Eighteen years ago, my brother and I eloped with our mother to Kaua’i. I say “eloped” because the trip was a romantic surprise after my step-dad proposed over the phone. He was already there—on Kaua’i. It was February, 1995, my senior year of high school, and the end of February school vacation. I turned 18 during the 23 hour plane ride to the Big Island of Hawai’i. My parents—my mother and step-dad, married at the point of convergence, where two streams met before emptying into the Pacific. Waterfalls peeled like tropical fruit through the rainforest. Two fed these streams. Neither my brother nor I had ever experienced swimming in the Pacific Ocean, let alone kayaking through a jungle. One day we hiked to a massive 40-foot waterfall, which we learned had been featured in one of the King Kong movies. I slipped behind the falls into a cave, sprayed by its awesome force. Those streams created our new family.
Flash forward to 2013: A small perennial stream meanders through my black ash seep, past a vernal pool and flows into the pond. It’s not dramatic. It’s barely audible. The nor’easter that took everyone on the East coast by surprise yesterday dropped over a foot of snow. It’s that light fluffy stuff perfect for a snowshoe hike. Everything’s quiet, cold and white. Yet the stream trickles, melting the snow on either side. It persists. This stream is one of many, many streams in Maine that flow either perennially, intermittently or ephemerally—that is, after storms. Streams criss-cross and converge, form major tributaries like Panther Run, feed creeks and rivers, such as the Crooked River, emptying into lakes, picturesque waters such as Panther Pond, and wetlands throughout the Sebago Lakes Region of southern Maine. Most of the residents in this region depend on the groundwater for their drinking water. Those residents in the Portland Water District get their drinking water from Sebago Lake. Either way, the streams that flow and converge throughout the state—even beyond this watershed—play an integral part of life as we know it.
In thinking about the importance of headwater streams, it’s useful to see streams in a larger watershed context. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a great online tool with a headwater stream index for the entire United States. Maps showing stream data are available for 48 states (Alaska and Hawai’i are not available at the time of this post). EPA has published the summaries of findings from a 2009 study on intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams. There’s information about public drinking water systems in the U.S., too. Local drinking waterinformation is also available by state.
What I found interesting in looking at stream data for the State of Maine is that I live in an area where 94-100% of stream miles are contained in Source Protection Areas (SPAs). An SPA is an area “upstream from a drinking water source or intake that contributes surface water flow to the drinking water intake within a 24-hour period.” (EPA, Office of Water) That means that most of, if not all of, the intermittent, headwater and ephemeral streams in those areas support public drinking water systems.
It makes sense. I live in a town that’s home to the “landlocked salmon” in Sebago Lake. The lake is one of the few lakes in the country that receives a Filtration Avoidance Waiver from the EPA. This waiver saves the communities in the region $125 million in construction and operation costs—since there is no need for a water treatment facility. I recently learned that if the Portland Water District had to invest in such a water treatment system, it would cost over $100 million. Currently, the cost-savings come from the convergence of headwater, intermittent and ephemeral streams throughout the Sebago Lakes Region watershed. We also know that area wetlands are equally valuable for their ecological services, including flood attenuation and protecting water quality in those very streams. It is my hope as a local conservation official, and through volunteering with small watershed groups, like the Healthy Waters Coalition in the Sebago Lakes Region, we can inform and educate municipal decision-makers on the value of protecting headwater streams.
Meanwhile, the Maine Association of Wetland Scientists is holding its annual meeting on March 25th. This year’s meeting focuses on rivers and streams.
For further reading, check out these related blogs:
Rivanna streams not safe for swimming and boating? Find out more on Thurs, March 21
Rivanna River Basin Commission (Charlottesville, VA)
Managing Municipal Stormwater: Protecting Water Quality, Streams and Communities
Penn State Extension Blog
For further information about streams, click here.