Our River Stewardship Ethos

We believe in an ethical and scientific approach to river stewardship

River Ethos begins with people that have the capacity to know what harms or enhances the well-being of all life dependent on a river system. Our approach to understanding and quantifying what harms a river and the life it supports is scientific and quantitative in nature. Hence, we collect data on rivers in the hopes that people can use it to better manage this precious resource. Perhaps the most important aspect of our approach to data collection is that it is crucial for quantifying the total abundance and spatial distribution of aquatic habitat. In this way the hydro-acoustic river mapping that we do allows habitat to be used as a currency, count how much is in the river as if it were the bank, add up how much we gain or lose depending on how we propose to regulate the flow of water from dams. In this way, aquatic habitat becomes the common currency allowing decisions of flow regulation to be equitably agreed upon among differing stakeholder concerns. Proposed environmental flow regimes from dams can then be compared in terms of the cost to the river ecosystem.  

This is a western view of a river, one that views the river as a resource to be managed, a view that is at odds with most indigenous views of a river. The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, view a  river differently. They state their view in the following manner “I am the river, and the river is me”. This view is held by many indigenous people of the world including those of the Columbia River Basin. This is a view that we deeply respect as well as the wealth of traditional ecological understanding that indigenous people have regarding rivers, a view that has been developed and passed down by generations for thousands of years.  


There are many ways to understand rivers and a western ecohydrological understanding of rivers is just but one. There are commonalities between western and indigenous world views that arise from an equivalent ecological understanding of rivers. The western view of rivers evolves from a theoretical driven science perspective dependent on hypothesis testing using measurements spanning scales from watersheds to genes. That view however comes to the same conclusion as indigenous understanding,  that rivers can be thought of as an organism, indeed as a person. Western dictionaries define an organism as a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements and functions interconnected through an array of biophysical feedback mechanisms. Clearly, this definition also describes a river system. Therefore, the western ecohydrological understanding of rivers allows one to view rivers as a living organism. Viewing rivers as a resource to be captured rather than as a living organism leads to unethical decision making. Alternatively viewing the river as an organism, perhaps as your relative,  allows a more altruistic approach to a river ethos that benefits all life.  

Indeed, the people of New Zealand have recently passed laws that grant the Whanganui River, a river sacred to the Indigenous Māori, the status of a person. Follow this link to learn how it happened 


The Whanganui River became the first in the world to be considered a legal person and represented in court with guardians appointed to speak on its behalf. Other countries have followed Whanganui’s lead – two rivers in India have been declared legal entities, and Bangladesh gave all its rivers legal rights. 

We hope that our data and approach to mapping rivers can provide solutions to the many impacts that harm life that have evolved since we began capturing and regulating rivers. And we believe that mapping rivers to quantitatively measure aquatic habitat composed of complex bathymetry and patterns of 3D flow is step one towards agreeing on environmental flows from dams aimed at reducing the harm they caused.  


Rivers must flood. Fish must have safe passage past all dams. Without those basic components, there cannot be ecosystem function occurring in regulated rivers. The river must be free to maintain a shifting mosaic of habitat, one that is constantly renewing habitat through processes of erosion and deposition.  We must stop armoring channel banks to control the processes that keep rivers alive. In all our efforts to restore a river, we must strive to let the river do the work, making sure it has the power afforded by floods, a supply of sediment and wood. If we let rivers do the work, then life knows what to do next.  

We must not build more dams. We must remove as many as possible, restore both fish passage and normative flow as best we can with those that remain until we can remove them all. We must stop polluting the river and control the introduction and spread of invasive species, manage for native species and high biodiversity.  

Clearly, these objectives point to the need to have humans act as central players in our captured river systems that follow an agreed-upon ethos of rivers. The starting point is to first individually be aware of our ego, forgive that in others, and strive to accept differing opinions so that we can enter the ethical space that naturally forms from cultural tension. If we do that together, at every opportunity, then we can agree upon a legally binding Natural Law agreement that supports and defines an ethos of rivers.  Once we define and agree on an ethos of rivers then we can embark on the restoration of rivers with ethical guidelines that tell us exactly what to do, and when, in all situations. To accomplish this lofty goal, we must first have the capacity to recognize what harms or enhances the well-being of sentient river creatures, especially human beings. And that capacity must never be shoved under the table with non-ethical justifications based solely on the consumptive demands of western society. Aquatic habitat is the common currency that can be quantified through the type of hydro-acoustic river mapping that  Freshwater Map undertakes and promotes. If we would map all rivers then we could make decisions regarding flow regulation that could be equitably agreed upon and support differing stakeholder concerns because we would all know what the “cost” to the river might be and the “cost” to all of society based on the goods and services that free-flowing river systems provide, for free.  

~ Mark Lorang, Founder 

Read our complete ethos paper below.

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