Policy ForumConservation

Why Should We Care About Temporary Waterways?

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Science  07 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6175, pp. 1080-1081
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246666

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A proposed ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aimed at clarifying which bodies of water that flow intermittently are protected under law (1), has provoked conflict between developers and environmental advocates. Some argue that temporary streams and rivers, defined as waterways that cease to flow at some points in space and time along their course (see the figure, left) ( Fig. 1) (2), are essential to the integrity of entire river networks. Others argue that full protection will be too costly. Similar concerns extend far beyond the United States. Debate over how to treat temporary waterways in water-policy frameworks is ongoing (3), particularly because some large permanent rivers are shifting to temporary because of climate change and extraction of water (4). Even without human-induced changes, flow intermittency is part of the natural hydrology for streams and rivers globally.