By Frances Lamberts
Drought plagued Mountain City for several years around the turn of the century. It became critical in 2001 when stream flow in the area was attested the lowest it had been in 99 years and the city had to search for new drinking water sources.
It found one on a farm where one of two small streams – both seasonal rather than year-round flow – became an emergency supply source that summer. The lower portion of the pasture through which they flowed contains a wetland. These are ever more important as extreme-weather drought or flooding events threaten landscapes and communities, under climate disruption.
A resident later described the impacts on life in Mountain City: “During those trying years of shortage, our schools, restaurants and prison served meals from paper plates to avoid dishwashing water use, coin laundry and car-wash businesses were closed, restrictions were placed on other businesses, and some families were without water. The experience should be a wake-up all: our water sources need to be protected if communities – especially fast growing ones – are to thrive and feel secure in the future.”
Barely a month after taking office, President Donald Trump ordered a review of the Clean Water Rule implemented under President Obama. This had restored the traditional interpretation of waters protected by the national Clean Water Act. It included, as falling under the scope of the law, the small or non-year-round streams, headwaters and wetlands on which dependable flow and purity in the downstream water bodies depend.
On Jan. 23, the administration released a “replacement” rule which substantially limits the water bodies that would receive protection. In accordance with its name – “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” – they would only be those which can serve in commercial navigation, and tributaries or wetlands which directly adjoin or contribute to these.
Maintenance and safety of waters like Wills Branch, which helped Mountain City get through its drought calamity, would no longer be assured. Neither would be that of hundreds of wetlands – such as its unique “Appalachian Artesian Seepage Fen” – and their many benefits in water purification, water storage and flood prevention, avian and other wildlife and plant habitat, and more.
Theodore Roosevelt, spurred by “widespread interest and demand from the people” envisioned the need for water protection in terms similar as did presidents Nixon and Obama. “Each river system,” he declared, “from its headwaters in the forest to its mouth on the coast, is a single unit and should be treated as such.”