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Rivers of Life: Critical Watersheds for Protecting Freshwater Biodiversity

​Rivers of Life documents the U.S. as a leader in the diversity of freshwater species, summarizes the conservation status of freshwater species by group, identifies freshwater biodiversity hotspots, and describes conservation solutions. In doing so, this report presented the first analysis to define conservation priorities on a scale that is practical for action to conserve America's freshwater ecosystems.

Rivers and lakes are the circulatory system of our nation. 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. This remarkable freshwater diversity should be a source of great national pride. Instead, it is a source of grave concern. For example:

  • 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.

Our nation's 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.

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 data centers 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.

Master L, Flack SR and Stein BA, eds. 1998. Rivers of Life: Critical Watersheds for Protecting Freshwater Biodiversity. The Nature Conservancy: Arlington, Virginia