Johanna Neumann: Why we should bother protecting rivers in the face of climate change​​​​​​

  • The Connecticut River glows from a fading sunset Thursday evening as seen from the Sunderland Bridge. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Published: 3/20/2019 7:00:16 PM

With the wide-reaching impacts of climate change and the urgency with which we need to slash pollution, it’s reasonable to argue that any and all civic action could and should be aimed at solving those problems.

So why engage in advocacy and organizing around other environmental issues like, for example, the health of your local river?

Here are a few reasons.

Many of us have experienced the joy of a fresh healthy waterway. We’ve heard the gleeful laughter of children immersed in a water fight. We’ve treasure-hunted for crayfish among gleaming multicolored rocks. We’ve taken in the silent beauty of a fly fisherman’s lines arcing in the morning mist.

Our local Fort River is among our gorgeous rivers. It is only 15 miles long, but it offers incredible variability.

Steep and frigid headwater streams merge in Belchertown and then pour down the Pelham Hills into Amherst behind Fort River school. The shallow and fast-moving water in the riffles calms to offers swimming holes as it serpentines under Route 9 and along Groff Park into South Amherst. Eventually a mature, slow meandering river flanked by biodiverse floodplain forest winds through Hadley and ultimately adds its waters to those of countless others, forming New England’s largest river, on its way to Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Of all the Connecticut River tributaries in Massachusetts, the Fort River runs free of dams for the longest distance. As a result, many ocean migrating fish, such as sea lampreys, can be found there. The river is also home to several state and federally endangered species, including dwarf wedge mussels.

Unfortunately, in many places along its 15-mile journey, the Fort River is neither visible nor accessible. As a result, in the public mind, it’s largely forgotten. And when forgotten, our rivers get abused.

For too long we’ve treated Fort River, like many of our rivers, as a trash can and a sewer. Our road designs send oily and salty runoff straight into the river. Plastic bags droop from shoreline branches and bottles and cans pile up along the banks. Poorly designed road crossings encourage rain to wash soil into the river, loading the water with sediment and excess nutrients.

We can and must do better.

Recently, a group of residents has come together with the aim of elevating the profile of this remarkable and largely undiscovered ecological treasure. The group hopes to engage local colleges and universities in doing more research and supporting citizen science on the river. They hope to better connect the public to the river by improving access and offering some coordinated explorations via kayak, canoe, and on foot. And they plan to advocate for policies that will improve access, water quality, and quantity in the river.

Some may argue that given the urgency of the climate crisis, efforts like this should be redirected toward a carbon tax or the like. I respectfully disagree because building environmental consciousness is not a zero-sum game.

The families that frequent the swimming hole on the Fort River near my house are unlikely to attend a community meeting about a carbon tax. Might they attend a tube float from Jump Bridge to Groff Park and collect litter along the way? Possibly.

Given that Amherst officials are exploring purchasing the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course, which has 1.5 miles of river frontage in South Amherst — a once in a generation conservation opportunity — might families participate in a golf ball cleanup to get the toxic plastic balls out of the river? Sounds kind of fun.

And if they come, might they feel a greater love, appreciation, and ownership for the natural world and outrage at the trashing of our natural commons? Very likely.

Gateway experiences on our rivers grow our connectedness to the natural world and deepen our recognition that we need to prioritize clean water to drink and play in, clean air to breathe, and open spaces to explore. If coupled with avenues for advocacy and organizing, these gateway experiences can help invest the next generation of environmental activists in fighting for their planet.

Former president Jimmy Carter recently offered the following quote about the future of conservation in America: “I learned from my early days exploring the forests and waters of Georgia and my years in Washington, D.C., that conservation is an American value that needs replenishment by each new generation. There are growing dangers to our most precious civic possessions: the air we breathe; the water we drink; and the land that sustains us. Divisive politics distract us from these common interests.”

And that’s why even in the face of dire realities of climate science, I believe other efforts to promote healthy livable communities are still time well spent.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at

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