Non-navigable River Blues

Muddied water-protection standards leave Western streams without oversight

  • Kayakers float the Los Angeles River near the Sixth Street Bridge in downtown L.A.

    Tom Andrews
  • The Santa Cruz River through Tucson is dry most of the year, but it can flood during summer.

    R.S. Walker
  • The Rillito and Santa Cruz rivers were raging in July 2007, where they come together in northwest Tucson.

    Andrew E. Winklejohn
  • Heather Wylie at the launch point on the L.A. River. She later was disciplined by the Army Corps of Engineers, and finally left the Corps after an undisclosed settlement.

    Tom Andrews
 

Listen to Heather Wylie tell us about her experiences going head to head with the feds.

Heather Wylie found herself out of a job in December. And it really had nothing to do with the economic crisis or her workplace performance. The 29-year-old biologist, who had worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Southern California for five years, left because of a little kayak trip. It wasn't exactly a whitewater wilderness adventure: Wylie and her companions were more likely to encounter discarded car parts or grocery carts than frothing rapids, and much of the scenery was covered by elaborate graffiti. Parts of the stream more closely resembled a giant concrete trough than a burbling brook.

Wylie, however, was not out there for the scenery. She'd joined a dozen boaters on a 52-mile, three-day trip on the Los Angeles River in July 2008 to prove a point: that her own employer's declaration that the L.A. River was non-navigable was simply wrong. If the boaters could make the trip, that proved that one could, in fact, navigate the river. And that, in turn, increased the likelihood that the river's dozens of major tributaries (many of which are dry, sandy washes most of the year) fell under the jurisdiction and protection of the Army Corps of Engineers.

When Wylie's bosses found out what she had done (Wylie says they scoured blogs and Web sites in search of incriminating photos), they were not happy. First, they threatened her with suspension. Then, in December, after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility took up her case because they felt she was being retaliated against for her opposition to Corps policy, she resigned under a settlement that both sides agreed to keep secret.

In the meantime, Wylie's troubles drew activist, media and even congressional attention to the murky consequences of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling and its subsequent interpretation and enforcement. The Rapanos v. United States case was supposed to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act. Property rights activists initially hailed the court's split ruling as a victory.

"Our constitutional way of life got a boost last year from the U.S. Supreme Court when the court rejected the idea that federal officials have unlimited control over every pond, puddle and ditch in our country," said the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights organization.

Today, however, almost no one is happy with the ruling. Environmental-ists say that Rapanos leaves thousands of once-protected streams, arroyos and wetlands without federal oversight. About 350 miles of streams were removed from federal control in a single six-month period, for instance, and enforcement of many anti-pollution cases was stopped in its tracks. Developers, meanwhile, have found the new guidelines to be even more cumbersome and time-consuming than the old ones were.

In other words, it's a mess. Though Congress is poised to intervene in an attempt to clean things up, that will likely only provoke a bigger battle over the Clean Water Act and its enforcement, especially when it comes to the ephemeral waters of the arid West.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org