We rely on rivers for transportation, drinking water, irrigation, food supply, recreation, tourism and waste management. Some of these benefits have a dollar value placed upon them worth billions and some provide significant commercial benefits. For example, recreation and tourism are important to the financial well-being of our State with the Mississippi River receiving more annual visitors than any of our National Parks. Visitors generate over $6 billion in annual revenue for the upper Midwest, while hunting and recreational fishing generate $3.2 billion in annual revenue to Illinois. Other benefits have intrinsic value that are difficult to monetize, but are no less real.
Managing these natural resources for multiple uses has proven to be an imposing challenge, and the services we depend on from rivers are often damaged by resource conflicts and poor planning. One of the most dramatic examples of damage to a river from human alterations is the Yellow River in China, where 20 episodes of drying (i.e., zero stream flow) occurred between 1972 and 1997 as a result of drought conditions and excessive diversion for agriculture and municipal uses. The Yellow River example illustrates the need for sound river science to inform managers and policy makers.
Great rivers remain far too important to the well being of our nation and the global economy to risk uninformed river management practices. Because human communities and economies are so often tied to rivers, most people are surprised to learn that the scientific study of large rivers has lagged far behind the study of other aquatic ecosystems. Other large aquatic ecosystems, such as the oceans and the Great Lakes, have benefited from the establishment of specialized research centers, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (established 1910), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (established 1930), and NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (established 1974). At the present time there are no comparable facilities for research on great rivers. NGRREC, through the Confluence Field Station, will fill an important role in research devoted solely to the study of great rivers.