I got to see the power of this approach in action
during my first year at TNC, when I watched the removal of the Veazie
Dam, part of a network of hydropower dams on Maine’s Penobscot River.
The Conservancy and its partners removed the two dams closest to the
Atlantic Ocean and improved fish passages, and the local utility
upgraded the other dams. Without losing any generating capacity, the
project reconnected almost 2,000 miles of river and has led to the
return of American shad, herring and other species. In fact, the fish
runs of the past two years have exceeded most of the fish runs of the
preceding two centuries.
On a global scale, TNC estimates that
60,000 miles of river could be kept intact through smarter planning,
and we are lending our expertise to help governments make better
choices. For instance, we are currently providing scientific review of
hydropower throughout the Balkan Peninsula. This region includes some of
Europe’s last wild rivers, such as the Tara River in Montenegro. The
river’s aqua waters flow through a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its
basin is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In Africa, we are
producing an atlas of Gabon’s freshwater resources so the nation’s
leaders can make informed development decisions.
The final big
challenge to global water security is a simple failure to protect the
watersheds that supply clean water to our cities and towns. The water
coming out of your faucets originally fell from the sky as rain or snow
and was captured in a natural funnel of land, the watershed.
Unfortunately, 40 percent of watersheds supplying cities are showing
signs of moderate to high degradation.
When forests and
grasslands are cleared in the upper reaches of a watershed, increased
erosion creates sediment, which not only must be filtered out of water
supplies but also reduces the capacity of reservoirs. Denuded watersheds
lose much of their capacity to absorb and slowly release rainwater,
which leaves less water to recharge aquifers. Finally, when agricultural
production or development takes over natural lands in the watershed,
runoff from farms, roads and buildings can pollute water supplies.
is a city to do when landowners outside its jurisdiction threaten the
water supply? The Conservancy has helped create a market-based tool
called a water fund, through which cities, power plants and even private
companies can protect water supplies by paying upstream landowners to
improve their stewardship practices. Think of New York City’s famously
clean tap water, resulting in part from the city’s foresight in
protecting the source forests, like those in the Catskill Mountains
The Conservancy has already established 29 water
funds, and 30 more are in development. Yet there are hundreds, if not
thousands, of other places that could benefit from this approach.
Approximately 80 percent of cities could meaningfully reduce sediment
and fertilizer pollution through forest protection, landscape
restoration and better agricultural practices. Cleaner water would save
municipal utilities $890 million every year.
kinds of strategies across the globe will not be an easy task, but
government leaders and citizens are beginning to recognize the problems
and ask thoughtful questions about lasting solutions. We have promising
models to follow—if we remember to invest not only in engineering but
also in the engine of life itself.