PRESERVING SPECIAL PLACES: We all have a passion for our recreational use of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and their tributaries, and many of us do get our drinking water from the Potomac and other surface waters. In all three circumstances, the words swimmable, fishable and drinkable mean a whole lot more than just descriptions of how we use and enjoy our rivers. In the context of our water laws, these words describe not only our rights but also categorize our waterways with regards to how they are used and protected.
The Clean Water Act (CWA), passed by Congress in 1972, outlined how to protect rivers and other water bodies and focused on three basic uses: swimming, fishing and drinking. These basic uses of our rivers are termed “Designated Uses” under the CWA and each use requires very different protections.
Each Designated Use category has very specific water quality criteria that must be met to maintain that use. These criteria are then used to determine pollution limits for all facilities permitted to discharge waste. The CWA also established anti-degradation rules, which are a way to keep new or growing sources of pollution from spoiling a pristine steam. More importantly, CWA rules allow for streams to be upgraded to more protective levels within a Designated Use category and are, as a result, termed High Quality and Exceptional Value streams. In each state, high quality water designations are based on the presence of high quality stream habitat and water chemistry.
POSITION: When designated as such, High Quality waters receive specific protective measures when it comes to industry pollution, while Exceptional Value waters have even more protections making it extremely difficult to acquire an industrial pollution discharge permit at all. There are many High Quality streams in the Upper Potomac and other parts of the Potomac watershed in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, there are many more streams and rivers that qualify, but are not listed and in our opinion are designated improperly.
OBJECTIVE: Starting in the Upper Potomac, Potomac Riverkeeper Network is embarking on an effort to examine how states have designated our streams. We’re looking for opportunities to advocate for a re-designation or upgrade to a higher water quality level. For example, the North Branch Potomac supports cold water fish, but is designated as a warm water fishery. Re-designating the use to a cold water fishery would ensure that the delicate fishery could not be harmed by human or industrial activity.