I remember learning in school that the earliest peoples preferred to live near rivers if possible – which took care of food and fresh water, transport, and useful materials like reeds. What I didn’t know was how much river health suffers because of dams. I always thought of them as engineering marvels – proof of human engineering ingenuity.
Well it turns out we have gotten a bit carried away building them. Did you know there are over 800,000 dams in the world?  For rivers that need to flow and species that need to migrate – that’s a bit of a disaster. Cold, flowing water becomes warm and stagnant when trapped behind a barrier.
The world has lost about 80% of freshwater fish populations since 1970, which is when dams started going up everywhere. Coincidence? Not according to the science. 
The good news is, dams are starting to come down. In the US alone, 1000 dams have been removed to date. This is good news, the costs of dams seem to outweigh the benefits in many cases. Dams can erode riverbanks, cause water logging on nearby land and increase the proportion of salt in river water. The warm, stagnant water also encourages the spread of parasitic diseases, notably malaria and schistosomiasis, and robs river creatures of their natural habitats.
Over thousands of years, nature taught the Nez Perce how to live with her. According to tribal leaders, “This intimate and sacred relationship unifies us, stabilizes us, humbles us. It is what makes us a distinct people and what gives us our identity. We cannot be separated from the land or our rights without losing what makes us Nez Perce. We defend our rights to preserve who we are and what we hold sacred.” 
The Nez Perce now seek to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River – a river the Nez Perce have lived near and fished from for over 11,000 years.  The 15 dams on Snake River have significantly reduced the number of Sockeye Salmon – with an average of just 18 returning to Idaho to spawn each year between 1985 and 2007. 
Expensive conservation efforts by scientists to save and incubate eggs from the few remaining salmon, then ship them past the dams, has met with some success. In 2015, 101 salmon returned home to spawn.  But considering it cost over $15 million for this to happen, it might not work as a sustainable solution. 
Wouldn’t it be better to let the salmon and the river run free? At the Earth Law Center we are advocating for the right of rivers to flow and maintain their native biodiversity.
The Whanganui in New Zealand and the Atrato in Colombia have had their right to exist, thrive and evolve recognized by the law. Why not recognize these rights for the Snake River too? Earth Law Center’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers defines the minimum rights which should belong to all rivers. These fundamental rights include:
1.The right to flow,
2.The right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem,
3.The right to be free from pollution,
4.The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers,
5. The right to native biodiversity, and
6. The right to restoration.
Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney from Earth Law Center, spoke about river rights at the Fall 2017 Tribal Environmental Summit in Lewiston, ID, hosted by Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. Download the Universal Declaration of River Rights framework here.
Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature's rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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