Hiking near a snow-speckled mountain on a late spring day, it’s not hard to find water running through a narrow stream. Come back several months later, and that stream might be empty.
In Nevada, most waterways work this way. Roughly 90 percent of the state’s streams are intermittent or ephemeral, running at only certain times of the year in response to snowmelt or precipitation, according to data compiled by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP).
It’s a fact throughout the West, from Arizona to New Mexico. Many streams are seasonal.
Scientists say these streams, despite running irregularly, are important for ecosystem health in arid areas. They connect waterways, replenish groundwater supplies and support wildlife. That’s one reason many environmentalists are concerned about a Clean Water Act rollback, set to go into effect later this month, that would exclude most of these streams from federal protection.
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, giving the federal government the authority to protect and regulate water. But for years, states, activists and industry have argued over its scope. And the new rule offers a narrower interpretation of the federal government’s role.
Although the Clean Water Act will still protect heavily used waterways in Nevada, including the Colorado River and the Truckee River, it excludes many wetlands and most seasonal streams.
As a result, the rule has set off a flurry of legal challenges from environmental groups. And in recent months, several Democrat-led Western states, including Colorado, California and New Mexico, have sued the Trump administration to challenge the final rule.
Nevada has not joined those suits. In comments submitted last year, NDEP described it as a “considerable improvement” over the Obama-era rule it replaced. Still, state regulators say they are evaluating the new rule’s total effect, and they expect to have to adjust existing permitting programs. They argue any gaps in protecting water quality will be addressed under state law…
Joro Walker, a lawyer with the Western Resource Advocates, questions whether Western states have the enforcement resources to enforce the rules as the federal government steps back…
In other cases, the new rule calls into question whether even some larger rivers fall under the Clean Water Act. As part of the rulemaking, the Trump administration approved a more narrow federal definition of what the Clean Water Act protects as Waters of the United States, or WOTUS…
Pollution only tells one side of the story.
Development — filling wetlands or paving over small streams — can also degrade waterways. That’s why many environmental groups want to see wetlands and small streams, especially in Nevada, to be explicitly included in a broad definition of what the Clean Water Act protects.
Hartl, with the Center for Biological Diversity, notes that it has long been difficult to determine whether or not an ephemeral or intermittent stream fell under protection of the Clean Water Act.
“No one knows the answer until someone decides to pave over it,” he said.
For years, activists, politicians and the courts have argued over the scope of the Clean Water Act, specifically where the state’s jurisdiction begins and federal jurisdiction ends.
In 2015, the Obama administration broadened the scope of the Clean Water Act, applying it to wetlands and seasonal streams. The move came in response to significant confusion over a 2006 Supreme Court case that produced no majority opinion and five separate opinions…
Since the final rule was released in April, environmental groups and more than a dozen states have sued the Trump administration, kickstarting what is likely to be another round of lawsuits and court guidance. One of the litigants is Environment America, which has a Nevada chapter.
Levi Kamolnick, state director for Environment Nevada, said that water does not abide by state borders. He worries lax regulation of seasonal streams in one state could affect Nevada. For that reason, Kamolnick said seasonal streams should be protected by the federal government.
According to an EPA analysis completed in 2009, about 27,000 Nevadans were served by drinking water systems that relied on intermittent, ephemeral or headwater streams, he added.
“We absolutely think that the Trump Dirty Water Rule runs counter to the intent of the Clean Water Act,” Kamolnick said. “We believe strongly that any moves to exclude non-permanent water sources [from federal protection] is detrimental to the health of Nevadans.”