Healthy free-flowing rivers and riverine wetlands provide myriad benefits to nature and people, including helping to drive local economies throughout the U.S. These waterways sustain aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and ecosystems, provide clean drinking water for communities, and offer places for cultural and recreational experiences.
On March 14, International Day of Action for Rivers, The Pew Charitable Trusts is reminding lawmakers of these benefits and encouraging them to increase safeguards for rivers nationwide.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, boating, fishing, and other river activities accounted for more than $30 billion in U.S. annual gross output in 2020. Further, rivers are the source of drinking water for more than two-thirds of Americans.
And yet less than 1% of river miles in the U.S. are federally designated as wild and scenic, a status that prohibits new dams and other activities that would significantly harm fish habitat, scenic values, recreation, and a river’s other attributes. Polling commissioned last year by Pew found that nearly 7 in 10 Western voters felt that more rivers should be safeguarded. Here are some of the many waterways across the country that could gain protection under bills now before Congress. These rivers provide multiple benefits, including vital wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, and recreational opportunities.
California‘s Upper Sespe Creek
Upper Sespe Creek, along California’s Central Coast, supports endangered steelhead trout and one of the largest populations of endangered arroyo toad and contributes to the aquifer that is a source of irrigation and drinking water for Ventura County.
The creek would be safeguarded under the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act, introduced by Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in May 2021, which would protect more than 500 miles of rivers and nearly 1.6 million acres of public lands in northwest, central, and Southern California. The bill is backed by business owners, local elected officials, veterans, park equity advocates, hunters, anglers, conservationists, and mountain bikers who want to restore watersheds and fisheries, support economic development, and enhance recreational opportunities. California’s outdoor recreation economy generated $44.5 billion and 488,755 jobs in 2020.
The U.S. House passed legislation safeguarding the places included in the PUBLIC Lands Act in both this Congress and the previous one. It is time for the Senate to follow suit.
Oregon’s rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes provide clean drinking water to communities and vital wildlife habitat and support a thriving outdoor recreation economy. Yet only 2% of the state’s 110,000 miles of rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Oregon’s members of Congress are trying to change that.
In February 2021, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced the River Democracy Act of 2021, which would designate approximately 4,700 miles of waterways throughout the state as wild and scenic. They also introduced the Oregon Recreation Enhancement Act, which would create the Rogue Canyon and Molalla recreation areas, expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area, and prevent destructive mining on pristine rivers in southwestern Oregon.
One of the many rivers in the River Democracy Act, the 56-mile-long Illinois River, flows through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, home to numerous rare plant species, including Howell’s mariposa lily, the Oregon willow herb, the Waldo gentian, and the western bog violet.
The rivers these bills would protect contribute to Oregon’s $5.3 billion outdoor recreation economy, which supports nearly 70,000 jobs.
Gila River, New Mexico
In southwestern New Mexico, the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries form one of the largest undammed watersheds in the lower 48 states. For decades, a broad coalition that includes local landowners, small business owners, and sportsmen has been working to protect more than 450 miles of these waterways as wild and scenic. A 2020 Pew-commissioned report by the independent Southwick Associates found that water-related recreation along the Gila and San Francisco rivers supports nearly 4,000 jobs, provides $92.4 million in income, and generates roughly $427 million each year.
In November 2021, New Mexico senators Martin Heinrich (D) and Ben Ray Luján (D) reintroduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, which designates portions of the Gila River, its watershed, and other rivers in the Gila National Forest as wild and scenic.
The Hamma Hamma and other Wild Olympics rivers
In Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Hamma Hamma River is one of many wild rivers that would be protected by Senator Patty Murray’s (D-WA) and Representative Derek Kilmer’s (D-WA) Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Hamma Hamma, home to an endangered salmon run, tumbles nearly 5,000 vertical feet in 15 miles, through lush forest where bears, cougars, mountain goats, and marmots thrive.
This legislation would protect some 465 miles of rivers in Washington and more than 126,000 acres of wilderness in Olympic National Forest. It is the result of a multiyear public process featuring extensive local input, including from the timber industry and timber communities, and is endorsed by more than 800 Olympic Peninsula and Hood Canal region businesses, tribes, farms, conservation and recreation organizations, local elected officials, and religious and community leaders.
York River, Maine
The York River, along with other southern Maine waterways, provides important habitat for many species, including smelt, and supports a regionally critical commercial fishing industry.
In March 2021, Senator Angus King (I-ME) introduced the York River Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2021, a bill that was developed by the York River Study Committee, a diverse group of local stakeholders. This bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), would designate approximately 30 miles of the York River and tributaries as wild and scenic.
Little Manatee and Kissimmee rivers, Florida
The Little Manatee River is one of the most pristine blackwater rivers in Florida and is recognized by the state as an “Outstanding Florida Water.” A haven for canoeing, kayaking, boating, and fishing, it encompasses important seasonal habitat for the threatened Florida manatee. The Little Manatee Wild and Scenic River Act, bipartisan legislation introduced by Representatives Vern Buchanan (R-FL) and Darren Soto (D-FL) and supported by Republicans and Democrats on the Hillsborough and Manatee county commissions, directs the National Park Service to study the river for possible designation as wild and scenic. Passing this bill would be a significant first step in protecting an approximately 51-mile-long segment of the Little Manatee.
The Kissimmee River in south-central Florida feeds Lake Okeechobee and ultimately flows into the Everglades. The river is home to largemouth bass, the endangered wood stork, and plants such as pickerelweed and buttonbush and is a critical stop for migratory birds. In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers altered the river’s flow, which subsequently destroyed tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and contributed to substantial phosphate pollution. Restoration that began in the 1990s and cost more than $1 billion returned more than 63,000 acres of wetlands. The Kissimmee River Wild and Scenic River Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Soto and Buchanan, would direct the National Park Service to study the prospects for including the river in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System—the first step toward permanently protecting that investment.
Join Pew in urging members of Congress to pass these bills through. Only when rivers are wild and healthy can they provide a full suite of benefits to ecosystems and the wildlife, people, and economies that depend on them.
Brett Swift works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect and restore free-flowing rivers for the U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.