Earlier this year, we sat down with American River’s President and CEO to catch up and learn about the organization’s 50th year working for our waterways and what’s in store for the future. We discussed the Snake and Klamath Rivers, climate change, drought in the West, and more. Follow along for the full interview!

Flylords: Thanks for joining us, Tom. Let’s start with your background and how you started with American Rivers? 

Kiernan: I developed a love for rivers at a young age, playing in the small creek behind his house in suburban Virginia. That’s where I found a beautiful

connection with the dynamic natural world. Rivers were — and still are — my home. I joined American Rivers just over two years ago to get back to this very essence of nature and home. Prior to working at American Rivers, I led the American Wind Energy Association and the National Parks Conservation Association and also co-founded the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center on the Arkansas River in Colorado and worked at North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center guiding trips throughout the Southeast.

Flylords: This is a big year for American Rivers–care to explain some of the organization’s greatest achievements over the last 50 years? 

Kiernan: Together with our partners and supporters, we have safeguarded over 150,000 miles of rivers and over 3 million acres of riverside land. We have organized local and national partners to drive policies that safeguard drinking-water sources for tens of millions of people. We have donned hard hats to blow holes in 150-year-old dams, put water in dried-up river reaches, and bridged divides with the hydropower industry to find collaborative solutions. Time and again, our bright spotlight and savvy advocacy has elevated local river issues to national attention, securing lasting victories. 

  • 83% of the ~2,000 dams removed nationwide that have occurred as a result of American Rivers’ work. 

  • American Rivers has played a role in nearly every U.S. river mile protected as Wild and Scenic. 

  • 1+ million volunteers have removed 39+ million pounds of trash from their hometown rivers through American Rivers’ National River Cleanup® program. 

  • In 1996, American Rivers and our partners stopped the New World gold mine to protect the iconic Yellowstone River in Montana and Wyoming.

  • We convinced the federal government to order the removal of Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River. In 1999, Edwards became the first federal dam removed for environmental reasons. Today, millions of alewives run up the river to spawn.

  • We worked with our partners on a major restoration effort on Washington’s Elwha River that culminated in two massive dam removals in 2011 and 2014. Salmon runs in the river are on the road to recovery.

  • We won protection for 415 miles of Wyoming’s Snake River headwaters streams to preserve vital wildlife habitat in 2012.

  • Our advocacy secured $2.4 billion for dam removal and safety in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — which will kickstart thousands of dam removals and free tens of thousands of river miles across the country.

Finally, this year, we are introducing a new tagline for the organization: Life Depends on Rivers. Along with our new logo, the tagline could not be a more appropriate description of the threats rivers face and the importance of our work. 

The Hudson River flows right through New York City, Brandon Jacoby. Urban river, especially, need help.

Flylords: Similarly, the challenges of today are drastically different from the challenges of 50 years ago. How is American Rivers adapting to these challenges to protect, restore, and reconnect rivers?

Kiernan: Despite the progress we’ve made, the challenges of the future are incredibly dire.  American Rivers has been re-imagining who this organization must be and the impact we must have in the face of such enormous challenges. Our new strategic vision emphasizes four audacious goals: 

Protect 1 million miles of rivers. We can protect 1 million miles of free-flowing rivers by 2030 and half of all rivers in our country by 2050. In addition to safeguarding some of our healthiest, most scenic rivers, we are focusing our efforts on areas where people live. 

Remove 30,000 harmful dams. There are more than 90,000 inventoried dams (and up to 400,000 dams total!) in our country. Up to 85 percent of them are unnecessary, harmful, and even dangerous. Removing a dam is the fastest, most efficient way to bring a river back to life. We must remove thousands of them quickly.

Upper Citico Creek Dam Removal | Photo by Erin Singer McCombs
Upper Citico Creek Dam Removal | Photo by Erin Singer McCombs

Ensure clean water for every community. Everyone deserves clean water yet millions of people are vulnerable to the health impacts of water pollution. American Rivers will continue to take on the biggest fights for water and rivers and proactively drive forward river-positive solutions. 

Champion a powerful river movement. Nearly everyone in our country lives within a mile of a river but few know what that river provides. We envision a future in which every river has multitudes of champions speaking up for it. Because only by working together can we adapt and thrive. We will team up with people at the grassroots, decision-makers at the grasstops, communities, government agencies, hydropower owners, agriculture, and conservation partners to build collective power for positive change.

Flylords: What’s on tap for 2023? What are some of your biggest priorities? 

Kiernan: The world’s biggest dam removal and river restoration effort begins this year on the Klamath River. The removal of these four dams and the restoration of the river and its salmon runs will make history. It shows that big ambitious river restoration goals are possible, and it shows the importance of leadership from Tribal Nations.   We’re seeing great progress on the Snake. We have positive support from the Biden administration and key members of Congress. Removal of the four lower Snake dams is necessary to prevent salmon extinction and honor treaties with Tribal Nations. Now we must focus on replacing the services provided by the four lower Snake dams – we’re advocating for investing federal infrastructure funds to help meet clean energy, transportation and irrigation needs so that river restoration can begin.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 03: Environmental advocates rally protect to our waters as the Supreme Court reviews the Sackett case, which could drastically reduce clean water protections, at the Supreme Court of the United States on October 03, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Protect our Waters).

Flylords: Climate change is having profound impacts on rivers from coast to coast. What does American Rivers’ work look like in regards to climate change? 

Kiernan: Our advocacy and on-the-ground work to protect, reconnect, and restore free-flowing rivers will emphasize areas that address climate impacts and protect biodiversity. Specifically:

Protecting 1 million miles of rivers and removing 30,000 dams will ensure fish and wildlife can access healthy upstream habitat as their homes grow hotter and dryer. Safeguarding rivers and nature near where most people live will make our communities more resilient to drought and flooding and allow people to access the outdoors.

We are also working with communities experiencing more frequent and damaging floods to safeguard lives and property and improve river habitat by reconnecting their rivers to floodplains. Making sure every river has a community of people speaking up for it will make it possible to create a future of abundant, clean water for all of us. 

We will grow our leadership within the Uncommon Dialogue, finding common ground across the hydropower, conservation, business, and Tribal communities to improve hydropower dams and remove harmful, obsolete dams without contributing to climate change.

Flylords: This is a question I’ve asked many folks working in conservation and river restoration, but it remains incredibly pertinent today: how do you balance the benefits of hydropower’s renewable energy generation with the need to recover salmon and steelhead populations and reconnect rivers and habitats? 

Kiernan: Hydropower provides approximately 7 percent of the overall energy production in the country, and comprises 50 percent of all non-fossil fuel energy consumed in the U.S. While hydropower has an important place in a 100-percent clean-energy economy, it can be devastating to river ecosystems. Migratory fish like Pacific salmon and steelhead are teetering on the brink of extinction, largely because of dams. Losing salmon would trigger an extinction vortex that could take down 130 other species, not to mention violate Tribal treaties and threaten the survival of Indigenous cultures and traditions that have existed for thousands of years. That is unacceptable. Especially because we can achieve healthy salmon and steelhead runs and a clean energy future.

With 1,490 hydropower dams in the United States, we’re working to ensure that every necessary hydropower dam meets the highest standards for environmental health and justice — and that means making sure that necessary dams are built and operated as efficiently as possible. We do this by advocating for laws and policies that require dam operators to protect the amount of water in the river, water quality, and wildlife. 

Last April, American Rivers joined other conservation organizations, hydropower industry groups, and Tribes to send a package to Congress and the White House to improve hydropower licensing, relicensing, and license-surrender processes. Specifically, the package would help address climate change, better protect the health of the nation’s rivers, and provide Tribes long-sought authority over their lands and waters.

American Rivers is also a participant and leader in the Uncommon Dialogue on Hydropower: Climate Solution and Conservation Challenge, which is a forum created to change the paradigm around hydropower and river health by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to develop consensus policy, technology, and investment recommendations related to river health, hydropower, and dam safety. We chose to participate in this forum because we wanted to search for the win-win-win solutions to the challenging issue of hydropower licensing reform. 

East Rosebud Creek, Montana, Jim Klug

Flylords: I understand folks all over the West are gearing up for the largest dam removal project in the world on the Klamath, and others are working towards a path forward on the Snake River. Care to highlight any smaller, hyper-local projects on the docket this year?

Kiernan: In western North Carolina, American Rivers is working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other partners to remove the Ela Dam, which has blocked the Oconaluftee River from the rest of the Tuckasegee watershed for almost a century. Removing the dam in 2024 will restore 549 miles of the Oconaluftee River watershed to expand habitat for rare aquatic species such as the sicklefin redhorse. Only recently known to Western science, sicklefin redhorse fish have long been a staple in the diet and culture of the Cherokees. This fish is migratory and runs up rivers like the Oconaluftee River to spawn. Without access to upriver spawning habitat, this unique Southeastern species will die out. In total, the Oconaluftee River is home to 11 sensitive and rare aquatic species, some of which are only found in a few streams and rivers in western North Carolina. 

American Rivers partner Friends of the Cheat are leading an effort to remove the Albright Power Dam from West Virginia’s Cheat River to open up 75 miles of water for people and wildlife. Once completed, this project will open 75 miles of the Cheat River and hundreds of miles of tributaries, offering tremendous benefits to the local communities and ecosystems. Removing the dam — which could begin as early as 2024 — will have positive impacts on the local ecosystem and community. Nearly 40 fish species will once again be able to migrate up and downstream to secure habitat and food. 

Flylords: Let’s talk persistent drought in the West coupled with some of the greatest snowpacks we’ve seen in recent history–what does this mean for western rivers this year and in the future?

Kiernan: This year’s snowpack will be a big help for rivers and streams that have suffered through years of drought. But one year of good snow is not enough to solve the west’s decades-long water crisis.  The snowpack gives us a little breathing room as we work in the Colorado Basin and other areas on long-term collaborative solutions to balance water use and ensure a future of healthy rivers.

Flylords: How can our readers get involved with American Rivers and/or learn more about your work? 

Kiernan: Connect with us on social media @AmericanRivers. Get to know issues impacting rivers nationwide. Sign up for news and updates. Help us keep the pressure on decision-makers to do the right thing for rivers. Donate now to American Rivers. Shop our store. Wear your American Rivers gear and show others that rivers need protection, attention, and love. Explore American Rivers’ library of award-winning films for great river stories and insights into some of the most important conservation issues of our time.

Also, a key annual American Rivers’ publication was just released: America’s Most Endangered Rivers. the 2023 report found that the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is this year’s most endangered river due to climate change, persistent drought, and overallocation of water are crippling this iconic riverscape. Take action for America’s Most Endangered Rivers. 

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  1. Hey,
    Great interview! It’s amazing to see all the incredible work American Rivers has accomplished over the past 50 years. Their focus on protecting, restoring, and reconnecting rivers is critical for our environment and communities. Exciting to see their new vision and goals for the future.
    Michelle Campbell


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