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Take it from Shedd Aquarium: The safety of our waters must come first

Chicago Water Cribs | Photo by Sandor Welsz

In the United States, when we turn on our faucets, we don’t think twice about whether the water is safe to use or drink. Recent actions by the federal government could change that for the people of Illinois.

More than 1.6 million people across Illinois depend on intermittent, ephemeral or headwater streams for safe drinking water. Despite this staggering statistic, the Trump administration recently proposed to rescind the very protections meant to keep these waterways safe.

OPINION

The 2015 Clean Water Rule was implemented to strengthen the Clean Water Act of 1972, the federal law that regulates pollutant discharges into the nation’s waters. The rule effectively brought 2 million miles of streams, as well as 20 million acres of wetlands in the United States, under the protection and oversight of the Clean Water Act.

Shedd Aquarium opposes changes that would weaken this regulation. A reversal of the rule puts these waterways — and wildlife habitats — at risk of pollution, degradation and destruction. This damage will remove the direct benefits these aquatic systems provide for us, such as flood control, water purification and erosion prevention. The result could be a likely increase in public spending. Before the public comment period closes on Sept. 27, we’re encouraging residents to tell the Environmental Protection Agency why they believe this critical rule must be protected. You can make your voice heard with one click: regulations.gov.

While most of Chicago relies on Lake Michigan for drinking water, we also are dependent on wetlands and streams to keep our drinking water clean. In addition to helping filter and balance the lake water, these areas serve as critical habitats for thousands of amphibian species. A report by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources notes that 37 of the state’s 41 amphibian species use wetlands at least part of the year, including eight endangered or threatened frogs and salamanders.

Amphibians, such as the blue-spotted salamander and the spring peeper, matter because nature matters and is intrinsically valuable. These animals are sensitive to changes in these wetlands, which can indicate early signs of contaminants in the environment. In addition, more than half of all North American bird species rely on wetlands for nesting and feeding, as well as 95 percent of commercially harvested fish and shellfish.

The time to act is now. Whether you are an angler, farmer, nature enthusiast, animal lover or just someone who cares about clean drinking water and a strong economy, you can play a role in keeping these critical protections in place. Illinois already has lost nearly 90 percent of our wetland acreage. Without federal protections, our drinking water is under attack and these homes and breeding grounds for wildlife likely will be increasingly polluted or lost entirely.

You can also volunteer with Shedd Aquarium to maintain the health of local wetland habitats. Since 2015, volunteers have helped us restore nearly 20 acres of wetland habitat in Cook County through our Great Lakes Action Day program and have already seen the return of native species. You can sign up to help online.

Healthy water is essential to all life, something we see at Shedd Aquarium every day. Speak up today to protect our water for future generations.

Cheryl Mell is senior vice president of Conservation Partnerships & Programs at Shedd Aquarium.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.