Are We Making Progress In Cleaning Up America’s Rivers?

Dear EarthTalk: Are we making progress in cleaning up America’s rivers?

—Maria B., via e-mail

When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in downtown Cleveland in June of 1969, a nation already becoming more aware of environmental problems took note. Across the country, people were fed up with bans on swimming and fishing due to growing pollution levels. And rampant logging was clogging many a remote river system with soil and debris, making them uninhabitable by the fish that had evolved there for eons.

In 1972, in response to such concerns, Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollution into America’s waterways. This important law has worked well to curtail pollution and keep development in check, but it does little to restore already damaged river ecosystems.

Luckily, a large array of local governments, nonprofit organizations and ad hoc citizen groups has risen to the challenge, making the United States the world’s nexus for river restoration work. The National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project, a 2005 survey conducted by leading river scientists, identified 37,000 different river restoration projects either completed or underway across the U.S.

According to the survey, American taxpayers and foundations have invested nearly $15 billion in U.S. river restoration projects—or about $1 billion yearly—since 1990. Projects include: reforesting riverbanks to curb erosion; recreating natural river channels to reduce downstream flooding; removing dams to allow fish to migrate more freely; and restoring wetlands to better do their jobs at naturally filtering pollution.

Some specific high profile examples include Native Americans and farmers working together to bring wild salmon back to Oregon’s Umatilla River, and the creation of natural habitat and buffer zones along Texas” San Antonio River. And General Electric finally complied with state and federal mandates to begin removal of the PCBs they had dumped in New York’s Hudson River for years.

“It’s no mystery why river restoration is booming,” says Andrew Fahlund of the nonprofit American Rivers, a leading rivers advocacy group. “Rivers in good condition more readily meet the needs of the surrounding community than polluted and degraded rivers.”

A new House budget resolution calls for increased spending on programs to reduce the amount of raw sewage going into American streams and to better manage the nation’s 168 designated “wild and scenic” rivers. The resolution also calls for allocating funds for removing obsolete dams that could rupture and threaten nearby communities with potentially catastrophic flash floods.

Despite the positive trends, not all rivers are doing well. American Rivers” annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” highlights river ecosystems across the U.S. that are still in disrepair or under threat. Those on the 2007 list include New Mexico’s Santa Fe, New York’s Upper Delaware, Washington’s White Salmon, Texas’s Neches, Wisconsin’s Kinnickinnic, North Carolina’s Neuse, Alaska’s Chuitna, Iowa’s namesake Iowa River, Arkansas and Oklahoma’s Lee Creek, and California’s San Mateo Creek.

CONTACTS: The National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project; American Rivers