2023 River Champion Award

The River Champion Award of 2023 recognizes leaders who are improving lives and strengthening our nation by advancing solutions for healthy rivers and clean water.

American Rivers is honored to celebrate the following River Champions:

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Chief Richard Sneed, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a federally recognized tribe located in western North Carolina on their ancestral homeland. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lead a robust coalition to remove the Ela Dam to repair 549 miles of stream and restore cultural connections to the Oconaluftee River, or Long Man. The Cherokees have always viewed the Oconaluftee River as “Long Man (Ga-na-hi-da A-sga-ya),” whose head lies in the mountains and whose feet lie in the sea. Long Man is a sacred figure who provides water to drink, cleanliness, food, and numerous cultural rituals tied to traditional and cultural ceremonies still being practiced today. Starting in 2021, the Honoring Long Man event – part river clean up and part cultural reawakening – reconnected people to the Oconaluftee River and what it means to take care of the water.

The Ela dam disconnects Long Man from the rest of the larger watershed and has since 1925 — almost 100 years. Because of this one dam, the entire Qualla Boundary and parts of Great Smoky Mountain National Park are entirely blocked off from their historic drainage. Migratory fish species, such as Sicklefin Redhorse, that once spawned in the upper Oconaluftee River and its tributaries were an important fishery and food resource for the Cherokee prior to the construction of Ela Dam.

Each year, thousands of redhorse fish reach the dam but are blocked from continuing their journey to historic spawning streams.  Removal of Ela Dam will be a giant step towards restoring this once vital and thriving fishery of the Cherokee. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ advocacy underscores the importance of greater engagement and leadership by Tribal Nations in river conservation efforts across the country.

Representative Mike Simpson (ID-2) 

Representative Mike Simpson

Mike Simpson is a U.S. Congressman who has represented Idaho’s second district, which covers most of the eastern half of Idaho, since 1999.  Since the 111th Congress, Simpson has served on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, and in the 118th Congress now serves as the Chairman of the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee.  

During the 115th Congress in 2015, Representative Simpson successfully championed a revised Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA) creating the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area.  This designation protects almost 276,000 acres of land in Idaho, including the sensitive headwaters of the East Fork of the Salmon River.  Most recently, at the start of the 117th Congress in 2021, Simpson put forward the Energy and Salmon Concept/The Columbia River Initiative.  This creative and comprehensive proposal calls for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams which facilitates endangered salmon recovery and fulfills obligations to Tribal Nations while providing for the replacement of the power with clean carbon-free power.  

Representative Ann McLane Kuster (NH-2) 

Representative Ann McLane Kuster
Representative Ann McLane Kuster

Ann McLane Kuster is a U.S. Representative who has represented the 2nd District of New Hampshire since 2012. Rep. Kuster serves on several House Committees including Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce. 

She has championed protections for a number of rivers in New Hampshire since she entered Congress.  She actively works to support the cleanup of the Merrimack River, protection of the Connecticut River, and leads the annual funding drive for the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.  She also succeeded in deauthorizing an unsafe flood control project on the Israel River in the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (WRDA 2022).  During the 117th Congress, Rep. Kuster sponsored the Twenty-First Century Dams Act which provides support for dam removal, rehabilitation, and restoration while also supporting tax credits for hydropower projects to add environmental improvements or dam safety improvements.  The bill ultimately had over 40 bipartisan co-sponsors.   

The Brunckhorst Foundations 

Barbara Brunkhorst | Courtesy of the Brunkhorst Foundation
Barbara Brunkhorst | Courtesy of the Brunkhorst Foundation

The longtime support of Barbara Brunckhorst and the Brunckhorst Foundations has been instrumental in helping American Rivers achieve our greatest victories, including safeguarding over 150,000 miles of rivers and over 3 million acres of riverside lands vital to wildlife and human health. Their steadfast support over the decades has also allowed American Rivers to drive policies protecting drinking-water sources for tens of millions of people. Generous gifts from the Brunckhorst Foundations have allowed American Rivers to consistently put our national expertise, on-the-ground presence, and policy experience to work, ensuring lasting impact for rivers.