Enhancing protection for vulnerable waters


Governments worldwide do not adequately protect their limited freshwater systems and therefore place freshwater functions and attendant ecosystem services at risk. The best available scientific evidence compels enhanced protections for freshwater systems, especially for impermanent streams and wetlands outside of floodplains that are particularly vulnerable to alteration or destruction. New approaches to freshwater sustainability — implemented through scientifically informed adaptive management — are required to protect freshwater systems through periods of changing societal needs. One such approach introduced in the US in 2015 is the Clean Water Rule, which clarified the jurisdictional scope for federally protected waters. However, within hours of its implementation litigants convinced the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to stay the rule, and the subsequently elected administration has now placed it under review for potential revision or rescission. Regardless of its outcome at the federal level, policy and management discussions initiated by the propagation of this rare rulemaking event have potential far-reaching implications at all levels of government across the US and worldwide. At this timely juncture, we provide a scientific rationale and three policy options for all levels of government to meaningfully enhance protection of these vulnerable waters. A fourth option, a 'do-nothing' approach, is wholly inconsistent with the well-established scientific evidence of the importance of these vulnerable waters.

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Figure 1: Estimated loss of wetland areas in different continents of the world.
Figure 2
Figure 3: Wetland restoration provides opportunities to regain wetland functions.


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This Perspective arose from a 'Geographically Isolated Wetlands Research Workshop' co-hosted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) Office of Research and Development, and the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in Newton, Georgia, 18–21 November, 2013. This Perspective also benefited from discussions held at the 'Connectivity of Geographically Isolated Wetlands to Downstream Waters' Working Group supported by the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, funded by the US Geological Survey and the US EPA Office of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory. We acknowledge Rose Kwok of the US EPA Office of Water, for her contributions to the history of the US CWA (Supplementary Section 1) and Brian Hill of the US EPA Office of Research and Development, for his contributions to the data used in the calculation of ecosystem services (Supplementary Section 2). The findings, conclusions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the US EPA or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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I.F.C. and C.R.L. co-led and co-wrote the Perspective with contributions from all co-authors. I.F.C., J.R.C., K.C.R. and J.N.S. contributed to the figures.

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Correspondence to Irena F. Creed.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Creed, I., Lane, C., Serran, J. et al. Enhancing protection for vulnerable waters. Nature Geosci 10, 809–815 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo3041

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