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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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.

Author information

Author notes

    • Irena F. Creed

    Present address: School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon SK S7N 5C8, Canada


  1. Department of Biology, Western University, London, ON N6A 5B7, Canada

    • Irena F. Creed
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) Office of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Cincinnati, Ohio 45268, USA

    • Charles R. Lane
  3. Department of Biology, Western University, London, ON N6A 5B7, Canada

    • Jacqueline N. Serran
  4. US EPA Office of Research and Development, Washington, DC 20460, USA

    • Laurie C. Alexander
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada

    • Nandita B. Basu
  6. Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA

    • Aram J. K. Calhoun
  7. US EPA Office of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119, USA

    • Jay R. Christensen
  8. School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Matthew J. Cohen
  9. School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA

    • Christopher Craft
  10. CSS-Dynamac, Cincinnati, Ohio 45268, USA

    • Ellen D'Amico
  11. School of Natural Resource Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota 58102, USA

    • Edward DeKeyser
  12. Odum School of Ecology, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA

    • Laurie Fowler
  13. US EPA Office of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Cincinnati, Ohio 45268, USA

    • Heather E. Golden
  14. Soil and Water Science Department, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • James W. Jawitz
  15. US EPA Region 4 Laboratory, Athens, Georgia 30605, USA

    • Peter Kalla
  16. Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Newton, Georgia 39870, USA

    • L. Katherine Kirkman
  17. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Falls Church, Virginia 22041, USA

    • Megan Lang
  18. US EPA National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Western Ecology Division, Corvallis, Oregon 97333, USA

    • Scott G. Leibowitz
  19. Department of Integrative Biology, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • David B. Lewis
  20. CDM Smith, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana 46204, USA

    • John Marton
  21. Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA

    • Daniel L. McLaughlin
  22. ORISE Fellow, US EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, Washington, DC 20460, USA

    • Hadas Raanan-Kiperwas
  23. School of Geosciences, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • Mark C. Rains
  24. School of Geosciences, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • Kai C. Rains
  25. Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Newton, Georgia 39870, USA

    • Lora Smith


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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.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regards to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Irena F. Creed.

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