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Rivers as Economic Engines

As paddlers, we know how valuable water is as a means of recreation. Have you ever thought about how water can drive your local economy? A new report by American Rivers makes the case for boosting federal water infrastructure and river restoration to strengthen communities nationwide.

~July 1, 2020

Washington – An answer to our nation’s current economic downturn is flowing through cities, towns, fields and forests across the nation. A new report, “Rivers as Economic Engines: Investing in rivers, clean water, communities and our future” presents a vision for positive, transformational change.

The report by American Rivers makes the case for boosting federal water infrastructure and river restoration spending and suggests a framework for equitable investment that will strengthen communities nationwide. American Rivers called on Congress to invest $500 billion over ten years in water infrastructure and river restoration.

“Our nation is in a defining moment,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers. “We are grappling with a devastating pandemic, a historic economic downturn and the impacts of climate change. These threats are disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other historically marginalized people. It is time for transformational solutions that strengthen communities, improve public health, address longstanding injustices, and boost our economy. Equitable investment in clean water and healthy rivers is vital to a better future.”

Congress is currently working on several bills that address water infrastructure improvements, including the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2) which includes $40 billion for wastewater and $25 billion for drinking water. American Rivers supports this effort and applauds the increase in funding, but urged Congress to do more by committing to a $500 billion ten-year investment.

Communities have proven that safeguarding clean water and river health creates jobs and boosts the economy. The “Rivers as Economic Engines” report highlights findings, including:

  • Investing $82 billion per year in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure for 10 years would generate $220 billion per year in economic activity and would produce and sustain 1.3 million jobs over the 10-year period (Value of Water Campaign, 2017)
  • Healthy rivers plow money back into the economy through recreation activities, with watersports and fishing directly generating over $175 billion in retail spending annually and over 1.5 million jobs nationwide. (Outdoor Industry Association)
  • The ecological restoration sector directly employs approximately 126,000 workers nationally, and supports nearly another 100,000 jobs indirectly, contributing a combined $25 billion to the economy annually (University of North Carolina)

“Too many communities in our country don’t have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water. Too many communities are degraded by sick, polluted rivers. Too many communities lack good job opportunities. For too long, our nation’s infrastructure investments, or lack of investments, have harmed our most vulnerable communities,” Irvin said.

The federal government has a long history of investing in river and water projects that damage rivers and perpetuate injustices against Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other marginalized communities. During the Great Depression, the Public Works Administration built massive dams and other water projects, including Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River, Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia and the Upper Mississippi River locks and dams. Across the country, rivers were harnessed and degraded, devastating ecosystems, displacing Indigenous people and local communities, destroying cultural sites and inundating riverside lands.

“Today, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create real, lasting change. We must be clear about what positive infrastructure investment looks like, focusing on sustainability and equity, and prioritizing the needs of low-income neighborhoods and Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities,” Irvin said.

American Rivers called on Congress to invest $500 billion over ten years in the following three areas:

  1. Improve Water Infrastructure ($200 billion): Prioritize investment to improve water infrastructure and encourage “One Water” solutions to maximizes economic, social and environmental benefits. This includes ensuring safe and affordable clean water and sanitation – particularly in Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other marginalized communities – by funding the improvement of water systems, and prioritizing investments that focus on green infrastructure and water efficiency.
  2. Modernize Flood Management ($200 billion): Prioritize investments to incentivize a shift from outdated flood management policies to a multi-benefit approach that protects communities, ensures public safety, and restores river health. This includes incentivizing natural infrastructure solutions for flood management and community resiliency and ensuring flood management plans that include climate resiliency planning and prioritize natural infrastructure or nature-based solutions.
  3. Revitalize Watersheds ($100 billion): Increase funding to communities to restore rivers, make agriculture more efficient and sustainable and improve recreation opportunities. This includes prioritizing integrated water management plans, incentivizing agricultural improvements including updating irrigation infrastructure, and developing a new 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps that will restore river and riparian habitat and improve recreational access.

“The nearly three million miles of rivers running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. By prioritizing investments for water infrastructure and healthy rivers, Congress can create jobs, boost the economy and strengthen our communities for generations to come,” Irvin said.

Read the full report at AmericanRivers.org or take action today

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