Rivers of Opportunity: Building Momentum for More Equitable River Conservation
It is not an overstatement to say rivers are essential to all life. Healthy rivers help communities face the effects of climate change by dampening floods, recharging groundwater, and providing drinking water to communities. Additionally, two-thirds of our water supply comes from rivers and streams and are of deep cultural significance for many Tribal Nations and communities of color, offering nearby nature for all of us to enjoy.
Unfortunately, communities of color are also experiencing a nature deficit that is acutely connected to a systemic lack of safe access to rivers, riparian protected areas, and river-related decision making. According to The Nature Gap, a report by the Hispanic Access Foundation, the United States has fewer protected areas—including forests, streams, wetlands, and other accessible natural places near Black, Latino, and Asian American communities. Notably, families with children—especially families of color with children—have less access to nearby nature than the rest of the country.
The report also highlights that nature is not an amenity but a necessity for the health and well-being of all people. The Hispanic Access Foundation coined the term “nearby nature” to refer to the need and right of all communities to have access to nature, regardless of their circumstances. Access to nature should enhance quality of life and amplify the values of residents and therefore, communities must be at the forefront of all decision making related to the planning and management of their local green spaces.
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The Rivers of Opportunity Initiative
With nearly every person in the United States living within a mile of a river or stream, waterways provide the nearest nature for most people. American Rivers seeks to address the nature gap and historic racial injustices by working to make sure that fewer communities are nature deprived and left out of river-related decisions that impact their lives. Historically, the environmental community, including American Rivers, has often focused on the protection of remote and pristine areas, thereby ignoring developed and urban areas. American Rivers is working to increase protection of and access to free-flowing rivers close to where most people live, with an emphasis on collaborating with and amplifying the leadership of communities of color. Over the next three years, we will establish 10 new collaborations with communities and organizations of color and Tribal Nations to jumpstart equitable river protection, improve access, and advocate for new federal, state, and local funding.
To launch our effort, American Rivers and the National Park Service joined forces to create the Rivers of Opportunity Initiative, which seeks to engage communities of color in more equitable river protection. As a first step, we developed the Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool, which mapped the locations of high value rivers and vulnerable communities to assess opportunities for more equitable protections and improved access to rivers for communities facing climate and economic injustices. We condensed this information into an interactive story map that describes the Rivers of Opportunity Assessment in an easy-to-use web tool. This tool can be used to learn about communities facing climate threats near rivers with outstanding values, engage communities in conversations about how protecting their rivers supports their interests, and explore opportunities for collaborative projects that advance equitable river protection.
How You Can Use the Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool
The Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool can be used in several ways to learn about and engage communities in conversations about river conservation opportunities that address climate, environmental, and social burdens. It highlights river values that can be amplified to bring resources to communities that protect rivers in ways that elevate local values and interests. In this way, river conservation can be a powerful approach for protecting communities from unsustainable development and gentrification, addressing climate hazards such as flooding, providing greenspaces for residents, and boosting local economies. We offer some suggestions below about ways that you can use the Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool.
- Learn about a community: The assessment tool can confirm, amplify, and contribute to information already known to community members, help to identify relevant funding opportunities, and justify funding requests. It can also be used to educate conservationists, funders, elected officials, and other interested groups about a community and their river values.
- Start a conversation: The tool displays ecological, cultural, geological, and other river values that can be used to spark conversations that help potential partners visualize how protecting those values can improve quality of life. Developing additional materials that explain relevant funding opportunities that can help communities realize their vision, can offer opportunities to discuss potential partnerships that support community-led projects.
- Explore connections between communities: Connecting communities across landscapes is critical to successful river protection efforts. It allows communities to discover their shared interests and foster a greater movement for change that benefits people and the rivers they depend on. In addition, community-led protection efforts produce the most effective outcomes when they create new protections for rivers that amplify or complement existing protections. Connecting communities through projects that also connect their protected areas, can improve floodwater storage, conserve freshwater supplies in drylands, enhance habitat and migration corridors, preserve additional cultural resources, and offer opportunities to expand greenspaces that provide community benefits- employment and entrepreneurship, gardens, trails, and other recreational and educational amenities. The tool can also be used to discover areas where one or more communities might be facing similar challenges on the same high value river. Connecting those communities could provide greater opportunities and capacities to create and manage large-scale projects that have significant impact.
The Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool offers a dynamic and interactive approach to understanding how river protection can support the interests, needs, and values of the most vulnerable communities in our nation. Through its wealth of information and user-friendly interface, the tool can help facilitate conversations, build relationships, plan projects, and develop funding proposals that advance community-led river conservation.
In August 2023, American Rivers and the National Park Service began phase two of the Rivers of Opportunity Initiative which focuses on using the tool to engage organizations led by people of color to develop strategies for collaborating with the communities they serve. We will share the tool to build relationships, facilitate learning, and collectively envision possibilities for partnerships. We will also ask for feedback about the tool to understand its usefulness and how it can be improved. This collaborative work will serve as a model for equitable community engagement and demonstrate how healthy rivers can support healthy communities.
As we work with our partners to build on our work, we encourage you to follow along and see how you can get involved, and continue to help protect our rivers. Check out the Rivers of Opportunity Assessment Tool and stay tuned for future developments.