Rivers For Recreation, Part 3: Hustle and Flow

By Jacob Baynham May 5, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series:
Part 1: The Fab Five     Part 2:  Rivers of Divide      Part 4: Coming Soon


There was a time when river conservation entailed cleaning up old tires and ridding rivers of toxic pollutants. Fortunately America has made strides to protect its rivers from mining byproducts, industrial effluent and sewage. Even rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland—where the Cuyahoga River infamously caught on fire in 1969—have cleaner, healthier rivers today than they’ve had in decades.

But better water quality isn’t the end of conservation work on America’s recreational rivers. Today, river lovers are concentrating their efforts on three major issues: water scarcity, dam management and dam removal.

Water Scarcity        

In the West, the issue of concern for recreational rivers isn’t water quality; it’s water quantity. California is in a severe, nearly crippling drought. Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains is worryingly light. Reservoirs are at record lows. The challenge facing some Western rivers is keeping enough water in them to maintain their recreational value—a major source of economic activity for many towns and cities.

Take the Colorado River, for example. “We’re at crisis time on the Colorado,” says Craig Mackey, a longtime conservationist with a river advocacy group called Protect the Flows. “It’s going to get really interesting in the next few years.”

Water rights for the Colorado and its tributaries are regulated by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The problem, Mackey says, is that 1922 was one of the wettest years for the region. What once was feast is now looking like famine. The Bureau of Reclamation just completed a study predicting that with the effects of climate change, by 2060 the Colorado River will be 3 million acre-feet short of demand.

“We have to figure out ways to conserve water, to use water more intelligently and efficiently,” Mackey says. “For purposes of the outdoor industry, we have to figure out ways to keep some water in the river.”

That means more efficient irrigation (agriculture accounts for 75 percent of water use in the Colorado River basin), smarter municipal water use in cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego, and more responsible consumption by industry.

Dam Management

While water in the West is managed from a standpoint of scarcity, in the East it is managed from one of relative abundance, says Matt Rice, a conservation director for the advocacy group American Rivers. Eastern rivers also tend to be heavily impounded with hydroelectric dams, and those dams limit the biodiversity of a river’s ecology and also the recreational activities like floating and fishing. River conservationists often complain that dams managed by power companies fail to prioritize the health of the river and its recreational potential.

There is a way to address these issues. Dams that aren’t owned by the government must go through a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process every 50 to 60 years. Conservationists use this process to ensure power companies follow new environmental laws and best practices to maintain water levels suitable for safe recreation, healthy fish populations and improved dissolved oxygen standards.

This happened recently on the Saluda River in South Carolina. The South Carolina Electric & Gas Company owns a major dam on the river, which it operates as a peak reserve facility to store water in Lake Murray. Until recently, SCE&G released very little water from the dam. The low flow and scarcity of dissolved oxygen in the river downstream hurt fish populations and limited recreation. Through the relicensing process, groups like American Rivers, American Whitewater, and Trout Unlimited negotiated new operating rules for the dam to ensure better water levels downstream.

“We negotiated high flows for spawning fish,” says Rice, “and those flows are also optimal for whitewater boating. And this was all without the utility losing anything on their bottom line.”

Dam Removal

Sometimes, dams on rivers outlive their practical value and are dismantled to restore the river to its original course. For many conservationists, removing a dam is the best way to restore a river to its pre-industrial health.

In the southeast and eastern U.S., thousands of dams were built for small applications like powering textile mills and other industries. When those industries shut down or move to alternate forms of power, the dams no longer serve a purpose and, in some cases, river conservationists are successful at removing them.

Patagonia has emerged as one of the biggest forces behind the dam removal movement. As a company, Patagonia donates 1 percent of sales toward environmental projects. A portion of that money goes toward identifying “deadbeat dams,” and advocating for their removal. “It’s definitely been one of the core issues for us over the past 30 years,” says Hans Cole, Patagonia’s environmental campaigns and advocacy manager.

Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is a longtime fly fisherman and river advocate. About four years ago, after the removal of two major dams on the Elwha River and another on the White Salmon River, he had the idea to make a film about dams. The result, “DamNation,” was released in 2014. America has some 80,000 dams over three feet tall, the film explains. Many of them are old and obsolete and 26,000 are at risk of structural failure. “With that many thousands of dams,” Cole says, “aren’t there some that could come out?”

The benefits of dam removal, Patagonia and other groups say, are enormous. “The river really does come back,” Cole says. Salmon and steelhead return. Recreation opportunities increase. Riparian ecosystems improve. Communities thrive. Patagonia offers grants to local advocacy groups around the country who are fighting to remove obsolete dams. Two dams in Oregon—the Fielder and Wimer dams—will likely come out this summer. Patagonia has also set its sights on four large dams on the Snake River in Southeast Washington. The company is raising awareness about them on social media. They’re sending around a petition, and asking Washington voters to call their senators.

“Patagonia’s approach is to match education with activism,” Cole says. “These are big dams. This is no small effort. This will take five, ten, fifteen years. It would be the biggest river restoration project in the country, pretty much.”

But Patagonia and other advocacy groups feel the high stakes are worth the long-term investment. And the momentum is building. “We feel like this moment right now, the time is right for dam removal,” Cole says.