Report: America’s Most Threatened Rivers

Reader Contribution by Alec Weaver
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In April, the non-profit conservation organization, American Rivers, released its latest report on the most endangered rivers in the United States. Ten rivers, ranging from Alaska to the Mississippi Delta are currently endangered by various industrial and anthropological impacts such as mines and general urban sprawl. The report goes into great detail about each river’s unique role in the ecosystem, the specific threats they face and what must be done in order to mitigate damage to these diverse American waterways.

Of the 10 rivers reported as threatened, the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park faces threats on three different fronts. The river, which cuts its way through 1,450 miles from the Continental Divide all the way down  the Gulf of California, is part of one of the most iconic American landscapes and is responsible for providing water for the 35 million people who live along its route. However, near the east end of the Grand Canyon, the proposed 2 million square foot Escalade Project would put the river at risk of pollution from noise and human waste. The location of the project is at a confluence sacred to more than 18 Native American tribes. In addition to the proposed Escalade Project, radioactive contamination from both active and inactive uranium mines is a major concern for the area, as is a proposal from the town of Tusayan that would expand the town’s residential capacity by 1,000 percent and put a strain on the already drought-plagued water supply.

The American Rivers’ report on the Colorado River outlines a three-fold plan for alleviating strain on the waterway. The report suggests that Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, start a discourse on the Escalade Project and explore alternatives that would provide a more sustainable economic opportunity for the Navajo Nation and would protect the Colorado and its associated resources. The report also says that the existing mining moratorium should be made “permanent and comprehensive,” and should include a complete and indefinite stop on all mining around the canyon. Finally, the Tusayan expansion should not move forward until a complete audit of natural resources can be completed.

The Columbia River and Holston River took second and third place, respectively, on the endangered rivers list. The Columbia, which drains more water into the Pacific than any other river on the American landmass, is a major spawning point for salmon and other species, such as steelhead trout. However, the 19 hydroelectric facilities that dot the river have reduced the speed of the river’s natural currents and caused a decline in aquatic populations. The report offers a fairly simple fix for this: speed up water flow and reintroduce fish above impassible barriers. 

Unlike the threats to the Columbia, the Holston River faces threats which directly impact the human population. The Holston, which runs through Tennessee, has been found to contain RDX, a chemical explosive and known carcinogen. The RDX has been traced back to a U.S. Army munitions plant in Tennessee, which according to the American Rivers’ report, has done little to stop the pollution in the Holston and which has violated its Clean Water Act permit limit more than 800 times for the past three years. The report recommends that the most efficient and effective way to combat this issue is through litigation, which is currently underway in the federal courts.

In addition to these three rivers, American Rivers has provided detailed reports on seven others: The Smith River in Montana, Edisto River in South Carolina, Chuitna River in Alaska, the Rouge-Smith Watersheds in Oregon and California, the St. Louis River in Minnesota, the Harpeth River in Tennessee, and the Pearl River which runs through Louisiana and Mississippi.

Even though the situation with some of these rivers seems dire, they are not beyond recovery. On its website, American Rivers lists several examples of successful habitat restoration projects, proof of the positive good that can be done with sufficient awareness, commitment and resources.