Restoring Rivers and Protecting Small Streams: The Life of an American Rivers Intern

Today’s guest blog is from JP Miller, a restoration intern in our Southeast office.

mud salamander - JP Miller, American Rivers

mud salamander | JP Miller, American Rivers

My passion for streams and rivers developed during my undergraduate career at Virginia Tech. There I found myself, more often than not, navigating the New River and its treacherous rapids— wading through its slippery bedrock riffles in pursuit of an elusive quarry, the smallmouth bass. This same passion led me to graduate school at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, where I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in water resources management. This summer, I am a Stanback Intern for American Rivers’ River Restoration Program.

As part of my internship, I have been evaluating and prioritizing more than 2,600 dams across North Carolina for removal based on social and ecological criteria. In particular, I enjoy learning about the history of dams that are candidates for decommissioning (including many that may be over 200 years old), and also examining how their removal can restore degraded river systems. My master’s project also seeks to improve impaired rivers and streams, but instead does so by protecting their vital headwaters.

In the evening this summer, I have been following perennial streams in the Duke Forest in an attempt to identify the intermittent streams, which flow seasonally or only after rain events. The work requires a powerful GPS unit to map the streams. Following streams is often more challenging than one might imagine because dense underbrush often masks the network of channels that form the headwaters of the streams. While these treks often entail difficult bushwhacking, the wildlife sightings make the work worthwhile.

Southeast American Rivers staff, Linville River - Summer 2014

JP Miller (second from left) enjoying the Linville River during the American Rivers Southeast staff retreat

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), intermittent streams compose almost 60% of all streams in the United States. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that intermittent streams play a critical role in providing clean water to downstream communities by retaining sediment, filtering harmful pollutants, and reducing excessive nutrient loading.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that if these streams were filled, it would be virtually impossible to successfully implement a nutrient reduction strategy in a watershed. Furthermore, intermittent streams provide important habitat to a diverse array of aquatic organisms, including a number of rare or endangered species. Many terrestrial species also rely on seasonal streams for a portion of their life cycle. And yet, protection for these waters remains unclear. Read more about the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps’ proposed Clean Water Rule that is currently open for public comment to clarify what waters are – and are not – protected under the Clean Water Act.

Topographic maps do not usually show most of the nation’s small streams, and therefore hinder efforts to protect them. My research will attempt to support the protection and restoration of the small, yet important, beginnings of some more well known (and therefore more protected) streams.

Streams, big and small, afford myriad ecosystem services to communities and the natural environment, and I am proud to have spent a summer protecting and restoring our streams. It is not possible to have healthy lakes and rivers without protecting the two million miles of streams that feed into them.

Please help us protect small rivers and streams by telling your local Congressman or Representative to support the EPA’s Clean Water Rule!