Healthy headwaters, healthy streams


Courtesy Mark Williford

“The very foundations of our nation's great rivers is a vast network of unknown, unnamed, and underappreciated headwater streams.” 

This assessment of the role played by small streams and associated wetlands in maintaining healthy rivers appeared in the 2003 report, Where Rivers are Born:  the Scientific Imperative for Defending Small Streams and Wetlands. The report, written by a team of nationally known scientists, including two from Pennsylvania’s own Stroud Water Research Center, was issued in response to the Bush administration’s plans to reconsider the extent to which such waters warrant protection under the Clean Water Act.

In recent years, intensive study of the river ecosystem has revealed the critical role that headwaters play in maintaining healthy conditions further downstream. We now know even more about the vital role played by headwaters than we did when many of our water quality laws were adopted—and as a result, we now also know how much more needs to be done when it comes to headwater protection. 

The services of headwater streams are many. They maintain water quality, by processing nutrients and other pollutants; attenuate flooding, by slowing and storing flood flows; maintain water supplies, by recharging groundwater; trap and retain sediments; process organic matter such as leaf litter into food sources for aquatic life; maintain aquatic biodiversity, by offering habitat for a variety of species, many of them threatened or endangered; and provide nurseries for young fish and refuge from predators.

The consequences of past destruction have also helped us better understand the nature of these ecosystem services. An intact stream network will have most of its channel length composed of small headwater streams. Where those streams have been enclosed in pipes, or filled in completely, the stream system loses important metabolic functions and is less able to slow floodwaters. This results in degraded water quality downstream, along with greater erosion and sedimentation, and the increased likelihood of flooding.  

While our understanding of the critical importance of headwater streams has greatly advanced in recent years, public policy has been dragging behind, and in some cases, moving in reverse. One example of outdated policy is Waiver 2 under Pennsylvania’s dam safety and waterway management code, which exempts landowners from applying for permits to fill in streams that drain 100 acres or less of land. The original intent of the waiver was to allow farmers to put more land into cultivation without getting a permit. However, in recent years, developers have used Waiver 2 to relocate streams or to bury them in pipes so that they can develop more land for subdivisions. This one Waiver alone routinely results in the burial of thousands of feet of stream for a single subdivision development. 

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the administration’s policy of excluding so-called isolated waters from protection under the Clean Water Act has undermined headwaters in Pennsylvania. A comprehensive and effective Clean Water Act is vital to ensure that even in states like Pennsylvania, which have fairly comprehensive programs, the protections are reliably applied. (see “40 years of the Clean Water Act”).

Robin Mann

And Now in 2013

Over the past two hundred years, more than half of our Commonwealth’s wetlands have been filled or drained  and thousands of miles of headwater streams, our most precious streams, have been channelized, enclosed, relocated or filled.  Historically, these streams and wetlands were regarded as nuisances that interfered with development.  

A federal permit is required to fill in wetlands or stream segments, and filling and destroying wetlands is to be avoided where possible and minimized wherever the disturbances cannot be avoided.  The Clean Water Act provides that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may issue general permits that exempt certain activities from full environmental review and individual permit requirement, if the activities result in only minimal individual and cumulative impacts on the environment. Although the law requires that general permits be issued for specific categories of activities, the Corps has interpreted their authority to allow them to issue statewide permits delegating to states that have existing permit programs the authority to issue federal permits for relatively smaller impacts.  The Army Corps of Engineers requires the renewal of these Pennsylvania State Programmatic General Permits (PASPGP's) every five years.
Current Pennsylvania state rules give very little protection to smaller streams, waiving permit requirements for disturbing streams that drain less than 100 acres.  This current lack of protection exists even though Pennsylvania's  wetland regulations prohibit a net loss of wetlands and require mitigation if it is impossible to prevent encroachment.  While restoration ecology has made significant advances in recent years, it is still hard to replicate the multi-faceted natural processes of headwater streams.  Mitigations are often not successful in creating a wetland.  And this lack of protection for small streams and wetlands is compounded by the current breakdown that exists in enforcement of the Clean Water Act.  In 2010-11, the Pennsylvania State Programmatic General Permit (PASPGP-4) finished the rounds of the permit renewal process.  During the comment period,  we and our allies worked to convince the Corps to eliminate the waiver for disturbance of streams that drain less than 100 acres.   We were not successful and the waiver still persists in the permit. 

During the renewal process, The Corps proposed changing waiver 2 activities, water obstructions in a stream or floodway with a drainage area of 100 acres or less, from Category III Activity to a Category I Activity.  We argued that Category I does not require a specific Corps review.  The PADEP reviews the permit applications with their applicable review procedures.  Category I activities are not published in the PA Bulletin as are Category III activities.  Category III involves Corps review and coordination with other applicable Federal and State agencies.  Thus the move from Category III to Category I greatly reduces the Corps oversight and puts a greater burden on an already overburdened PADEP.  In the end, the change from Category III to Category I was not included in the renewal, a minor victory.

We will look to the next round of PASPGP renewal when we will urge the Corps to maintain the current Category III classification and further, to require PA DEP to eliminate its Waiver 2 as a condition of issuance of the PASPGP-5.

Barbara Benson, 2013, Water Committee Co-Chair