For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we highlighted American Rivers, an organization that works to protect wild rivers, restore damaged rivers and conserve clean water for people and nature. In its more than 50 year life, American Rivers has protected thousands of river miles, improving fishing all over the country. Follow along for the whole interview!
Flylords: What is American Rivers’ ‘story’? When and why was American Rivers formed?
American Rivers: Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in the late 1960s when rivers were so polluted that they were literally catching on fire and massive dams were being built that would ultimately destroy salmon runs and other ecosystems. A few years later, since there weren’t any organizations using these legislative tools to help protect our water and rivers, a group of river enthusiasts got together in Denver to brainstorm. One person put a $20 bill on the table, saying, “I’m in.” Then another and another, and American Rivers was formed.
Since then we have grown into one of the nation’s leading river conservation groups – helping to protect thousands of miles of river with “Wild and Scenic” designations, building a nation-wide movement to remove dams, leading water conservation efforts in cities and basins across the country, working to make sure that all communities and ecosystems have access to clean water and healthy rivers, and supporting efforts for environmental justice.
Legacy, an American Rivers film taking place in the headwaters of Wyoming’s Snake River
Flylords: Can you speak to American Rivers’ core functions today, and how you all achieve those victories for our rivers?
American Rivers: Our core functions are protecting wild rivers, restoring damaged ones, and conserving water for people and nature.
Our best tool for permanently protecting rivers is the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Designating a river as Wild and Scenic, either through Congress or through its managing agency, means that it must be kept pristine and can’t be dammed, diverted, developed, or polluted. Think of rivers like Montana’s Flathead River, Michigan’s Au Sable, or Georgia’s Chattooga which have beautiful stretches that are part of the program – they will be as pristine for our grandkids as they are for us.
For restoring rivers, our main focus is removing outdated dams that have outlived their purpose. There are more than 90,000 dams in the U.S., and the best thing you can do for a dammed river is to take out the dam.
For conservation, the goal is to make sure enough water stays in the river for all uses — human and environmental — and we do that by getting groups to sit down together to first listen and then work towards common goals. The process is called Integrated Water Management, which is a wonky way of saying that we all care about the river. It’s working in places like Washington’s Yakima basin, Georgia’s Flint River, and North Carolina’s Cape Fear basin, and we’re seeing progress in other places like the upper Colorado.
Flylords: Clean, free flowing rivers and fly fishing are inextricably connected. Just how important is a river’s health for strong populations of wild, native fish?
American Rivers: You can see how important clean, free-flowing rivers are to fish by what happens when you take them away. The dams in the Northeast basically destroyed our Atlantic salmon populations, and it’s happening out west now on the lower Snake River and others. One of our supporters put it very simply: “No fish; no fishing.”
On the other hand, when you take care of a river, the fish can thrive. We saw the trout population in one Pennsylvania stream increase ten-fold after removing a dam. And on the Penobscot, where we removed two dams with the Penobscot Nation, Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Trout Unlimited, it’s been less than a decade later and record-breaking numbers of fish are returning. Literally millions of fish. Nature can take care of itself if we give it a chance. At the end of the day, most anglers understand that healthy fish need healthy rivers.
Flylords: Every spring, I keep an eye out for you all to publish the annual “Most Endangered River Report.” What goes into that document and how has it positively impacted river systems across the United States?
American Rivers: Our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report puts a national spotlight on ten rivers each year that face a serious threat and have a major decision coming up that will likely determine the fate of that river. It’s not necessarily the most polluted river, but one where public input can help save the river.
A good example is the Harpeth River in TN, where the river was seeing increased pollution coming from Nashville’s growing development. Listing the river pulled communities together in a way that led to a collaborative solution that is now being shared across the state. Another example of the public making a difference is the Hoback River in Wyoming, where a gas company was planning a major drilling project that would have threatened this beautiful river. We listed it several times and the public response against the drilling was fantastic. Showing how unpopular it was helped open the door to our partners (especially Trust for Public Lands) and river supporters to buy out the drilling rights. America’s Most Endangered Rivers® provides a great way for people to help save their river.
Flylords: When I think of damaged and unproductive rivers, one of the first things I think about are dams. Just how harmful are dams to river systems?
American Rivers: People often don’t realize how detrimental dams are to rivers and the ecosystems that depend upon them. First, in most cases the dam has changed a single, connected, cold-water, free-flowing river that can support trout and other cold-water species, into a warm-water impoundment/lake with warm water spilling into the stream below. Those species that need cold water can’t survive. A clear example is how the seven dams build on Alabama’s Coosa River are attributed with killing off 30 species – one of the largest mass extinctions on record. A second impact is that they block species’ ability to move and migrate. In the most visible examples, they prevent both Atlantic and Pacific salmon, as well as other migrating species, from reaching their spawning grounds – which is effectively a death sentence.
But the important thing to remember is that if you take the dam out in time, the river will come back. We’ve seen it countless times and continue to see it each year.
Flylords: I saw that dam removal projects are a huge point of emphasis for American Rivers’ agenda–are there any ongoing projects you’d like to highlight?
American Rivers: Yes, there are a lot of important dams coming out this summer. One example is on Washington’s Nooksack River, where removing a diversion dam will restore sixteen miles of pristine spawning habitat for the first time in almost 60 years, starting with the first of two explosions (click here to watch video). A second is on New Hampshire’s South Branch Gale River, where taking out the dam will connect over 30 miles of native brook trout habitat. There are other examples from states ranging from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and more.
We also have some longer-term projects that will have tremendous impact if/when successful. The first is to remove the four dams on the Klamath River that have blocked access to hundreds of miles of productive salmon and steelhead habitat for 100 years. Also, there are new economic, political, and environmental factors that we hope will move forward the discussion on removing the four lower Snake River dams, which we have been fighting for over more than 15 years.
Flylords: What about past dam removal successes?
American Rivers: A great example is the Kennebec River in Maine. We helped remove that dam 20 years ago, and now there are more than 5 million herring that come back to spawn each year! On Washington’s Elwha River, five years after removing two dams, there are thousands of chinook salmon that come back to spawn each year. Those are huge success stories.
And there are countless smaller dam successes, where we’ve had trout so eager to move upstream that they leap through the breach as soon as it’s made. What’s great to see is that, as a nation, we’re taking out more dams each year.
Flylords: Next to dams, pollution and development pose the greatest threats to rivers right? Care to tell us a little about the importance for laws such as the Clean Water Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?
American Rivers: These are bedrock laws for river conservation. The Clean Water Act is under attack by the current administration, which recently proposed repealing protection for all ephemeral streams and roughly half of the country’s wetlands. We know that waters are connected and that water moves. When you pollute in a stream or wetland, it will move downstream and pollute your neighbor’s drinking water. That makes no sense, and with our partners we have filed suit to block that change.
As for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it is a great example of Congress giving our nation the tools needed to protect the environment. Less than 1 percent of our rivers are protected, but that number is growing. Working with our partners, we’ve protected an additional 2,000 miles in the past couple years and are working to protect 3,000 more in the near term.
Flylords: How can fly fishermen and women learn more about American Rivers and get involved?
American Rivers: We hope that people who care about rivers will want to be a part of protecting and restoring them. For starters, you can go to americanrivers.org to learn more about our work and hopefully join as a member (click here). If you are looking to have an even bigger impact, we would love for you to look into joining The Anglers Fund, our national fishing program. I’ll leave you with a quote from Tom McGuane, former American Rivers Board member:
“We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out.”
Thanks for the chance to share this information about our work and our organization, and please remember: healthy fish need healthy rivers.
The cover picture, which features the “Wild and Scenic” Flathead River, is courtesy of Pat Clayton