American Whitewater Succeeds in Protecting Rivers and Fighting Climate Change

Published 11/11/2021  |  American Whitewater

In a big win for river restoration and investment in public lands, the House passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (H.R. 3684), as amended by the Senate, late last Friday, November 5. This legislation will now be sent to the President’s desk. American Whitewater staff have worked with our partners over the past several months on a few key sections of the bill that keep more water in rivers and protect water quality.


Dams (Division D, Title III, Subtitle D, Section 40333; Division J, Title II, III, V, VI)

The bill includes an unprecedented $2.3 billion (yes, billion!) for environmental and recreation enhancements around and below dams (read: restoration of streams and recreation access upgrades), dam removal, and dam safety improvements. As part of a broad coalition of stakeholders in the future of hydropower dams, and in our capacity as leaders in the Hydropower Reform Coalition, we reached out directly to the White House, congressional members and their staff to request funding for these dam related priorities. We played a significant role in directing, what is in our estimation, the most money ever federally appropriated for the removal of dams, dam safety, and environmental restoration of dam affected rivers in the history of the United States.

Attention on America’s dam infrastructure was sorely lacking when these discussions began last spring. We anticipate tens of thousands of jobs as a result of this legislation and see it as a solid investment in desperately needed climate change action. Removing dams and restoring healthy, free-flowing rivers enhances their climate resilience, while also protecting downstream communities from dangerous and outdated crumbling dam infrastructure. Funding for dam removal and addressing dam safety is a constant challenge and this legislation provides grants and the authorization for the removal of some of our most damaging and obsolete hydropower projects, while providing assistance in upgrading those projects that bring value to the grid with a specific focus on reducing environmental impacts. Tens of thousands of dams have wreaked havoc on river health across the country for over a century, threatening fish and wildlife populations, diminishing recreation opportunities, and drowning historic and cultural resources. As the frequency and size of floods increase with climate change, some aging dam structures become more and more of a public safety hazard. Dams are infrastructure and we’re proud of the strong role we played in securing funding for dam rehabilitation, retrofit, and removal in the federal infrastructure package all with the goal of improving river health.

Western Water Infrastructure

The Colorado River has made national headlines many times this year as dwindling streamflows and reservoir levels led to the first ever shortage declaration. The seven states and Mexico have made a series of agreements, dating back to 1922, on how the water of the Colorado River will be shared, as well as what infrastructure will be developed to move water around. In addition to smaller snowpacks, evaporation loss from desert reservoirs, and a series of other natural events made worse by climate change, these original agreements – often referred to as the Law of the River – identified more water on paper than what actually flows through the river. This situation calls for creativity and collaboration and frankly a good bit of cash. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains $8.3B earmarked for western water infrastructure including:

  • $400M in WaterSMART grants for natural infrastructure and projects that improve water quality
  • $3.2B for modernizing aging agriculture infrastructure like dangerous low head dams
  • $300M for Colorado River drought contingency plan implementation

American Whitewater has been working for years to define quantitative metrics for recreation across the basin and identifying dams in need of efficiency and safety improvements. This funding is incredibly important in beginning to solve water resource issues with a deliberate focus on returning more water to rivers. We are well positioned to advocate for improved conditions for river recreation as these funds are being allocated and spent.

Forest Service Roads (Division D, Title VIII, Section 40801)

Whether it’s driving into the creeks of the Southern Appalachians, exploring the wild backcountry of Idaho, or finding adventure on the California classics, paddlers often use Forest Service roads to access the goods. When we encounter a washed out road it not only prevents access to recreational experiences we enjoy, it also results in uncontrolled sediment releases that degrade water quality. To address this issue the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes permanent authorization of Legacy Roads and Trails Program along with funding of $250 million over the next 5 years. American Whitewater was a leader in establishing this program in 2008 that originated in Washington State in response to a crumbling Forest Service road network that was impacting water quality and reducing access to public lands.

The U.S. Forest Service manages twice as many road miles as the national highway system with only a small fraction of the budget. More than 370,000 miles of roads, built half a century ago, require over $3.2 billion in unfulfilled maintenance needs. Hundreds of thousands of culverts, more than 13,000 bridges and 159,000 miles of trails are all components of the agency’s failing infrastructure. In place for a decade, the Legacy Roads and Trails Program was a cost-effective program that saved taxpayer dollars, by addressing known road maintenance issues before failures occurred, creating jobs, and guaranteeing safer access for all. The program was not formally authorized by Congress however and had been allowed to languish receiving no funding since 2018. It is a significant accomplishment to have this program authorized and funded. As an added bonus, we were able to include $10 million in dedicated funding for dam removal as part of this program.

Federal Policy Capacity

We’ve also made new investments in our capacity to engage in DC, and alongside our partnership with Outdoor Alliance, it’s given our community an outsized voice in negotiations over hydropower, and other dam and river related policy action. Despite this success, we’re still pushing for more, including important river and climate policies, some of which are still contained in the current trimmed down version of the Build Back Better Act, legislation which now has a framework moving through Congress and may pass soon. Elements of that legislation that we’ve played a role in shaping and advocating for are a Civilian Climate Corps, mining withdrawals, cleanups and increased royalties for restoration, funding for improved NEPA and other environmental review processes, programs to increase equitable access to the outdoors, and funding for ecosystem resilience, wildfire response and fuel reduction, trail and road access improvements, and other maintenance on public lands.

By Evan Stafford

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