Clean Water Act rollbacks hurt rivers and drinking water | COMMENTARY

Chesapeake Bay paddler Chris Hopkinson takes a moment to celebrate during his 200-plus mile paddle board trip in 2020.

I have always loved spending time on rivers. I tend to visit the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers because they’re closest to where I live, but I’ve had great adventures throughout the Chesapeake Bay. One of my favorite memories is a white water rafting trip on the Potomac River with my water advocacy colleagues before the pandemic. We enjoyed the cool water on a hot summer day, and we were reminded of the importance of advocacy and protections for waterways that we love.

My colleagues at Potomac Riverkeeper Network like to say that if you live in the Washington, D.C., area, the Potomac River makes up 80% of your body. This is because the vast majority of our local drinking water comes from the Potomac River. But, regardless of where you live, clean water is essential to all of us.


We can thank the Clean Water Act for protecting our rivers and our drinking water nationwide. The Clean Water Act (CWA) was enacted in the 1970s to prevent pollution in rivers. Although the CWA is federal law, an important piece of it gives states and some tribes authority to ensure that infrastructure projects, such as dams or pipelines, won’t pollute our water or otherwise negatively affect water quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently rolled back the CWA’s Section 401, which will significantly restrict states' and tribes' authority to protect water. There are many problematic consequences of the new rules. For one, states and tribes now have a much more limited ability to deny permits for projects that could damage rivers. This has wide-ranging implications for our economy.


When we think about Chesapeake Bay, an abundance of seafood comes to mind — blue crabs, oysters, mussels and so much more. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in 2012 Chesapeake Bay fisheries contributed over $2 billion and 41,000 local jobs to the Maryland and Virginia economies. Prior to the EPA’s recent changes to Section 401 of the CWA, states could leverage their local authority to improve or prevent projects that would negatively impact Chesapeake Bay habitat or water quality. However, under the new Section 401 rules, states are forced to make fast decisions with limited information. This could lead to less informed decision making and impacts to clean water going unaddressed. Our state must be able to protect our waterways so that our fishing industries, and our economy, can thrive.

Moreover, the recent changes to Section 401 of the CWA will also have long-term consequences for our state’s ability to mitigate climate change impacts to our rivers. Under the new rules, states and tribes are no longer able to consider climate change as a factor in assessing infrastructure projects. Maryland is the fourth most vulnerable state to climate change impacts such as sea level rise. Our state needs more, not less authority to consider how to mitigate climate change’s impacts to our waterways.

Climate change is already part of Maryland’s reality. In recent years Maryland experienced two storms that were previously considered “thousand year” events. These storms brought heavy rainfall to the Susquehanna River, which increased the amount of sediment flowing downstream to the Conowingo Dam, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. Increased sediment reduces oxygen in our rivers, which threatens local fish populations. This is just one example of the many reasons why climate change should be a factor when states are assessing a river project — and why EPA’s new limitations on what criteria states can consider are shortsighted.

These rollbacks are largely going unnoticed by the general public despite the troubling implications for our rivers. Given that all Maryland residents rely on rivers for our economy and our health, I urge you to contact your members of Congress. Tell our leaders that you support states' and tribal rights to protect clean water for all Marylanders.

Maryland’s economy, our drinking water, and our rivers are all inextricably linked. State and tribal authority over our waterways is essential to ensuring clean water for all Maryland residents. Let’s make sure the Chesapeake Bay and its many rivers remain protected — today, and into the future.

Betsy Nicholas ( is the executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. She lives in Washington, D.C., in the center of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.