North Shore residents know clean water, need the Clean Water Act

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Published in the Duluth News Tribune on 11/12/14 by  MEP’s northeast program coordinator, Andrew Slade

If anyone knows about intermittent streams, it’s a thirsty hiker on the North Shore. The hardy souls who put on their backpacks and hike from one end of the Superior Hiking Trail to the other have to plan very carefully to make sure they get enough water. To paraphrase wisdom from Ben Franklin: When the creek’s dry we know the worth of water.

The Superior Hiking Trail crosses hundreds of rivers, creeks and unnamed tributaries on its way from Duluth to Grand Marais and beyond. For hikers, the streams provide a place to fill water bottles, cast for brook trout and even cool off with a dip in a pool.

And here’s the wisdom hikers have passed down: If it’s called a “river” on the map, it has water year-round. If it’s called a “creek” on the map, it might dry up in August. And if it doesn’t have a name, it’s dry all summer.

Different amounts of water in a river bed have led to some serious confusion over the last 10 years in the U.S. Due to two Supreme Court rulings regarding the “Waters of the United States,” it has become very unclear which streams get protected by the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act drives the protection and the restoration of some of the most-loved parts of the North Shore. The act triggers plans for cleaning up rivers and funding for cleanup work. The pollution cleanup plans on the Poplar, Knife and Flute Reed rivers are only being implemented because of the Clean Water Act. The act drives improved forestry practices and better septic systems. It funds the Lake Superior beach-monitoring program that keeps our kids safe in summer.

Basically, under the Clean Water Act, if a stream has water year-round (that’s a North Shore “river”) it gets protection, if a stream tends to dry up in August (that’s a North Shore “creek”) it might not, and if it runs intermittently and is mostly dry all summer long it probably has no protection.

An intermittent stream is one that holds water during wet portions of the year. Because of the Supreme Court rulings, intermittent streams are at risk of being excluded from current Clean Water Act protections.

So where should we draw the line? What kinds of streams deserve protection? The “rivers” with names (like the Knife and Poplar rivers) are obvious, and the Clean Water Act has helped protect those. Don’t the “creeks” (like Sucker or Sugarloaf, which drain directly into Lake Superior) and the trickles in the woods deserve protection, too?

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule to clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. The rule would clarify that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are to be protected. The EPA is collecting comments on the “Proposal to Protect Clean Water” clarification until Friday.

Whether you are an avid hiker, relying on streams for clean drinking water, or simply a North Shore resident who expects clean water from our Lake Superior source, you should care about what this clarification will do to protect our water.

Andrew Slade of Duluth is the northeast program coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership ( and is an avid North Shore hiker.


Take action

The writer urges anyone interested in protecting the North Shore’s intermittent streams to submit a comment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about its

proposed new rule clarifying the waters protected by the Clean Water Act. Comments are due before Friday at

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