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Lesson from Narmada: Free flowing rivers better equipped to fight climate change

Rappahannock river
By Lori Udall

When I think back on my work in India in the late 1980s and early 90s, my memory takes me most often to the Narmada River and Manibeli, the first Adivasi village in Maharashtra to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam. The storied Narmada, with its Hindu temples, landscapes, the mystical parikramas and distinct voice will be forever stored in my soul. As an activist who tracked World Bank development projects in India, I worked with Narmada Bachao Andolan. As I travelled on or near the Narmada, I documented the resettlement issues facing the Adavasi and other oustees and sent reports back to the World Bank and U.S. Congress.
I live now by another river, the Rappahannock River in Virginia that flows through our farm and travels south to the Chesapeake Bay. As with all rivers, the Rappahannock tells her story as she flows by to those who listen, watch and wade in her waters. The Rappahannock is the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States. The source starts at Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and runs for 195 miles (314 km) through the state to the Bay.
The benefits of opening up rivers to flow freely are many. Growing evidence has revealed that free flowing rivers are far better equipped than dammed rivers to meet the impacts of climate change. Millions of people depend on fish for their sustenance and income. The free flowing rivers also help maintain the longitudinal (upstream downstream) and lateral (with floodplains) connectivity for the river. Free flowing rivers allow fish to flourish and migrate and adapt to changing temperatures and water flows. Sediment is able to travel to the ocean which is important for coasts for countering sea level rise. Free flowing rivers also recharge the ground water that humans and animals depend on for their lives. Particularly in drought periods, free flowing rivers are important for recharging aquifers.
In Virginia, a recent surge of interest in river protection, recreation, fishing, and Tribal history and culture has the Rappahannock moving into a renaissance of renewal.
Friends of the Rappahannock is a local riverkeeper group that works on river restoration, clean-up, protection, outdoor education, and oral history. Friends of the Rappahannock helps landowners to plant appropriate trees along the river to prevent erosion and erects fencing to protect the river from livestock. The group advocates for sound river and waters policies in the Virginia state legislature. It was also an advocate for removing the Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock.
The United States has an epic history of dam building, much of it highly destructive to migratory fish, freshwater species, local environments, river communities, and native peoples. Currently the U.S. is calculated to have about 91,000 dams that have impounded over 600,000 (970,000 Km) miles of rivers. However, there is a strong movement among river advocates like American Rivers to restore free-flowing rivers by removing dams that have outdated infrastructure and are no longer fulfilling their purpose. Fifty-seven dams were removed in 2021 that freed 2,131 miles of rivers. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $2.4 billion set aside for dam removal as well as dam rehabilitation.
The Rappahannock’s 22-foot Embrey dam was built in 1909 and finally removed in 2004. Since the removal the fish population has flourished and allowed migratory fish such as blue herring, striped bass, and hickory shad to migrate upriver. Also found in the river now are largemouth bass, yellow perch, trout, and rockfish.
The Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1996. The goal is to protect and preserve fish and wildlife, including endangered species in the wetlands. The refuge is an incredible resource that includes about 20,000 acres in areas around the river and its tributaries. The natural habitat includes tidal marsh, forested swamp, various forests, grasslands. Most of the refuge is open to the public for recreation and observing wildlife. Great blue heron, bald eagles, monarch butterfly, spotted turtle, and white-tailed deer are some of the species that can be observed at the refuge. Recreational activities such as boating, canoeing, and kayaking have increased around the refuge and other parts of the river.
Indigenous peoples lived on the land near the Rappahannock for an estimated 10,000 years before European settlers arrived in the Eastern U. S. The river history is intertwined with that of the Rappahannock Indian Tribe. The Tribe has historical connections to Fones Cliffs and other landscapes close to the river. In the early 1600s the Rappahannock tribe lived along the north and south banks of Rappahannock River Valley. According to historical records the tribe had conflicts with Captain John Smith and other European settlers who came to the valley. Over time, the tribe was displaced numerous times, and their original lands appropriated. But they never lost their spiritual connection to the river.
The Tribe was federally recognized in 2018, and efforts by several stakeholders are underway to get back some of their traditional homelands near the river. One such effort focused on Fones Cliffs. Fones Cliffs is a dramatic 4-mile-long series of white cliffs that tower 100 feet above the river. The cliffs also have one of the largest clusters of bald eagles in the U.S., home to an estimated 400 eagles.
Originally slated by its corporate owner for a luxury housing development and golf course, in 2003, The Nature Conservancy, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began efforts to protect 252 acres (101.981 hectares) of property around Fones Cliffs. Over a 10-year period the Fish and Wildlife service made four offers to the landowner that were declined. Finally in 2018 The Conservation Fund bought the acreage and transferred the property to Fish and Wildlife Service. It then became part of the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge. Through its relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tribe can now reconnect with the cliffs and their history.
In a 2020 interview Tribal Chief Anne Richardson said, “The Cliffs are a part of our homeland. The eagles are sacred to us. We want to protect the eagles forever. We are rediscovering our ties to the land. We want to teach our children, college students and others about indigenous conservation—about caring for all things. I think the landowner had something of a spiritual experience when he came and talked to us. After years and years, he was finally able to let go.” Saving Fones Cliffs, Case Study, Partnership for National Trails System, Don Owen, Spring 2020 (page 5).
The Tribe now has a program called “Return to the River” for Rappahannock youth to learn about their ancestors’ activities and livelihoods on the river. The program involves learning to make a dug-out canoe, carving fishing and hunting tools from scratch with bone and flint, and making traditional fishing nets.
On April 1,2022, the Rappahannock Indians received another 456 acres (184.5 hectares) on Fones cliffs in a ceremony. This area was the site of three Rappahannock villages – Wecuppom, Matchopik, and Pissacoack. In the 1600s the Indians were forced to leave the villages through conflicts with settlers.
“We have worked for many years to restore this sacred place to the Tribe. With Eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural and spiritual importance“, said Chief Anne Richardson at the ceremony.
“It is difficult to put into words how much it means to our people to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors that were from these lands nearly 400 years ago. Their spirits remain here, and we will remember them and respect them, as we do the eagles, plants and wildlife that thrive here” she said, “we were River people then and will continue to be river people in the future.” (Chesapeake Conservancy, Press release, April 1, 2022)
In the future there will be continuing efforts among environmental groups, the Rappahannock Tribe and government agencies to secure more of the area around Fones Cliffs. There are still many areas of Fones Cliffs that are unprotected including 968 acres (391.736 hectares) that is owned by a private corporation that initially intended to develop a huge subdivision of houses, restaurants, and other buildings. The future of that land is unclear but environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Conservancy are attempting to raise money to protect the parcel.
With the Rappahannock Tribe returning to the river, I think back on Manibeli and its beautiful green hills, lush fields, and hamlets where the Adivasi lived for centuries prior to their forced resettlement to Gujarat and away from their beloved Narmada. When the Sardar Sarovar dam is no longer useful for its purposes, I dream that the Adivasi one day will be able to return to their river homeland.

Lori Udall is a consultant working on environmental, social and public accountability issues related to the international financial institutions. Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

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