Clean Water is Essential to River Based Recreation

Paddlers enjoying the clean water of the Little South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River(CO) | Photo: Evan Stafford

American Whitewater works to defend and strengthen our river’s water quality protections for the health and safety of all who recreate in them. Water quality directly impacts whitewater boaters as they get splashed, flip over, and occasionally swim. While all of this is part of the fun, it’s less so if the water that gets into paddler’s mouths, ears, and noses is polluted. Most whitewater rivers and streams can only be descended during higher than normal flows caused by rainfall or during snowmelt. Surface runoff and pollution often spike during these times putting paddlers at higher risk to contamination.

Good water quality is also important to rural communities that depend on recreation and tourism as the foundation for their economies, as well as businesses that are connected to watersports. A 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association found that annually, watersports directly generate:

  • $139,971,810,172 in retail spending
  • 1,234,876 jobs
  • $43,893,049,709 in salaries and wages
  • $10,618,742,884 in federal taxes
  • $9,601,521,150 in state and local taxes
Commercial rafting is big business, but it relies on clean water to give their customers the safest and most pleasurable experience. | Photo: Evan Stafford

Since the passage and implementation of the Clean Water Act in 1972, our nation’s rivers have recovered in a remarkable way. However, we’re far from meeting the Act’s goal of making all of our waterways fishable, swimmable and drinkable. Our rivers often flow through a tenuous balance between pollution discharges and public and riparian health. Many rivers and streams are far from thriving, and some are very near critical thresholds for public health and ecological function.

Paddlers are frequently fully immersed by the river’s water. “Face shots,” in the common vernacular. | Photo: Evan Stafford

Historically, the Clean Water Act protected our nation’s headwater streams and wetlands from pollution. Two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 created uncertainty about which streams and wetlands the Clean Water Act protects. This uncertainty affects over 60% of streams and millions of acres of wetlands across the country. Not only are these the streams that we boat on (and swim in), but this is where 1 in 3 Americans get their drinking water. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed and synthesized the scientific information about the connectivity of these headwater streams and wetlands to downstream waters. Read the EPA’s report here: “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence”;

American Whitewater has long supported clarifying protection for these headwater streams, creeks and wetlands because it means healthier rivers downstream, greater flood protection, improved habitat for fish and wildlife, and safer boating opportunities.

The next generation of paddlers is counting on us to defend the Clean Water Act. | Photo: Thomas O’Keefe

Following years of ambiguity about exactly which streams and wetlands are covered under the Clean Water Act, in 2015 the Obama Administration implemented the Clean Water Rule. It was based on extensive public outreach and scientific review. The input of the whitewater paddling community and those who recreate on our nation’s headwater streams was actively solicited and the input of American Whitewater was considered in the development of the rule.

Earlier this June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intention to begin the process of repealing and replacing the Clean Water Rule. This is deeply troubling to us at American Whitewater. We invested considerable capacity in the development of this rule that reflected the input of the whitewater boating community. The Clean Water Rule clarified protections for headwater streams where the majority of whitewater recreation takes place. Healthy headwater areas are not only important for recreation, clean drinking water and healthy ecosystems, but also for local economies. We cheered the passage of this rule based on years of scientific study, sound economic arguments and wide public support, and we view withdrawing this rule as a significant threat to the health of our most cherished waterways and those who enjoy the recreational opportunities they provide.

Clean water to paddle in puts a smile on everyone’s face. | Photo: Evan Stafford

The Clean Water Rule regulates the discharge of pollution into all streams with a defined bed and bank (since water flows downstream) as well as certain types of wetlands. American Whitewater will continue to support the Clean Water Rule and has helped defend it from previous challenges. The nation’s preeminent scientists likewise actively support the Clean Water Rule.

As paddlers, we know that pollution dumped in creek beds that occasionally run dry ends up downstream when it rains. The Clean Water Act must apply to our Nation’s headwaters if the goal is to protect downstream states, people, fish, and property rights. Paddlers also know that healthy rivers attract and inspire new businesses, revitalize communities, and create boons to public health, fitness, and happiness.

At American Whitewater we’ve created and easy to use comment form to reach your representatives so take action today and defend clean water in our rivers! The comment period for rescinding the Clean Water Rule ends on September 27th. This your opportunity to speak up in defense of clean water, from our nation’s headwaters to the estuaries along our coastlines. Thanks for commenting today!

SUP surfers getting a face full of clean ‘headwater’ on the Main Salmon River (ID). | Photos: Evan Stafford