How to Help Rivers on This International Day of Action For Rivers

March 14 is International Day of Action for Rivers. It’s a chance to both appreciate the importance and the beauty of the rivers in our lives and to be a voice for them. This includes educating others on the threats facing rivers, pushing for action to restore and protect these waterways, and to remind the world why rivers matter. Here’s a primer on those subjects.

Benefits of Rivers

Flowing river at low light

Rivers are beneficial for plant and animal life, serving as home to aquatic plants like algae and underwater grasses, insect larvae and worms, crustaceans, amphibians, and plenty of fish. There are many fish species that also come to rivers from the ocean to spawn. In fact, rivers are hotspots for biodiversity. Freshwater habitats are home to at least 140,000 species at some point in their lives.

Rivers also help the environment, facilitating the transfer of nutrients, minerals, and fine sediments to the ocean, as well as getting those same materials back upstream through migrating fish. They help with flood control, shoreline stabilization, and carbon storage. One study found that rivers and streams transport or store more than 220 billion pounds of carbon each year.

Finally, rivers are important for people, providing life’s essentials: food and water. They’re also big economic drivers, supporting jobs and industry. Rivers are good for our souls, too, offering ample recreation opportunities, from boating to fishing and swimming, as well as cultural and spiritual significance.

Threats Facing Rivers

River with low water levels

Unfortunately, our rivers face many threats to their survival and health. Between 1970 and 2014, freshwater species saw population declines of 83%. Additionally, a third of these species are at risk of extinction. This is due to a variety of factors.

Factors impacting the health of our rivers include climate change, invasive species, industrial and urban pollution, rapid urban development, and habitat loss and fragmentation. Agriculture is a big contributor, too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, states reported that the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes was agricultural nonpoint source pollution. That includes things like excess use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, as well as poorly located or managed animal feeding operations and overgrazing. This type of pollution was also largely responsible for similar issues on wetlands and estuaries.

Dams are a big driver of river health issues, as well. They can prevent fish migration, which impacts species’ ability to reach spawning habitat, escape predators, and find food. Between 1970 and 2016, monitored populations of migratory freshwater fish experienced an average decline of 76%. Dams can also change habitat, with modified river flows. Water quality can be impacted, as well, with dams capable of causing temperature fluctuations and lower oxygen levels.

How We Can Help Rivers

Volunteer cleaning plastic from river

Fortunately, we can take action to help rivers fight back against these threats. In our day-to-day lives, we can opt for a commercial car wash instead of washing our own car. The business will likely use less water, will reuse the water a few times, and will be better equipped to ensure the resulting runoff doesn’t head down a storm drain and get into rivers and streams.

We can also create a rain garden to minimize the flow of stormwater into waterways and soak up some pollutants, ease off the use of fertilizer, use less deicing salt when pavement is slick, reduce our single-use plastic consumption, avoid using sunscreens and bug sprays that can harm water quality, properly dispose of pills instead of flushing them down the toilet, and go with others to our local river to foster love and appreciation for it.

Getting involved in our community and decision-making is an important option, as well. We can organize or take part in river cleanup activities, volunteer in other ways that benefit our local rivers, and familiarize ourselves with action being taken at various levels of government that may impact river health. We can also push for more environmentally friendly dams and for the removal of harmful, inefficient, or obsolete dams.

Man testing river water with hand

If you’d like to help those dealing with poor drinking water quality in the meantime, find out how you can help here.

People, Pets & Planet

Help where it’s needed most at GreaterGood for free!