Faced with the many risks and tragedies of this challenging spring of 2020, people have sought solace wherever they can find it, and for many that has been in the beauty of nature, from standing by a stream in their nearby park to contemplating the grandeur of America’s public lands and rivers. Right now, however, many of our nation’s rivers are under stress—from dams, diversions, and pollution—that is threatening their ability to serve as the lifeblood of wild landscapes, provide habitat and food to a huge range of plant and animal species, and ferry drinking water to more than two-thirds of the U.S. population.
More than 90,000 dams obstruct river flows in the U.S. Most of these structures were built in the 19th and 20th centuries to support irrigated agriculture, power generation, flood control, and transportation—and bringing many benefits to commerce and communities. But over time, these structures also took a toll on the health and vitality of rivers by reducing flows of freshwater, changing siltation patterns, and contributing to concentrations of pollution.
Two decades into the 21st century, advancements in energy production, industrial irrigation, and urban design allow river management to serve the needs of citizens without manipulating river flows in ways that harm the natural environment. But dams aren’t the only obstacle: Less than 1% of the country’s rivers are protected as Wild and Scenic, the country’s main tool for safeguarding our waterways.
Now, just as the first Earth Day in 1970 gave U.S. policymakers a chance to chart a fresh course for conservation, this year’s 50th anniversary offers lawmakers an opportunity to act on a growing body of evidence that free-flowing, well-protected rivers serve the greater public good.
Many U.S. policymakers recognize the benefits that rivers designated as Wild and Scenic, a federal status that ensures a waterway will be preserved in its free-flowing state, bring to adjacent and downstream communities, fisheries, and outdoor recreation—and the contribution these benefits make to the economy. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is working on legislation to designate waterways in his state as Wild and Scenic. In advance of drafting his bill, Wyden asked the public to nominate areas for the designation and, his office says, he received more than 15,000 nominations for sections of—and, in some cases, entire—rivers and streams.
New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (both D-NM) have also drafted, but not yet introduced, a bill to protect over 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries. Udall has called the Gila “one of the last wild, undammed rivers in the Southwest … [and] one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in our state.” The senators have solicited public comment and have said that they will refine their draft based on that input.
The efforts have been bipartisan: two years ago the entire Montana congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, sponsored the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August 2018. The act protects 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek, which cascades through a valley of wildflower meadows and granite cliffs as it flows through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Attracting visitors from around the globe, the river is known for its outstanding fishery, bountiful wildlife, and rich history.
States can also act, by designating a river or stream, or a section of either, as outstanding national resource waters (ONRW), which means that only “minor and temporary” degradations in water quality are allowed—for example, repairing a roadway or bridge adjacent to a stream. This designation gives states a mechanism to safeguard rivers, especially those that are at risk from development, divergence, or damming. Oregon used ONRW in 2017 for the state’s section of the North Fork Smith River, which flows from southwestern Oregon into California; the designation halted plans to develop a nickel mine nearby, which could have significantly degraded both water quality along the river and a clean drinking water source for rural communities.
In another sign that state and local governments recognize the value of free-flowing rivers, some leaders are calling for the removal of dams to help fish reach their traditional spawning areas and help restore riverine ecosystems to their natural state. This effort started in earnest in 1999 with the removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine—a move that allowed shad and other forage fish to return to portions of the river for the first time since 1837, led to dramatically improved water quality, and sparked a revitalization of community activity on and along the Kennebec.
In Washington, nine years after state officials began the removal of the 100-year-old Condit dam on the White Salmon River, the ecosystem has rebounded so well that anglers and whitewater boaters report that there’s very little evidence the dam was ever there.
Also in Washington, the city of Bellingham has partnered with American Rivers, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River, a project that will restore more than 15 miles of spawning habitat for spring chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout—all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act—and reconnect almost 350 miles of aquatic habitat above the dam.
Even now, however, many dams are still standing—despite being obsolete. These include the Matilija Dam on Southern California’s Ventura River, which was built in 1947 for flood control and water storage. The reservoir behind the dam is now so filled with sediment that the water storage capacity is negligible, and the dam blocks the spawning route of the endangered Southern California steelhead.
Back on the federal level, aside from working to support the New Mexico and Oregon Wild and Scenic bills, Congress can help protect rivers through other pieces of legislation now pending: the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California Lands Act (also known as the PUBLIC Lands Act); the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; and the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act.
By removing dams where science shows they do more harm than good, and by protecting the ecological, social, and economic values of free-flowing rivers, federal and state leaders can help America forge a future in which we benefit more from working with nature than against it.
Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ land conservation projects, which span the Americas from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America.
This article first appeared in The Hill.