Many small waterways rising from ashes, but U.S. rivers still ailing

With press attention focused on major river cleanups — when it’s focused on rivers at all — some 37,000 small river and stream restoration projects in the U.S. have gone largely unnoticed, despite their environmental importance. The local, state, and federal restorations, costing an estimated $14 billion or more since 1990, range from restoring streams’ natural curves on behalf of salmon and groundwater supplies to creating streams out of formerly buried plumbing in urban areas, and have contributed to the overall health of the nation’s ecosystems one bit at a time. But despite many small victories, the nation’s waterways overall have been getting dirtier since about 1998, following a few-decade stretch of increasing cleanliness. Now over a third of rivers are polluted or impaired and freshwater use is so ravenous that some rivers never reach the ocean. Stir in the aging sewer-treatment plants that the U.S. EPA says need to be replaced — at a cost of up to $450 billion — and the issue of clean waterways in the U.S. becomes muddy indeed.