Waters of the US

Waters of the United States Rule under the Clean Water Act

Biological, chemical, and physical connections—such as the hydrologic connections shown here—link streams and wetlands to downstream waters. These connections are critically important for the functioning of watersheds and the fish they support. Adapted from EPA 2015 graphic.

Protect Our Headwaters and Wetlands

The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are proposing to significantly narrow the scope of protections for our nation’s waters. The proposal would replace the science-based 2015 rule which includes protections for headwaters, intermittent and ephemeral streams, and wetlands. The new proposal (Replacement Rule) would substantially weaken the Clean Water Act, one of the Nation’s most effective natural resource laws.

Opportunity for public comment is open until April 15th. 

On December 11, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the agencies”) released a new rule to replace the 2015 Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) that will result in a rollback of Clean Water Act protections for a majority of the nation’s streams and wetlands, including the headwater streams and millions of acres of seasonal wetlands that provide valuable habitat for many species of fish.

Cottonwood Creek is an intermittent tributary of the Gunnison River (Colorado River basin) in western Colorado that hosts large numbers of (b) Bluehead Sucker, (c) Flannelmouth Sucker, and (d) Roundtail Chub during spring spawning. Intermittent tributaries like these are critical for sustaining populations of these three species, which are the subject of rangewide conservation efforts to prevent listing under the ESA.

Headwater streams, including ephemeral streams, and wetlands contribute to the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waters.  The agencies’ refusal to consider the science, including the most current understanding of how streams and wetlands contribute to the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waters, is detrimental to the integrity and security of our drinking water, public health, fisheries, and wildlife habitat and could significantly increase the risks and costs associated with flood and storm damage.  AFS urges the agencies to take this science into account as they seek to replace the WOTUS rule with one that offers fewer protections for headwater streams and wetlands. Particularly vulnerable ecosystems like playa lakes, prairie potholes, Carolina and Delmarva Bays, pocosins, and vernal pools that provide valuable habitat for fish and other organisms would no longer be protected under the new rule.

The 2015 Clean Water Rule or WOTUS Rule clarified the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act to include protections for intermittent headwater streams and hydrologically connected wetlands, with wetlands outside of the floodplains to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. With the release of the rule, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have now taken the second step in a two-step process to repeal the 2015 Waters of the U.S. rule with one that would provide fewer protections for headwaters and wetlands.

Headwaters are broadly defined as portions of a river basin that contribute to the development and maintenance of downstream navigable waters including rivers, lakes, and oceans. Headwaters include wetlands outside of floodplains, small stream tributaries with permanent flow, tributaries with intermittent flow (e.g., periodic or seasonal flows supported by groundwater or precipitation), or tributaries or areas of the landscape with ephemeral flows (e.g., short-term flows that occur as a direct result of a rainfall event). Headwater streams comprise the majority of river networks globally; in the conterminous United States, headwater streams comprise 79% of river length, and they directly drain just over 70% of the land area. Along with wetlands, these ecosystems are essential for sustaining fish and fisheries in the U.S. When headwaters are polluted, or headwater habitats are destroyed, fish, fisheries, and ecosystem services are compromised.

Because of the importance of headwaters, any rule that excludes their protection will have far reaching implications for fish, wildlife and their habitats, as well as economies dependent on those systems. Headwaters are key to the sustainability of fish stocks in both upstream and downstream waters. Threatened and endangered species will be harder to recover, and more species will be at risk of becoming imperiled. Simply put, loss of protections for headwaters would have grave consequences for fish and fisheries. Ultimately, communities across the U.S. would lose the economic, social, and cultural benefits derived from headwaters.

The American Fisheries Society (AFS) supports the 2015 rule and the science underpinning its development, as documented by review of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed scientific studies by technical experts to determine degrees of connectivity and their ecological consequences between navigable waters, wetlands, and headwater streams. AFS fully supports the 2015 WOTUS rule and is concerned that this new, narrower rule would have far-reaching implications for fish, wildlife, and their habitat.

We encourage our members to continue to engage on this issue and promote the importance of headwaters to fish and fisheries. The public may comment for 60 days after publication of the new rule in the Federal Register (until Monday, April 15th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern).

Latest News about WOTUS

Webinar recording: Waters of the US (WOTUS)

Waters of the US (WOTUS): What You Need to Know About the Rule and How to Take Action from fisheries on Vimeo. This webinar was recorded on February 27, 2018. The video contains some sections with poor audio quality, and AFS staff will work to edit portions of this recording. Presenter slides: Gillian Davies – […]


CASS Requests Extension of Waters of the US Comment Period and Additional Public Hearings

American Fisheries Society • Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography • Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation • Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society • International Association for Great Lakes Research • North American Lake Management Society • Phycological Society of America • Society for Freshwater Science • Society of Wetland Scientists February 22, 2019 Mr. […]


AFS Requests Extension on Waters of the US Comment Period

December 21, 2018 Andrew Wheeler, Acting Administrator Environmental Protection Agency 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20460 R.D. James Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Department of the Army 108 Army Pentagon Washington, D.C. 20310-0108 Email delivery to: [email protected] RE: Request for Extension to Comment on Docket ID No. EPA–HQ–OW–2018–0149 Dear Acting Administrator Wheeler […]


How to Submit Comments on the Revised Waters of the US (WOTUS)

Opportunity for public comment is now open.  The comment period will close on Monday, April 15th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern.  Download a PDF flyer on how to comment. The very narrow rule fails to account for the full range of physical, chemical, and biological connections between navigable waters and the streams and wetlands.  The limited protections […]


WOTUS Rule Fails to Consider Science and Threatens Fish and Fisheries

New Paper, “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystem Services,” demonstrates threats to ecosystem services, imperiled species, commercial and recreational species, and culturally valuable fish from narrow rule. The American Fisheries Society (AFS) is deeply concerned with the proposed rule released Thursday, February 14, by the EPA and the U.S. […]


Fact Sheet on Importance of Headwater Streams and Wetlands for Fish, Fisheries, and Ecosystems

Download PDF: Headwater Streams and Wetlands Are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries, and Ecosystem Services  


Webinar on February 27: Waters of the US (WOTUS) – What You Need to Know about the Rule and How to Take Action

February 27, 2019, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. EST Efforts by the Trump administration are underway to roll back Clean Water Act protections for our nation’s streams and wetlands. The newly proposed rule to revise the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) aims to exclude many wetlands and headwater streams that are critical to […]


WOTUS Public Hearing Scheduled for February 27 in Kansas City

EPA Press Release: EPA and Army Announce Public Hearing on Proposed New “Waters of the United States” Definition Hearing will be held February 27-28, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas 02/06/2019 Contact Information:  EPA Press Office ([email protected]) WASHINGTON  — Following President Trump’s directive to provide certainty to American farmers and landowners so that the economy can continue to expand […]


AFS Paper on Loss of Clean Water Act Protections for Headwater Streams and Wetlands

Efforts are underway by the Trump Administration to roll back Clean Water Act protections for our nation’s streams and wetlands. Last year, AFS convened a group of fisheries and aquatic science experts to synthesize the science around the importance of headwaters to fish in anticipation of a new, narrower, Waters of the U.S. rule. The […]


New WOTUS Fact Sheet

Download a PDF of a new fact sheet of the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) produced by the American Fisheries Society, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the Izaak Walton League.