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Rivers of Life > Executive Summary
Hidden beneath the shimmering surface of our nation’s rivers and lakes is an extraordinary variety of aquatic creatures, largely unseen and unfamiliar to most of us. Though we are a nation devoted to the beauty and recreational values of our streams, creeks, and rivers, few of us know that U.S. streamlife is exceptional on a global level, even compared with the tropics. This remarkable freshwater diversity should be a source of great national pride. Instead, it is a source of grave concern.
Rivers and lakes are the circulatory system of our nation. These ecosystems furnish a variety of services, from clean drinking water and recreational opportunities to transportation and food. The very quality of our lives, and freshwater species’ survival, is tied to their health.
Our Aquatic Impoverishment
Inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems have, as a whole, suffered
far more than plants and animals dependent on upland habitats such as forests
and prairies. Although the plight of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and New
England is widely recognized, Rivers of Life focuses on the many other
freshwater species groups that are in dire straits:
- Two-thirds of the nation’s freshwater mussels are at risk of extinction, and almost 1 in 10 may already have vanished forever.
- Half of all crayfish species are in jeopardy.
- Freshwater fishes and amphibians are doing little better, with about 40 percent of the species in these groups at risk.
These losses are not confined to urban areas or to a specific region of the country. Aquatic systems are under stress nationwide, with the largest number of imperiled species found in the Southeast. Arid western states have fewer species, but a greater proportion of them are at risk of extinction.
These dramatic declines in freshwater animal species are due primarily to the intensive human use—and abuse—of their habitats. Two centuries of dam construction, water withdrawals, land-use alterations, pollution, and introductions of non-native species have caused accelerated and, in many cases, irreparable losses of freshwater species. Rivers are affected by, and reflect, the condition of the lands through which they travel. Since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, the United States has made great strides in improving water quality by controlling "end of pipe" pollution, but nonpoint source pollution—polluted and sediment-laden runoff from urban and rural areas—is still a major problem.
Freshwater species and habitats provide a wealth of goods and services to humanity. Nearly a billion people worldwide rely on fishes as their primary source of protein. In 1990, the total global harvest of freshwater fish was valued at $8.2 billion; the value of the U.S. freshwater sport fishery in 1991 was nearly twice that, with direct expenditures totaling approximately $16 billion. And these figures do not reflect the immense worth of ecological services provided by freshwater systems, such as flood control.
Watersheds: A Practical Approach to Conservation
Given the fluid nature of water, protecting aquatic biodiversity is no easy task. Human activities directly upslope, or even miles upstream, may affect streamlife in another place.
Many concerned citizens know that watersheds—natural drainage basins—are critical for addressing water-related issues, from protecting drinking water to conserving freshwater species. But which watersheds should be priorities for conservation attention? Where should we allocate scarce conservation resources to protect freshwater species and ecosystems?
Although at-risk freshwater species can be assessed at the
level of states or large regional watersheds, Rivers of Life: Critical Watersheds
for Protecting Freshwater Biodiversity presents the first analysis to define
conservation priorities on a scale that is practical for action. Approximately
2,100 small watersheds cover the continental United States. These small watershed
areas reflect a scale appropriate for planning and carrying out conservation
actions. Using information from natural heritage programs and other sources,
this report identifies the 15 percent of these small watershed areas that will
conserve populations of all freshwater fish and mussel species at risk in the
United States. These watersheds form a blueprint for where targeted conservation
actions could provide the greatest benefit for the largest number of vulnerable
freshwater fish and mussel species.
Rivers of Life
Protecting and restoring priority watersheds will take creativity,
commitment, and the involvement of local communities. The returns from such
efforts will benefit not only the rich diversity of fishes and other aquatic
life but the human communities themselves. The art and science of aquatic conservation
are exemplified by work under way in eight of these critical watersheds. Ranging
from the meandering Altamaha in Georgia to the upper Verde River of Arizona,
these watersheds, which are profiled in Rivers of Life, reflect the importance
of local action and community-level partnerships in saving freshwater species
PDF file of report (7.26M)