A recent National Geographic Society poll found that although Americans are concerned about the health of their rivers and express an interest in becoming involved in river conservation, most have a very low “River IQ.”

Most people lack the basic knowledge about rivers and do not realize that they are part of a larger interrelated system in which their actions can have negative affects. Also, most are unaware of the extent to which our rivers are in danger.

Why does this matter? You cannot persuade people to change an activity or behavior if they have no idea of what the consequences of that activity are. This goes for citizens, business leaders and politicians. An uninformed public is an inactive public.

So let’s try to clear up some of the misconceptions that many Americans (myself included) have about rivers and how certain activities affect this resource.

Nearly two in three Americans (63 percent) wrongly believe that water is a renewable resource. It’s not.

The water that is in the ground, in our waterways or in the atmosphere is all that we have. As for drinking water, more than 60 percent of our water comes from rivers and river-fed lakes. So clean rivers translate into clean drinking water.

Although all Americans live in a watershed, few are familiar with this term. A watershed is all of the land that makes up the drainage basin for a waterway. A watershed can be small — a few acres of land that drain into a tiny stream — or large, like the 64,000 acres of land that drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

Larger watersheds are made up of smaller ones. For example, all of the land in Pennsylvania and Maryland that drains into Deer Creek makes up the Deer Creek watershed. But this land also makes up a small part of the Susquehanna River watershed because Deer Creek flows into the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna River watershed, in turn, is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed because the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

This concept is important to understand because we are connected to rivers through watersheds. And what we do on the land affects our rivers. Many people do not realize that they are part of a larger system and that their actions have a profound impact on the water quality and appearance of rivers.

Although non-point source pollution — which occurs when water running over land or through the ground picks up pollutants and deposits them in rivers — is the largest source of river pollution, the majority of people polled believe that most pollution in rivers comes from industrial sources. Only 36 percent correctly identified non-point source pollution as the largest source of water quality problems.

Human actions — from agricultural run-off to urban sprawl — are the greatest threats to rivers. Consider these examples. A one-acre parking lot produces 16 times more runoff than a one-acre meadow. A quart of oil dumped down a storm drain will create a two-acre oil slick.

Most of us do not appreciate how valuable water is and just how much water it actually takes to perform everyday tasks. It takes 30 gallons to run a washing machine; 15 to run a dishwasher; five to flush a toilet; and 50 for a 10-minute shower. Ninety percent or more of the poll’s participants underestimated the water in these cases.

This overall low River IQ also helps to explain why so many Americans are not aware of the dire situation that our rivers are in when it comes to the level of pollution and the dangers to our wetlands and river species.

About 40 percent of rivers and streams in this country are too polluted for fishing and swimming. Thirty percent of native freshwater fish in North America are endangered or threatened. Close to 50 percent of our wetlands have been lost or destroyed in the past century. In all of these cases, most people underestimate the extent of the problems.

The good news is that Americans are concerned about rivers and are interested in helping. Nearly all of those polled (98 percent) said that protecting and conserving our rivers was an important environmental priority.

When asked what their strongest motivations were to protect and conserve rivers, 93 percent of the participants said that clean drinking water was a “very important motivation” and nearly 78 percent said that protecting fish and wildlife was a very important motivation.

Other reasons cited as very important motivators included protecting our national heritage, maintaining the scenic beauty of rivers and keeping restored waterfronts in good condition.

Two-thirds of the respondents said getting children involved in river protection and conservation is a great educational experience as well as a convincing reason to become involved in river protection efforts.

River IQ is part of the National Geographic Society’s “Geography Action! Rivers 2001,” a six- month nationwide program to rally students, teachers, families and communities to take part in projects to preserve rivers and watersheds as well as conserve water. For information, contact: The National Geographic Society at 800-368-2728 or visit: www.nationalgeographic.com/ geographyaction/index.html

Want to conserve and protect our rivers? Here are some ideas:

  • Fix any leaks promptly.
  • Turn off the tap while brushing teeth or doing dishes.
  • Run the washing machine or dishwasher only when full.
  • Water lawns in the morning or evening, when water evaporates slowly.
  • Install low-flow shower heads.
  • Install low-flush toilets.
  • Take shorter showers.

To Reduce Harmful Runoff

  • When changing a car’s oil, take care to avoid leaks and dispose of it properly. Do not pour it down the drain or sewer. Many counties have an oil recycling program.
  • Wash cars on grass instead of the street.
  • Use porous products for driveways and walkways.
  • Landscape with native plants instead of grass.
  • Dispose of household chemicals safely. Do not pour them down the drain or sewer. Most counties have a day when homeowners can drop off hazardous household wastes.
  • Inspect and repair leaky sewers and septic tanks.
  • Minimize or eliminate fertilizer.
  • Walk or take public transportation when possible.

Get Involved

Contact one of these organizations for information about local watershed groups and activities:

  • Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay: 410-377-6270 in MD; 717-236-8825 in PA; 804-775-0951 in VA; 202-466-463 in DC.; or www.acb-online.org
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation: 410-268-8833 in MD; 717-234-5550 in PA; 804-780-1392 in VA; 888-SAVEBAY everywhere else; or www.savethebay.cbf.org
  • EPA Chesapeake Bay Program: 800-YOUR-BAY; or www.chesapeakebay.net
  • EPA Watershed Information Network: www.epa.gov/win