On Friday, June 28th, the Supreme Court overturned the Chevron doctrine in a 6-3 decision in Loper Bright v. Raimondo. In doing so, the Court unleashed a new era of uncertainty for the environmental regulations that protect rivers and clean water. Named for the landmark case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984), the Chevron doctrine has shaped the way courts defer to administrative agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes for the last forty years. The doctrine allowed agencies to take a pragmatic approach to complex regulatory challenges by relying on agency expertise rather than explicit Congressional direction.

Judicial review has long been a part of the regulatory rule-making process in the highly-litigious environment of the United States. Typically when reviewing agency regulations, the courts first determine whether or not Congress has spoken directly to the issue in question. If the Congressional intent is clear, the courts follow that intent. In cases of Congressional ambiguity, however, the Chevron doctrine required judges to defer to the expertise of agency staff. The reasoning for this deference was the recognition that agency staff often possess specialized knowledge and expertise in their respective fields. 

The overturn of the Chevron doctrine now disrupts this delicate balance between judicial oversight and administrative expertise by eliminating deference to agency expertise and allowing the courts increased discretion to interpret, according to their individual judgment, whether agency regulations are permissible. Critically, it limits the role of experts in the development of regulations in favor of statutory clarity and judicial review by non-experts.

The end of Chevron deference will have a notable impact on the environmental protection of rivers, wetlands, and streams. Particularly at issue will be the scope and interpretation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Enacted in 1972, the CWA is the cornerstone of federal environmental law aimed at restoring and maintaining the integrity of the nation’s waters by regulating the discharge of pollutants and setting water quality standards. Regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are charged with enforcing the provisions of CWA. For nearly half a century, these agencies have had broad latitude to interpret the CWA and enforce a reasonable regulatory regime. However, this power of interpretation has now largely been stripped away from the agencies and applied to the judiciary.

Kids playing along a stream | iStock
Kids playing along a stream | iStock

Now more than ever it is important for Congress to take action for rivers and clean water. With agencies now constrained in their ability to broadly interpret the law in favor of environmental protection, Congress must make clear its intentions to protect clean water for all. The end of Chevron deference is a call for Congress to write laws better and more explicitly as well as an opportunity for states to step up their own regulatory regimes, filling a gap now found at the federal level.

While the full impact of the overturn of the Chevron doctrine remains to be seen, regulatory policy will no doubt be a subject of intense scrutiny and debate for the foreseeable future. As federal agency regulations continue to evolve and face scrutiny in courts, the interpretation and enforcement of environmental laws like the CWA will continue to undergo changes, impacting how well the nation is able to address water quality and environmental protection for our rivers, wetlands, and streams.

This is a guest blog by Tim Palmer.

In river conservation we strive to make our work and stories known, and we sometimes succeed. But when rivers flood, they always make it into the news.

In what has become a milestone in the history of American flooding, and of our responses to it, a deluge justifiably called the “Great Flood” of the Mississippi held the nation rapt in 1993 with images of mayhem and misery. But American Rivers’ then President Kevin Coyle and his media master, Randy Showstack, knew that the tale of misfortune, along with the response of mercy and recovery, was not complete without asking the hard but mandatory questions: What should we be doing differently? What can we accomplish to not just alleviate the losses but to stop them from continuing? Furthermore, how can the life and health of rivers be better reflected in the stories we tell and paths we take following a flood?

Responding to these questions, American Rivers launched an insightful campaign that looked toward actually solving the flooding problem, focusing on a brighter future rather than a tragic past. Scoring the attention of national talk-show host Larry King, plus big newspapers nationwide, Coyle and Showstack urged recognition that floods are natural events destined to reoccur no matter how much we try to stop them. Our response must be to avoid damage in the future rather than just pay for it after the harm is done.

Flooding on the Skagit River, WA | Brandon Parsons
Flooding on the Skagit River, WA | Brandon Parsons

In fact, while billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent building dams to stop floods from occurring, and more billions spent building levees to keep floods away from homes, and multi-billions more subsidizing people to rebuild in the aftermath, relatively little has been spent to protect  floodplains from new development that will otherwise aggravate future disasters, and little has been invested to help people relocate away from deadly hazards whenever the flood victims are willing to go.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently found that every $1.70 our government spends helping people move away from flood hazards has been matched with $100 helping people stay in the danger zone by paying for relief, rebuilding, and subsidized insurance, all in order await the next flood. None of that covers the cost of the dams and levees that are too often ineffective or even hazardous with risks of over-topping and failure in the largest floods—not to mention the well-known damage that dams and levees often do to the nature of rivers.

The challenge to public policy here goes far beyond practical and pragmatic issues of spending, and directly into the realm of river conservation with goals of healthy rivers in mind. Floods, after all, are natural events that ultimately cannot be stopped by dams and levees. Floods are necessary phenomena that shape streams with essential pools and riffles. Floods recharge groundwater that half our population depends upon for drinking supplies, that nourish riparian corridors as the most important habitats to wildlife, and that create conditions needed for fish to survive and spawn. Rivers need floods and nature needs floodplains.

High-water problems have floated to the top of public agendas ever since the Flood Control Act of 1936, which unleashed a fifty-year frenzy of dam building on virtually every major river in America. Seeing the futility of relying solely on dams-and-levees, Congress in 1973 bolstered a latent national flood insurance program with incentives for local governments to qualify their residents for subsidized flood insurance provided the communities also zone lowlands to limit development from the most hazardous areas. Fast forward to the 2000s, and we’re promoting “natural solutions,” such as watershed management and floodplain reconnection. In spite of it all, damages continue to rise with greater losses occurring from continuing disasters.

Flooding along the Pearl River, MS | Shutterstock
Flooding along the Pearl River, MS | Shutterstock

And now the floods are increasing. High water is becoming more intense, more frequent, more widespread. The US Global Change Research Program in 2018 forecast precipitation to grow up to 40 percent across much of the country. Virtually all reputable sources report that flooding will increase with the increasing warming of the planet’s climate. It has to; every 1 degree rise in atmospheric temperature allows the sky to hold 4 percent more water, and it all comes back down as rain or snow.

A long list of sensible approaches have succeeded in denting the armor of this problem. The metro government of Nashville has sustained a floodplain management and relocation program for decades and succeeded in halting development on high hazard floodplains while helping 400 home owners voluntarily move to safer terrain. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have similar initiatives. Lycoming County, Pennsylvania succeeded in getting all fifty-two of its local municipalities to enact floodplain zoning and launched a buy-out program that continues, helping people move to drier ground. Napa, California transformed a conventional proposal for higher levees to a plan that expanded acreage dedicated to flooding and that created new parklands along the river. The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership strives to protect recreational greenways along hundreds of miles of the East Coast’s largest waterway.

My personal engagement with flooding began at the height of the Hurricane Agnes Flood in Pennsylvania when I lived in the danger zone at ground-zero of that storm—one that caused unprecedented flooding across eight states. Working as a county planner back then, my job was to figure out what should be done differently to not just recover from the disaster but to avoid the next one. In the aftermath I saw how dams had failed to contain the flood crest, how levees had ruptured when we needed them the most, and how post-flood relief was costly, inadequate, and useless in coping with the floods of the future. There had to be a better way. I set out on a search to find that path, and then, fifty years later, to write a book about this fascinating story of nature, community, culture, economics, engineering, climate, crisis, and always of rivers.

American Rivers led the way toward better understanding back after the Great Flood of 1993, and a similar mission continues with the organization’s current floodplain restoration goal of “reconnecting 20,000 acres of floodplains to their rivers” during the next few years. Doing this will allow flood waters to spread out, benefiting freshwater ecosystems and reducing damage to homes, businesses, water lines, roads, and other infrastructure.

Rivers make the news when they saturate the homes where people live, but that’s the bad news. The good news is that floodplains can be protected for when rivers do overflow, and so that our streams can deliver the benefits that only high water can bring, all provided we are not living in the path of the greater floods to come.

Former American Rivers board member Tim Palmer is the author of Seek Higher Ground: The Natural Solution To Our Urgent Flooding Crisis, published by the University of California Press, 2024, and other books about river conservation. See www.timpalmer.org.          

Yesterday at the White House, the Biden Administration announced bold and exciting new national goals for the protection of rivers and freshwater resources as a part of its America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge. These goals include protecting and restoring 8 million acres of wetlands and 100,000 miles of rivers by 2030.  These are the most ambitious benchmarks for clean water and rivers put forth by any administration, and build on unprecedented new protections and clean water investments under the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law. These would be a major contribution to American Rivers overall goal of protecting 1 million miles of rivers across the country.

The Administration announced these new goals at a Water Summit held at the White House that brought together roughly 100 inaugural signatories to the Freshwater Partnership, a collaboration of mayors, tribal leaders, state representatives, philanthropists, and members of the conservation community, including American Rivers. The Summit dug into the meaty freshwater issues facing communities that rely on the Mississippi, the Hudson, the Great Lakes, the Columbia, and the Klamath. I was fortunate to participate on behalf of American Rivers and was blown away by the collective vision, passion and commitment shown by the Administration and participants. The shear scale of what the Biden Administration and communities are doing to invest in and protect clean water nationwide was an inspiration. 

Not surprisingly, the Summit included very strong Tribal representation, including members of the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs in Oregon, the Yurok from California, and the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. At the outset Chairman Gerry Lewis of the Yakama Nation led the Summit in a tribal prayer and reminded us that water is life, a “first food” worthy of the highest honor in their ceremonies honoring the Creator. The Chairman noted that the Yakama Nation has already been working hard to meet ambitious conservation goals, having protected over 2,000 miles of rivers, 14,000 acres of wetlands, and reestablished connectivity for 200 miles of rivers through barrier removal. 

Members of a Water Summit panel included Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community (second from left).
Members of a Water Summit panel included Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community (second from left) | David Moryc

There was also a number of mayors from Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York who participated in the Summit and spoke about the ways they are working on the front lines of the fight to protect nature and put federal infrastructure funding to work to provide access to clean water for all Americans. Mayor Torrance Harvey from Newburgh, New York, 60 miles north of New York City, spoke eloquently about the importance of access to clean water as not only a public health issue, but also as a public safety issue. We should invest in clean water like we invest in other public safety needs, such as firefighting or law enforcement, since it too is a fundamental aspect of our community’s well-being. 

Two young river leaders, Keeya Wiki and Ruby Rain Williams from the Klamath River Basin in northern California, stole the show with their impassioned plea for why we must act to protect rivers and support youth involvement in the outdoors. With leaders like the two of them the future of river conservation is in good hands.

Safe to say I was incredibly inspired by all of these speakers and thrilled to participate in this unprecedented event kicking off the Administration’s expanded commitment to freshwater protection nationwide.  The Summit really reflected the full array of conservation and investments needed to meet the biodiversity, climate, and racial and social justice crises that face us all.  Along with all the mayors and Tribes who attend the Summit, American Rivers is committed to doing whatever is necessary to achieving these freshwater conservation goals and ensuring clean water for all.    

Though a century of damming has had one of the largest impacts on the health of the Klamath River, its ecosystems, and the fish and wildlife that depend on them, they are not the only obstacles the river faces on the road to recovery. It is difficult to understate the ecological significance of the four dam removals on the Klamath River: with over 400 vertical feet scheduled for removal in 2023 and 2024, its sheer scale is why dam removal is such an important start to the river’s recovery. Now that the dam removals are underway, we are shifting our focus forward to improve the health of the entire watershed, from the meadows of the Upper Klamath downstream to the estuary at the Pacific and the tributaries in between. Below are three post-removal restoration priorities that are key to watershed-wide recovery.

  • Establishing environmental flows: Environmental flows (water allocated for ecosystems, rather than directly for human use) are a big deal in the Klamath and its tributaries. An undammed river is not necessarily a wild river, and we need to designate water for the environment to enhance the health of our ecosystems. In the Klamath watershed, some of the undammed rivers like the Scott (which is vital for native fish and wild salmon) run dry year after year because of agricultural and municipal water use.  No single person or place is responsible for diverting the river; but together, all these small diversions are creating severely degraded and unhealthy rivers. Setting environmental flows help people know when and where water is available for diversions, and when and where it is critical for a healthy river. 
  • Restoring the Upper Klamath:  Though four major dams are being removed, the Klamath River will not be free-flowing. The upper river remains dammed, with Keno Dam and Link River Dam still in place. The water that runs through these dams is managed to maintain a steady water supply for agricultural water users and wildlife refuges, and the landscape around the river has mostly been converted for agriculture use. These developments have eliminated most of the wetlands in the headwaters that were crucial for shallow groundwater storage and improved water quality in the river, and many waterways run through many active working ranches and farms. While land management and water management have improved substantially from earlier practices, the damage done in previous decades remains. We need to scale stream restoration and habitat restoration so we can promote watershed-wide river health. Some of this work has already started, but more work remains. By working with landowners and rightsholders to reconcile how people live and work with rivers, we can provide a model of healthy rivers and healthy communities
  • Restoring the Klamath’s Headwaters: The headwaters of the Klamath extend far beyond upper Klamath region in Oregon. The headwaters of tributaries like the Shasta, Scott, Salmon, and Trinity rivers play a vital role in the overall health and biodiversity of the Klamath watershed.  Healthy headwaters create healthy rivers, and as the Klamath flows downstream, it draws water from the surrounding landscape. But with larger and more destructive fires fueled by climate change, water quality can be seriously impacted. As wet mountain meadows dry, they lose the capacity to store and filter water. These processes are critical to river health. We are taking the lessons learned from our meadow restoration and forestry management work in the Sierra Nevada with the Sierra Meadows Partnership (SMP) and integrating them into our work in the Klamath. American Rivers has joined the core team of the Klamath Meadows Partnership (KMP), a coalition dedicated to scaling the sort of work that can build towards resilience in Klamath’s headwaters and a more resilient future across the region.
Copco 2 Dam, CA | Shane Anderson, Swiftwater Films

Until now, American Rivers has trained our focus on dam removal, and for good reason. Now we are transitioning to the next chapter: post-dam removal river restoration. This work truly takes a village and depends on the combined efforts of Tribes , private philanthropy, the state and federal government, NGOs, private landowners, and impacted communities. To learn more about how to get involved as we look towards our collective future, please reach out to Pat Callahan at pcallahan@americanrivers.org.

As many have heard by now, 2023 was a major milestone year for dam removal in the U.S., with the initiation of the largest dam removal project in the country on the Klamath River in California. However, you may not have heard about the 79 other dams that were removed, reconnecting 1,160 upstream river miles. These projects reestablished migration corridors, made natural and human communities more resilient to climate change, improved access to habitat to promote biodiversity, eliminated safety hazards and maintenance costs, enhanced access to rivers for local communities, reestablished natural processes for healthy rivers, and many other benefits.

As a nationwide leader in river restoration, American Rivers tracks dam removal trends and maintains a national dam removal database. A total of 2,119 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912.

In 2023, the states leading in dam removal were:
Pennsylvania (15 removals)
Oregon (9 removals)
Massachusetts (6 removals)

Twenty-two other states also removed dams in 2023: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Pennsylvania still leads the country in all time number of dam removals at 390!

As Katie Schmidt recently shared, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has promoted a bump in removals, helping with at least 18 of this past year’s projects. We need more funding like this in order to address the backlog of dilapidated infrastructure out there.

Many dams in the U.S. are no longer serving the purpose for which they were constructed and/or are deteriorating and in need of significant repairs. Dilapidated dams pose safety hazards and threaten the resilience of human and natural communities. This year, the National Low Head Dam Inventory Task Force, in partnership with the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership, catalogued hundreds of thousands of dams, bringing the national total to more than 531,000 dams. American Rivers is building a movement to remove 30,000 dams by 2050, in partnership with communities, Tribal Nations, and state and federal agencies, to ensure that rivers can continue to sustain life.

You can read more about some of the projects completed in 2023 in our annual dam removal summary.

Map of dams removed in 2023

If you work on dam removals in some capacity (practitioner, regulator, researcher, contractor, community advocate, etc.), we invite you to join our National Dam Removal Community of Practice. We will be working with this community to build out strategies to get to 30,000 dam removals by 2050. If you aren’t heavily involved in dam removal, but you still love the idea of it, we would appreciate your financial support to keep the lights on.

Lastly, if you want to hear more about some case studies from the 2023 cohort of dam removals, please consider joining us for a webinar on February 21 at 3PM ET. You can register here.

We can make this happen together!

Our successes this year are thanks to you — our supporters, partners, allies, and volunteers. As we reflect on the past 12 months of opportunities and incredible wins, we feel pride in what we achieved for your local rivers. We also feel resolve: We must protect nature in order to save ourselves and the beauty and magic of our planet in the face of climate change, the loss of nature, and racial injustice. With you by our side, we will be fearless in our efforts to protect the rivers close to your heart and others across the country. Because our communities, our health, our wildlife, and our survival itself depend on it.

WINKlamath dams coming down for salmon and people
We are proud to have played an important role, alongside Tribal Nations and conservation partners, in advocating for the world’s largest dam removal and river restoration project currently underway on Oregon and California’s Klamath River. This time next year, salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean will swim upriver, past where four large dams once blocked their migration. These incredible fish will lay eggs in their spawning grounds and begin their species’ long road to recovery. Even if you’ve never heard of the Klamath, the reality of salmon returning — and what it means to local Tribes and the ecosystem — is breathtaking.

WIN ✅ Endangered Rivers became success stories
The 10 rivers featured in this year’s America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report underscore how health and safety are threatened by climate change, pollution, dams, and other threats to rivers and communities. Together, we must continue to defend these 10 rivers — and demand greater protections for all 3 million miles of rivers across our country.

Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Arizona: The Bureau of Reclamation released a simulated flood into the dwindling Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. 39,500 cubic feet of water per second were released over 72 hours (that’s billions of gallons) to benefit endangered fish, restore wildlife habitat, rebuild beaches, and protect cultural resources in the canyon. Simulated floods like this one are extremely important to a healthy ecosystem in the Grand Canyon. What does 39,500 CFS look like? Watch the video.

Lehigh River, Pennsylvania: State Rep. Joe Webster introduced a bill to protect riparian buffers — vegetated riverside land that provides habitat, reduces bank erosion, filters pollution, and lowers flood risk. One of our asks in America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2023, the bill is especially important because it will help protect the Lehigh and other rivers across Pennsylvania from harmful development and stormwater pollution.

Clark Fork River, Montana: The Clark Fork is threatened by toxic waste left after the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill closed in 2010. By advocating at the local and state levels, we convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to speed up its testing at the mill site, which we are hopeful will help prompt the Biden administration to order a cleanup of the site.

WIN ✅ Turning federal $ into action for rivers
American Rivers played a leading role in drafting the legislative language and then securing $1.6 billion for dam removals and dam safety in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021. We are now leveraging that funding and coupling it with your support to exponentially increase the number of rivers freed from dams.

  • We are overseeing or advising on large, complex dam removal projects around the country. The Albright Power Dam on West Virginia’s Cheat River, for example. The project will open 75 miles of the Cheat and hundreds of miles of tributaries to fish species, including walleye, allowing them to secure habitat and food. And for the first time in 70 years, local communities will be able to boat, fish, and swim in this section of the Cheat.
  • Thanks to our success in bringing together environmental groups, Tribes, and the hydropower industry for the benefit of rivers, American Rivers was selected to lead a $3.7 million project for the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal is to develop recommendations on dam safety, inclusive workforces, the federal dam-licensing process, and greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs.

STILL FIGHTING ⏳ Supreme Court Ruling Puts Clean Water at Risk
For 50 years, the Clean Water Act, enacted with bipartisan support, has served as our most fundamental tool for protecting waters across the country. Yet, this past spring, the U.S. Supreme Court released a devastating ruling that dramatically narrowed the act’s scope. The court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA erased critical protections for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and made the clean drinking water sources for millions of Americans vulnerable to pollution and harmful development.

We can’t overstate the implications of the court’s ruling: The rate and severity of flooding and flood damages will worsen, clean drinking water sources for communities will be threatened, wildlife habitat will be destroyed, and water treatment will become more expensive, driving up costs for millions of people. Additionally, when these wetlands are drained and paved over, they will no longer serve as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide, making our fight against climate change even more of a challenge.

Gutting protection for half of our wetlands is the opposite of how to address the nation’s water and climate crisis. Rivers should unite us, not divide us. American Rivers will continue to stand with local partners and frontline communities to secure equitable protections for rivers and clean water nationwide. We will do everything in our power to work with Congress to rewrite the Clean Water Act and press states to enact tougher laws.

I sit on the banks as I write this, filled with awe and gratitude after seeing the Columbia River. 

I am so emotional because the Columbia River is the final waterway that will carry me to the Pacific Ocean. I’ve paddled over 500 miles to get here, and I have become more invested in this river system than I could have possibly imagined. 

As I have now entered the main body of the Columbia River, I feel it’s my duty to tell you about the issues facing the waterways I’ve passed so far, on my travels to this point. But first, a little about this journey:

The Columbia River Canoe Project is an expedition from the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia – Silverbow Creek near the Continental Divide at Butte, Montana – all the way to the Pacific Ocean. My cousin, Braxton Mitchell, and I will paddle or carry our custom-made Navarro canoe over 1300 miles on this expedition, living on the rivers we travel for the entire journey. Our goal is to really learn about the health of the river system and share our first-hand knowledge to benefit the entire watershed and its stakeholders. To this end, we have an incredible crew of filmmakers traveling with us to create a documentary about our experience, as well as the social and ecological concerns facing America’s rivers. In this case, I’ve chosen a few issues to inform you about. 

The Scars of Progress

While the upper Clark Fork River flows inevitably into the lower Clark Fork, I see these two sections of the same river reversed in time. One possible future for the lower river has been written in the upper river. On the upper Clark Fork sits one of the most contaminated areas in the country, a problem so complex that the money and time it will take to fix the issues are almost incomprehensible. Meanwhile, on the lower Clark Fork, another ecological disaster rests at a tipping point.

Mining in the upper Clark Fork basin produced and processed the majority of U.S. copper during the industrial age. Advancement often comes at a price, and the scars of progress can now be seen in the upper Clark Fork watershed. The basin contains the nation’s largest superfund site, a mile-long acid lake, and an area where the Clark Fork flows over 19 million cubic yards of unaddressed toxic mining waste. 

Downstream in the lower Clark Fork basin, below the city of Missoula and on the banks of the river, sits the Smurfit-Stone site, which is the remnants of a wood pulp mill that made bleached cardboard. While the mill no longer operates, 50 years of industrial waste remains in the Clark Fork floodplain. One of the most pressing concerns is that a large-scale flood will erode the inadequate earthen berm, causing toxins to be flushed into the river. 

As we canoed by Smurfit-Stone, it was easy to see the horrific possibility of this threat. If you need more convincing, just look upstream. In 1908, a historic flood washed Butte-area mine tailings downstream, threatening life along the river, both ecological and human. A similar flooding event could occur at Smurfit-Stone with similar consequences. But there is an opportunity to prevent the upstream mistakes from reoccurring. Smurfit-Stone needs to be reclaimed while the cleanup is a relatively simple one, and before the drastic consequences of inaction become reality. 

Smurfit-Stone is just the beginning, and the addition of the Clark Fork River to American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers Report of 2023 provides important recognition and a way for community members’ voices to be heard. But if you ask the people who live in the upper watershed in communities like Butte, they’ll remind everyone that until there’s a full cleanup in the upper watershed, the Clark Fork can never be healthy. Step one is cleaning the toxic Smurfit-Stone site, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal: a clean and healthy Clark Fork River from the Continental Divide to the Lake Pend Oreille Delta.

Big Trash, Simple Fix

There is a problem in this beautiful watershed, as terrible as any, that simply doesn’t get the coverage it deserves–trash and garbage in the river. Luckily, despite being one of the biggest problems, it has a simple solution that anyone can be part of.

Everyday during our trip, we picked garbage out of the river, and not just the types of items you’d think. We picked up chunks of Styrofoam coolers abandoned after riverside parties, basketballs lost to the currents, and a water cooler from an office. The trash we couldn’t extract from the river is much crazier – a half-sunken 35-foot boat run aground, full cars from every decade in the last 70 years, hundreds of pounds of coiled barbed wire, and even a broken trampoline that had been claimed by the wind. More concerning, though, is the staggering amount of plastic in the river. It’s heartbreaking to be in areas of this amazing river that are relatively untouched and see plastic bottles floating by.

The solution to garbage in the river doesn’t require government involvement or millions of dollars, just you. It comes down to prevention and clean up. Prevent more trash from entering river systems by securing your garbage and educating others on the importance of keeping trash from negatively impacting rivers. Cleanup is even simpler. You don’t have to join an organized river cleanup (although it would be great if you did). When you see trash, simply pick it up and dispose of it properly. Clean rivers benefit not only the ecological health of the river, but also guarantee a trash-free river experience for everyone, including future generations. 

The Downstream Blind Eye

Industrial pollution and garbage can’t be addressed until we grapple with a principle that I finally understood as I paddled across the border into Canada. I call it the Downstream Blind Eye. Over and over, river impacts are passed to our neighbors downstream, and as soon as those impacts are out of sight, they are also out of mind. While the Downstream Blind Eye is a concept that can be seen in every watershed since industrialization, it is abundantly clear at the United States/Canadian border. The United States passes less-than-perfect water to Canada. Further downstream, Canada returns the favor by passing on to us pollution from a still-operating lead-zinc smelter. Both countries have turned a blind eye to the impacts passed across the border, and people have very little understanding of the issues on the opposite side. To the fish, eagles, bears, and countless other animals that use and rely on these rivers, our line on a map doesn’t exist and only water quality matters.

If the Downstream Blind Eye can be so apparent between two superpowers, then it’s occurring on every level, from states to individual landowners. At every scale, from local to international, a clean watershed can only exist if we take responsibility for our impacts and no longer pass them downstream for someone else to deal with. Pass on downstream only the water that you would hope is passed on to you from upstream. 

Fight for this Watershed 

Talking about big serious issues can make people think that the problems are beyond repair or that a resource is no longer worth saving. I’m here to tell you that is not the case.

In this watershed there are landscapes worthy of our greatest national parks. Places where you can see a golden sunset over a 400-foot limestone cliff that was carved by the river. The confluence between a river so brown it could be flowing with chocolate milk and one so green it looks like liquid emeralds, and when they meet they don’t mix for miles. A spot where you can feel the power of a waterfall free falling into the river just by the wind it creates. 

I’ve seen animal interactions on this river that most have only seen in National Geographic. Newborn deer taking their first wobbling steps along the river bank. A river otter that stops playing in the rapids to curiously watch as we pass by. Bald and golden eagles fighting above our boat to secure a fish that was snatched from the water only moments before. 

So do not believe for even a second that problems can’t be solved and this river isn’t worth saving. The beauty is still there, and it’s worth preserving, not just for us but for all those who wish to see it in the future. Join the fight for the health of this incredible river system. And win.

Enjoy The Journey!

Sarah Uhl wasn’t always a visual artist. After a winding career that included time as a professional bike racer, marketing professional at New Belgium Brewery and Big Agnes, and producer of a film festival, the Coloradan realized that it was time to channel her love of nature into a career as an artist. These days, the new(ish) mom is a fulltime creative, working across mediums such as commercial illustration, live art, murals, and map design. She also teaches creative empowerment in workshops and retreats. Find Sarah on Instagram @sarahvirginiauhl. Shop her collection at our store.

Sarah Uhl

What do you draw on for inspiration? 

All of my inspiration comes from Mother Nature. I was lucky enough to grow up camping and playing outside in nature with my parents. I feel a deep connection to the land. Not everyone has the opportunity to form that bond early in life, and it is my hope that my art can help point people back to nature, inspiring them to build their own deep love of the land through curiosity and beauty. I paint what I feel more than what I see.  

Tell us about the idea for this piece. 

When I learned that the new motto for American Rivers was “Life Depends on Rivers,” all I could think about is how we are all interconnected with nature. I wanted to show that interconnected relationship. My first idea was related to the way a river delta looks like lungs and vasculature. I realized I could overlay my home watershed on top of an image of people in a way that the river takes on the look and feel of their veins … their lifeblood … their very existence.  

It is not surprising that I landed on an image of a woman and a young boy, being a new mother to two young boys. The line work on the image is the actual waterways and mountain topography of the Roaring Fork watershed, a tributary to the Colorado River. The mother and son looking up towards the sun are showing a reverence for nature that I feel every day. 

What inspired you about this project with American Rivers? 

This job pushed me to refine my skills as an artist and to find the balance of creating beautiful imagery that draws someone into a story. It is my hope that this artwork creates curiosity and further inquiry into the interconnectedness of people and rivers. 

What is your favorite river? 

I am lucky enough to live beside the Crystal River in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. This sacred river shapes the valley and awes me daily. I am so grateful to live beside a river that reminds me how precious and magical life is. There are so many distractions in our modern culture that pull us out of that awareness, and it’s a huge gift to be able to pull myself back into that connection to nature.  

For our 50th anniversary, American Rivers is teaming up with five artists on original works that explore how important healthy rivers are to the future of humanity and nature. You can buy their limited-edition artwork atAmericanRivers.org/store.  

Art can inspire action! For our 50th anniversary, American Rivers is teaming up with five artists on original works that explore how important healthy rivers are to the future of humanity and nature.

The nation’s most iconic poster press Globe Collection and Press at MICA helps us kick off our five-part limited-edition art collection.

Learn more about Globe and visit AMERICANRIVERS.ORG/STORE to buy T-shirts, totes, posters, and more featuring this artwork and more from our 50th anniversary collection. 

Globe has an incredibly cool history. Tell us about it. 

Globe was founded in Baltimore 1929 and started out printing inexpensive posters for everyday people — so fairs, carnivals, boxing, racing, wrestling, big band. But it’s real claim to fame was in the 1950s and ‘60s with R&B and rock-and-roll posters for the likes of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and B.B. King.  

It was using a mixed-media process to produce these super-vibrant posters. Fluorescent backgrounds and bold black type became Globe’s trademark style. And its footprint wasn’t just Baltimore, it was sending posters everywhere from upstate New York down the Eastern Seaboard and along the Gulf into Texas.  

That carried forward into the late ‘70s to early ‘80s with go-go music and early rap and hip hop. And it held on until about 2011. When Globe finally closed, there was a community movement of artists and designers, historians, and students that activated to find Globe a new home and keep it in Baltimore, where it’s always been. The Maryland Institute College of Art, MICA, stepped up and purchased it when the press was 81 years old. It is one of the largest intact collections of letter-press printing materials of its kind in the country, if not in the world.  

What is Globe up to now? 

Now Globe is what we call a working collection. It has three jobs at MICA. We teach with it and pass on the tradition of the letter-press craft. We’re also slowly working on archiving the collection so it can be used for research and scholarship. And we also make new work with it. We’re using all of the great type and tools and stylings that made Globe famous. MICA has given us a lot of freedom to try a lot of different things. The collection has a really nice balance of commercial work, but we also do a lot of nonpartisan voter civic participation stuff and community-based projects. 

Can you describe the process that Globe used to create the posters for American Rivers? 

With any project, we always look to our archive materials as a place to start, whether it’s posters or wood blocks in our collection. This project with American Rivers was a little bit different because most of the time we design posters that need to be screen printed and letter pressed one at a time. This was a fun one because we didn’t have those same constraints. It gave us a lot of room to play with the wood type and the texturings from the collection to build up different layers.  

For example, take the poster that says, “Life Depends on Rivers.” That is the one that is most classically Globe, with a colored background and black wood-type text on top. We pulled the idea of the background from American Rivers’ annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®. The background for that poster is made up of wood-type textured graphics of our loose interpretation of what the shape of those endangered rivers look like.

What inspired you about this project? 

There’s a really nice symbiosis of using wood type as the base of these graphics. Because without rivers, trees don’t grow. We are kind of coming full circle in the materials that we’re using to do this design work — because it wouldn’t exist without water in rivers.  

I really like design where you are constantly finding more information about it, whether it’s subtle moments where two pieces of type overlap or a color hits or something shifts just a little bit. I like those really quiet moments in design where things sync nicely or in a way you don’t necessarily expect them to. 

To learn more about our Globe collection, please visit the American Rivers’ store.

California is living through a critical ecological moment, and the time has never been riper to build a movement around river health. From an intensive years-long drought to the recent series of atmospheric rivers that have inundated the state, we have been dealing with the whiplash between drought and flood, but also the emotional whiplash of an uncertain future. How should we respond to these changes as individuals, an organization and a statewide community? 

One of the ways I’ve responded to the urgent climate crises of our time is to join American Rivers. For the past 20 years, rivers have guided my personal and professional choices, whether connecting me with the man who became my husband or guiding me through the various phases of my career: whitewater rafting guide, master’s and doctoral student, conservation partner, and scientist.

Committing myself to rivers – to saving them through collaboration and science – was an act of faith. Faith that if I made choices centered on what I believed was true – that rivers are the fabric that connect our lives – I would meet opportunities to do something good. My faith was rewarded with the opportunity to become American Rivers’ California Regional Director. It was also a reminder of the power of preparation. Faith and preparation are the tools we need now to secure the future for healthy rivers and the communities that depend on them.

In the Dreamt Land by Mark Arax, a vivid historical portrait of California’s Central Valley, Arax describes an amnesia that seems to grip California after extreme natural events. Floods and drought come and go with the seasons, and when they depart, we seem to forget where we live. We forget that to be in California is to be an inextricable part of its natural systems.  Acknowledging our collective amnesia reminds us to prepare on all fronts. The rhythms of nature are cyclical, it’s extremes a perennial issue. And when circumstances change radically and suddenly, as climate change guarantees they will for decades to come, we can find ourselves reacting rather than responding. 

As an organization, American Rivers needs to be nimble and prepared. We need to set up our work on a diverse array of fronts so that when an opportunity arises, we are ready to push forward with concrete solutions. Much of this work is already being done. American Rivers has been preparing and building resilience for half a century. 50 years of restoration has created deep impact on the ecosystems and communities of California. Our multi-benefit work in the floodplains of California’s Central Valley mitigates flood risk, improves ecosystem health and water quality, opens access to natural space, and provides essential habitat for the creatures we love. In the headwaters of the Sierra Nevada, we are tackling these problems at the source, restoring mountain meadows, mitigating wildfire risk, and more. And there is much more to do. 

It is difficult to understate the critical importance of river health. When we reframe rivers as integral connectors of living systems, then it becomes clear that life depends on rivers. California depends on rivers. I depend on rivers. And I love them.

I’ll share that my favorite view of a river is the canyon wall at Nankoweap, a river camp on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, where hundreds of millions of years of history have been archived in the rainbow catalog of rock formations. The human footprint at this site stretches back millennia, with the ancient stone granaries built by Ancestral Puebloan people still standing. We are not the first to manage these landscapes, nor will we be the last. Standing on the banks of the Colorado, it feels as if time itself is captured in the wall. The river has cut through and exposed millions of years through its natural course, a geologic reminder that no single person is responsible for our precious environment. Simply put, no one can do it all, but we can all do our parts.

We will be a blip in the geologic archive one day. And while nature persists and evolves, what will we leave for the people coming after to us to move forward with? I take comfort in knowing that I need to do my part, and that I can look to these amazing places as a reminder that if we focus and prepare, the opportunity to do something good will arise. Rivers are durable and dynamic, but they are not immortal. We need to steward the natural world with care, drawing on a range of wisdom and perspectives to inform and calibrate our approach to conservation. And we need to work together so that we can push forward together, breaking down the artificial barrier separating humans from the natural world we are a part of, lifting the haze of amnesia to train our gaze on the future of California.