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The author, Peter Skidmore, paddles a narrow stretch of the Verde River.

Bringing Life Back to Threatened Rivers

November 25, 2019
River systems are complex, but there is simplicity to the solutions to restore their health.

There is nowhere I would rather spend a day than on a river. Floating on a river, walking along a river, sitting beside a river.

I don’t know why. Rivers have just pulled on me always.

Peter Skidmore paddles a remote tributary to the Saskatchewan River.

As a kid, I played in the creek at my grandparents’ place in western Massachusetts. In summer, it was a cool, refreshing place where I could spend hours – building dams to make a pool big enough to swim in. As a teenager, I’d spend summer camp canoeing on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and camping along their shores.

I believe there is an inherent right of nature to be healthy and a healthy river provides far greater value than an unhealthy river.

Over the past 100 years, we have systematically simplified and constrained our rivers systems – especially our great rivers – by damming them, channelizing them and locking them into place, such that they no longer have a life of their own.

I feel lucky to make a living doing what I love – working to bring life back to rivers in the Colorado River basin. The Colorado is the lifeblood for virtually everything living in the basin, but so many livelihoods and so much of the wildlife that depends on it are imperiled from being overused and constrained.

I want to help people understand the inherent complexity of healthy natural systems and the simplicity of the best solutions to protect and restore them. River restoration provides the opportunity to see that healthy natural systems provide cleaner water, more abundant water, better aquatic and riparian habitat, recreation and solace. Sometimes the simplest restoration solutions are the most productive.

"There is nowhere I would rather spend a day than on a river. Floating on a river, walking along a river, sitting beside a river," says Peter Skidmore.

Nature has an enormous capacity to heal itself – if we work with it.

I’ve lived in Montana since 1991 and spend my free time rowing, paddling, fishing and camping on the Yellowstone River and the three forks of the Missouri River.

In 1997, I was working as a river specialist during spring floods across Montana, Washington and Nevada. I was asked to develop responses to record flood damage. But what I saw in many places was a rejuvenation of habitat – it showed me rivers are dynamic systems and that healthy rivers have space to interact with their floodplains.

Through the years, my understanding of the threats and the potential for restoration has evolved. I’ve come to understand every river system is unique in its geographic context, in the threats it endures and in the opportunities for restoration.

I also understand that for every system, the two most fundamental concerns for restoration are flows and space for the river to interact with its floodplain.

Why does restoration matter? One reason is that natural systems have an inherent right to be healthy. But it’s also true that healthy natural systems provide the broadest set of values and services for people and communities. Healthy rivers produce healthy communities.

In the Field is a series featuring Walton Family Foundation staff whose commitment and passion for their work is helping create access to opportunity for people and communities.
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