Every Child Deserves a Healthy River

06/25/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the sheriff of Richland County, South Carolina took 35 at-risk youth paddling on the Congaree River Blue Trail. The day on the river was part of a program to keep students out of gangs. For most of the kids, it was their first time in a canoe. At the end of the day, when asked if they wanted to come back to paddle the river again, the kids answered with a resounding "Yes!"

The Congaree River Blue Trail is a perfect example of what the Obama administration aims to accomplish with its new initiative, America's Great Outdoors. The administration effort is aimed at connecting rural and urban communities with the natural world and encouraging outdoor activity, while conserving our precious natural resources.

Administration officials are holding listening sessions across the country over the next several months in cities like Charleston, Seattle, and Denver to help shape the initiative's conservation measures and funding priorities.

Communities should speak up to ensure river protection and restoration is a centerpiece of America's Great Outdoors.

Why rivers? Nearly every community has a river or stream flowing through it, and rivers connect communities to parks and other natural treasures. Healthy rivers offer recreation for all ages, including fishing, boating, swimming, and wildlife watching. They support local businesses and our quality of life.

Rivers also give us clean drinking water -- the number one environmental concern among Americans, according to Gallup. In fact, water pollution has been the top-ranking environmental issue of concern to Americans in each Gallup poll since 1989. By protecting rivers, we safeguard our "green infrastructure" that ensures a safe, reliable supply of clean water.

As we highlight the opportunity presented by America's Great Outdoors, we are calling on the administration to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports community-driven conservation projects. The administration should also safeguard deserving rivers with special designations.

Designating Blue Trails is a great way to protect rivers and promote recreation. A Blue Trail, the water equivalent to a hiking trail, is a stretch of river that enjoys protections and is a destination for outdoor recreation. South Carolina's Congaree River Blue Trail is a great example, connecting the state capital of Columbia to one of the nation's premier national parks. Washington's Skagit River is another example. This Wild and Scenic River connects North Cascades National Park with Puget Sound, flows through diverse communities, and offers unmatched opportunities for recreation and outdoor education.

There are 3.5 million miles of rivers in our country, touching the lives of virtually every American. As the late Charles Kuralt, a board member of American Rivers once wrote, "America is a great story and there is a river on every page." America's Great Outdoors is an excellent opportunity to honor our nation's rich river heritage, get kids and families outside, and protect our clean water.

Whether you're concerned about our kids' well-being, public health, the economy, or preserving the environment, this is one initiative where we all stand to gain.