William & Mary Law Review


One of President Biden’s earliest executive orders established an ambitious national goal to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands, waters, and oceans by 2030. The Biden administration is not alone; over 100 countries support this goal as a means of combating climate change and slowing the pace of species extinction, both of which are accelerating at a rate that is unprecedented in history.

Despite its vow to pursue a wide-sweeping, all-of-government approach, Biden’s 30 by 30 initiative overlooks a critical component of the conservation goal—it pays virtually no attention to freshwater. Freshwater ecosystems are among the most endangered in the world due to diminished streamflows, pollution, wetlands destruction, nonnative species’ invasions, and hydrological modifications. Yet in the United States, there are extreme institutional barriers to holistic watershed management. Complexity, controversy, and conflict arise from fragmentation and long-entrenched interests, making reforms especially difficult.

This Article explores federal freshwater conservation law, along with a handful of potential reforms that could advance the 30 by 30 objective without requiring statutory revisions. It covers provisions of existing federal laws that protect the quality, quantity, and integrity of freshwater ecosystems, specifically the Clean Water Act, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, federal hydropower, reclamation, and flood control statutes, and the Endangered Species Act. It also identifies ways these laws could be implemented more effectively to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s freshwater resources by 2030, focusing primarily on the agencies’ ability to utilize statutory planning requirements to promote biodiversity and climate resilience.