Protecting American Rivers

We talk with American Rivers and the threats to our most treasured rivers.

The Wading Room discusses the conservation efforts that Simms sponsors.  Next in this series of posts is a conversation with Scott Bosse of American Rivers.  Headquartered in Washington, D.C., American Rivers is the leading organization working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams.

Talk to me about the roots of American Rivers. American Rivers was founded in 1973 by a group of river advocates in Denver who were alarmed that many of the nation’s great rivers were being dammed and few were being saved in their free-flowing condition for future generations to enjoy. So initially our goal was to add as many rivers as possible to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

What are your main focuses now? American Rivers has four major program areas – river protection, river restoration, clean water, and water supply. Within the conservation community we are best known for our efforts to protect rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and restore them by taking out obsolete dams. Currently, we are involved in about 50 dam removals a year, mostly in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. Most of these dams are over 100 years old and they no longer produce power or other benefits to society. By removing them, we not only restore fish and wildlife, but we also protect downstream communities that could flood if these outdated dams fail.

Where are you dedicating your time? As Northern Rockies Director, I spend all of my time in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, which isn’t a bad gig if you love fly fishing. I’m currently involved in three major campaigns – permanently protecting western Montana’s last, best rivers from new dams and other threats; protecting the Teton River and its tributaries in eastern Idaho from proposed new dams; and protecting the rivers and streams of the Snake headwaters watershed in western Wyoming from oil and gas drilling. I’m lucky in that most of my work involves protecting rivers that are still intact and support healthy fisheries. My colleagues in other parts of the country focus more on restoring rivers that have been degraded.

Talk to me about the scale of dams. How many are out there in the US? There are an estimated 75,000 large dams in the country. It’s safe to say that thousands of those are good candidates for removal because they no longer serve the purposes for which they were originally built and they block fish runs. American Rivers identifies those dams that pose the greatest threats to the environment and downstream communities, builds local and political support for removing them, and then secures the funds to get the job done.

What role does the quality of the fishery play in evaluating these projects? Restoring fish runs is one of our highest priorities when it comes to choosing which dams to remove. If we can identify obsolete dams that block fish from accessing hundreds of miles of habitat, we’re going to prioritize those first. Last year, after decades of advocacy by American Rivers and other conservation groups, we got to witness the historic removal of two dams on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula that will open the door for 400,000 steelhead and salmon to return to 75 miles of pristine habitat in Olympic National Park. As a former fisheries biologist in Olympic, that’s pretty damn cool.

Who is the typical American Rivers supporter? Currently we have more than 100,000 members and supporters in all 50 states. Many of us are anglers, many are boaters, and many just appreciate our rivers for their spectacular scenery and abundant fish and wildlife. We operate on an annual budget of about $15 million, with the bulk of our funding coming from foundations, individual donors, and government grants.

There are a lot great organizations out there. Talk to us about the differences in organizations? Our mission is to protect and restore all kinds of rivers in all parts of the country, from Alaskan salmon rivers to the blackwater rivers of the Carolinas. That mission differentiates us from other highly effective river-based organizations like Trout Unlimited , which focuses on conserving coldwater fisheries, or American Whitewater, which focuses on conserving rivers that support whitewater recreation. In a crowded conservation field with limited funding, we try to focus on things that few other groups are focusing on – like Wild and Scenic designations, dam removals, dam relicensing, and reconnecting communities to their local rivers through the establishment of Blue Trails. We’re perhaps best known for our annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers™ Report, which for the last 27 years has been highly successful at shining a national spotlight on rivers that face a key decision point.

We talked about dam removal. What are other threats to our rivers? In the 1990s, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt traveled the country with a sledgehammer in his hand proclaiming that the era of building big dams was over. I wish he was right, but we’re finding that’s not the case. With climate change tightening its grip and the demand for new water and power escalating, we’re seeing new dams being proposed across the country. Here in the Northern Rockies, new dams are being proposed on some of our most fabled trout streams like the Upper Madison River and East Rosebud Creek in Montana, the Teton River and Boise River in Idaho, and the Upper Green River in Wyoming. American Rivers believes that if we want to add more hydropower to the nation’s energy portfolio, we should focus on electrifying existing dams and putting small-scale hydropower projects in more benign places like irrigation canals. One fact that most people don’t know is that only 3 percent of the nation’s dams produce any power at all. We should look at retrofitting those dams before we consider destroying our last remaining free-flowing rivers.

Another serious threat that our rivers are facing in the 21st century is oil and gas drilling. Over the past decade, natural gas drilling facilitated by the controversial process of fracking has exploded in places like Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure stream of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground to release the gas. It’s crazy that we’re risking our drinking water and trout streams before we even know what the full range of impacts will be.

Of course there are many other threats to the nation’s rivers that keep us busy – from unwise floodplain development to attempts in Congress to eviscerate the Clean Water Act. I don’t think we’re in danger of putting ourselves out of business anytime soon.

Besides donating to American Rivers what is your advice to our audience to get more involved in protecting waterways?

First off, join a local conservation organization and get your hands dirty on a river cleanup or planting willows along your favorite trout stream. By getting involved with local groups, you can keep apprised of what’s happening to your local rivers and give something back to the rivers that give you so much.

If you’re interested in knowing how state and national policies could affect not only your local rivers, but rivers across the country, then I strongly encourage you to join American Rivers. You can learn all about us on our website ( and Facebook page.

Finally, don’t forget to get out on your favorite river with your fly rod or paddle in hand and experience the magic of moving water. Humans tend to save those things they love most.

East Rosebud River, Montana. Proposed dam site.