The Shape of Rivers

Clean, fresh water is essential for life and an enhancement of recreation and business development. The needs to preserve and improve river quality and to maintain and update river infrastructure cannot be ignored without affecting people, lands and water.

Confluence of science and art, a place of work and relaxation, a go-to and a get-away environment. Water is used on farms for plants and animals, by businesses and industry for multiple purposes and for pleasure of sports and recreation enthusiasts. Clean water is essential to life and to be celebrated, especially when polluted waters make a comeback.


Organizations and volunteers continue to work to preserve and to cleanup polluted waters. March 22, 2018, was the 25th anniversary of World Water Day, April 14 is Citizen Science Day and 2018 is the Year of the Anacostia. In 2018 the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act turn 50.


In spite of many efforts, water salinity levels are dangerously high. Students in science, economics, government and health classes look at this expanding problem. Just one of many that citizen scientists can monitor.


The need to address the degrading and insubstantial infrastructure has been in the news. In March 2018 lawmakers tangled over the Hudson River rail tunnel project, and cars from a CSX freight train derailed from a bridge into the Susquehanna River. The Post covered the Mississippi River from its source to its end to report on the conflicting points of view of how to manage the Mississippi’s infrastructure. The points of view take on different dimensions, but all agree that they can not be ignored without affecting people, lands and the shape of rivers.



APRIL 2018

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Read the Map
Environmental Science, Geography, U.S. History

Locate a topographic map of your area or state. Ask students to locate rivers and streams. Do their names reflect something about early settlers and local history? What do students know about the quality of the rivers?


Teachers who are going to use “A Current of Worry Down the Mississippi” and examine the river infrastructure, should use the map of the Mississippi River to establish its origin and location, the states whose borders it shapes, and its watershed.


Teachers might also order or download a USGS historical topographic map to do a comparison and contrast of then and now.


Get to the Bottom
Geography, Geology, Meteorology, U.S. History

Heavy winds and low tides can bring surprises. Read “Last week’s wind storm partially drained the Potomac, and you’ll never guess what’s on the bottom.”


This article and photographs by Kevin Ambrose, a member of the Capital Weather Gang, reveal the discoveries. Read the photographs and captions. Then consider:

• What do these items reveal about nature’s role in changing the environment?

• What do these items tell you about culture and daily life?

• What do these items tell you about the human impact on clean water?


Find a Wild River
Geography, U.S. Government

In 2018, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act turns 50. It was created to “preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” 


What is the federal definition of a river or river section designated “wild and scenic”? The river must be “free-flowing” … and “possess one or more ‘outstandingly remarkable value’” and have a governor willing to request such designation.


Use the Explore Designated Rivers feature on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website to locate rivers in your state or region that have received this designation. Name the rivers in your state that are wild and scenic rivers. Does the number surprise your students?


Fewer than ¼ of 1% of U.S. rivers are protected under the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system. If you were to select a river to designate as wild and scenic, which would it be? Write a description of it to illustrate its value and remarkable features. What protections already exist to preserve or to clean up this river?


What’s Happening on the Potomac and Anacostia?
Engineering, Earth Science, Geography

Recent reports indicate the Potomac River is getting cleaner and nearer to being safe for humans to swim and consume the fish they catch. Attention will be given throughout the year as 2018 is the Year of the Anacostia.

Read and discuss “The History of the Anacostia River” by Megan Buerger to give students some background on the first settlements and uses of the Anacostia. More is available in the D.C. history series guide Our First Families.

Additional resources for understanding the Anacostia and its relation to the region include:
Anacostia Watershed             
• Anacostia River Subwatershed map
• Healing the Anacostia’s Troubled Waters                 
• In Washington, D.C., a Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up

Another excellent resource was produced in March 2018 by WAMU 88.5 reporter Jacob Fenston and Tyrone Turner, visuals. View (audio, video, photographs and transcript) and discuss, by episodes, Anacostia Rising: What’s Next for Washington’s ‘Forgotten’ River.
• Introduction: The River Washington Forgot
• History: 400 Years of ‘Environmental Injustice’
• Cleanup: A Swimmable Anacostia?
• Recreation: Making The Anacostia a Place to Play
• Development: Can a Rising River Lift All Boats?


Read and Write an Editorial
English, Government, Journalism, Reading

Read the Post news article “Potomac is healthier than in decades.” Discuss the Potomac Conservancy report and areas that are monitored to evaluate river conditions.

Wider margins allow students room to annotate the Post’s editorial “Our river on the rise.” Discussion could include:

• What topic is introduced in the first paragraph?

• What is the position taken by The Post?

• What evidence or support is given for efforts that have worked?

• Underline the sentence where the concession begins. Give two examples.

• What threats do fish face?

• In editorials, the strongest argument comes last, what does The Post present as the biggest threat to the Potomac comeback?


After students have read articles reprinted and linked in this guide and annotated the editorial, ask them to write an editorial in which they take a position on an aspect of river quality, conditions influencing use, preservation or salinity. 


Defenders of Rivers
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Read the River
English, Geography, Reading, Theater Arts

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain writes about his experience of being a cub pilot of a steamboat on the “crookedest river in the world.” Chapter 9, Continued Perplexities, lends itself to reading aloud with students taking different voices or sections. In its second half, a remarkable extended metaphor could be annotated; discuss the impact of the descriptions of the river’s features and its beauty, stark reminders of reality versus its romance and beauty. It beings:

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve,
delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.  And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. …

Define a River
English, Geography, Reading, U.S. History

After the literary and experiential introduction to the Mississippi River provided by Mark Twain, teachers might use The Post’s online guide to the language of the Mississippi. This resource will be helpful before reading the longer “A Current of Worry Down the Mississippi.”

In addition, teachers are encouraged to review the terms found in In the Know. Vocabulary listed on page 10 of “A Current of Worry Down the Mississippi” are all found in the reprinted article.


Travel Along Today’s Mississippi
Art, English, Geography, Journalism, Photography

The Post provides two video and photo resources that teachers may use to introduce today’s Mississippi River before reading the longer article that focuses on the river infrastructure.
• “A photographer’s 7,200-mile journey following the mighty Mississippi
   Michael Williamson photographs and text — a photo essay

• “In Hannibal, Mo., the captain of the Mark Twain riverboat has seen everything
   Riverboat captain Steve Terry narrates life on the river near Hannibal, Mo.


Understand River Infrastructure
Business, Economics, Geography, U.S. Government

Teachers may decide that having students listen to the videos that accompany the online article, “Taming the Mighty Mississippi,” before reading it will be helpful to students’ comprehension.


At the same time, looking at the photographs before reading the article may be a helpful pre-reading. What do students know about the Mississippi from the photography?


In addition to introducing students to life on today’s Mississippi River, teachers might discuss the current concerns to fund and identify America’s infrastructure that must by repaired or replaced. The Mississippi River provides a provocative and moving example of the complex decisions. Read and discuss “A Current of Worry Down the Mississippi” (title of the printed article).


Play a Role
Business, Economics, Civics, Government, Science

Give students “An Infrastructure Dilemma.” The front side has questions for discussion and closer reading of the article. On the reverse side teachers will find the role play. Students may select or teachers assign the individual or organization that students will represent.


If teachers did not view the series of videos that accompanied the article online, they may do so after students have selected the role each will play. In the videos they meet some of the people and see them at work.


The first page of “An Infrastructure Dilemma” provides questions for discussing the article. 

Read About Rivers

When Is Salt Dangerous?
Chemistry, Economics, Environmental Science, Health, Oceanography,

Teachers might begin this reading by asking students for the benefits of salt. After this, list the dangers or drawbacks of salt. Your students may have heard of the Silk Road of trade. What about the Salt Roads?


In addition to pollution, run-off into streams, trash and sewage disposal, rivers face another threat to their vibrancy — salt. Read and discuss “The Nation’s Rivers and Streams are Getting Dangerously Saltier.” A quick introduction to salt — in history and today, a figure of speech and a significant element are found in Welcome to the Jubilee! Please pass the salt.


Streams, Rivers and Salt begins with questions for closer reading and discussion of Welcome to the Jubilee! Please pass the salt. and to “The nation’s rivers and streams are getting dangerously saltier.” The second section (9-12) focuses on the science of salt. Together, these could be used as an interdisciplinary activity.


Conduct a Lemna minor Lab
Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Oceanography

After teachers review the suggested student lab, Duckweed and Salt Tolerance, and gather the material, prepare students for the real-world significance of the lab. “The Nation’s Rivers and Streams are Getting Dangerously Saltier” might be read to give context to the lab. Lisa Wu, Oceanography Lab Director at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, adapted the lab. It is from Environmental Inquiry (EI), a website and curriculum developed at Cornell University to help teachers conduct environmental research. In this site you can find additional salt-related projects such as activities that explain why salt pollution is a problem, that use first- and second-hand data to predict future chloride levels in your local watershed stream, and learn how to test for salt pollution in a local stream. To learn more visit the EI site and Duckweed Unlimited.


Think Like a Reporter
Career Education, Biology, Environment Science, Journalism

This month we have read examples of science journalism. The reporters who have this beat cover many disciplines — chemistry, biology, health, environment, engineering, geology, geography, and physics to name some — as they inform their readers. Give your students experience in science journalism as they select a topic and move through the steps to finish a news report. Give students Cover a Science Topic.


For a focus on careers in science writing, ask students to select one of the following to read and summarize:
A Guide to Careers in Science Writing
Advice for Young Science Journalists
The Biggest Obstacle


Protect and Preserve Rivers
Civics, Environment Science, Geography, Journalism, Government

Teachers may wish to use one or more of the following short videos to inform of efforts made and to interest students in protecting clean rivers and cleaning the polluted or endangered ones.

The Wild President
   President Jimmy Carter was one of several presidents who used his bully pulpit to conserve American rivers.
Noatak: Wild and Scenic
    One of Alaska’s wildest rivers
Protected: A Wild and Scenic River Portrait
    Oregon’s Wild Rivers Coast with Tim Palmer
Avanyu: Protecting the Rio Grande
    Rio Grande in Northern New Mexico
Wild Olympics
    The Olympic Peninsula in Washington State
5,000 Miles of Wild
   If each of us could tell our story about rivers …


Meet an Activist — MSD
Character Education, Environmental Science, U.S. Government
Before assigning this article, teachers might ask students if they have visited the Everglades. Where is it located? Why was it made a national park? 


Most have heard of Rachel Carson. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is another environment activist students should also meet. Read and discuss “At the March for Our Lives, you’ll see her name again. But who was Marjory Stoneman Douglas?” 


Where and How Does Drought Threaten?
Earth Science, Geography, Meteorology

Although our focus has been on rivers, streams and water, teachers may wish to consider the opposite. What socio-economic challenges confront people when rain does not fall? What daily changes must be made by all when water supplies dwindle?


The Central Valley of California and areas of the Southwest are not foreigners to drought. By 2025 nearly 2 billion people around the globe will be living in countries and regions with absolute water scarcity. Currently Cape Town, South Africa, provides an example to study as citizens, companies and governments respond to the expected Day Zero. Read and discuss the following articles:

• “After years of drought, Cape Town is about to run out of water

• “Divided by Drought

• “South African national park to kill animals in response to severe drought

Day Zero on the back of drought in Southern Africa: Lessons for the future


Post NIE Guide Editor & Writer | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Carol Porter

Resource Graphic 
In The Know 

Alluvial Adjective form of alluvium: deposit of sand, mud, silt and other particles formed by flowing water; sedimentary matter deposited within recent times, especially in the valleys of large rivers. Example: the sediment the Mississippi River transports decides where it will go; flooding occurring on the surface of an alluvial fan originates at the apex
Clean Water Act (1972)

Regulates the discharges of pollutants into waters of the U.S. and regulates quality standards for surface waters 


Clean Water Rule

Clarified (May 2015) which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act; in 2017 EPA proposed to repeal the Clean Water Rule.


Drainage basin A watershed; land area where precipitation runs into streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs 
Environmental Protection Agency

Regulatory agency that Congress authorizes to write regulations that explain the technical, operational, and legal details necessary to implement laws. 

Floodway  Emergency release valve; channel built to take the floodwaters of a river; channel or adjacent shore areas under water during a flood
Ground water Water that flows or seeps downward and saturates soil or rock, supplying springs and wells; also water stored underground in rock crevices. Pumped from beneath the earth's surface, is often cheaper, more convenient and less vulnerable to pollution than surface water. Therefore, it is commonly used for public water supplies. 
Hydrology Science dealing with the occurrence, circulation, distribution and properties of the waters of the earth and its atmosphere; the study of water
Infrastructure Infra-means "below;" so the infrastructure is the "underlying structure" of a country and its economy, the fixed installations that it needs in order to function; the fundamental systems, organizations and facilities (roads, bridges, power plants, buildings)
Jetty Pier or structure of stones, piles, or the like, projecting into the sea or other body of water to protect a harbor, deflect the current or tide. Also refers to a walkway accessing the center of an enclosed waterbody.
Levee Embankment or barrier built to prevent the overflow of a river
Public interest

For the welfare or well-being of the general public; opposite of selfish or private interest; the government recognizes the promotion of and protection of all of society

Recreational River Area Those rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.  
 River Large natural stream of water emptying into an ocean, lake or other body of water, and usually fed along its course by converging tributaries
Scenic River Areas Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.  
Water scarcity Point at which the aggregate impact of all users impinges on the supply or quality of water under prevailing institutional arrangements to the extent that the demand by all sectors, including the environment, cannot be satisfied fully.     
 Watershed Land area that drains water to a particular stream, river or lake; its boundaries can be identified by locating the highest points of lands around the waterway. The watershed consists of surface water — lakes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands — and all the underlying ground water.
 Wetlands Areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year; lowland habitat, such as a marsh, swamp or bog. They can serve as natural filters, giving downstream water users a cleaner source of fresh water. Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation and other factors, including human disturbance. They exist on every continent except Antarctica.

SOURCES: Alice Ferguson Foundation Watershed Glossary,  Wild & Scenic Rivers,UN Water for Life, USGS, FEMA.  

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

Science. Students who demonstrate understanding can evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and econsystem services. (MS-LS2-5) Examples of ecosystem services include water purification, nutrient recycling, and prevention of soil erosion.


Social Studies, Grade 6. Students analyze ways in which humans affect and are affected by their physical environment. (6.6)
1. Identify human-caused threats to the world’s environment: atmospheric and surface pollution, deforestation, desertification, salinization, overfishing, urban sprawl, and species extinction.


Social Studies, Grades 6-8. Students use a variety of maps and documents to identify physical and cultural features of neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. (2. Geographic Skills)


Social Studies, Grades 6-8. Students explain the effects of interactions between humans and natural systems, including how humans depend on natural resources and adapt to and affect the natural environment. (9. Geographic Skills)


 The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.



Academic Content Standards may be found at

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Government, Geography. The student will demonstrate an understanding of geographic concepts and processes to examine the role of culture, technology, and the environment in the location and distribution of human activities throughout history. (Goal 3)

• The student will demonstrate an understanding of the relationship of culture and physical geographic factors in the development of government policy. (3.1)

• The student will analyze the roles and relationships of regions on the formation and implementation of government policy. (3.1.3)

Examples of the criteria used to define a region include economic development, natural resources, population, religion and climate. Regional means different areas within Maryland (e.g. Eastern Shore, mining region, Piedmont Plateau), the United States (e.g., Northeast, sunbelt, mid-Atlantic regions) and the world.


Biology. The student will investigate how natural and man-made changes in environmental conditions will affect individual organisms and the dynamics of populations. (3.5.3) Assessment limits:
• destruction of habitats
• natural disasters
• pollution
• urbanization


English. The student will demonstrate the ability to respond to a text by employing personal experiences and critical analysis. (Goal 1 Reading, Reviewing and Responding to Texts)

The student will use after-reading strategies appropriate to both the text and purpose for reading by summarizing, comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, drawing conclusions, and validating the purpose for reading. (1.1.3)  Assessment limits:

• Summarizing, comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing significant ideas in a text

• Summarizing or synthesizing significant ideas across texts and drawing conclusions based on the information in more than one text

• Drawing conclusions based upon information from the text

• Confirming the usefulness or purpose for reading the text

• Predicting the development, topics, or ideas that might logically be included if the text were extended


The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Content Standards can be found online at 

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Earth Science. The student will investigate and understand how freshwater resources are influenced by geologic processes and the activities of humans. (ES.8) Key concepts include

d)     identification of sources of fresh water including rivers, springs, and aquifers, with reference to the hydrologic cycle;

e)     dependence on freshwater resources and the effects of human usage on water quality; and

f)   identification of the major watershed systems in Virginia, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.


Life Science. The student will investigate and understand the relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity. Key concepts include

d)     population disturbances and factors that threaten or enhance species survival; and

e)     environmental issues.


United States Government. The student will demonstrate knowledge of the process by which public policy is made by

a)   examining different perspectives on the role of government;

b)   describing how the national government influences the public agenda and shapes public policy;

c)   describing how the state and local governments influence the public agenda and shape public policy;

d)   describing the process by which policy is implemented by the bureaucracy at each level;

e)   analyzing how individuals, interest groups, and the media influence public policy;

f)   formulating and practicing a course of action to address local and/or state issues.     (GOVT.9)

Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

English Language Arts >> Science & Technical Subjects. Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 9-10 texts and topics. Key Ideas and Details. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY. RST.9-10.4


English Language Arts >> Science & Technical Subjects. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. Key Ideas and Details. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2


English Language Arts >> Science & Technical Subjects. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a questions or solve a problem. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.7


Common Core standards may be found at