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Earlier this summer, I spent a day working in the cool, shallow water of the Musconetcong River. The Musky, as it’s known locally, drains 158 square miles of rural New Jersey and is a major tributary of the Delaware River. Over the last several years, American Rivers has been working closely with a group of partners – including environmental non-profits, state and federal resource agencies, and private landowners – to “Free the Musky” by removing numerous outdated, low-head dams that impede the movement of resident and migratory fishes, reduce habitat quality and availability, contribute to streambank erosion, and pose a threat to recreational paddlers.
So far, the Lower Musconetcong River Restoration Partnership, working under the leadership of the Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA), has successfully removed four dams: Gruendyke Mill Dam (2008), Seber Dam (2009), Riegelsville Dam (2011), and Finesville Dam (2011).
With plans for additional projects in the future, our group is interested in understanding how dam removal is impacting the river and how we might use this information to inform future projects. I worked with the MWA’s Monitoring Coordinator, Nancy Lawler, to develop a monitoring plan, and we recently spent the day with a small team of volunteers assessing post-removal substrate characteristics in a stretch of river that was previously inundated by the Finesville Dam. I led our team in conducting Wolman pebble counts— a method that consists of randomly selecting and measuring hundreds of pebbles within the study reach to determine the composition of the riverbed. The work is simple, but yields important data that allows us to inexpensively track changes following the removal of a dam.
We are beginning to observe coarser bed material as finer particles, like silts and sand, are slowly flushed out of the system. These changes to streambed habitat may also lead to shifts in macroinvertebrate community composition— another factor that we are monitoring as part of the dam removal effort.
While standing in the river on that hot July day, I was reminded how quickly dam removal can positively affect a river. Dam removal immediately eliminates an obsolete structure and often leads to rapid, visible improvements in stream habitat quality and availability.
July brought big victories for two legal cases initiated by American Rivers that will significantly benefit rivers in the Southeast. These victories would not have been possible without our close collaboration with and strong support from regional and local conservation organizations.
In Georgia, the State Court of Appeals sided with American Rivers, Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia River Network in ruling that all state waters are protected under Georgia law by a 25-foot vegetative buffer, benefiting tens of thousands of miles of rivers across the state. These buffers are strips of trees and plants along a stream or wetland that are left in place to naturally filter out dirt and pollution from rain water runoff before it enters rivers, streams, wetlands, and marshes. Without protective buffers, Georgia waters are at risk of becoming clogged with mud and sediment pollution, choking out aquatic life.
The decision overrules the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) policy that only some state waters are protected by the Erosion and Sedimentation Act’s buffer provision, and also invalidates EPD Director Judson Turner’s April 2014 memorandum that stripped the protective buffer from the Georgia Coast. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the case on behalf of American Rivers and the Georgia River Network in 2012 after EPD failed to require Grady County to obtain a variance for impacting freshwater wetland buffers in its bid to build a 960-acre impoundment on Tired Creek near Cairo, Georgia. After EPD neglected to correct its oversight, the groups filed a successful appeal with the Office of State Administrative Hearings to rectify the agency’s failure to require a buffer variance for impacts to buffers along wetlands on the site. The July ruling overturned a state Superior Court ruling which the conservation the groups appealed.
American Rivers welcomes the court’s decision affirming the consistent, clear application of environmental protections across Georgia. Having these common-sense safeguards for all the State’s waterways ensures that clean water for local communities is protected.
The Catawba and Wateree rivers flow more than 300 miles from their headwaters in the North Carolina foothills, through the Charlotte metro area, and into South Carolina before emptying into the Santee River at the Congaree National Park. Along its course, Duke Energy owns and operates 11 hydropower dams that while producing electricity also alter natural flows needed for river and floodplain health, impact fish spawning success and reduce dissolved oxygen essential for fish and wildlife. Duke’s dams are undergoing a federal licensing process which will set operational requirements, including how to reduce impacts of the dams on river health, for the next 30 to 50 years. The Catawba-Wateree project is the nation’s largest hydroelectric project currently undergoing the federal licensing process.
In July, American Rivers, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League reached a settlement agreement with Duke Energy and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that includes important protections for the Catawba and Wateree rivers and its fish and wildlife. The agreement ends a 5-year legal stalemate over the issuance of a state water quality permit needed for Duke’s new operating license for the Catawba-Wateree hydroelectric project.
The Catawba-Wateree settlement requires Duke Energy to release enough water from the dams to benefit endangered sturgeon. The fish, found in 76 miles of the Wateree River, need certain flows at specific times of the year to aid in their spawning. The settlement also safeguards natural flooding of the 91,000 acre Wateree River floodplain including part of the Congaree National Park, which harbors one of the nation’s most significant bottomland forests. Through the settlement, Duke Energy agreed to file petitions with the South Carolina State Supreme Court and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to halt Duke’s legal appeal and procedural challenge to the state of South Carolina’s ability to issue a water quality permit for the new operating license. The agreement resolves the last outstanding issues before FERC can issue a new license and ensures that Duke Energy does its part to help take care of this river that is essential for its business and the people who value it.
Our victories in Georgia and South Carolina illustrate the value of the persistence shown by American Rivers and our partner organizations. In both cases we knew that a long, protracted campaign would be needed to ensure the future health of these rivers and our actions paid great dividends.
Originally posted on NatGeo’s Newswatch
Willamette River swimmers, August 2014. Photo courtesy Human Access Project.
Through my goggles, I watch the sun lighting up the surface of the water, gold-green. My air bubbles are silver against the dark below. Each time I take a breath I look for the bright caps of my fellow swimmers, keeping track of where I am in the group, and the Hawthorne Bridge, just downstream.
It’s 7am on Portland’s Willamette River, and this is my first swim with the River Huggers Swim Team.
Fifty-two years ago Tom McCall, a journalist who would become Oregon’s thirtieth governor, sounded the alarm about Portland’s polluted Willamette River.
This morning, thirteen of us are swimming from the east side dock to the west side beach at downtown’s Tom McCall waterfront park, and back. It’s about a half mile round trip.
It feels wonderful. The water is clean. It smells good. And the little bit that inevitably gets in my mouth tastes fine, just like a river should. The water is a great temperature, refreshing on a summer morning.
We are accompanied by two volunteer safety kayakers with orange flags. This early in the morning there’s hardly any boat traffic – we see just one motor boat during the 45 minutes or so we are in the water, and it gives us plenty of room.
It’s great to have a new perspective on my city. Usually I’m driving over the bridges, or running alongside the river. But here I am, in the water, watching the rising sun glinting on the buildings downtown. It’s peaceful, being in the river as the city wakes up.
At Tom McCall beach, we pause in the shallows, our feet sinking into the soft muddy bottom. There are three ducks on the beach. Usually it’s the people who are on land, watching ducks in the water. Now the wildlife is watching us.
We take off our goggles and catch our breath. Willie Levenson, the swim team’s ringleader and the founder of the Human Access Project – dedicated to transforming Portland’s relationship with its river – talks about efforts to restore this beach (or, as he puts it, “un-f*ck up the river”). I appreciate his humor, candor, and personal passion for connecting people to the Willamette. Every urban river needs a Willie Levenson.
American Rivers named the Willamette one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2006 because of industrial and municipal pollution. The effort to clean up the river has taken years, and is ongoing, thanks to the work of Willamette Riverkeeper and others. A big infrastructure project helped stem sewage overflows, and projects across the city such as rain gardens and green roofs are helping to absorb and filter polluted runoff.
Contrast this video from the Willamette River’s past with this video shot today (that’s my son greeting me on the dock). These two videos are proof of the resilience of rivers and the power of public advocacy.
The Willamette’s story is the story of so many other urban rivers in our country. Once polluted, fenced off and forgotten, cities have rediscovered their rivers, celebrating them as community assets. When it comes to the local economy and quality of life, it’s a great benefit when you can fish, kayak, and stand up paddleboard 10 minutes from your home or office. The Willamette and associated outdoor activities no doubt helped land Portland the recent distinction of most livable city in the U.S.
This is an “advocacy swim.” Sure, it’s fun and good exercise, but the main point is to show the community that the river is open for all kinds of recreation. It’s simple: the more people who enjoy the river and have a stake in protecting it, the better off the river will be. A large constituency of swimmers, anglers, and boaters who love and look out for the river is one of the best defenses against pollution and other threats to clean water and river health.
So we swim. And we tell our friends about it. “Did you get sick?” a neighbor asks. “Did a fish grab your foot?” my four-year old asks. No and no. It’s safe. It’s fun.
American Rivers’ staff are making great progress in San Francisquito Creek, which was listed as #5 on our list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in the country earlier this year. San Francisquito Creek is located south of San Francisco, CA in Silicon Valley. Compared to other urban streams in the area, San Francisquito Creek has largely retained its natural character and, in its lower sections, boasts one of the best wild steelhead runs of any Bay Area stream.
The largest threat to the stream is Stanford University’s Searsville Dam. Searsville Dam is a complete barrier to steelhead trout, which migrate out to the ocean and back into their natal streams to spawn. The dam blocks access to 20 miles of steelhead habitat upstream of the dam and reduces stream flow below the dam, often blocking all flow in summer.
American Rivers is working directly with Stanford University and other stakeholders on the Searsville Dam Alternatives Study to investigate possible solutions to resolve the problems caused by the dam. Stanford plans to complete the study and make a decision on the future of the dam by the end of this year. As this important decision date approaches, the dam is generating a lot of press coverage, including this in-depth interview from ABC News:
But American Rivers is not limiting its work to Searsville Dam. We are committed to removing other, smaller fish passage barriers in the watershed as well. This month, American Rivers received funding to redesign three culverts in the watershed that prevent fish passage at high and low flows, which are crucial to fish migration. Two of these structures are located on Los Trancos Creek and one is located on Bear Creek. By bundling these three projects together, American Rivers is able to create a larger benefit for fish, while reducing costs of the individual projects. We are very thankful to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California State Coastal Conservancy for their generous support of this important work.
By simultaneously tackling both the biggest threat to the creek (Searsville Dam) and the smaller barriers in the watershed (poorly designed culverts), American Rivers is building momentum, raising awareness, and making major progress to restore this Most Endangered River.
Tell the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission that water diversion projects are too costly for the environment and for taxpayers. Say NO to dams on the Gila River.
Recently, I traveled to southwestern New Mexico to tour the area around one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014, the Gila.
I saw lush valleys with songbirds and cottonwoods, stood in a flowing stream that tumbles out of our nation’s first wilderness area, marveled in the Wild West history that signifies the cultural relevance of this place, and watched trout dart under branches and into deep, cool pools.
But even though parts of the Gila seem serene, there are real threats to one of the Southwest’s most loved streams. As we highlighted with the Most Endangered River listing in April, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission [ISC] is considering a plan to dam and divert the Gila where it flows out of the mountains and heads towards Arizona.
Now its decision time: the ISC will literally seal the fate of the Gila this month, at a hearing in Albuquerque on August 26. A new article in the Santa Fe Reporter outlines the hazards, both financial and ecological, that could result if outdated and expensive water projects are built on a river that is already clinging to life.Just three miles downstream, the riverbed is bone dry | Sinjin Eberle
Misguided, ecologically devastating, and enormously expensive for New Mexico taxpayers, the proposals being floated on the Gila are simply flat wrong. There are better alternatives.
Take action today to encourage Governor Martinez and the ISC to dismiss these projects. New Mexico should instead focus on cost effective conservation measures and water-smart efficiency projects that are good for the taxpayer, good for sustaining New Mexico’s agricultural heritage, and good for the communities and wildlife that depend on a healthy Gila River.
All August long, they toil to the tops of mountains, take friends and family members hiking, spread the word about Washington's wild places, and collect pledges to protect and maintain trails.2. If you see one in the wild, it's good luck
More than 200 Hike-a-Thoners are out on urban and backcountry trails all over Washington. If you spot one, it's really, really good luck. This is especially true if you take the time to donate to their campaign.
Hint: You don't have to spot one in the backcountry to donate to their campaign. Pick a Hike-a-Thoner or a team, and support one today!3. They have super-human strength
Whether they are racking up hundreds of miles hiking all August, going for mad elevation gain figures or demonstrating incredible strength of spirit, these tenacious individuals are a force to be reckoned with. Just. Like. Unicorns.SUPPORT A HIKE-A-THONER AUG. 8-9, WIN A BANDANA (and the love of unicorns, everywhere)
U.S. Department of Agriculture Announces RCPP Projects for Full Proposals The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that 230 projects will be invited to submit full proposals for program funding under the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). American Farmland Trust is leading or supporting 5 projects in multiple states […]
In 2011, American Rivers partnered with tribes and other organizations to highlight Bristol Bay Rivers on our annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®. Since that time, you have helped us to encourage the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use their 404(c) authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the Pebble Mine project. Your hard work has really been paying off, but now we need your help again to shut the door on this harmful project!
Right now, the EPA is accepting comments on their proposal to use their Clean Water Act veto on the Pebble Mine. The mine proposal is at the headwaters of two rivers that feed into the largest wild sockeye salmon run left on earth. This is a critical area for the livelihood of tribes and fishermen in the Bristol Bay region— not to mention beautiful vistas and sparkling clean rivers. Some places are just too special to pollute with mining and commercial development, and this is one of those places.
On July 18, the EPA released the proposed 404(c) determination, which launched a 60-day public comment period. During this time, anyone in support of Bristol Bay protections is encouraged to contact the EPA. The EPA needs to hear that people across the United States who care about wild salmon and support the livelihood of local communities are in favor of Bristol Bay protections and the use of the 404(c) veto. The more public comments there are, the greater political cover the EPA will have for making a huge decision to protect Bristol Bay by stopping the Pebble Mine. The 404(c) protections that we are requesting have only been granted 13 times in U.S. history. There has been nearly a decade of hard work to get to this point. Without this final push, we’re back at square one.
Do you want to know more about the history behind this project? Check out our Most Endangered Rivers listing here. You can read about public support for Bristol Bay Rivers here. Information on EPA’s assessment of this situation from earlier this year can be found here. Finally, more information on the 404(c) process is here. Now you are prepared to take action once more for Bristol Bay!
Please tell EPA that you support their use of the 404(c) veto on the Pebble Mine project. We have this one final opportunity to have our voices heard, and encourage EPA to follow the science and stop Pebble Mine once and for all.
Thank you for getting us to this point. Let’s bring it home for the rivers!
I’ll never forget my first encounter with the Colorado River: I was hiking down the South Kaibab Trail of the Grand Canyon, amazed at how the setting sun colored the canyon walls, when suddenly the River came into view and the panorama changed entirely. In that moment of humbling beauty, and even now, it’s hard to imagine that a river so strong could be in such danger. What’s even more difficult to imagine is that the one of the gravest threats to the River is the most unknown and underestimated: groundwater depletion.
Last week, hydrologists at NASA and the University of California, Irvine published a study illuminating the extent of groundwater loss within the Colorado River Basin. Because withdrawals on a Basin-level are not documented or well-understood, this is the first study to present a comprehensive picture of groundwater depletion within the region. NASA’s innovative GRACE technology is able to measure changes in the Basin’s total water storage by analyzing fluctuations in Earth’s gravitational pull. The research team was able to break down this data to examine changes in groundwater levels over the 2004-2013 study period, and the results are shocking.
The data shows that total Colorado River Basin Reserves have dropped 52.5 million acre-feet (maf) over the past nine years, 40.6maf of which was groundwater – an amount of water equivalent to 1.5 times the storage capacity of Lake Mead. This rate of depletion is much greater than experts had expected, and far exceeds the rate of surface water decline on the Colorado’s largest reservoirs.
Groundwater has commonly been viewed as “backup” water, reserves to fill the gap between supply and demand when drought and reduced snowmelt limit surface water availability. However, as the West faces its fourteenth consecutive year of drought, groundwater pumping has become the norm – utilized heavily for irrigation and, increasingly so, for public water supply.
Aside from contributing to an overall decline in water supply, groundwater depletion has direct impacts on the flow and health of the Colorado River. As they are hydraulically interconnected, much of a river’s flow can be attributed to “baseflow,” groundwater that naturally discharges from the aquifer and contributes to a river or stream. Excessive pumping within the Colorado River Basin reduces aquifer levels, leading to a reduction in this natural discharge and, over time, a reduction in the flow of the River itself.
Despite this now well-understood concept of hydrology, many states in the West manage their water resources independently of each other – refusing to acknowledge the interconnectedness of these water systems. For the health of the Colorado, and all of our Nation’s rivers, it is crucial that the law reflect our heightened understanding of groundwater. Sustainable pumping and the conjunctive management of surface and ground water is vital to establishing a balanced water system, protecting our beloved rivers and maintaining awe-inspiring vistas, like those from the South Kaibab Trail.
Summer in American Rivers’ California regional office means field season – or, as it should more aptly be named, meadow season. Going on three summers, and with the continued support of the National Fish and Wildlife Fund (NFWF), American Rivers’ staff has assessed meadows for restoration prioritization on a watershed scale. This summer, over 80 meadows in the Carson and Truckee River watersheds will be surveyed using the Rapid Assessment Scorecard, a collaborative design with UCDavis.
Why does American Rivers work on meadows? Meadows store spring floodwaters and release cool flows in late summer; they filter out sediment and pollutants, produce high-quality forage and provide habitat for rare and threatened species.
Each summer of meadow work brings unique challenges and creative solution finding. New this year, American Rivers’ called upon our friends at LightHawk, who donated a pilot, a Cessna 172 and an early morning to fly over the meadows of the Carson River watershed. Relying on GPS and aerial imagery we flew over meadows we planned to asses. The flight allowed us to confirm whether an on the ground visit would be useful…or not. To prepare for meadow assessments, we rely heavily on aerial imagery.
Displayed in two dimensions, aerial imagery does have limitations. Areas that appear uniformly colored and textured are often classified as meadow, without taking into account key attributes that define meadows: slope and vegetation cover. Mountain meadows, by definition, have a low slope gradient (meaning they are mostly flat) and are covered by herbaceous species (grasses and flowers) that rely on surface water and shallow ground water. Mountain meadows may contain localized stands of woody vegetation (willow, alder), but herbaceous species dominate.
Bull Canyon “meadow” – pictured below – exemplifies the benefits of an aerial fly-over. Compare the two images below. The aerial image on the left, which we viewed from our GIS computer, shows the supposed meadow outlined in orange. The picture on the right, taken during our LightHawk flight, shows the same area. Is it a meadow?
Per our earlier definition of mountain meadows, Bull Canyon “meadow” is too steeply sloped and contains too much woody vegetation (the rougher/fluffy green texture is willow) to be considered a meadow. Had we relied solely on the 2d image supplied through our GIS software, we would have hiked eight miles to determine that this area, though picturesque, does not meet the criteria for assessment. Viewed live, from above, we were able to quickly check Bull Canyon off our list of meadows to assess. In total, the LightHawk flight confirmed that eight meadows were, in fact, not meadows at all. Eliminating these sites from our assessment allows us to more efficiently concentrate our time and resources on confirmed meadows of the Carson River watershed.
We are grateful to LightHawk for donating their services, and look forward to continuing to explore new tools and opportunities to enhance our summer meadow work.
Make your voice heard and let the EPA and the Army Corps know that you support improvements to better protect clean water.
If you answered yes, you’re in good company. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that more than 33 million people went fishing in 2011, taking 455 million fishing trips and spending $41.8 billion in fishing-related expenses.
You can add my late grandfather to the list too, who grew up along the banks of Pine Creek in north central Pennsylvania in a small town that shared his last name. Pine Creek flows through the Pine Creek Gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. On a recent trip home, my grandmother regaled us with tales of my grandfather’s adventures catching trout along his beloved Pine Creek.
Sixty-three percent of the waters that flow into Pine Creek are headwater streams and 32 percent of streams in the watershed flow only seasonally. These forested headwater streams provide habitat for the brook trout, the state fish of Pennsylvania and the only native trout in the state. More than a million people go fishing across Pennsylvania every year, supporting a strong recreational angling industry.
The small streams and wetlands that flow into Pine Creek aren’t just important for fish. In fact, more than 8 million people in Pennsylvania rely in part upon headwater streams and streams that only flow seasonally or after rain as a source of their drinking water.
Despite my love for my home state, I know that this story isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. Across the country, small streams and wetlands contribute to the drinking water supplies of 117 million Americans. They support fish and wildlife, capture and store floodwaters, and help to filter out pollutants. Most importantly, these small streams and rivers feel like ours. They are where we fish, wade, or boat. They are part of the stories we tell. They may even remind us of home.Why should you care about the proposed Clean Water Rule?
Many of the small headwater streams, waters that flow only seasonally or after rain, and wetlands that flow into Pine Creek and countless rivers across the country are no longer guaranteed protections under the Clean Water Act. Although the Clean Water Act was historically interpreted comprehensively to protect these smaller waters, they were put into question following two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006. The resulting Administrative guidance put protections for these waters even more into question as enforcement of polluters significantly declined [PDF].
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers have released a proposed Clean Water Rule in an effort to clarify what waters are – and are not – protected under the law. If you like to go fishing, enjoy drinking clean water, or love to boat in a healthy river – this proposed rule affects you.What can you do to help restore protections to small streams and wetlands?
Moving forward on the proposed Clean Water Rule will be an uphill battle, with big polluters pushing to maintain the status quo of uncertainty and reduced protections. Efforts in Congress to block the proposed Clean Water Rule are ongoing. Think about your Pine Creek and add your voice today in support of a strong rule that protects clean water for the health of our rivers and the communities that depend upon them.