Getting in the Flow: River Edition
Lord willin' and the creek don't rise.
It’s been a week or two since I last posted, and I apologize. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind with different projects and I have found myself not being able to get in the flow of an article.
So today, we’re really getting in the flow. Flowing water.
But before I begin, you might have seen some news about the latest IPCC report (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis of the last several large global climate assessments they have produced).
I will be summarizing this in even easier, more accessible posts next week, and depending on how energetic I get, there might even be a video (no promises). The media coverage of the report is a bit of a shambles honestly. Some of it is fine, some of it is just emphasizing weird bits, or getting it partly wrong. And of course, all of it is being overshadowed by the insane rantings of a certain ex-president. An ex-president who wanted to take us out of the Paris Agreement, by the way. Anyway - I will be revealing what the synthesis report means next week and I hope you’ll be able to join me in this wee newsletter for that.
Meanwhile, I wanted to take a moment to talk gurgling, bubbling, gushing, trickling, or cascading water: rivers.
Or at least that’s what rivers generally should do….except we are very enthusiastic about damming them and making the rivers ‘pool’ into man-made lakes and reservoirs. Sometimes this is to our clear benefit (water supply, hydroelectricity, flood control, more accessible recreation), but it’s almost always to nature’s detriment.
So let me start with some good news first.
The very first ‘Wild River National Park’ is now official in Europe. Albania’s Vjosa River is one of the last ‘unobstructed’ rivers in Europe, and it’s now going to stay that way thanks to the hard work of several organizations and the Albanian government.
Over 1000 species currently rely on and live in and around the river, including a handful of threatened species, and their habitat is now protected for the entire length of the river that starts in Greece and flows through Albania to the Adriatic Sea.
Much of the scenery around the river is glorious and eco-tourism is going to be encouraged in the new National Park. This serves the dual benefit of making this beautiful area more accessible in sustainable ways, as well as providing more economic benefit to the local, rural economy that has been struggling.
For me, this kind of extremely difficult, collaborative work that prioritizes sustainable use of ecologically-important land, is so important to celebrate. The pressures to dam this river for hydropower were intense, and almost succeeded. Relationships between government and NGOs were tense, and it was the introduction of the company ‘Patagonia’, acting as mediator, that ultimately allowed collective decisions to emerge. The science was important too - researching and documenting the 1000 species, including the threatened ones.
There are still threats to some of the tributaries and the delta of this river, but momentum is on the side of protection and responsible, local use, and this is huge.
Compare this to places that have been dammed.
In the Upper Mississippi, between its headwaters and the confluence with the Ohio River, there are 45 dams or locks. ‘Friends of the Mississippi River’ estimate that before the river was dammed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, there were over 125 species of fish. Now there are 20.
On the non-tidal River Thames, there are also 45 locks or dams, the first proper one appearing as early as 1630, though there many weirs before that (to divert water to mills). Locks have been an essential technology for navigating up the Thames - as important a transportation corridor in pre-industrial times as the highway system is now. Lock-keepers and their families were key pieces of the pre-industrial (and to some extent post industrial) economy and society. The locks and weirs are still part of flood protection controls (though it should be said that truly free-flowing rivers are almost alway better at controlling floods).
In some places, fish ladders and eel passes have been built on the Thames, to enable migration of ‘anadromous’ species (species that move from saltwater to freshwater to breed). The European eel is an endangered species and has suffered dramatic declines since at least the 1980s. Over 100 passes are now available to the eel on the Thames and there is evidence that this is helping. Though, it’s unclear to me why there isn’t more discussion of removing some locks/weirs completely. There has been lots of amazing restoration work done in the tidal Thames, but less in the non-tidal sections.
In the Minneapolis region, there IS discussion of removing two dams in the Mississippi Gorge area. While it would be very expensive and ambitious, and the Army Corps is still researching the impact, there is cautious optimism that miles of the Mississippi River might be reconnected and restored so that it can support more species diversity. Where dams have been removed in other rivers in Minnesota, fish diversity has rebounded.
According to a 2019 study in the journal Nature, and summarized in a World Wildlife Fund article, only 21 of the world's 91 rivers longer than 600 miles that originally emptied into oceans are still free-flowing. The planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers are largely restricted to the remotest parts of the planet: the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, and the Congo Basin.
In the United States, there are still a handful of rivers that are free-flowing: The Yellowstone River, mostly in Montana, the Pascagoula in Mississippi/Alabama among a few others. As a result, the Pascagoula has some of the most diverse fresh fish fauna in the nation with 109 registered species. Over 300 bird species also call the river home. The Yellowstone River is considered one of the best trout rivers in the nation.
Yet even here, there are threats. The Yellowstone has suffered two oil spills from pipelines and a massive fish kill (from disease) in the last decade, and water temperatures are rising.
It is critical that we support more projects like the Vjosa River National Park. Habitat, flood protection, and the ability for species to migrate and adapt to changing temperatures are all dependent on unimpeded flow of water through a river basin. We also need sediment to flow downstream and continue to provide material for our deltas and marshland as they try to keep up with sea level rise.
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Friends of the Mississippi, River Keeper and River Watch organizations in multiple parts of the country and world - they all need our support. I am linking especially to American Rivers who are providing resources to connect to local efforts on dam removal and other stream restoration efforts. Check them out if you want to see how to lend your voice and support.
And finally, I am pleased to report that on one small river in Tennessee - the Little River, in Blount County (my county!) - the Army Corps is considering removing three low dams that are currently impeding wildlife in a biodiversity hotspot. This river drains from the pristine Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and can support some of the most sensitive fish (such as darter fish). Definitely a river to preserve. I’ll be writing with my support to CorpsLRNPlanningPublicCom@usace.army.mil