollution, species range reductions and species extinctions. Funding for programs that strengthen high water quality in its multiple forms (chemical, biological, and physical) and support ecosystem resilience will be necessary to address these challenges. Tried and true practices such as erosion control, wetland preservation and rehabilitation, preserving headwater catchments, improved and expanded riparian vegetation buffers, no-till and low-till agriculture, fallowing, reforestation, and naturalized flow regimes offer cost-effective methods for reducing nonpoint pollution across agricultural, forest, and urban landscapes. Such measures will also increase ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change. However, without a fully functioning Clean Water Act, it will be difficult or impossible to address the impacts of climate change.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this information to the hearing record. We would be happy to discuss these concerns if you have any questions.


Drue Banta Winters
Policy Director