River Democracy Act: protection of headwaters protects rivers

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As our collective understanding of the value of healthy watersheds has grown, our appreciation of the critical role of spring water and intermittent streams – those that flow only part of the river. year – have also increased to provide clean water, habitat and recreation. Across Oregon, we have many examples of intermittent and headwaters that may not flow year round, but offer a myriad of benefits for the larger landscape, watersheds and communities.

If we are to preserve our clean water, recreation, and habitat, it is just as important to protect these waterways as it is to protect better-known rivers such as the Deschutes, Owyhee, and Rogue – in fact, quite a few. of these legendary rivers Rivers are fed by the vital intermittent headwaters that come to life every season. These often ephemeral rivers give life to large rivers and surrounding ecosystems and are increasingly important in the face of climate change. It is the capillaries of a watershed’s circulatory system that allow the river to flow through the landscape and breathe, delivering life to every corner of Oregon.

More than 1.7 million people in Oregon receive drinking water from public drinking water systems that depend at least in part on intermittent, ephemeral, or upstream streams. According to Environmental Protection Agencyin Oregon, a total of 16,029 miles of watercourses provide water for surface water intakes that supply public drinking water systems; of that, 9,134 miles (57 percent) are intermittent, ephemeral, or headwaters.

For years, we’ve learned the hard way what can happen when we leave these streams unprotected. Looking back, we now know that it would have been easier to leave a river’s floodplain or wetlands connected to a river to help store floodwaters or recharge aquifers than to reconnect them decades ago. later, for example. We used to remove all the wood from rivers and streams thinking that salmon could migrate more easily, but now we know the importance of woody debris in rivers to provide habitat and a shady sanctuary when temperatures rise. . Each lesson provides a better understanding of how watersheds and rivers work – from top to bottom and side to side – and informs our own work to protect intact functionality before they are compromised or lost.

Headwaters sort, store and distribute vital nutrients downstream; entire communities of insects, plants, fish and birds depend on nutrients that come from upstream rivers. They also filter out pollutants, excess silt and maintain water quality throughout an entire watershed. Even streams that seasonally or intermittently dry up – about 60 percent of all those in the United States – are in themselves essential ecosystems that support entire biological communities depending on the predictability they will dry out at times. Headwaters are essential migration corridors for the spawning of salmonids and all kinds of wildlife.

Among their many vital roles, headwaters are the first line of defense for rivers against climate change. Many play the dual role of stewards of vital groundwater – both as collection areas for recharge and as distributors of cold, clean groundwater and snowmelt that help maintain temperatures acceptable to them. fish and so many others downstream that depend on it, not to mention fresh water for humans to drink and water. Nowhere is this function more important than in arid desert watersheds.

Upstream streams in the upper reaches of watersheds are loaded with lessons on their critical function for the perennial streams and rivers they feed downstream. We would be wise to protect the headwaters now, as there may not be a redesign on this one. Without an upper course, by definition, there is no river downstream. Damage or loss of upstream habitat ripples throughout the watershed and beyond.

Baldface Creek, OR |  Photo of Northwest Rafting Co./Zach Collier
Baldface Creek, OR | Photo of Northwest Rafting Co./Zach Collier

Fortunately for Oregonians, Senators Wyden and Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act, designed to protect more than 4,600 miles of wild and scenic new rivers in the state, including many intermittent and headwaters. This bill, informed by listening sessions in urban centers, remote communities and everywhere in between, aims to protect the rivers and streams named by more than 15,000 Oregonians. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is one of our country’s best tools for protecting freshwater rivers and streams for future generations, and will ensure that our rivers continue to function as nature intended, including those that manifest themselves during certain seasons. Whether we can see them or not, these streams are working hard for all of us, and it’s time we got down to business for them.

Take action to thank Senators Wyden and Merkley for their leadership: https://ouroregonrivers.org/take-action/.

Learn more about two upstream and intermittent streams protected by the River Democracy Act:

  1. Dry stream, a tributary of the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon, passes through rarely seen combinations of rock and erosion patterns that have carved out its long pools. Dry Creek’s unique geology has allowed it to maintain a genetically unique population of Red Banded Trout in an area where most of the neighboring Red Band populations have been compromised or lost. Dry Creek also provides exceptional wildlife habitat for sensitive species such as the Columbia Spotted Frog.

Rough and ready stream is a key tributary of the Illinois River in southwestern Oregon. Native to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Rough and Ready winds its way through the South Kalmiopsis roadless area in characteristic bends and braids. Its unique geology, natural diversity and crystal clear waters have combined over the ages to form a floodplain environment exceptionally rich in rare plant communities, earning Rough and Ready its reputation as a ‘botanical wonderland’ .



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