How American Whitewater Works

By: Julia Layton

American Whitewater works to preserve the natural state of U.S. rivers.
American Whitewater works to preserve the natural state of U.S. rivers.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

The world's rivers draw people to them like a hearth, the center of life for civilizations since the beginning of time. Rivers carved out the Grand Canyon, and they built Niagara Falls. They house thousands of species of fish and provide transportation, drinking water, irrigation and electricity to billions of people. Rivers offer swimming, canoeing, rafting and kayaking, and provide a living to fishermen and recreation guides all over the world.

They seem like a constant presence -- always flowing, rising and falling over time. In the United States alone, they run for 3.5 million miles (5.6 million kilometers) and touch every corner of the country [source: NWSR]. But rivers are not indestructible. They are just as susceptible to the downsides of human intervention as any other natural formation, perhaps even more so. The rate of extinction for freshwater species is five times greater than for those living on land, and U.S. riverbank habitat is 70 percent wiped out [source: NWSR]. Rivers are falling prey to such culprits as damming, pollution and development at an alarming pace.


In the face of this high rate of destruction, dozens of organizations looking to protect the world's rivers have popped up around the globe in the last 50 years. One of the most active is U.S.-based American Whitewater, which works to preserve the natural state of America's rivers so our children's children's children can enjoy them, too.

But it's not all about preservation. The organization has its fingers in all sorts of river issues. In this article, we'll find out what American Whitewater does, how it aims to make a difference and why you might want to get in on the action yourself.

To begin with, what's the point of American Whitewater? Is it all about those frothy, fast-moving currents that carry screaming rafters in vacation photos?


Benefits of American Whitewater

American Whitewater is all about the river.
American Whitewater is all about the river.
Javier Pierini/Digital Vision/Getty Images

American Whitewater is something of a dinosaur in today's world of young, dime-a-dozen "green" nonprofits. It came on the preservation scene in the 1950s with the purpose of saving rivers as we know them from going the way of the T. rex. Its primary conservation focus is on damming -- essentially blocking rivers for the purpose of generating electricity.

Of the 3.5 million miles of rivers running through the United States, 600,000 (965,606 kilometers) are running behind dams [source: NWSR]. Or running as well as they can. Dams cause dewatering issues for rivers, affecting not only their water supply but also their ecologies and their ability to support recreational activities like whitewater rafting, fishing and boating.


American Whitewater has two primary goals: first, to give American citizens a greater say in river management; and second, to encourage a greater balance between the needs of modern society and the free flow of nature's whitewater rivers through a range of activities. The group lobbies government; publishes statistics, studies and general information; organizes activists; maintains river-related databases; and tracks activities that affect river health, like new dam proposals, hydropower relicensing and river-usage restrictions.

According to American Whitewater, the group is accomplishing its mission step-by-step. It has so far succeeded in removing at least 12 dams, and has given input on at least 100 other projects [source: AW].

Still, far from a purely conservationist organization, American Whitewater is all about the river -- especially riding it. Many people, even those who have never been whitewater rafting, have heard of "class IV rapids" or a "class II river." Those international classifications telling potential rafters how difficult the ride is were developed by American Whitewater members back in the 1950s [source: AW]. The organization has developed worldwide safety guidelines for river rafting, and it maintains accident databases to help make rivers safer. It organizes festivals, lobbies for greater river access for recreational users and publishes a journal for its membership.

Beyond the American Whitewater journal (and Web site), members of the group reap a number of rewards, and they have a lot of opportunities to contribute. It all starts with a decision to act.


Joining American Whitewater

Many individual members are whitewater enthusiasts.
Many individual members are whitewater enthusiasts.
Photo courtesy of

It doesn't take all that much to make a difference in the life of a river. Even something so small as picking up a piece of trash you find floating along can help out. But those who are looking to make a bit more of an impact might join American Whitewater. With the combined power of its membership -- nearly 7,000 individual members and 100 paddling clubs from around the country -- the organization is big enough to really change the state of U.S. whitewater rivers.

Lots of the individual members are whitewater enthusiasts -- those who actually ride the rivers -- but not all. Many are all-around recreational users, those who float or fish or swim in rivers that may be threatened by damming projects or industrial development; others are interested in conserving nature in general and have found rivers to be worth saving.


Membership benefits are numerous. In addition to the huge reservoir of information maintained by American Whitewater, including river-safety tips, travel advice for a particular whitewater vacation and guidelines for how to best navigate any given whitewater river, there are events and festivals all over the country. The organization sponsors the Gauley River Festival in West Virginia, Ohiopyle Falls Race in Pennsylvania, the Potomac Whitewater Festival in Maryland and the Wenatchee River Festival in Washington State, among others.

Perhaps even more compelling, they get to share their knowledge with people who are truly interested in it. Through a program called StreamTeam, members are invited to help maintain the massive American Whitewater presence on rivers and river areas. A member can become the designated expert on a given river, adding, updating and sharing everything he or she knows about the rapids, other river features, motels and camping in the area and great restaurants to eat at after a float.

Member or not, anyone can help out when it comes to preserving rivers for future generations. If you're interested, write a letter to a legislator about an upcoming dam project, or pick up some trash on a riverbank, or simply make sure you leave no sign of your presence the next time you go for a dip in a nearby stream. Every little bit helps.

For more information on American Whitewater and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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