America's Surging Rivers — A Post by Daniel McCool

Daniel McCool, River RepublicThe following is a post by Daniel McCool, author of River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers:

The movement to restore America’s rivers has seen tremendous progress in the last two years. The restoration of the Elwha River is nearing completion. Two dams, Elwha and Glines Canyon, were successfully removed by the summer of 2014, and salmon are already repopulating the river. The restoration of the Elwha required more than two decades of unyielding effort by restoration “instigators” (people I profile in River Republic), and their persistence finally paid off. The Elwha will undoubtedly become a model for other large restoration projects.

Another big victory occurred when a massive hole was blasted through Condit Dam on the White Salmon River; the dramatic blast and subsequent reservoir draining can be seen in a video produced for National Geographic:

This river has also seen a resurgence in salmon populations, and the restored section is now a popular rafting a kayaking destination. Both of these restoration projects were featured in a recent documentary, Damnation, produced by Patagonia, that has generated widespread popular interest in river restoration.

There are many other dam removal success stories. Salmon have returned to the Rogue River following the removal of Savage Rapids Dam and three other dams in the basin. And the removal of two obsolete dams on Darby Creek, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, created an attractive urban watershed. Two dams, Veazie and Great Works, were removed in the last two years from the Penobscot River in Maine as part of a much larger river restoration project. The next big dam removal project appears to be the 106-foot San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in California. A complex plan to remove the sediment accumulated behind the dam has been approved, and complete removal is expected by 2016. Dam removals have now become so common-place that it is no longer considered a radical departure from current policy. The river advocacy group, American Rivers, reported that 65 dams were removed in 2012, and 51 in 2013.

Other major river restoration projects are still moving through the political process. The Klamath River restoration, which will require removing four dams and restoring hundreds of miles of stream habitat, still awaits final congressional authorization. And the removal of Matilija Dam awaits further studies on sediment deposition. But nearly all parties agree that eventually these dams will come out and the rivers restored.

Of course, many river restoration projects do not involve dam removal, which is only one of many tools used to improve rivers and make them more accessible to the public. For example, Battle Creek in central California is being restored by a combination of alternations in hydroelectric operations and instream flow releases. A variety of restoration strategies are being pursued to improve habitat and public access to the South Yuba River in California. The movement to restore and protect this river has been led for 30 years by the South Yuba River Citizens League, which is precisely the kind of instigator-led populist organization that is the focus of River Republic. Their mission statement is typical of such grassroots, citizen-centered organizations: “Our renewed mission statement emphasizes SYRCL’s charge to unite the community. The role of an activist organization is to be prepared to serve as the voice for the river, and to mobilize river lovers to defend against threats to the Yuba whenever necessary” (CYRCL Strategic Action Plan, 2012-2015).

Another fascinating attempt to restore a river through altered management is the Colorado River Delta. For many years the Colorado River dried up before reaching the sea. The delta, which used to be one of the world’s greatest wetland ecosystems, became a wasteland. In 2014, after years of negotiating an agreement referred to as “Minute 319” between the U. S. and Mexico, about one percent of the Colorado’s annual flow was released into the former river channel in a “pulse flow” designed to demonstrate that a relatively small amount of water could have a significant impact on the delta’s habitat. Thousands of people lined the river corridor to watch a sinuous tongue of water reclaim some of its old territory. For many children it was the first time they had ever witnessed water in the river channel. This momentous occasion can be seen on Youtube:

Urban river restoration projects are also gaining popularity. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, the Scioto River Greenways Project is transforming a section of the river from an eyesore into a highly valued public commons with 33 acres of green space and a pleasant stretch of water for kayaking and canoeing. In Salt Lake County in Utah, a complex multi-agency project is restoring portions of the Jordan River and creating an attractive river corridor park with biking and hiking trails. And a 17-mile segment of the Passaic River in New Jersey is being improved by removing contaminated sediments, reducing contamination from combined sewer outflows (CSOs) and surface runoff. And the seemingly impossible effort to restore portions of the Los Angeles River (profiled in River Republic) finally paid off when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans in May, 2014, for a $1billion project to restore an 11-mile segment of the river in downtown L.A. Apparently miracles do happen.

There are, of course, many obstacles and challenges to river restoration. The drought in California, reduced flows in the Colorado River, water shortages in eastern Texas, and demand for more water in Alaska have resulted in proposals to build new dams and pipelines and de-water more rivers. And new threats to water quality, ranging from fly ash to rocket fuel to fracking, have the potential to poison many rivers. But continued citizen-led pressure will help mitigate the impacts of these threats, and continue the fight to protect, preserve, and restore America’s rivers.

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