Awę́nheʔ í:kę haʔ à:węʔ - Water is Alive

By Beth Roach
Sierra Club National Water Conservation Campaign Manager
Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia Tribal Council Vice Chair and Environmental Co-chair

Plumes of dust filled crisp autumn air as tractors pulled up peanuts. Snow-white cotton balls emerged in fields protected by trees of oak, pine, cypress, gum, birch gently shedding their red, orange and brown leaves. A warming sun in a clear blue sky welcomed Sierra Club leaders, staff, and friends as we passed over vast networks of tidal swamps and floodplain forests to arrive in the heart of the Nottoway River Basin for our annual Nottoway River Outing.

After half a century of water policy progress spurred by the Clean Water Act, a recent Supreme Court decision (Sackett v. EPA) stripped away protections for over half of the 290 million acres of wetlands in the United States. This October, on the 51st anniversary of the Clean Water Act, passionate water activists gathered on the Nottoway River near the VA/NC state line to create new bonds and commitments focused on collaborative partnerships.

A massive cypress tree rises from the Nottaway River near the VA/TN border. Image by Shavon Peacock

We recognize that, like water, our work together flows across the boundaries of states, Chapters, departments and agencies. This journey to build bridges and foster trust brought together staff and volunteers from Sierra Club Strategy and Field, Grassroots Network, Virginia Chapter, and North Carolina Chapter as well as the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 3Gs for Gaia, The Nature Conservancy and the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership. The convening was co-sponsored by a Grassroots Network grant to the Sierra Club's Wildlands and Wilderness sub team for Native American Land Rights.

This was a truly wonderful and meaningful opportunity to share my tribe’s connections to the water and land as we considered implications and concerns from the Supreme Court ruling on the definition of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The crux of the Sackett case centered around what type of waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. Is there continuous flow? Is the surface water connected and adjacent to a larger body of water? What does adjacent mean exactly? Is it navigable?

Ultimately, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition to the point of excluding many ephemeral and intermittent streams, tributaries, and pocosins. In North Carolina, the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates that 2.5 million bodies of water, over half in the state, have lost protection. Less than two months after the Sackett ruling, the N.C. General Assembly overrode a gubernatorial veto to pass a bill that exacerbates the threats by stating that North Carolina's definition of wetlands cannot exceed that of the federal government.

Virginia's protections are stronger than the current WOTUS definition. In June, Virginia's DEQ announced that it will make its own State Surface Water Determinations to ensure that the Sackett decision does not hinder efficient processing of Virginia Water Protection permits. 

Our trip on Oct. 18 gave paddlers an opportunity to observe the natural world along the journey upriver. At the turning point, the group beached and reflected upon  connections between what we'd seen and Nottoway stewardship efforts, challenges, and successes. Stephen Hardy, Nottoway Environmental Co-chair, and I led deep discussions around sand and gravel mining, deforestation, wood pellet production, tribal rights, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and river access, interweaving the topics to create a broad understanding of Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia's concerns and environmental advocacy.

Kayakers paddle down the Nottaway River near the VA/NC border on a sunny day. Image by Shavon Peacock


Nottoway Chief Lynette Allston visited with the group as we stopped for lunch at the tribal center in Capron. From there, we met with representatives from The Nature Conservancy at two impressive sites, Harrells Mill Pond and Piney Grove Preserve. TNC and the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia co-steward these sites and others, with more conservation projects on the horizon.

Deep in an exemplary pinelands savannah, discussions turned toward our collective challenges and visions for the future. Reflections on solar energy siting, forestry goals, wetlands impacts, endangered species, Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, as well as North Carolina's and Virginia's political climates stirred our imaginations as we considered how each of us has a role to play in creating and protecting the world that we wish to see.

Throughout the journey, we discussed tribal advocacy challenges and triumphs, similarities and differences between Virginia and North Carolina and policies that impact the Chesapeake Bay versus the Albemarle Pamlico Estuary, and how national efforts can support Chapter efforts. This outing allowed us valuable time to get to know each other, break bread, clarify gaps and challenges, and consider ways to move forward. We walked away with incredibly beautiful images in our heads, with warm hugs and memories made with new and old friends and allies.

Where can the Sierra Club go from here with the Clean Water Act? It is safe to say that water is a priority for most Americans. According to a 2022 Morning Consult poll, four in five adults want the Environmental Protection Agency to continue taking the lead to protect clean water.

So, what do our Chapters need in order to strengthen water protections. How can regional hubs work together? Are our state policies strict enough? How do we establish more tribal co-stewardship efforts? How do we fund more capacity?

The alliances we made and strengthened on this trip will carry us only so far. The Sierra Club's power lies in its grassroots: our members and supporters, who will travel with us on the journey ahead, to protect and defend our bedrock water protections - the Clean Water Act.

Participants in the Oct. 18, 2023, Nottaway River paddle pose on the riverbank. Image by Jacob Nolf

We must demonstrate diverse support for clean water protections, including tribes and communities of color. By identifying and working with stakeholders at the state level, we build the awareness and support necessary to pass meaningful federal legislation in Congress and push current and future Administrations to strengthen federal water protections for rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands. We need to work in all states and Chapters to build champions for federal regulations. Will you come with us?

What can we learn from the leadership of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia? Our efforts prove that, even though a low standard has been set, we can all be more proactive and do more than the minimum. States can enact stricter water policies. Every agency  and nongovernmental organization can bring tribes to their decision making tables.

While these questions have yet to be answered, we have taken the first steps together to chart our courses towards a future that will keep our waters alive and healthy for many, many generations.