2002 Top 10 Conservation and Access Issues

Posted: 11/14/2002
by Ryan Kellems

American Whitewater is poised for another amazing year of river advocacy, possibly one of our most impressive ever. In the next 12 months the AW team will be bringing you releases on several phenomenal new rivers that will revolutionize paddling in those regions, protecting and restoring fair public access to some of the nations greatest rivers, conserving thousands of acres of riverside land, representing you in the halls of federal government, and working hard to make sure we can keep doing all of these amazing things for paddlers and rivers that we do every day. The following 10 conservation and access issues represent a cross section of the work we will be doing this coming year all across the country. They are ten of our most important and challenging issues and are indicative of literally hundreds of other projects that our small and effective program staff is constantly working on.

In June, the American Whitewater staff got to revel in the work we do, while paddling down the first ever release on California's North Fork of the Feather River. While we were getting pummeled in holes and swimming (and soaring off granite boofs and throwing huge splat wheels) we had the time to think about all the incredible things we brought to the paddling community in the past year and what made it all possible.

What we did were things like re-opening the permitting system on the Grand Canyon for review, pulling off numerous flow studies that lay the ground work for future dam releases, signing numerous settlements that create or enhance whitewater runs across the country, and being selected to represent paddlers and rivers by National level decision makers including Congress itself. How we did it was with your help, as volunteers and as members. Without your help we could not do what we do, and without AW and our members, the thousands of rivers that we protect would be left unguarded.

After our runs down the Feather the AW staff was ecstatic and proud as we sat down for several days of strategic planning. Through our collective river-buzz, one ominous issue kept creeping into virtually every discussion we had: membership.

Our sport may be rapidly growing but AW membership is not, and that is a huge threat to all the rivers that we protect every day. For that reason the conservation and access staff decided to break from tradition and add membership as one of our top 10 conservation and access issues for the coming year.

The coming year stands to be one defined by huge accomplishments for AW and the paddling community. We look forward to making the country an even better place to paddle for years to come. Read on to see what some of our biggest challenges of the coming year will be, and how you can help!

1. Membership (National) - Conservation/Access

Issue: Waning American Whitewater membership.

Goal: To restore and increase membership so that we at AW can be most effective.

Current Status: Believe it or not, boaters present one of the greatest threats to our nation's whitewater rivers. We aren't talking about overuse, but rather apathy among our paddling community, and the resulting drop in American Whitewater membership.

American Whitewater works hard on many fronts to protect and restore whitewater rivers across the country, and if we are not there, much of this work will not get done. Without a strong membership base, we are politically and economically crippled. The tremendous work we do benefits the entire paddling community but is funded by an increasingly small minority. Many boaters in the paddling community take advantage of releases on the Tallulah or access to the Ocoee and Gauley but neglect to contribute to the organization that made these releases and access sites possible. American Whitewater is the steward of these opportunities and places. Without us there, the rivers will one day run back into someone's bank account, instead of under our boats, and new opportunities like the Cheoah River will go untapped. American Whitewater's conservation and access work is more dependent on membership and donations than ever before, at a time when those sources are waning.

With the growing numbers of new boaters out there, and the increase in popularity of the sport, we've begun to experience an apathetic attitude among the boating community. The assumption remains that rivers are open to all boaters, and will remain open. The community forgets the history behind the rivers; that without the work of American Whitewater and its volunteers, many of the rivers we paddle on a daily, weekly or monthly basis would be dry, dammed, or inaccessible to boaters (or could be in the future).

By our estimates, fewer than 1 in 10 whitewater boaters is an American Whitewater member. If we could just increase that number a little bit we could all sleep more soundly at night, knowing that our rivers are secure. If we were able to double that membership, we'd be able to hire regional experts in Colorado, California, Washington, and the Northeast to help us with our core efforts protecting your favorite local rivers. American Whitewater's strong record of successes in preserving America's whitewater rivers is threatened by boater apathy. Thus, even if you don't have the time to volunteer to see a relicensing through from start to finish, or visit a court house in southeastern Colorado, simply registering your friends as members would be a huge help and substantially increase our ability to work for you and for rivers.

Precedent: American Whitewater has some of the most loyal and passionate members imaginable that donate countless hours of their time and significant in-kind and financial contributions. Still, our membership is waning in a tough time and compromising our ability to work effectively.

Contact: Jessica Rice, Membership Coordinator, 866-BOAT-4-AW (866-262-8429)

2. Cheoah River (NC) - Conservation

Issue: Dam relicensing of an incredible Southeastern river.

Goal: To reach a settlement agreement that includes recreational releases, access, flow information, and land protection.

Current Status: Thanks to a broken turbine, boaters were able to paddle the normally dewatered Cheoah River this spring on a much greater frequency than ever before at flows ranging from 600 to over 3000 cfs. What was reaffirmed is that the Cheoah is absolutely one of the best rivers in the southeast: awesome scenery, easy access, 100 feet per mile of consistent gradient, clear blue water, and lots of local creeking and hiking options. AW is working through the dam relicensing process to secure scheduled whitewater releases on the Cheoah for the next 30 years. We hope to integrate these releases with future releases on the Cascades of the Nantahala and the West Fork of the Tuckasegee, also in negotiations right now. In addition to the recreational enhancements we hope to protect a large amount of wildlands, restore healthy continuous instream flows, and promote the natural biodiversity of the Cheoah and Little Tennessee River Corridors. The paddling community has more to gain with the restoration of this river than most boaters can even imagine. American Whitewater has been working on this river for several years, laying the groundwork for the current negotiations.

The challenges of the next few months are equally as immense as the potential rewards. American Whitewater has been carefully drafting proposals that blend the interests of the resource agencies, private and commercial boaters, and other stakeholders like lakeside homeowners and the power company. These proposals have helped the ongoing intense negotiations move forward toward the goal of a healthy river. American Whitewater hopes to sign a settlement in early 2003 that includes a robust schedule of recreational releases that have the potential to increase over the years. We are there at the table with several amazing volunteers several days each month, working to bring you a epic new paddling destination in the Southeast.

Precedent: Dam relicensing is an opportunity for citizens to require that a power company share a river with the public. There are many competing interests that must come together through negotiations to reach settlement on complex issues. Dams take 5 years to relicense and the licenses last 30 to 50 years.

Contact: Kevin Colburn, Conservation and Access Associate

Colorado (State-wide) - Access

Issue: Your right to float in Colorado is threatened; there are at least a dozen serious access threats that could blow up into legal battles that significantly limit your rights and privileges to float and fish on the state's waterways.

Goal: To clarify the public right to float in an unassailable legal context that ensures boaters are not harassed and can navigate, float, and recreate on Colorado's rivers and streams.

Current Status: In 2001, American Whitewater has successfully helped to defend the public's right to float on many of Colorado's rivers, some of our recent successes include:

  • In May, board member Tim Kelley secured boater access to the Cheesman Gorge.
  • In June, American Whitewater's attorneys obtained a settlement that protects access to the South Platte for American Whitewater and Colorado White Water Association members.
  • In June, American Whitewater's attorneys helped to protect the public right to float on the Lake Fork Gunnison. Access had been threatened by a private landowner's suit against a rafting company. While access remains vulnerable, it appears that the threat is muted for now.
  • In July, American Whitewater volunteer Patrick Tooley helped restore access to the Blue River below the Green Mountain Reservoir. Access had been closed by the Bureau of Reclamation in the wake of 9/11 (see below for more about the effect of 9/11 on boating access).
  • However, even with these successes, there are dozens of other access threats in Colorado. American Whitewater will work to resolve these other issues with your support. We estimate that we need a standing fund of $10,000 dollars to continue to fight the short-term battles and prepare the battlefield for long-term solutions favorable to paddlers.

Precedent: Some well funded individuals and corporate interests are seeking to limit your right to float and recreate on Colorado's rivers. Colorado has the most vulnerable navigability laws in the country and some individuals want to limit public access on Colorado's rivers as a regional precedent for closing rivers in neighboring states.

Contact: Jason Robertson, Access Director

4. Homeland Security (National) - Access

Issue: Following the terrible events on 9/11, many rivers have been closed or are threatened with closure by dam managers citing "security" concerns.

Goal: To work with security personnel at the dam and river management agencies to address their security needs while protecting the public's river use and access traditions for boaters and fishermen.

Current Status: In June, the Washington Post quoted Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, when he affirmed that "to destroy a dam physically would require 'tons of explosives.'" Such a volume of explosives is far in excess of the volume or carrying capacity of a whitewater canoe, kayak, or fishing bag. Further, in response to questions about the Sultan River closure, Dave Harris, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Seattle, was quoted by HeraldNet.com that there have been no confirmed incidents of any security breaches regarding any dams or water sources under the Corps' jurisdiction. Nevertheless fishing and boating access downstream of many dams has been closed in the wake of 9/11, and we continue to get new reports of both actual and threatened closures on a regular basis.

A short list of closures and boater restrictions made in the wake of 9/11 include the following:

  • Mongaup River closed below Rio Dam (NY)
  • Sultan River closed below Spada Lake (WA)
  • New River threatened with closure through the Radford Army Ammunitions Plant (VA)
  • Ausable river threatened with closure (NY)
  • South Fork of the Flathead closed below Hungry Horse Dam (MT)
  • Lower Blue River below Green Mountain Reservoir closed but re-opened in July (CO)
  • Statewide boater registration requirements proposed, temporarily blocked (CT)

We are very concerned about any plans to restrict or limit recreational boating access to America's rivers in the wake of 9/11. While we respect and understand the need for security, and acknowledge that certain appropriate sacrifices will be made in the immediate future, we believe that it should be possible to provide security and also protect existing public access, privileges, traditions, and freedoms.

The past year has been a difficult one for the nation. In response to President Bush's plea to continue supporting the economy and protecting core American values, AW is committed to safeguarding the special places that make this country such a wonderful land. It is our civic responsibility to rise and support both our war efforts and the way of life we had before 9/11. We are fighting a war to protect our security, freedoms, public services, and a way of life that we value. Whenever we sacrifice any of those freedoms, then in the words of President Bush "We are letting the terrorists win." That is not an acceptable outcome. Please join us in protecting and restoring access to the country's special places, such as the Mongaup, Sultan, New, and South Fork Flathead, which have long traditions of public use and heritage.

Precedent: While many rivers have been closed since 9/11, few of these closures have done anything for public safety. The objectives of these closures need to be defined and the security concerns need to be examined to determine whether the closures satisfy the security needs and are truly in the public's interest. Our volunteers' July 2002 success in convincing the BuRec to re-open the Blue River below the Colorado's Green Mountain Reservoir provides a model for future cooperation and action.

Contact: Jason Robertson, Access Director

5. Hydropower Legislation (National) - Conservation/Access

Issue: Legislative Reforms of Federal Power Act

Goal: Protect river resources and existing environmental standards in the Federal Power Act

Current Status: In knee-jerk fashion following the aftermath of California's energy crisis politicians have proposed legislative reforms to avoid future crises and solve the "relicensing problem". This issue has largely been brought before legislators by utility lobbyists capitalizing on public resentment toward increased energy bills. These lobbyists have carefully steered legislators toward the "problems" inherent in licensing private hydropower projects. The search for a solution to the crisis ultimately fell upon reforming the environmental regulations contained in the Federal Power Act.

The Senate energy bill, S.517, contained multiple drafts of reform language all of which failed the bipartisan litmus test. In April, Senators Ben Nelson (NE) and Larry Craig (ID) successfully amended (SA 3140) Title III of the Senate energy bill, S.517. The amendment basically permits utilities to draft alternative environmental conditions to those proposed by resource agencies. In short, the Nelson-Craig amendment gives utilities the following: 1) a louder voice than any other interest in deciding how our rivers are managed; 2) undermines the environmental standards that hydropower dams must meet, and 3) opens a loophole for utilities to challenge basic environmental protections on the grounds that they harm profit margins. The Nelson-Craig amendment further skews the licensing process in the favor of utilities, at the expense of equal public participation and critical environmental protections.

Next Steps: The Senate and House must now rectify any differences between the Senate and House energy bills in a Senate-House conference committee. Both the Senate and House must approve the final bill that comes out of the conference committee, and the President must sign it. American Whitewater will post alerts when this vote comes up.

Precedent: The Federal Power Act should not be altered in a fashion that skews the process for licensing a hydropower project in favor of the utilities with an economic self-interest in the outcome. The nation's rivers and streams are a vital resource that should not be monopolized for power production alone. Public input and resource agency review are critical components in the licensing process to ensure that non-power values are balanced with power generation.

Contact: John Gangemi, American Whitewater Conservation Director

6. Grand Canyon (AZ) - Access

Issue: The private boater permit Wait List is over 25 years long. The Park Service is

Goal: American Whitewater's fundamental requirement of the Colorado River Management Plan is the preservation of the Colorado River corridor within the Grand Canyon as an unimpaired natural and cultural area, to the extent possible given the downstream effects of Glen Canyon Dam. Within resource protection and visitor experience parameters, visitor opportunities should be maximized and equitably distributed to the greatest number of participants as practicable, while maintaining a diversity of trip styles and experience opportunities.

Current Status: In February 2002, the Park Service (NPS) settled the lawsuit brought by American Whitewater and other plaintiffs and agreed to recommence the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP) planning efforts.

Now, as a result of the Park's agreement to settle, the NPS is preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the CRMP for Grand Canyon National Park. The purpose of this EIS/CRMP is to update management guidelines for the Colorado River corridor through Grand Canyon National Park. The settlement requires the NPS to complete the EIS/CRMP by December 31, 2004.

This effort will identify and evaluate alternatives for visitor use and levels of motorized and non-motorized trips, the allocation and distribution of use for user groups, and a permit distribution system for noncommercial users. The NPS will develop and evaluate alternatives to address resource protection issues, potential resource impacts, user capacities, and mitigation measures necessary or desirable to avoid or minimize impairment of natural and cultural resources. The NPS will also consider alternatives that include no-action (status quo), no motorized use, and varying levels of motorized and non-motorized use.

Major issues include the following: Appropriate levels of visitor use consistent with natural and cultural resource protection and preservation mandates; allocation of use between commercial and non-commercial groups; the private boater permitting system; the level of motorized versus non-motorized raft use; the range of services provided to the public; and, the termination of use of helicopters to transport river passengers from the Colorado River near Whitmore Wash.

More information is available on our website at or may be obtained from CRMP Project Leader, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 928- 638-7945.

Precedent: The Park Service's decisions in the 2004 CRMP will establish the management direction for at least the next decade. Decisions in the Grand Canyon also receive significant publicity and are used as a baseline for comparison by river managers throughout the country. Good decisions will lead to positive ripples through the community of river managers. Bad decisions will splash through this community and could result in further bad decisions on other rivers.

Contact: Jason Robertson, Access Director

7. North Fork Feather River (CA) - Conservation

Issue: Traditional confrontation oriented approach by PG&E in Multiple Hydropower Relicense Proceedings on the North Fork Feather River.

Goal: American Whitewater is applying a watershed approach to re-establish the North Fork Feather's natural and recreation resources through river access, scheduled flows and real-time flow information as well as increased minimum instream flows for aquatic habitats and land easements for conservation.

Current Status: You might be wondering why the North Fork Feather River appears on American Whitewater's Top 10 list in 2002 while in the same issue we are celebrating the first whitewater releases on the river since construction of the Rock Creek and Cresta dams. The answer lays in PG&E's complex stairway of power on the North Fork Feather. While there is much to celebrate with the new settlement for the collective fourteen miles of river below Rock Creek and Cresta dams with monthly whitewater releases for the next 30 years American Whitewater is still a long way from restoring the remaining thirty-six miles of the North Fork Feather dewatered by PG&E hydropower projects. These projects include the Poe hydropower project and the Upper North Fork hydropower project. Early in the settlement negotiations American Whitewater encouraged PG&E to take a watershed approach wrapping all the dams and powerhouses into a single proceeding. A watershed approach focuses enhancement opportunities on reaches where that resource attribute is best manifested. This enables stakeholders to apply limited hydrologic resources and mitigation efforts for the greatest outcome.

PG&E shied away from a watershed approach choosing instead to relicense the projects individually in the traditional style. That style typically equates to resource conflict. Stakeholders fight for limited resources. PG&E opposes whitewater releases on the Poe, Belden and Seneca reaches claiming that whitewater flows will cause serious impacts on the aquatic environment particularly amphibians. The very existence and operation of PG&E's hydropower projects are the root cause of dwindling amphibian populations. PG&E's arguments against whitewater releases are simply attempts to further their own self interest in a dewatered river where the bulk of the river flows through pipes from dams to powerhouses.

American Whitewater works closely with resource agencies and public stakeholders to develop appropriate ramping rates, and flows to mimic the natural hydrograph to eliminate biological impacts.

Poe hydropower project: The Poe project diverts water out of a nine mile section of the North Fork Feather. In May 2000, American Whitewater conducted a whitewater controlled flow study on this reach. The first half of the reach contains excellent Class IV-V paddling. The second half contains excellent Class III paddling. There is access at the mid-point allowing paddlers to select their appropriate skill level. Upper North Fork hydropower project: The Upper North Fork project contains three reservoirs and three powerhouses each of which divert water away from substantial reaches of the North Fork Feather, sixteen plus miles. In October 2000, American Whitewater conducted a whitewater controlled flow study on the six mile Class III Belden reach and the ten mile Class V Seneca reach.

Precedent: PG&E's stance on the North Fork Feather requires American Whitewater to hammer away at the negotiation table in each individual proceeding rather than taking a progressive watershed approach for the river system.

Contact: John Gangemi, American Whitewater Conservation Director

8. Skykomish River (WA) - Access

Issue: The preferred put-in on the South Fork Skykomish below Sunset Falls is closed. The preferred take-outs are on private property.

Goal: To secure safe, legal, long-term public access to the Skykomish.

Current Status: During the past 6 months, American Whitewater volunteers lead by Regional Coordinator Tom O'Keefe, have been meeting with State officials, politicians, real estate agents, paddlers, and local landowners to determine the best options for safe, long-term public access to the Sky.

In May 2001, American Whitewater and the Washington Kayak Club established the Skykomish River Access Fund with $5875 from the 2001 Sky Fest. Private donations have raised the holdings of the fund to about $6625 (at press time the 2002 contribution amount had not yet been determined).

This fund recognizes the fact that legal river access opportunities along the whitewater sections of the Skykomish River in Washington State are limited and diminishing. There are few public right-of-ways or easements, and there is little publicly owned land allowing legal access to this popular river. We are seeking to build the fund to about $20,000 in order to apply for matching funds from government agencies and private foundations, and acquire a permanent take-out facility.

Precedent: The successful acquisition or lease of an access point in Washington State will improve relations with state agencies and could provide a model for future access acquisitions by state agencies for the boating and fishing community.

Contact: Jason Robertson, Access Director

9. Ocoee River (TN) - Conservation/Access

Issue: TVA is ending free releases on the Upper Ocoee after this fall, and charging boaters and outfitters for water.

Goal: To secure 74 free recreational releases annually on the Upper Ocoee.

Current Status: The Upper Ocoee continues to be an issue that American Whitewater considers a top priority. It is a challenging project for us to work on; butting heads with a massive archaic political organization like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is no easy task! American Whitewater is attempting to work with the TVA, as the formal representative for downstream recreationalists in TVA's Reservoir Operations Study (ROS). AW is also working to educate our members, regional business owners and citizens, and politicians about the importance of recreation on the Ocoee and all that we stand to gain through the ROS. We are advocating for free recreational releases at monthly meetings that will wrap up with the completion of the ROS late in 2003.

This being said, the TVA continues to state that the Upper Ocoee is simply not an important issue for them, and that releases there will cease unless boaters and outfitters pay for them. American Whitewater is continuing to assert that the TVA has a legal and social obligation to share the Ocoee River with the public, free of charge. The TVA is not subject to federal regulations so we must use creative approaches to affect change within TVA (not to mention the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and other similarly exempt organizations). If TVA refuses to address our concerns through the ROS than they will be proving to the world that they are taking advantage of the public, and we will seek to reform TVA.

There are several proposals being made in the Ocoee Community that are considering cost sharing with TVA to provide releases. AW will take part in these discussions while working to convince the TVA to do the right thing and provide the water free of charge. We are hosting the TEVA National Freestyle Championships on the Upper Ocoee in October, which will be the last event on the Upper Ocoee that the TVA intends to provide water for without charging exorbitant prices for the water. Your chance to help save the Upper Ocoee will come early next spring with the opportunity to comment on the final phase of the ROS. Let AW lead the way, and support us in our quest for an Upper Ocoee River that supports the regional economy and the growing paddling community of the Southeast!

Precedent: TVA has little to no oversight and is not ethically managing their rivers. Their answer to a public process is their Reservoir Operations Study, which may or may not fairly address the needs of the public.

Contact: Kevin Colburn: Conservation and Access Associate

10. Route 3 Wave (NY) - Conservation/Access

Issue: The potential alteration of an existing play-wave to make it attractive for competitions.

Goal: To make sure that a fair public process is in place that protects the river, the community, and the regional boaters.

Current Status: Plans to alter a small glassy surfing wave in downtown Watertown New York have sparked national attention and intense debate. The wave, known as the Route 3 Wave, is on a highly altered and developed section of the Black River, but is still well loved by local intermediate paddlers. Plans to alter the wave to make it a more advanced feature suitable for freestyle competitions have upset the paddlers who like to surf on the wave as it currently exists. These paddlers were also concerned that access to the wave would be limited.

American Whitewater has entered the process by first making sure that there is a process, a fair one with ample opportunity for public comment. We also worked closely with regional paddling clubs to design a set of recommendations that will put safe-guards into place that prevent damage to the river, ensure a completed and well designed wave, ensure free public access to the site, and protect the city of Watertown from getting stuck with any economic burden. We'll be working through volunteers and traveling to New York to assist on the resolution of this issue in a way that is best for paddlers and the river itself.

So why is this a conservation/access issue? First of all, AW does not encourage paddlers to alter natural rivers for any reason. The Route 3 is a highly altered site and the actual on-site ecological impacts of such a small alteration would be negligible. We therefore considered the proposed project on a watershed scale. Increased use of the Black River at a site like Route 3 could actually help the river and boaters alike by assuring that use triggers are met which will lead to additional releases on the river from an upstream dam. The visual nature of a well designed whitewater park in such a populated urban area would also likely lead to a community that thinks about upstream and downstream uses of the river. Essentially, it could create a community of river advocates by casting a spotlight on the river. We chose to get involved in this project from an access point of view because there was a potential to increase access or lose it entirely as a well-loved site.

Precedent: Every indication we have shows that play parks are at least a wave of the future. We at AW feel that we have an obligation to make sure that these projects only happen in appropriate places, through public processes, and for the benefit of the river and the public at large. The Route 3 project highlights some of the tough issues that we'll face in the near future as whitewater parks become more prevalent.

Contact: Kevin Colburn, Conservation and Access Associate

Creator of reach
Kevin Colburn
302 Donnybrook Dr
Asheville, NC 28806-9518