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Sustainable Rivers Project

Published Oct. 21, 2020
Updated: Oct. 21, 2020

Sustainable Rivers Program:

Improving our River Basins

The Sustainable Rivers Program (SRP) is a 22-year partnership between the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The SRP aims to improve ecosystem health by adjusting [USACE-managed] reservoir operations to benefit natural communities. Modifying operations to further consider environmental needs while still accomplishing authorized project purposes is an effective way to restore, protect and sustain riverine and floodplain habitats.

There are currently 16 rivers included in the Sustainable Rivers Program.

“For a river to be included in the SRP the water it carries must be influenced by USACE infrastructure,” said Justin Bashaw, USACE Biologist, “meaning that flows are managed and can be manipulated. Candidate rivers have some ecological issue of importance that may be improved by adjusting flow rates or volumes.”

Two of the SRP rivers, the Roanoke and the Cape Fear, are influenced by USACE Wilmington District projects. B. Everett Jordan Lake Project (Jordan) and the three Cape Fear River Locks and Dams constitute influence on the Cape Fear River, while John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir (Kerr) holds influence on the Roanoke River.

The Sustainable Rivers Program began in 1998, when personnel from The Nature Conservancy approached the USACE’s Louisville District to collaboratively develop an operations plan for the Green River Dam.

The Roanoke River was one of the original 8 Rivers designated in the SRP, and the Cape Fear River has been part of the SRP since 2016.

Benefits to the Community

Wilmington District’s involvement in the SRP benefits the area and surrounding communities by improving the ecological functionality of the basins. Managing a river to more closely mimic natural and seasonal flow conditions can improve water quality and the health of in-river and land-based species.

Improved water quality benefits the overall health of the ecosystems found within river basins and our water supply network. The in-river conditions the SRP aims to provide also allows for self-sustaining fisheries to take hold and improves recreation opportunities for the public such as hiking, fishing, swimming, kayaking, birding, and other outdoor activities. Recreation also brings economic benefits to the surrounding communities.

“[USACE’s] involvement in the SRP allows the public to see that the Corps is truly invested in the communities in which we operate,” said Bashaw. “We do much more than dredging and permitting.”

The Cape Fear River

The Cape Fear’s involvement has brought expanded exposure to the Sustainable Rivers Project in North Carolina, as the Cape Fear River basin is the largest basin contained entirely within the State’s borders. Although the SRP is a nationwide effort, there are few people that know about the program and the good it aims to accomplish.

The Cape Fear River presents a unique focus on ecological aspects that other rivers may not hold. For example, the Cape Fear River is home to endangered Shortnose sturgeons and Atlantic sturgeons. Sturgeons, as well as other fish such as Striped bass and shad, are anadromous meaning they live in oceanic environments but migrate inland, using freshwater rivers, to spawn.  Currently, there are three USACE-owned and operated locks and dams in the river that limit access to historic upstream spawning areas.  Only one lock and dam is currently equipped with a rock arch rapid to allow for more natural upstream fish passage, but experimental SRP-related flows may allow for improved seasonal upstream passage over all three locks and dams.

“The Sustainable Rivers Program, the USACE and The Nature Conservancy are working with agency partners to experiment with ‘pulse flows’,” said Bashaw, “allowing for more water to be present during sturgeon spawning runs. These experimental pulse flows would originate miles upstream at B. Everett Jordan dam and would not prevent the Corps from meeting all of Jordan’s authorized project purposes.”

The Roanoke River

Kerr is a USACE-managed multipurpose hydropower project on the Roanoke River. In 2016, the flood operations at Kerr were modified to more closely mimic natural river flows. Under Kerr’s previous flood operations, floodplains downstream of Kerr were flooded for long periods of time, impairing the health of the hardwoods and the wildlife that depends on them.

Current SRP efforts on the Roanoke seek to understand how the lower Roanoke is responding to the change in flood operations at Kerr. Several studies are underway concurrently, engaging multiple agencies, universities and stakeholders, that are intended to draw a correlation between revised release strategy, floodplain hydrology, floodplain vegetation distribution and diversity, water quality, and health of the lower Roanoke fisheries.

“The SRP is a truly collaborative effort to explore opportunities to improve river health via USACE operational adjustments,” said Bashaw. “We continue to accomplish our mission, but in a more ecologically sustainable way.”