Rivers are the lifeblood of our public lands. Like the arteries that carry oxygen through our bodies, rivers help every part of the landscape to thrive. From vegetation sequestering carbon in riparian habitats, to caddis flies and other insects that feed on fish and wildlife, to salmon, rainbow trout and shad that transfer nutrients between ocean habitats and freshwater, rivers are an integral part of productive ecosystems.
Free-flowing river systems help build resilience by functioning like sponges, moving excess water into underground aquifers, which in turn can help ecosystems and communities in times of drought; form productive deltas that minimize flooding; and nourish adjacent farmlands, wetlands and mangrove forests that act as carbon sinks. A 2015 study found that rivers around the world carry around 200 million tonnes of carbon to the ocean each year. Additionally, waterways across the United States are considered sacred by many tribal nations. providing clean drinking water to millions of Americans; and supporting recreational opportunities that are vital to local communities and businesses.
Unfortunately, America’s freshwater resources are under increasing strain. Many lakes, rivers and wetlands in the United States have been severely damaged by human activities and are declining at a much faster rate than terrestrial ecosystems. Up to a third of the country’s wetlands have been lost since this country was colonized, and half of all freshwater-dependent species in the lower 48 states are threatened with extinction. Across the country, more than 90,000 dams and barriers block free-flowing rivers. Human activity literally clogs and chokes our vital waters.
For example, the widespread containment of rivers in Washington State over the past century has caused major damage to nature and people. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are at least 18,000 to 20,000 barriers in the state that impede the passage of fish. More than 10% of them, or about 2,000, are culverts that block fish like salmon and rainbow trout on their back and forth migrations between rivers and the ocean.
Although many of these culverts are small (some as little as three feet in diameter), they have a huge impact on these marine fish and are a major factor in the decline of coastal salmon and rainbow trout populations. from Washington. These species are sacred to many coastal tribal nations, and their dwindling populations have left the tribes without essential nutritional, cultural and religious resources.
Fortunately, a new federal law will help restore rivers across the country while improving fish passage, ecological functions and overall water quality. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, a bipartisan initiative passed by Congress and enacted on November 15, establishes the National Culvert Replacement Program, which will provide $ 1 billion over five years to states, tribal nations and governments premises to repair or remove culverts to facilitate passage of endangered and threatened fish. The law also authorizes the authorization of an additional $ 3 billion over five years for this work.
In addition, the law provides resources for programs that support the removal of obsolete and harmful dams. For example, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (CRP) Community Restoration Program (CRP) will receive $ 400 million over the next five years that can be used to remove dams across the country, including $ 60 million. dollars earmarked for tribal governments.
Many deserving river restoration projects will benefit from these programs. In Oregon, the Salmon SuperHwy Project – a collaboration of counties, state agencies, and conservationists – has targeted culvert removals that are most important to salmon and rainbow trout on the along the state’s northern coast. These projects will also help reduce flooding on roads, reduce damage and delays that affect commuters and the movement of goods from coastal farms to markets. In Washington, tribal nations have identified culvert removals and replacements that are vital for coastal salmon recovery. And in West Virginia, removing the Albright Dam on the Cheat River would reconnect more than 1,200 miles (about half the width of the United States) of rivers and streams in an area rich in biodiversity.
Pew looks forward to working with federal and state officials, wildlife professionals, tribes and stakeholders on the ground to achieve swift and effective implementation of these and many other exciting river restoration programs. . Success will ultimately make our rivers cleaner, our communities stronger, and our fish and wildlife habitats healthier.
Nicole Cordan oversees work on the Pew Charitable Trusts River Corridor and Jim Bradley is an Officer of the Pew Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Project in the United States.