Rivers are the "nerve system" of the continent’s ecology, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reminds us in his foreword to Rivers of North America. As population, industry and agriculture grow, the need for fresh water increases. But meeting that demand often entails the wholesale diverting, damming and draining of rivers.

Rivers of North America is the first comprehensive effort to detail the current state of the continent’s rivers. This marvelous resource began as a coffee-table book. Four years later, ambitiously expanded, it covers more than 200 rivers, from southern Mexico to the Arctic. Its 22 chapters, written by scientists and hydrologists, discuss specific basins or regions such as the Colorado River Basin and the Pacific Coast rivers of Canada and Alaska. Rivers describes the physiography, geomorphology, hydrology, biodiversity and ecology of each system, in addition to detailing human impacts and special features. Winner of a 2005 Award for Excellence in Projects and Scholarly Publishing by the Association of American Publishers and a Library Journal "Best Reference Work" citation, this large-format, full-color volume contains copious maps and illustrations.

The well-organized book conveys the "bewildering heritage" of the continent’s rivers and examines contemporary challenges. For example, the future of the Columbia as a salmon river ecosystem is "bleak"; the Gila River no longer reaches its historical mouth at the Colorado. However, the Koyukuk, the last major tributary of the Yukon River upstream of the Bering Sea, is "almost pristine" and borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Here is yet another reason to resist North Slope drilling: to conserve a rare gem at a time when experts say most rivers are already beyond restoration.

As a research tool and baseline guide — and as a prescription for wiser management — Rivers of North America is well worth its hefty price.


Rivers of North America

Edited by Arthur C. Benke and Colbert E. Cushing

1,144 pages, hardcover: $99.95.

Elsevier Academic Press, 2005