River Democracy Act vital to headwater protection

July 26, 2021
River Democracy Act vital to headwater protection

It’s rare that an elected leader understands the invaluable role headwater streams play in ensuring biodiversity, clean water and vibrant communities, let alone sets out to protect them. But by including many of these vital Oregon waterways in the River Democracy Act, Sen. Ron Wyden has shown that he gets it.

As two longtime residents of the North Umpqua watershed, temporary beneficiaries and stewards of its bounty, we have often witnessed how altering the upper portions of its watershed through forest management, roads and hydroelectric dams has imperiled the ecological, economic and cultural values that makes this place so special. The North Umpqua is in the early stages of a centuries long healing process from these activities, primarily through better forest management on public lands. Wild and Scenic designation has helped.

While big rivers capture most of the headlines, small headwater streams comprise nearly 80% of the total stream network in Oregon. These vital waterways support the ecological health of rivers and the health of communities downstream. Small streams, including those that go dry in the summer, deliver wood and gravel, the essential building blocks for fish spawning and rearing habitat.

Large wood instream helps reduce the impacts of flooding by storing and sorting sediment and gravel. Small streams support some of the highest diversity of plants, fish and wildlife in the state. They serve as important migration corridors for a number of species, big and small. And small streams and wetlands are where much of carbon recycling takes place in the landscape, which in turn feeds the web of life, including insects, frogs and salmon.

The River Democracy Act will protect an additional 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers flowing through public lands. As of now, the state has 2,173 miles designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers, but those are only a small fraction of Oregon’s incredible 110,994 miles of rivers and streams. Even with the addition of the proposed legislation, just 6% of our Oregon rivers on public lands will be protected as Wild and Scenic.

The health of our watersheds is dictated by the way we use land. In Oregon, many headwater streams on private lands are under threat from clear-cut logging, a vast road network, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. We’ve witnessed the destruction of headwaters by ill-conceived logging practices, which takes generations to heal. This is why it is essential that we protect headwaters on public lands with large stream buffers, as proposed in the River Democracy Act.

These shaded buffers of native vegetation will help keep our streams cool for miles downstream. This is particularly important in a warming climate and drought years.

Thank you Wyden, for introducing the River Democracy Act of 2021. Your commitment to protecting Oregon’s small streams and headwaters is a demonstration that every stream matters. Without healthy headwaters, our large rivers, clean drinking water and habitat for fish and wildlife is unnecessarily placed at risk.


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An aerial view of a body of water.