Complex river systems are the foundation of much of what we have to enjoy here on this planet. They support wildlife populations, provide soil nutrients, and so much more. Humans have had a profound impact on river systems, however, changes in current practices and increased focus on restoring rivers to their natural status can make a major difference in our lives.
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Think of your local river. The place you take a walk when you’re looking for solitude or comfort in nature. The place you take your children fishing. Or perhaps where you go when you’re looking for relief from the brutal summer heat.
Chances are, that the river that you love for all the nature it brings into your life really isn’t all that natural. In fact, the majority of the river systems in our world today have been significantly altered by humans whether we recognize the changes we have made throughout history or not. A vast number of our river systems have been greatly simplified — they aren’t as messy or complex as they really should be.
Though in many ways these changes have produced some benefit for people at some point in time, they are catching up with us. Simplified rivers are not as resilient and the ecological damage we have inadvertently caused could come back to haunt us within our lifetimes. Small changes in our habits and priorities could lead to greater changes that will benefit our river ecology and could just save us all.
When we think of a complex, natural, healthy river, we are really talking about one of the greatest natural feats of engineering available in the world. These rivers have ebbs and flows that the foundations of the surrounding ecosystems are built around. They have variability in pitch and depth that creates homes for numerous species that our society depends upon.
These complex rivers collect and move sediment across a landscape. For instance, seasonal flooding refreshes the floodplains with minerals and nutrients brought down by the river from mountain erosion and decomposing substances. This influx of sediment is critical for the long-term growth and survival of native vegetation and forms the basis of the food chain that all animals are part of.
Finally, a complex river is one that is resilient. It — and the surrounding habitats it supports — are able to recover from unexpected natural events and thrive after a short period. Many experts believe that healthy rivers and surrounding ecosystems are absolutely critical to our ability to deal with climate change. Basically, the more healthy, intact natural areas we have, the better our chances are in the long-run.
Once humans entered the equation things began to change. Typically that which benefited us in the short-term negatively impacted the entire ecosystem (including future generations of humans) in the long-term. For instance, dams and overfishing have powered many of our cities and made many people rich selling food, but they have altered the geomorphology of streams, ruined quality habitat, and caused populations we could be sustainably harvesting today to crash.
Many dams built back in the day are reaching a point where they are requiring more and more maintenance to keep up. Many of them are a collecting point for sediment, which hinders the sediment renewal cycle in floodplains downstream and leads to decreases in soil and vegetation health. Furthermore, the sediment causes wear and tear on the dams and must be monitored regularly.
It may come as a shock with all of the environmental regulations that have been put in place since the 1960s, but one study conducted in 2013 found that nearly half of America’s rivers were still too polluted to be healthy for people, let alone the ecosystems they originally supported. The current administration has worked diligently to roll back numerous environmental regulations, so it can only be assumed that these rivers and possibly more will remain too polluted.
Polluted and unhealthy rivers also pose a more direct impact on our health. For example, different forms of human-caused pollution in rivers can lead to the growth of different bacterias that can make people seriously ill. It is one of many ways that diseases of the future could evolve to pandemic level proportions.
Contributed by Indiana Lee: Indiana Lee is a journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering workplace issues, environmental protection, social justice, and more. When she is not writing you can find her deep in the mountains with her two dogs. Follow her work on Contently, or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org