It is, we’re proud to report here, the year of the river.
That’s according to the hydro interest group American Rivers—a group with its neck constantly stuck out to protect our streams and water systems. Every year is presumably the year of the river in their world, but none more so than 2011. The group is already giddily touting two major restoration projects this fall. And one exciting one is happening later this month: engineers will remove the Glines Canyon Dam on Washington’s Elwha River. It was built back in 1927 and after a hydro plant that depended on it was decommissioned in 1992, the dam has been prepped to come down, leaving a massive stream restoration project it is wake, and lots of happy enviros.
With dams, it’s usually a tug of war between environmental and industry interests. To be sure, they do a lot of good in some areas. They trap water that communities can use before it runs off to the sea. They provide flood control on some stretches of river. And of course they, when implemented, can offer hydroelectric power to keep our lights on. But from an ecological perspective, there are even more reasons why dams are no good. They isolate and trap fish and other aquatic species, thus substantively changing the habitat. They mess with the water quality by trapping sediment in unnatural quantities. And they alter the flow of a wild river, impacting virtually all downstream species and consumers.
The ups and downs of river curating may have no clearer case study than in Los Angeles.
The LA River has been around for eons, a natural waterway from the Santa Susana Mountains out to the Pacific Ocean. It’s got a rich history of being diverted (the first time in 1825 after a flood) and joined with other rivers (the now defunct San Gabriel River) to find its path today. After a crazy flood in 1928, the entire natural channel was encased in concrete, which prevented future floods and allowed for a major population boom in what’s now the dense city of LA.
But now, some LA groups are trying to turn back time. Environmentalists have long pushed to scrap the concrete channel and return the river to its natural state. That’ll never happen, for obvious reasons dealing with population density. But there are ways emerging of getting the river back into a usable form. Tour groups have already started leading groups in boats down a roped off section of the river, and the city is rumored to be considering ways to open the channel to allow people to interact with the river, in the way you’d be able to boat, fish or even swim.
That’s a long way off considering the pollution runoff you find in LA. But one bright spot in the mean time: when a tour group opened kayaking tours down the river, the full entire group of 280 tickets available sold out in just 10 minutes.