Revisions to the Clean Water Rule could have real, on-the-ground consequences for hundreds of national park sites — including these 10.
Last week, the Trump administration announced its revisions to the Clean Water Rule, an effort in 2015 to clarify which streams, wetlands, lakes and rivers are protected under the Clean Water Act. This rule helped state and federal agencies protect our nation’s waters from pollution by reducing confusion over how they are managed. These proposed changes could, for the first time ever, remove protections for our nation’s waters, threatening drinking water, wildlife and larger ecosystems.
Out of all the national park sites that contain bodies of water, the water quality is “impaired” in two-thirds of them, meaning the water does not meet one or more standards under the Clean Water Act. That adds up to 237 parks that are struggling with water pollution in various forms across the country.
Failing to protect the small streams and wetlands covered in the original rule will contribute to the potential pollution washing downstream. Wetlands, for example, filter water, removing pollutants and providing opportunities to recharge groundwater. The trickle-down effect on water quality could be dramatic with potential impacts on drinking water, swimming, paddling and camping, not to mention wildlife habitat.
We need more analysis to understand the effects these proposed revisions will have at the park level, but we already know our national parks need more protections, not less. Here are 10 examples of parks that are already struggling with water quality issues and could now be in greater danger.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
This bucolic park protects 47,000 acres of Atlantic coastline. Six lakes and ponds in the park are drinking water sources for nearby communities. Yet park waters have tested at high concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria, suggesting that dangerous pathogens are likely in the water. Sewage overflows triggered by heavy rains are the primary source of these bacteria, although pet and wildlife waste may also contribute to the problem. Some of Acadia’s fish species have also tested positive for high concentrations of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxin. These pollutants break down very slowly, are cycled through the food chain, and are toxic to humans and aquatic life. Pollutants emitted from coal-fired power plants are the primary source of mercury in the park.
2. Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
This battlefield park commemorates the violent 1862 Civil War battle where 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died, were wounded or went missing. Many of the water quality issues at Antietam are caused by runoff from urban and agricultural areas. This runoff transports pollutants into Antietam Creek, which then empties into the Potomac River, a source of drinking water for millions of people. These pollutants include nitrates, phosphorus, chlorides, sulfates, sediments, and human and animal waste. Failing septic systems, municipal sewage discharges, pet waste, livestock waste and manure fertilizers are all sources of this pollution. The waste causes E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria to be present in high concentrations in the water. This waste also can cause algal blooms and fish kills as it flows downstream into the Potomac River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. These problems worsen the quality of animal habitat and promote erosion of the soil, which can affect the natural flow of the creek.
3. Biscayne National Park, Florida
Biscayne is unique in that 95 percent of the park is water and 90 percent of its visitors enter by watercraft. Boaters, snorkelers, scuba divers and anglers all travel just south of Miami to enjoy this beautiful park. But some fish species have tested positive for unsafe levels of mercury. Park waters also experience low levels of dissolved oxygen caused by large algal blooms, which occur due to excess quantities of nutrients in the water. These nutrients can come from many sources, including a 2016 upsurge in phosphorus and nitrogen levels that was traced back to wastewater from the nearby Turkey Point nuclear power plant.
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
The 12-mile stretch of the Gunnison River at this park attracts trout fishermen and experienced kayakers, but the water quality suffers from high concentrations of selenium. This water-soluble element is naturally found in the region’s soil; however, irrigation substantially increases the amount of selenium that gets dissolved and washed in the waterways. This irrigation is mostly agricultural, but other sources contribute to the problem. The selenium causes reproductive issues in fish and the birds that feed on them.
5. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
This park features 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River, which famously caught on fire due to severe pollution in 1969, helping to spark a nationwide environmental movement. Today, the river is much cleaner, but many problems still exist, including high concentrations of E. coli and other fecal bacteria. Stormwater from heavy rains overwhelms wastewater treatment plants, resulting in overflows of untreated sewage. These potentially harmful bacteria also come from the waste of pets, livestock and wildlife. This human and animal waste makes swimming unsafe and causes algal blooms. Other water problems at the park are caused by dams, which alter wildlife habitat and water flow, and nearby urban development, which contributes pollutants to the water.
6. Delaware National Scenic River, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania
This river is a popular destination for boating and fishing, and the larger watershed it is a part of provides drinking water to more than 5 percent of the U.S. population — over 15 million people. In the mid-20th century, industrial and agricultural practices heavily polluted the river, and many of those pollutants persist, including PCBs, mercury and pesticides. Some of these toxins have been documented in fish in parts of the river. Today, agricultural and urban runoff continue to pollute the river with fertilizers and other chemicals.
7. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah
This national recreation area protects Lake Powell, the body of water created from the Glen Canyon Dam and the source of drinking water for the nearby city of Page and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The water at this site periodically tests at high levels of E. Coli and fecal coliform, and some areas of Lake Powell are occasionally closed to swimming due to bacterial contamination from pet and human waste. Mining, agriculture and other industrial practices cause additional problems. A recent study links the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station as one source of mercury and selenium, two pollutants found both in Lake Powell and downstream. In 2015, an accidental spill of polluted wastewater from a Colorado mine sent lead, manganese, copper, zinc and other pollutants down the San Juan River, which empties into Lake Powell.
8. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota
This park protects a 72-mile stretch of one of America’s most iconic rivers. The Upper Mississippi provides drinking water to millions of people who live in and around the Twin Cities. Many different pollutants have impaired the water for decades, including mercury from coal-burning and mining practices, and toxins from manufacturing and industrial practices. Human and animal waste from septic systems, sewage overflows, and agricultural practices contribute fecal coliform, E. coli and excess phosphorus. Chloride, an ingredient in road deicing salts, also pollutes the river and raises the water’s salinity.
9. Obed National Wild & Scenic River, Tennessee
This park on the Cumberland Plateau is a popular destination for white-water rafting and kayaking and sits upstream of several reservoirs that supply drinking water to nearby cities. In 2002, an oil spill in Morgan County, Tennessee, sent thousands of barrels worth of crude oil into tributaries of the river, which continued to seep into the water and pose a threat to human and animal life for years after the spill. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from numerous sources also threaten the water quality.
10. Rio Grande National Wild & Scenic River, Texas
This park protects a 196-mile stretch of the storied river that serves as the international border between Texas and Mexico. The upper 69 miles of the river flow through Big Bend National Park. The Rio Grande meets 60 percent of the region’s water needs, but salty groundwater, irrigation runoff and urban wastewater discharges result in high salinity when the water is low. Harmful bacteria like E. coli and fecal coliform are the main water quality issue after rainstorms and when the water is high. This pollution comes from animal waste, sewage overflows and leaking septic tanks.
Many people assume that because a park is protected, its waters are pure, but maintaining the health of wetlands, rivers, lakes and streams requires careful management both within and beyond park borders. The original Clean Water Rule provided a helpful roadmap for people charged with preserving these waters. The proposed 2018 revisions will complicate efforts to protect our nation’s waters, including national park waters and the wildlife and larger ecosystems they support.
About the author
Chad Lord Senior Director of the Waters Program, Government Affairs
Chad Lord serves as the Senior Director for NPCA's Waters program. The program focuses on protecting and restoring America’s greatest natural treasures--large-scale aquatic ecosystems--surrounding national parks.
- Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
- Obed Wild & Scenic River
- Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
- Delaware National Scenic River
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
- Biscayne National Park
- Antietam National Battlefield
- Acadia National Park