According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School, the body of the average adult human is about 60 percent water. Water makes up about 73 percent of the brain and heart; 83 percent …
According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School, the body of the average adult human is about 60 percent water. Water makes up about 73 percent of the brain and heart; 83 percent of the lungs; 64 percent of our skin, 79 percent of our muscles and kidneys and 31 percent of our bones.
While the origin of the expression “I feel it in my waters” is unknown, it’s a safe bet that it was inspired by these physiological facts. Water regulates body temperature and supports digestion, elimination and the creation of new cells. It enables the brain to produce hormones and neurotransmitters, and delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Water lubricates our joints and cushions our brains, spinal columns and gestating fetuses, protecting them from trauma.
We hydrate by drinking liquids and through water contained in the foods we eat. Opinions vary as to how much water the average adult should drink each day—one popular rule of thumb is six to eight eight-ounce glasses a day. Another uses your weight in pounds multiplied by one-half ounce, meaning that a person weighing 150 pounds should drink 75 ounces of water each day. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends an additional 12 ounces of water for every half-hour of exercise.
But where does all this water come from? How I wish members of the U.S. Supreme Court had heeded the answer last week, when a narrow majority voted to redefine “wetland” in a way that excludes more than half of America’s wetlands from protections guaranteed through the Clean Water Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines wetlands as areas where “water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.” On May 25, the Supreme Court ruled that only wetlands that are “indistinguishable from,” and have a “continuous surface connection to, larger lakes, oceans, streams and rivers” can qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act.
That means that millions of acres of designated wetlands across the country can be filled, drilled, paved, developed and polluted unless their states have separate regulations in place.
The decision completely ignores the science of these complex ecological systems, and the all-important characteristics that distinguish them from larger “lakes, oceans, streams and rivers.” The Army Corps of Engineers illuminates these qualities by defining wetlands as “those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”
In addition to the presence of characteristic aquatic plants that have adapted to oxygen-free soils, wetlands teem with microbes, bacteria and other small organisms. They perform a herculean ecological service by filtering and detoxifying water that then makes its way to private and public drinking water sources.
By requiring that a continuous surface connection must be present for a wetland to warrant protection, the Supreme Court ignores the fact that groundwater connectivity is equally vital, especially for the 40 million Americans who rely on private water wells.
Wetlands also play a huge role in flood control by absorbing, cleansing and storing excessive rainwater and gradually returning it to the water cycle. A 2008 study found that coastal wetlands in the U.S. provide more than $23 billion a year in storm protection services. They also sequester huge amounts of carbon and support an array of wildlife, especially waterfowl.
It really doesn’t matter how large or small the wetland is, a fact that New York State recognized last year when the Legislature voted to expand the range of wetlands subject to regulation by the Department of Environmental Conservation under the state’s Freshwater Wetlands Act. In all their variety, from tidal marshes to freshwater swamps, bogs, fens, springs, seeps and vernal pools, these miraculous and complex bodies of water make life possible.
Over the past decade, the news has been full of environmental disasters and near-disasters involving water. One side of the story concerns water in the wrong place, such as the devastating flooding in Houston that accompanied Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which was exacerbated by the loss of nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands between 1992 and 2010—natural flood protection sacrificed to unregulated urban development. New York City is planning a massive restoration of coastal wetlands to address sea level rise related to climate change. Similar projects are underway in the Mississippi Delta.
The other side of the equation involves too little water, with a continuing mega-drought in the west driving the realization that current patterns of development are unsustainable. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, drought and over-pumping of the aquifer have led to dangerous concentrations of naturally-occurring arsenic in water wells. Last week, the Arizona Department of Water Resources announced modest restrictions on some development in the Phoenix area, because the receding groundwater supply cannot meet current, let alone future, demand.
It’s especially painful that the Supreme Court has chosen to disregard the basic science of the water cycle and the stresses we are already putting on these systems. Something so vital to our survival—the source and the matrix of life—should not be subject to such capricious interpretation.
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