Modernizing Water Management

A National Sustainable Rivers Program

Story Highlights
  • Water Quality. Seasonal high flows into floodplains and wetlands improve water quality by allowing these areas to filter sediment and pollutants from our rivers and lakes.
  • Flood Protection. Coordinating dam operations with the strategic use of the most flood-prone areas can reduce flood risk for communities. Floods cause $30–50 billion worth of damage in the U.S. every decade.
  • Wildlife & Recreation. Natural flow patterns trigger fish spawning and migration. They also sustain scenic natural lands and give life to floodplains and wetlands, which are among the most productive areas for fish and other wildlife. Rivers and lands that benefit from natural flows support commercial and recreational fishing and other outdoor-related recreation that generate billions of dollars each year.
  • A bi-partisan survey found that 78% of American voters are seriously concerned about the health of our nation’s rivers and lakes.*

Learn more about how we are working with the Army Corps of Engineers to find sustainable solutions to river health.

Demonstrating Success – The Sustainable Rivers Project

The advantages of making systematic changes in dam operations to more efficiently achieve multiple benefits have been demonstrated through more than a decade of national collaboration between the Corps, the Conservancy, and other partners under the Sustainable Rivers Project (SRP).

For example, water releases from Kentucky’s Green River Dam were revised in coordination with downstream landowners who willingly changed how they used their floodplain property. The revised releases keep lake levels higher longer into the fall, thereby extending recreation six weeks each year and boosting related jobs and revenue. Moreover, the new release schedule maintains flood protection and helps improve water quality, saving cities money when treating drinking water from the Green River. 

On Arizona’s Bill Williams River, a tributary of the Colorado River, changes in dam operations have been coordinated with dam operations on the Colorado River, which enables more water storage behind dams on the Colorado during prolonged droughts. The revised flows have also brought life back into a floodplain forest that was in steep decline, but now provides habitat for more than 350 species of birds and supports a related tourism industry that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the state each year.

The SRP currently involves 29 dams on eight rivers across 12 states. Other demo sites rivers include:

Nationwide Benefits

Imagine if similar benefits could be realized elsewhere. There are 472 reservoirs in the U.S. containing Congressionally-authorized flood storage that ranges from 32 to 48 trillion gallons – enough to meet the annual water supply needs of 900 million people. With 116 of the 472 reservoirs also actively generating hydropower, significant increases in electricity production could be realized without large investments in new infrastructure. And local communities would benefit from enhanced recreation and the improved health and productivity of tens of thousands of river miles across the country.

While the Corps has restricted authorities to modify dam operations, the agency does not have a specific program dedicated to finding opportunities to update operations in order to deliver greater benefits to society. A national Sustainable Rivers Program – one that can work across the Corps and with local communities across the country – will enable the Corps and its partners to revitalize our water infrastructure and provide substantial economic, social and environmental returns today and well into the future


* A national survey of registered voters conducted in 2009 by Democratic polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, & Associates (FMM&A) and Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies (POS) to gauge support for increased investments in the protection of land, water, and wildlife.


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