Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children's lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land." - Luna Leopold
Rivers of Opportunity
In 1769, the beauty and bounty of the Los Angeles River inspired the city’s founding on its banks. In the 1930’s the river’s erratic nature inspired the US Army Corps of Engineers to fix its course within a concrete straitjacket. In the 1990’s the Los Angeles River made American Rivers’ list of the country's 20 most threatened and endangered rivers 6 times. In 1995 it was named the second most endangered river in United States.
The Santa Clara is southern California's last major "wild river", yet encroaching development is impacting its water quality and despite the lessons learned, threatens to deliver it the same devastating concrete fate that engineers dealt the Los Angeles River nearly a century ago.
Our rivers today face many challenges, but the opportunities for improvement are astounding. One that today is a concrete channel, hidden under freeways and behind factories, could someday be a beautiful ribbon of green, connecting communities from the mountains to the sea. The other that is today a beautiful but threatened river could, with a sound management plan that adequately protects the river and its resources and recognizes the folly of floodplain development, be a model for the future.
Our rivers are an incredible resource. Living with this resource in our dense urban environment poses many problems - pollution, crowding, flooding, drought - but each problem also presents an opportunity. Revitalized rivers can improve water quality, provide green space in park-poor communities, improve flood protection and reduce our dependence on imported water.
"Rivers and streams are often described as the arteries and capillaries of the earth, providing the pathways for water and nutrients essential for all life. Healthy Riparian ecosystems nourish and sustain the most complex and important food chains in nature, distributing nutrients, carrying off waste, pulsing with life. They are the breeding grounds, the nurseries, and the habitat for a bewildering variety of species, and they are the natural systems most vulnerable to the destructive impacts of human development.” - David M. Bolling
In the past we've taken a single-purpose approach to solving these problems, addressing them one at a time - building dams, levees, stormdrains, or treatment plants. The flaw in that approach is that in nature, everything is connected to everything else and eventually, the solution to one problem creates a problem of its own.
For instance, until 1913 when William Mulholland built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Los Angeles River was the sole source of water for the city. The additional water that the aqueduct provided facilitated a population explosion in the region (and devastated Mono Lake). The growing population became dependent on the imported water supply and engineers searched for more sources. At the same time, other engineers, searching for a solution to the river’s periodic flooding designed a system to get rid of all the rainwater that fell in the region as quickly as possible, flushing it out to the sea. This allowed even more development, replacing agriculture with asphalt and preventing nature's ability to cleanse and absorb rainwater. Today, our stormwater runoff is polluted and only 15% of our drinking water supply comes from our depleted aquifers. Good minds working in a disintegrated fashion - each solved the single problem they were given, yet by doing so in a vacuum, they ultimately caused more problems for each other.
As we enter the 21st century, the time has come to stop building solutions one on top of the other like a house of cards. Watershed management is a way of working with nature rather than against it to provide flood protection without sacrificing water supply, impacting water quality or destroying the natural processes of nature’s services. It takes an integrated approach to managing our resources, focusing on multiple benefits rather than on single purpose solutions, and balancing socioeconomic and environmental impacts. We need to start thinking about sustainability and working with nature rather than against it, because nature always bats last in any contest.
It's time to look at the big picture, to look at our region as a whole, as a functioning organism - as a watershed.
Learn about how headwater streams and wetlands benefit us by mitigating flooding, maintaining water quality and quantity, recycling nutrients, and providing habitat for plants and animals. A new report from American Rivers and the Sierra Club, Where Rivers Are Born, summarizes the scientific basis for understanding that the health and productivity of rivers and lakes depends upon intact small streams and wetlands.