US Long-Term Ecological Research Network
Freshwater ecosystems and their management: a national initiative
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Fresh water is a strategic resource that structures the nation’s natural and cultural landscapes and is a major determinant of regional economies and demographic patterns. Water consumption in the United States has more than doubled since 1940 and is likely to double again within the next 20 years (1-3). Critical water-related challenges now face the nation regarding availability, human health and safety, and environmental integrity. These challenges persist despite numerous federal laws (such as the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Forest Practices Act, and National Environmental Policy Act) and state provisions regarding surface water, ground water, and water rights. Collectively, these laws and their implementing regulations have created a legislative and judicial pastiche that does not allow the integration necessary to resolve issues related to fresh water. The Clean Water Act, for example, has been the foundation for water quality programs nationwide since 1972. In many ways it has been successful: Sewage treatment and drinking water supplies have improved, and severely polluted systems such as the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie show signs of renewed vitality. But the Clean Water Act’s focus on point-source pollution shifted emphasis away from other equally harmful and pervasive forms of environmental degradation, such as altered hydrological regimes, habitat destruction, invasions by exotic species, and nonpoint-source pollution (4, 5). In addition, the Clean Water Act failed to provide a framework for identifying research priorities, making decisions, or directing broader statutory attention. Similar problems exist with other legislation; each law does some good but also shifts attention away from competing or broader issues. No one law provides a comprehensive approach.