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Warming Climate, Human Impacts Make Better Data About Rivers Essential

World Rivers Day 2023 comes with a push to better understand the health of these life-giving resources.

The Rio Grande meanders through central New Mexico. In 2022, persistent drought caused some stretches of it to go dry.
(Richard Estrada/Shutterstock)
In Brief:
  • Rivers are rightly revered as the “arteries" of our planet.
  • Two-thirds of American drinking water comes from rivers, and they are a driving force in the health of ecosystems. Climate, pollution and development are placing increasing stress on them.
  • There’s growing consensus that shared, real-time data is essential to understanding and improving river health.

  • Sept. 24 is World Rivers Day, first celebrated in 2005 following a declaration by the U.N. General Assembly that 2005-2015 would be the “Water for Life” decade. Across six continents, more than 100 countries will hold events to acknowledge the importance of the “arteries of our planet” and our need to protect them.

    Concern about abuse and neglect of rivers has led to an international movement to recognize rivers as living entities with fundamental rights, entitled to legal guardians. While this might sound far-fetched, it’s already happening.

    In 2021, the Magpie River in Canada was declared a legal person. In 2019, Bangladesh granted all its rivers the same rights as humans. New Zealand was the first country to move in this direction, enacting a law in 2017 that gives the Whanganui River the legal rights of a human. Moreover, the river is to be represented by two “guardians” in legal matters, one from the government and one from the Whanganui tribe.

    There’s a touch of enlightened self-interest in this trend. Rivers play an essential role in maintaining the health of ecosystems, setting the pace for the survival of communities of organisms that include animals, plants and insects. Environmental health greatly affects human health. But the connection is even more direct.

    Rivers provide two-thirds of the country’s drinking water supply. In the drought-stricken West, almost 80 percent of the water taken from the Colorado River is used for agriculture.

    Amy Souers Kober is vice president of communications, for the nonprofit American Rivers. She sees World Rivers Day as an opportunity to make policymakers more aware of the relationships between the condition of rivers in their states and the lives of their constituents.

    “I hope that we've moved on from seeing this just as an environmental issue,” Kober says. “It's got economic repercussions, public health repercussions, safety repercussions — it’s about our communities.”

    America’s 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams are under severe stress from warming temperatures, pollution and the pressures of development. Data is essential to making the right decisions to preserve them, and efforts are underway to use current technology to better monitor their health, including responding to unexpected events.

    Nitrates account for 90 percent of releases from the industrial facilities monitored under the Toxics Release Inventory program. They contribute to algal blooms that can be harmful to aquatic life and, in some cases, humans. This public portal offers a look at blooms in California.

    An Internet of Water

    The ability of America’s public health system to detect the emergence and spread of diseases, or to mount timely responses to them, is hampered by the lack of a national data system. Post-pandemic, it’s one of the major priorities of public health officials to change this.

    River behavior and impacts don’t stay within state borders any more than viruses do. (The Mississippi River passes through 10 states; the Missouri and Colorado through seven; the Ohio, six; the Rio Grande, three.) While a great deal of data is collected regarding rivers, there’s not an integrated national resource where all of it can be accessed.

    In 2017, a report from the Aspen Institute set forward a plan for designing and launching an “Internet of water,” a data network that would enable data producers and users to share information about water in real time. “Currently, we are unable to answer fundamental questions about our water systems in a timely way,” the authors said.

    These “fundamental questions” include how much water is in the water system, the quality of that water and how it is being used. Real-time data is essential to understanding a river system, which is inherently dynamic. In addition, threats such as sewage spills, floods or environmental disasters occur randomly and each one can have unique attributes.

    River basin commissions, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), local water agencies and academic researchers all collect data about water, says Scott Ensign, a researcher who serves as assistant director and vice president of the Stroud Water Research Center. So do community-based groups and “citizen scientists.”

    “It adds up to a very dense tapestry of data collection throughout the United States, and sometimes we lack the ability to connect the dots,” says Ensign. “That’s the problem when you’re talking about addressing concerns about water quality and watershed health, because we need to put all those pieces together.”

    A good deal of this data is already available on the Internet somewhere, he says. But it’s not all in a format that makes it possible to combine data sets. The goal for an “Internet of water” would be to standardize how data is collected, reported and stored — the same challenge before the public health system.

    The Internet of Water Coalition is working to bring stakeholders together and lead the development of the digital tools that are needed. It’s not the only group working on this problem, Ensign says, but that’s not necessarily another layer of complexity. The idea is that the networked data will come together in a cooperative effort, not under any government agency. All participants are committed to FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Repeatable) data principles.

    “The theory and the intent is that there might be different flavors of how you document your data, but generally speaking, everybody's going to play nice with everybody else when it comes to the digital exchange of that data,” says Ensign.

    True Elements, a private-sector data company focused on “water intelligence,” is undertaking its own effort to leverage publicly available data and make it more accessible and understandable to water managers. (True Elements is a partner with e.Republic LLC, the parent company of Governing.) A train derailment that occurred when a bridge over the Yellowstone River collapsed is a case in point.
    Tulare Lake flooding
    A flooded farm equipment yard in California. Runoff from both urban and rural floods can bring toxic contaminants into surface water.
    (Robert Gauthier/TNS)

    Off Track

    Train derailments are not uncommon — according to the Federal Railroad Administration there were 518 in 2022 — but they haven’t necessarily been on the radar screen as a threat to rivers. A series of events has raised new concerns.

    In February, a train went off the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic chemicals into surface water and igniting a fire that sent other toxic material into the water supply. A train derailment in March released what was characterized as an “unknown” quantity of diesel fuel and oil into the New River in West Virginia.

    In June, a railroad bridge over the Yellowstone River in Montana collapsed, sending a train carrying hazardous material into the water. In the aftermath of this event, True Elements used a mapping tool to help officials downstream from the spill get an idea of the progress of the material that had been released.

    The first step was to find out which chemicals were involved in the spill. This opened the door to adding in information about how they behave in water, for example whether they are more likely to settle or float. This was combined with real-time information from public and private sources about the rate of flow of the river. All of these data points were then brought together to create a map showing the estimated progress of material from the spill.

    “The next step in the process is to alert folks downstream of what they would be looking for and to what degree it may still be present when it gets to their location,” says Chuck Louisell, chief artificial intelligence officer/science officer for True Elements. “That helps line testing up for public agencies or citizen scientist organizations such as water keepers so that they can deploy people with test kits to be testing in the right places for the right thing.”

    Moving forward, the plan is to incorporate additional data sources such as satellite imagery or findings from tests in the area of a spill. A partnership with the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance brings a worldwide network of as many as a million waterkeepers to do on-site tests, says Chief Technology and Innovation Officer David Bankston.

    An ongoing flow of such data and machine learning tools can help refine forecasts. (Imaging can also provide insight into stream bank erosion; fast-flowing water can cause “bridge scour,” moving sand and gravel away from structures that support bridges.)

    “What we’re trying to do is spark others to innovate around technologies that can be integrated, so we can know more about the water that makes up 67 percent of our drinking water supply,” says Louisell.

    What’s the Worry?

    A multiplicity of factors are affecting rivers, in ways that can’t be predicted from past data. Warming is changing the patterns of both drought and flood. Runoff from thousand-year floods is bringing an unknown mix of contaminants from both urban and rural communities into surface water. Changing rain patterns, both drought and flood, are changing the characteristics of watersheds.

    Whatever monitoring and public health protections may be in place, the baseline of insult to rivers is remarkable. According to data self-reported to EPA by industrial facilities, close to 200 million pounds of toxic substances are released into surface water each year.

    The goal of the 1972 Clean Water act was “zero discharge” of pollutants by 1985. More than 860 million gallons of sewage leak from sewage systems each year, carrying not only biological hazards, but traces of pharmaceuticals.

    Most of the rivers on the American River’s “Most Endangered Rivers of 2023” are at risk because of human-caused factors, from pollution and dam construction to mining, not because of climate change. A May Supreme Court decision rolled back Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, though many states act to preserve them.

    This interference with water systems is of such scale and complexity, and brings such potential for harm, that “gut feelings” and politicking need to make way for learning. Researchers have urgent need for the best possible data sets and data analysis tools to have any chance of understanding the true condition of rivers and developing effective ways to keep them healthy.

    “We know a lot about streams and rivers, but we haven't studied them for the same period of time under the conditions we're just starting to see — drier dries, wetter wets, bigger floods, changing temperatures,” says Ensign. “There’s a scientific need to discover how those factors are affecting our ecosystems.”


    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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