Why are rivers worth investing in right now? As our community, state, and country confront a multitude of challenges, you might ask yourself this question.

Taking a closer look at the impact healthy rivers have on our local community, economy and water resources might help you find the answer.

Across the nation, local communities are realizing the very real and long-term economic impacts they face. While this reality may seem overwhelming, it also presents a new opportunity for us to look at where and how we might revitalize our economy and focus investments moving forward.

American Rivers, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting the quality and supply of our rivers, recently published a study called “Rivers as Economic Engines: Investing in Clean Water, Communities, and Our Future,” which outlines the economic benefit of rivers in local economies throughout the country. In Colorado alone, river recreation provides 131,000 jobs and generates $18.8 billion in economic output annually. Nationwide, ecological restoration accounts for 226,000 jobs and contributes $25 billion to our economy, while watersports and fishing directly generate over $175 billion in retail spending annually and account for over 1.5 million jobs nationwide. This study highlights the fundamental role that rivers, especially healthy rivers, play in our communities; not just for fish and wildlife, but for agriculture, industry, recreation, and quality of life. As Fay Hartmann, Conservation Director for the Colorado River Basin Program of American Rivers said: “To revitalize our economy and create new jobs, we need transformational thinking around rivers and water infrastructure. We need solutions that address longstanding injustices in our water systems and that make our communities stronger.”

At RiversEdge West (REW), a nonprofit organization based right here in Grand Junction, we know that rivers are worth the investment and we are working on solutions to address some of the longstanding impacts to and injustices in our water systems. Furthermore, as we confront the realities of increasing global temperatures, drought, more aggressive weather and flood patterns, and higher frequency wildfires, our work is becoming increasingly urgent.

REW’s work focuses on restoring rivers through the removal of invasive plant species and revegetating native plants along riparian (riverside) lands, and we can point firsthand to the economic benefit of this work as described above. As the lead coordinator for public-private collaboratives along the Colorado, Gunnison, Dolores, and White rivers in western Colorado and eastern Utah, our job is to restore large river landscapes. This work affords us the opportunity to have a direct hand in investing in the health of rivers that ultimately benefits the local economies and communities along those rivers. In 2019 alone, REW helped raise more than $2.4 million to restore rivers.

This funding supported not only the use of many local goods and services, but also provided 109 employment opportunities by the hiring of conservation corps young adults, local contractors, and nonprofit staff.

In the Grand Valley, our work at Watson Island, Las Colonias, Riverbend Park, and many other areas along our rivers has played a part in the physical and economic revitalization of the riverfront by providing numerous recreational and educational opportunities, improving wildlife habitat, and attracting myriad businesses to once marginalized riverfront areas.

Through education, collaboration and hard work, REW and our partners have been tackling these areas for many years, opening the door to a renewed appreciation for rivers that were historically overgrown with invasive plant species such as tamarisk and Russian olive.

When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve the quality of life in our community. When we invest in our rivers, we can create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in our rivers, we invest in our shared future.

Rusty Lloyd, who is based in Grand Junction, joined the RiversEdge West team as executive director in January of 2011. He has also worked as a ranger for Colorado State Parks and director of Western Colorado Conservation Corps.