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Sustainable Rivers Project focuses on River Health

June 9, 2010Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Sustainable Rivers Project focuses on River Health

The 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) declared that the Mississippi River is a nationally significant navigation waterway and a nationally significant ecosystem.  Since that time, some of the best minds in the business have been trying to come up with, in the phrase of Dan McGuiness, “a river that works and a working river.”


Too often, those two tendencies–a river that works as it would in a healthy hydrological cycle if people weren’t interfering with it, and a “working river” that carries our transportation–are seen as oppositions.  We don’t see how we can manage for both, or, if we try, which side will “win” if there have to be compromises.


There are several studies currently under way at points in the Upper Mississippi, experimenting with tactics such as seasonal drawdowns to mimic the natural seasonal “bounce” the river makes.  At the national level, the Sustainable Rivers Project offers much to be hopeful about.  At 36 dam sites on eight river basins, The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting science-based investigations on the effects of altering dam operations to more closely mimic natural river flow patterns.  Early indications are encouraging, and if the program can be expanded nationally, it may be applied to the more than 600 dams operated by the Corps around the country.  The Corps is the largest water manager and hydropower producer in the country, so a national program with their involvement would be a hugely valuable step to restoring river health.


As promising as the Sustainable Rivers Project is, it would be even greater if it took into account the needs and contributions of local people, especially people indigenous to the lands being studied.  Hydrology, geomorphology and engineering are central practices to the understanding of healthy flows of rivers; when we add human dimensions and the restoration of poetry to moving water, then we have truly completed a restoration cycle between rivers, people, and communities.


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