Will our rivers survive?

In an era of global warming and urban growth, we asked top water experts if the West's rivers can still fill our faucets, water our gardens, and grow our crops

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Souers Kober One case is the Elwha River flowing out of Olympic National Park. Pretty much the only things wrong with it are these two outdated, unsafe dams. We're just trying to get the money to remove the dams and restore the river.

Why are wild rivers important?

Peter Grubb There's something really visceral about rivers, particularly whitewater rivers. Part of that is you're pushed along in the current and there's not a lot you can do about that. You can't take a time-out in the middle of the rapid. It's a good lesson in commitment.

And they're economically important too.

Grubb In Idaho, where I live, it's huge. It's safe to say that in towns like Riggins and Salmon and Stanley, rafting has gone a long way toward replacing the logging economy that was there 20 or 30 years ago.

Is the West facing a water crisis?

Souers Kober I think we are in a crisis.

Mulroy Yes.

Gleick I do a lot of work internationally. A billion people without access to safe drinking water is a crisis. What we see right now in the western United States isn't the same kind of crisis. But we don't want a crisis. When we're in crisis mode, people make stupid decisions.

How do we avoid the stupid decisions? How do we change how we think - and act - about Western rivers and water?

Souers Kober Know where your water comes from. I think so many of us are cut off from that reality, and we don't realize that we're drinking rivers, we're drinking lakes, and we have rivers flowing in our veins. I think our quality of life depends on having clean, free-flowing rivers.

Mulroy What we have to do is create a new ethic around water. You have to make that transition that there's a new tomorrow. There's still a mind-set that "I'm man and I can make nature adapt to me" - and that needs to change. Embrace the fact that you live in a desert. I've often said it would be tantamount to moving from Florida to Alaska and insisting on wearing shorts or a bathing suit in March. It makes no sense.

Gleick Rivers aren't just for drinking water. That's not what the 21st-century idea of rivers will be. It's drinking water and irrigation water and recreation and healthy fisheries and what rivers used to be.

Souers Kober Rivers can be restored, and it's such a hopeful thing. You can see it with your own eyes, and it doesn't necessarily have to take very long. Sometimes you talk about how we restore rivers, but in the end, sometimes it's the rivers that restore us and that can just make us feel whole and healthy again.

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