Expert Insights

Preserving Our Rivers

Kevin Jennings
July 10, 2023
In this article, we explain some of the perils that exist for our rivers and waterways and steps you can take to help preserve them. When faced with big problems we often hear people lament, “What can I do? I’m just one person.” Here are a few ideas.
a woman floating down the river on an innter-tube

River Preservation Initiatives

GreenCars offers a safe haven for the green lifestyle. A place where you can learn how to be a part of the solution when it comes to many of the manmade ecological maladies that face our world today.

In this article we hope to explain some of the perils that exist for our rivers and waterways and steps you can take to help preserve them. When faced with big problems we often hear people lament, “What can I do? I’m just one person.” But it is important to keep in mind that even the small changes we make will result in a big difference in the world.

“These are the times and we are the people. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” –Dr. Jean Houston

group of women floating down the river on inner-tubes

Rollin’ on the River

You know what rivers are. You see them in most TV commercials that advertise pickup trucks or SUVs. They are those wild waterways that appear to be pristine and filled with salmon for hungry bears to capture with little effort. That’s the fantasy of our rivers. As you’ll learn in this article, the truth is a bit different.

Even if you’ve never surged down roaring river rapids or caught a fresh trout along a shore, rivers are an important part of our fresh water system. In fact, rivers are the main source of our clean drinking water in America and their health affects the water we drink. Our forests and rivers act as water filters, purifying the water so it requires less chemical treatment and filtration to be drinkable.

Our rivers also support all manner of animals including fish, birds and mammals. Over 80 percent of migrant songbirds rely on rivers, streams and surrounding wetland areas for migration and nesting. In many countries, rivers are used for fresh water farming of fish like salmon. These fisheries provide 2.6 billion people with 20 percent of their seafood. Rivers are also used for hydropower to create electricity for things like electric cars.

The Colorado River alone supplies 36 million people with water from Denver to Los Angeles. Rivers depend on snowmelt from our mountains to trickle down into tributaries and reservoirs. We depend on a great snow season to keep our rivers full. But climate change is limiting the snowpack and that means less water.

River gorge

Rivers in Crisis

According to Friends of the River, only three percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water and two thirds of that is frozen in glaciers and the polar ice caps. That means we only have ONE percent of the planet’s fresh water supply to actually use. One percent. Just because water comes out of your tap or garden hose doesn’t mean there’s an endless supply.

On average in America, we each use 80 to 100 gallons of water every day. That’s twice the global average. If we all pitch in and cut down on our consumption of water, we can save our rivers from running dry.

The truth is that our rivers and streams are in jeopardy and that is a threat to biodiversity and our supply of fresh drinking water. Luckily, the main threats to rivers are caused by human beings and that offers hope that we can also act as the cure to these problems. These include diminishing wild places due to human encroachment, agricultural runoff and pollution of our waterways. These stressors endanger the biodiversity of 65 percent of the world’s river habitat.

Did you know that there are 2.9 million miles of rivers across the United States and that 600,000 miles of river are blocked by dams? In 1968 Congress passed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to preserve our rivers in a free-flowing condition. More on dams later.

Better land management and irrigation techniques that focus on protecting ecosystems will help to get our rivers back on track, but there is much more we can each do to ensure our rivers continue to provide us with clean, drinkable water for a long time to come.

a man jumping off of a rock into the river

What You Can Do

Buy recycled paper products. They require less water to produce than new paper products and you’ll also save a tree. When you use the sink to wash dishes, save the water you run while waiting for it to get hot and water your house plants with it. Soak pots and pans instead or running water to scrape them. One imported bottle of water takes two gallons to produce. Use a reusable water bottle instead. Fix leaky faucets. One small drip leaks 20 gallons a day. Only run your dishwasher or laundry machine when you have full loads. You’ll save 1,000 gallons a month.

Take a shower instead of a bath. Baths use up to 70 gallons while showers use 10 to 25 gallons. Replace your showerhead with a low-flow model. They use less than half as much water. Also, shortening your shower by two minutes will save 150 gallons per month. You can use a low-flow toilet or place a brick in the water tank to reduce the volume of water used. Instead of using six gallons per flush, you’ll only use 1.6 gallons.

Water your lawn in the early morning to avoid losing water to evaporation and only water your lawn every five days in the summer. Watering more frequently only drowns your lawn. Clear off your driveway and sidewalk with a broom instead of using the hose. Plant native and drought-resistant plants in your yard that require less water and spread organic mulch to help hold the water. Remember that more plants die of being over watered than from lack of water.

Car washes use recycled water that not only saves the water you would normally use but also saves nearby rivers from dirty runoff. Remember that any chemical you use ends up in our water supply. Buy biodegradable cleaning products. Choose natural soaps, cleaning products and disinfecting agents.

an arial view of a dam

The Dam Problem

When thinking about preserving our rivers it is important to understand the dam problem. For over 100 years, the United States has led the world in dam building, blocking and harnessing rivers for a variety of purposes including hydropower, irrigation, flood control and water storage. There are over 100,000 dams spread out across America. The problem is that these dams cause considerable harm to our rivers by depleting fisheries and degrading ecosystems. Many of these dams are old, unsafe and are no longer serving their intended purpose.

Dams block rivers, preventing fish migration and slow rivers causing stagnant reservoir pools that disorient migrating fish. Dams that divert water for hydropower remove water needed for healthy ecosystems and cause dramatic change to water levels. Slow-moving or still water reservoirs cause the water to heat up, affecting sensitive species of fish. This also leads to algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels that impacts water quality.

two people kayaking

Speak for Our Rivers

You can join and support any number of organizations that work as national advocates to protect our wild rivers, restore damaged rivers and conserve clean water for people and nature. These include American Rivers, founded in 1973 and known for its boots-on-the-ground work. American Rivers reminds us that 44 percent of waterways in the United States are too polluted for fishing or swimming and that 40 percent of our fresh water fish species face extinction.

Hoping to restore our whitewater rivers, American Whitewater has been around since 1954 and has worked with agencies to remove more than a dozen dams to keep our rivers healthy and flowing. With more than 100,000 miles of waterways under its watch, Idaho Rivers United has helped to revitalize populations of sockeye salmon and assisted in stopping the Twin Springs Dam project.

Founded in 2008, Rogue Riverkeeper promotes advocacy, accountability for polluters and engages with the local community in Oregon to restore and protect the Rogue River. This group works with the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international advocacy network dedicated to fighting for clean water in more than 300 waterways around the world.

Since 1985 International Rivers has worked with hundreds of organizations in 24 river basins across the planet (that’s 17 percent of the earth’s total land area) to prevent or stop more than 200 damn projects. You’ll find a list of 108 conservancy organizations listed by state that you can contribute to here.

At GreenCars, together we can be the change.