WRR Commentary: Know Thy River

Jason Rainey
Monday, December 3, 2012

Commentary: December 2012 World Rivers Review

At International Rivers we’re known for our effectiveness at critiquing and campaigning against destructive dam schemes. This important, frontline work defending rivers in solidarity with dam-threatened communities is crucial and courageous. Yet, our end-goal lies well beyond stopping short-sighted dam projects.

Ultimately, we seek proactive solutions that take the long view in recognition of living rivers as a necessary component of a viable, thriving Earth: solutions to propel truly sustainable energy pathways; solutions for watershed practices that restore landscapes and resuscitate river functions, and solutions that empower river-based communities to continue to derive livelihoods from their watersheds.

Of the many solutions that dig below the superficial and move toward the rooted resilience, “citizen-led river monitoring” and “community-based watershed management” hold great promise in transforming the way that society interacts with, derives value from, and reciprocates for the ecological services provided by healthy watersheds and functional rivers.

In this issue of World Rivers Review, we highlight approaches and case studies from around the world for how communities have asserted themselves in the monitoring and management of their rivers. One profile comes from a California watershed organization, SYRCL, an innovative and solutions-oriented group that I was privileged to lead for six years before joining International Rivers. When I arrived at SYRCL, I inherited what was on its way to becoming one of the largest citizen-led river monitoring programs in the country, with about 100 volunteers conducting a range of water-quality monitoring tests and aggregating the data on a monthly basis. SYRCL continued to innovate and expand the program to include monitoring of other indicators of watershed health, such as meadow function, aquatic insects, and of course the alteration of river flows downstream of dams.

Ultimately, as the State of California teetered on insolvency in 2008-09, I came to appreciate a new dimension of “resilience.” At SYRCL we began to recognize that a core impediment to restoring healthy rivers was rooted in existing governance structures that simply were not equipped to support such goals. We asked ourselves, what would citizen-led watershed governance look like? And in wrestling with this question we began organizing our river monitoring volunteers into “guilds” – grouping of neighbors drawn together by the commonality of their local stream and committed to working together to improve the baseline measurement for their environment: the quality of the water flowing through the landscape. The volunteers began to work together to assess the factors that were compromising watershed health and articulate an action plan for collaboratively addressing these problems.

The process of working together, as neighbors living on a shared part of the planet, in itself became a solution. Drawing upon the results of our citizen-led river monitoring program, the traditional ecological knowledge of the people indigenous to the Yuba River, and the practical experience gained from experimentations with community-based resource management, we articulated a vision and goals for community-driven watershed governance into a document we called “A 21st Century Assessment of the Yuba River Watershed” that SYRCL published in 2010.

My experience in a rural region of California may have little site-specific replicability to the contexts where International Rivers and our partners are most deeply engaged. My point in sharing this illustrates just one way that our global movement for rivers is evolving. Yet, evolve and adapt as a movement we must.

International Rivers will keep fighting to stop destructive dams, because for dam-threatened peoples, everything is on the line. We’ll become increasingly sophisticated in transforming the policies that incentivize the destruction of rivers, because the industrial appetite for electricity is driving the hydropower boom. And we should also encourage experimentation with entirely new ways of organizing communities to safeguard our watershed assets, because building resilience around our waterways in the face of economic and climatic uncertainties is both pragmatic and visionary. In my own experience, and in the experiences captured in these pages, citizen science and community-based watershed planning are key ingredients for advancing solutions for healthy rivers that support resilience in many forms.