Farm fields along the upper Yangtze River. Photo © Brian Richter / The Nature Conservancy

Carving a New Course in River Science

Science doesn’t advance as a unidirectional monolith, like a glacier carving a valley. Rather, it’s more like thousands of tiny rivulets wending their way through the leaf litter and grasses at the top of a hillside. Many encounter a patch of flat relief to slow, spread and infiltrate into the soil to disappear. Others are captured by depressions and form ephemeral little pools that last for a time before evaporating away. But some begin to carve a course into the hillside, capturing other rivulets that work together to erode deeper and deeper channels, ultimately changing the topography of the hillslope.

Having pushed this metaphor to the brink, let me get to the point. Brian Richter, who has just retired from The Nature Conservancy after 30 years, was one of those channel formers. He had the scientific vision to carve out new paths and the leadership and personality to draw in the energy of hundreds of collaborators, partners and colleagues, ultimately changing the topography of river science and management—and the topography of The Nature Conservancy.

Here I’d like to recognize Brian and his contributions to the Conservancy and to river science. I’d also like to highlight how he made those contributions because we can all learn from those who illustrate what it takes to turn scientific vision into durable and meaningful impact.

Brian Richter along the Colorado River. Photo © Jeff Opperman / The Nature Conservancy

Brian is one of the most influential river scientists of our time. Over the past three decades, he was part of a small group of global leaders who pioneered the concept of environmental flows. He was a co-author on the seminal paper, “the natural flow regime,” which has been cited nearly 5,000 times; his paper “how much water does a river need?” exceeds 1,400 citations, while a paper laying out his approach to defining environmental flows has nearly 2,000 citations and is the foundation for the software program, “Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration,” which has become a standard tool used around the world. Many other of his papers are approaching 1,000 citations. Simply put, because of his work, the world thinks about rivers and water in a fundamentally different way than it did before.

The term “environmental flows” now evokes wonky regulations or technical management actions, so it’s easy to forget that, at its heart, the term encompasses an elegant set of scientific observations and principles that have gone a long way toward synthesizing and advancing our understanding of how rivers work.

Following in the tradition of naturalist-scholars, Brian’s contributions sprang from the consistent observation of nature. He loved rivers enough to pay attention to them to see how they changed over space and time and to observe what drove those changes and then to ask how management was altering those important processes and how we could maintain or restore them. His time as preserve manager at the Conservancy’s Hassayampa River Preserve in Arizona was particularly influential to his thinking and underscores that scientific advances have been one of the co-benefits of the Conservancy’s applied conservation work.

Kings Billabong Wildlife Reserve in Mildura is home to wetlands of international significance. Photo © Andrew Peacock

The reason we may now hear “environmental flow” as a technical policy or management term is due to Brian’s leadership, which put science into action. Under the mentorship of David Harrison, Brian and a group of colleagues launched a campaign to broaden the Conservancy’s ambition.  The Nature Conservancy at the time (the early 1990s) was all about action and innovation – but almost entirely focused on land deals.  After a few decades of sustained effort, the Conservancy’s freshwater capacity had grown from a handful of people to a team of hundreds.  With this capacity in place, the Conservancy could put its transformative muscle into becoming a global leader in freshwater conservation.

So today, people are releasing water into rivers from the Yangtze to the Willamette to the Murray-Darling; new flow regimes have been codified into policy on rivers from the Green to the Roanoke to the Rivanna (Brian’s backyard river in Charlottesville, VA). Brian’s influence has rippled far beyond environmental flows to encompass broader approaches for river conservation, including sustainable hydropower and innovative financial mechanisms for dedicating water to wetlands. For river conservationists at the Conservancy and partner organizations, so many of the doors we are now walking through are those that Brian pushed open or began knocking on years ago.

Landscape view of the Rivanna Forks Preserve creek, located in the Rivanna Watershed, Virginia. Photo © Mary Porter

But for the people who know him best, this list of accomplishments is not what first comes to mind when they think of Brian. What comes to mind are scenes of rafting down rivers or dancing to a Cuban band. Working alongside Brian never felt like work. And beyond the fun, he invested in people and was quick to share or give credit or to push people into their own spotlights. So many people feel that they owe their careers to Brian.

Including me. Brian’s scientific vision and leadership was the geomorphic force that carved the landscape through which my own career has flowed. But on a personal level, Brian was also the river guide who hopped on my boat and helped me navigate those waters.

And so it is probably how Brian pursues his work—infused with passion, humor, and generosity—that most explains his success in translating scientific vision into impact. His intellect and leadership established new and important pathways. But it is his love of life, nature and people that drew in the energy of others to carve those pathways into deep and lasting channels.

Jeff Opperman is currently the Global Lead Freshwater Scientist for the World Wildlife Fund.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. WOW, and it is all true!

  2. Great words, lines and text, in addition of inspiring for present and future generations.

  3. Need help with improving a lot of northeast Ohio Rivers and Lake Erie by Cleveland Ohio – The rivers as well as Lake Erie are bodies of fresh water. Where/How do I begin getting involved in getting more people involved/taking an interest in cleaning things up? Thanks

    1. Hi Linda, Thank you for your interest! You can get involved with the Nature Conservancy in Ohio by contacting their volunteer coordinator:
      Let them know that you’re interested in their work around Lake Erie:

  4. Holy metaphors, Jeff! An excellent tribute to great scientist and leader, thanks.

  5. And for being a great neighbor in Crozet! Thanks Brian for encouraging me to lower my carbon footprint and to connecting the dots on so many fronts.

  6. A humble man,a leader without peer in the world of water use for the common man.

  7. Nicely done. Brian is an inspiration to conservationists around the globe, including this one.

Add a Comment