The Clean Water Act at 50 and What it Means for Birds

A look ahead at what’s working, what’s not, and where we go from here.
A Northern Pintail flies toward the camera.
Northern Pintail. Photo: Ben Knoot/Audubon Photography Awards

This week, we’re celebrating the Clean Water Act’s 50th birthday—and half a century of protecting America’s waters. It is hard to overstate how critical this legislation was and is in reducing the amount of pollution flowing into our rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. Here at Audubon, we know birds and communities need access to clean water, which is why this bipartisan legislation is so critical—ensuring clean and abundant water in rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, and marshes in landscapes where this is paramount to birds’ survival. And that means protecting the Clean Water Act now and into the future.

It is easy to take the Clean Water Act for granted, so let’s look at what it actually does for people and birds.

In addition to empowering federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the amounts of pollution flowing directly into streams and waterways, the Act protects small streams, wetlands and intermittent streams that are hotspots for bird life and essential to ensuring water quality in downstream rivers and larger water bodies. Wetlands cover roughly 110 million acres in the continental United States and are indispensable habitat for hundreds of species of birds, including the Bald Eagle, Wood Stork, Northern Pintail, American Bittern, Semipalmated Plover, Prothonotary Warbler, and many more birds, fish, and wildlife. These waterways also filter pollution and provide drinking water for more than 117 million Americans or about 33 percent of the country.

Birds require the clean water and thriving ecosystems found in and around healthy water bodies to survive. They do not just depend on the water itself, but on the entire areas along rivers, streams, shorelines, water in depressions in the landscape, the soil, as well as the fish, insects, and plants across the entire watershed. To provide this important resource for birds, surface waters must have adequate flow and be the appropriate depth for the feeding or resting behaviors of various bird species. Wetlands and streams must be allowed to flood or be inundated with water at appropriate intervals, whether regular, intermittent, or seasonal, in order to restore water levels, replenish useful nutrients in the soil, and support critical vegetation. Clean, accessible water is vital to birds for fish, insect and plant food sources, healthy breeding habitats, adequate protection from predators, and necessary resting points during migration, nesting, and raising their young.

Wetlands in particular are critical for bird health and population stability. Approximately one-third of North American bird species, including the Great Blue Heron and Brown Pelican, use wetlands for food, shelter, or breeding. Some 138 and subspecies of birds in the United States are designated as “wetland dependent.” These birds include cranes, grebes, herons, kingfishers, loons, owls, perching birds, pelicans, shorebirds, falcons, and waterfowl. This list includes 27 types of ducks, from the Wood Duck to the Blue-Winged Teal, 20 types of gulls and terns, 17 types of herons, seven types of Warblers, egrets, bitterns, and many other species depend on wetlands of many types in every region of the country.

According to the latest State of the Birds Report, decades of investment in wetlands are producing a positive trend for waterbirds, geese, and diving birds. Much of this success is due to impactful policy measures that complement the Clean Water Act, like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and U.S. Farm Bill conservation programs. Despite all of the amazing advantages of the Act and how it has cleaned our waterways over time, it has faced challenges over the years and continues to come under threat from courts and politicians with an extremely narrow view of the Clean Water Act. Over the past few years, the legal definition of which streams can be regulated left many waterways without the proper protections. This means that wetlands throughout the country are at risk of unchecked development, threatening communities and birds who depend on these resources for clean water.

Luckily, strong coalitions exist that continue to champion the Clean Water Act and the protections it provides for birds and people. Audubon is proud to join with our conservation, recreation, business, and other partners to support the Act and strengthen it through sound science, policy, and advocacy.

Birds are telling us that we need to do more to ensure their survival—and ours. Over the next 50 years, Audubon will continue championing the federal laws that protect our water, air, land, and wildlife.