are one of the state’s greatest
of the Problem
In the middle of the 20th century, America
went on a dam building binge. Dams were
seen as the essence of progress – “taming”
treasures. They sculpt the nature, generating power for unlimited real
estate development, and converting deserts
unparalleled beauty of our to farms. Dams embodied the spirit of the
landscape and deﬁne many of our age. As a result, more than 1,400 dams
straddle nearly every river in our state.
communities. But our magniﬁcent
rivers are sick. Consider these Unfortunately, in that era, little or no thought
was given to the environmental impact of
symptoms: California has more damming the rivers of the West. Just as no
one considered how thousands of coal-ﬁred
extinct, endangered, or threatened
power plants would affect our air, no one
freshwater species than any other really thought about how these dams would
affect ﬁsh, wildlife, or the overall health of
state. 65% of our native ﬁsh species our water supply and our environment.
are extinct or declining. More than
90% of California’s river habitats Dams and the
have already been destroyed. Environment
We have lost 95% of our historic Dams harm the environment in many ways.
The most obvious is their damage to the natural cycle of California’s native salmon and steelhead, which
salmon and steelhead habitat. migrate upstream to spawn. These ﬁsh simply can’t jump over a dam that towers 200 feet above them.
The West Coast ﬁshing industry has
Rivers suffer in more subtle ways, too. When dams are built, the downstream water levels are lowered. As a
nearly collapsed because ﬁsh from result, water temperatures rise and rivers become uninhabitable for native ﬁsh. Dams also capture sediment
and nutrients that would naturally ﬂow downstream, functionally starving both ﬁsh and other animals.
our rivers are threatened.
Water and sediment trapped behind dams has its own problems. The sediment captured behind many dams
What is killing creates dangerous accumulations of poisonous mercury from gold mining. Stagnant water in reservoirs
grows algae and bacteria that threaten human health. Toxins in the water behind Klamath River dams, for
our rivers? instance, indicate a threat 100 times greater than what the World Health Organization considers a health risk.
Today, there is no doubt that dams have played a central role in radically harming the health of our rivers.
There are a number of causes,
but the greatest single problem A Balanced Cure
is a vast network of dams, many of Not all dams are the same. Some dams provide irreplaceable water or generate essential power. Others have
outlived their usefulness. Still more have simply been abandoned or have become hopelessly ﬁlled with
them outmoded and ill-considered.
sediment. We should improve the dams we need and remove the dams we don’t.
Improve Essential Dams
Dam operators must ﬁrst reduce the harm they cause. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses dams
that generate hydropower, and those licenses must be periodically renewed. During those reviews, dam operators should
fulﬁll their responsibility to modify outdated procedures and embrace modern environmental management. Some utilities
and government agencies that operate public dams have already done
the right thing. As a result, portions of the American, Kern, Mokelumne,
Feather, and Pit Rivers have become far healthier for ﬁsh and wildlife;
they have improved water quality; and they have expanded recreational
Remove Unnecessary Dams
Nowhere is it written that all dams are permanent. In many cases
removing dams altogether is the best economic and environmental
solution. Smaller dams that are no longer economical should simply
be removed to allow ﬁsh to migrate. Many dams are abandoned or
unsafe and remain standing only because no one wants to pay for their
removal. We should craft a multi-year plan to fund the removal of these
With other large dams, the environmental harm they cause simply
outweighs any beneﬁts they may offer. In one example, four major dams on the Klamath River have contributed
to the near total destruction of the native salmon population. The loss of salmon has threatened the commercial
ﬁshing ﬂeet and bankrupted coastal communities as well as devastating Native American cultures that rely on
ﬁshing. Yet these four Klamath dams contribute comparatively little to the operating company’s bottom line.
We Can Restore Our Rivers
We’ve come a long way technologically since most dams were built. In the past 40 years,
we have cut by half the amount of water an average person uses every day, while both our
population and our economy have grown. Today, with sophisticated water management, we
can use far less water on farms and in cities. We can both generate electricity and conserve
energy in ways no one imagined when these dams were built. We’ve developed better ways
to manage ﬂoods.
We have a unique opportunity to move beyond old-fashioned dams, restore our rivers, and
reverse the decline of species that rely on them. The real question is one of political will.
Some utilities and government agencies that operate dams just don’t want to clean up their
mess. Some politicians won’t challenge the environmental practices of major corporations
and government bureaucracies. We need to convince them to take a modern, healthy
approach to our rivers.
California’s rivers belong to all of us. We should
take a comprehensive approach to restoring this
unique part of our natural heritage.
California’s rivers belong to everyone, and everyone should enjoy their environmental, economic, and
recreational beneﬁts. Friends of the River advocates a long-term plan to preserve, restore, and sustain our
state’s amazing rivers. We propose an achievable, seven-point plan to beneﬁt all Californians that can be
fully realized within twenty years.
Preserve 6,000 miles – or 3% – of California’s most pristine rivers through Wild & Scenic designation. California’s wild rivers provide
unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, important habitat for ﬁsh and wildlife, and a critical source of clean water. Protecting our most beautiful rivers as
Wild & Scenic will preserve our natural heritage for future generations.
Establish 1,700 miles of river parkways with easy public access. River parkways offer recreational opportunities for biking, walking, school outings,
and picnics. They bring nature into our urban areas, provide habitat for dozens of native species, and offer critical ﬂood protection to our communities. Everyone
has access to California’s unique coast; they should also have access to our beautiful rivers.
Ease the impact of existing dams & remove those that are obsolete. Returning rivers to their natural ﬂows allows native species and natural
ecosystems to recover and creates opportunities for increased recreational tourism like ﬁshing and rafting. While some of California’s more than 1,400 dams
provide important services for our modern society, many are obsolete or fail to meet modern environmental standards.
Utilize state-of-the-art techniques to improve agricultural water conservation by 20%. California is the most important agricultural producer in
the nation. Using existing technologies we can both preserve this critical part of our economy and signiﬁcantly reduce water use - dramatically easing the pressure
on our rivers.
Protect and restore water quality for people & wildlife. Every living thing needs clean water - and for most of us that water comes from a river.
Protecting and restoring the water quality in our rivers is a critical component of meeting the fresh water needs of all Californians.
Increase investment in urban water conservation & reduce consumption by 5%. Many California cities and their water districts are leaders in
conservation, but more can be done. Delivering water more efﬁciently, and using water more wisely, in every city can reduce the impact on our rivers.
Improve ﬂood management & preserve ﬂood plains. Floods occur naturally in California. Smarter management, expanded ﬂoodways, and fewer
developments in ﬂood plains will reduce the human cost and taxpayer expense of ﬂooding. Working with the natural cycle of our rivers, and whatever changes
may occur due to global warming, is our most cost effective and practical choice.
Learn more about this plan and other ways Friends of the River is helping to save California’s rivers at
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