A kayaker races through the rappids.

How To Protect Rivers

Simple tips on becoming a better steward for wild and healthy rivers from Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater’s paddling river protector.

Kevin Colburn jokes that he first started paddling when his father’s motorboat would break down—which was just about every time they took it out. But it was his Pennsylvania high school outdoor club that truly introduced him to whitewater paddling. From there it was a progression, not just in skills, but in understanding what it meant to experience a healthy river. Where he grew up outside Gettysburg, Pa., waterways were severely impacted by development and agriculture, piping brown liquids into nearby rivers he paddled. In North Carolina, where he went to college, some rivers were profoundly polluted, while others flowed from the most pristine headwaters in the eastern U.S. And in Montana, where he attended graduate school, most of the rivers he kayaked were wild and clean. “I’ve been chasing ever wilder rivers throughout my life,” he says. “I saw how good rivers can be, and I was inspired by the wildness.” 

Now Colburn is National Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, which protects and restores whitewater rivers and enhances opportunities to enjoy them safely. His work ranges from preventing and removing dams to improving the flow releases through them—it’s an acute area of focus because great whitewater sections are often on steep, constricted rivers in unpopulated areas, which also make great locations for generating hydropower. Beyond negotiating those dams, Colburn also organizes individuals, groups, and communities to solve problems for water use and policy. 

But before going deep with the grad school study of stream restoration and ecology, Colburn emphasizes that he rarely thought about advocacy. That’s because he believes any inspired work to protect the places we love starts there: in those places.

“It’s essential and good that people develop a relationship with nature that’s rich and uncomplicated, oftentimes for years, before they have an action-oriented conservation ethic—which is what most of the great conservation heroes did when they were young,” Colburn says. “If you’re thinking about all the political complexities around a place, you’re not really connecting with the place.” 

According to the most basic tenet of conservation, we cannot save what we do not love, and we don’t love what we don’t know. That’s why the first of Colburn’s following tips for being a better river steward is perhaps something of a no-brainer. 

Kevin Colburn looks up while paddling Photo: Kevin Colburn

5 Ways to Advocate for the Rivers You Enjoy

Go Play on Water

Whether it’s kayaking, canoeing, rafting, standup paddleboarding, tubing, or just sitting on the bank taking in the scenery. Go enjoy yourself. 

Learn River Etiquette

Outdoor recreation of all kinds exploded during the pandemic, including river recreation. American Whitewater developed a responsibility code for river runners called Paddle Wise, where Colburn says the nonprofit is encouraging, “everyone that gets in the water to do so safely in a way that’s respectful to the environment, to landowners, and other people on the water.” The Paddle Wise toolkit has advice on how to paddle safe, prepared, and smart, and how to leave no trace. It might go without saying how to do that last one, but let’s say it anyway: Pack it in and pack it out, don’t leave beer cans or other garbage, and, if there are no restroom facilities, bury human waste at least 200 feet from water. 

Send in Public Comments

When a piece of public land or public waterway is in a planning phase—whether it’s development, wild and scenic river designation, or allocating use—public comments are part of that process. “It’s easy to blow off these opportunities when they pop into your inbox, but people can make a big difference here,” Colburn says. “I’ve seen just one or two people radically shift the debate and discussion around these really important issues. Agencies and politicians sometimes haven’t even been to these places and aren’t excited about them the way that we are. Knowing a place is a kind of special power.”

You can sign up for alerts like these with organizations like American Whitewater, American Rivers, Outdoor Alliance, or other conservation organizations you favor, all of which generally provide template language to make it easy to submit public comments on the future of our rivers. 

Be Careful With Geotagging

This one’s trickier to navigate, but Colburn advises using best judgment when storytelling on social media. “Share in a way that’s responsible. Some places are currently seeing overuse, or can’t handle a lot of use. Some places need people to advocate for them, and need all the love they can get.”

Practice Inclusivity 

Speaking of love, it’s part of the river life to be inclusive, Colburn says. That means providing opportunities for those around you to take part—creating a welcoming space for everyone who might want to enjoy rivers in any way. More people experiencing rivers equals more people loving them, and ultimately, more people protecting them. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.