New Initiative Focuses on Aquatic Ecosystems

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched Healthy Watersheds, an initiative that emphasizes protection and conservation of aquatic ecosystems. The launch coincides with a new Web site (www.epa.gov/healthywatersheds) that provides information on tools to identify and protect healthy watersheds and their components.

The site provides critical information for making strategic decisions to protect and restore waters and should prove useful to state officials, who generally operate at the scale needed to implement strategies and are well-suited for assessing and managing watershed resources. Local governments, watershed practitioners, and regional agencies also should benefit from this initiative.

The Healthy Watersheds Approach addresses the watershed as a system of biota and habitats that are driven by critical processes such as hydrology, fluvial geomorphology, and natural disturbance regimes. Programs that protect and restore aquatic ecosystems are most effective when they recognize and integrate these dynamics and manage watersheds as systems.

The new initiative is predicated on the simple truth that it is more cost-effective to protect the many benefits provided by healthy watersheds than it is to restore them once they become impaired.

Some key statistics provide clear evidence of both recent and ongoing declines in U.S. aquatic resources. Over the last 50 years, coastal and freshwater wetlands have declined; surface water and groundwater withdrawals have increased by 46 percent; and non-native fish have established themselves in many watersheds (Heinz Center, 2008). A recent national water quality survey of the nation's wadeable streams showed that 42 percent of the nation's stream length is in poor biological condition, and 25 percent is in fair biological condition (U.S. EPA, 2006).

Nearly 40 percent of fish in North American freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes are found to be vulnerable, threatened, or endangered; nearly twice as many as were included on the imperiled list from a similar survey conducted in 1989 (Jelks et al., 2008).

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