Top 10 Most Endangered Rivers in the U.S.

These rivers face a number of threats, from dams to pollution and a possible reduction in conservation funding.

Water is life, yet climate change and certain public policies may be endangering its future in America, a nonprofit group warns in a new report. The stakes are high, with the current presidential administration having proposed budget cuts that may eliminate some safeguards for clean drinking water and rivers nationwide.

That’s according to American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group, which released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers on Tuesday. The list outlines rivers that the group warns face an urgent threat or critical decision point in the coming year.

The Lower Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than 30 million Americans—including those in major cities like L.A., Las Vegas, and Phoenix—tops the list as the most endangered river this year. Second most endangered is the Bear River in California.

Similar to 2016’s list of the most endangered rivers, water scarcity, rising demand, and climate change put the Lower Colorado and Bear River at risk, says Amy Souers Kober, national communications director for American Rivers.

The milky waters of the Little Colorado River tributary in the Grand Canyon are the last sanctuary for the endangered humpback chub. These warm-water natives—equipped with neuromast-sonar receptors to catch insects in muddy waters—are compromised by the clear, cold water released from the depths of the reservoir below the dam. The population recently rose to 6,000 after workers euthanised more than 30,000 trout and carp.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Paddling the crest of the historic 2014 pulse flow across the dry Colorado River Delta, Mexico—all part of a binational agreement for restoration.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

View from above of a flock of birds flying over the Colorado River. Yuma, Arizona.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Colorado River snaking along the Grand Canyon at sunset. Arizona.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Sprinklers cause rainbows as they water rows of newly planted crops, all with water from the Lower Colorado, in California's Imperial Valley.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Pelicans can often be seen in parts of the Colorado system.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

A rainbow arcs upstream from Grand Falls on the Little Colorado River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL HATCHER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Campers rest by a campfire along the Colorado River after a day of rafting down the Grand Canyon.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Morning light is reflected in rainbow colours on the Colorado River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETE MCBRIDE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

“The takeaway is that we can’t dam our way out of these problems,” Kober says. “On all of these rivers, we need 21st-century water management solutions. We need political support and funding for water conservation.”

The Lower Colorado is challenged with water demands that outstrip supply and effects from climate change, the report says. Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture put the river at risk, the group argues. The reduced funding, if it passes Congress, could eventually lead to cutbacks on water deliveries to Arizona, California, and Nevada in the years ahead.

Additionally, the Lower Colorado is of particular importance to Latino communities, one-third of which live in the Colorado River Basin.

“From serving as the backbone for the agricultural industry to providing a cultural focal point for faith communities, the Lower Colorado River is essential to the livelihood of the Southwest,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, in a press statement.

Other rivers on the list include the South Fork Skykomish in Washington; the Mobile Bay River in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi; and the Rappahannock River in Virginia.

And though we like to think of roads, bridges, and tunnels as our nation’s essential infrastructure, it’s imperative to think of healthy rivers as a necessary part of that as well, American Rivers says.

“Rivers are vital to the health and well-being of each and every one of us,” Kober says. “If we don’t protect and restore our rivers, we won’t have reliable clean drinking water supplies. Our economy, public safety, and quality of life will all suffer.”

The American Rivers List is an annual list first created in 1984 that highlights rivers whose health and future is at a tipping point. Rivers are selected based on three criteria: The river is of regional or national significance to people and wildlife; the river and communities that depend on it are under significant threat, especially in light of a changing climate; and that each river on the list will face a major decision in the coming year that the public can help influence.

Congress should reject President Trump’s proposed cuts and ensure full funding for clean water and river conservation efforts, Kober says.

“Clean water should be a bipartisan issue,” Kober adds. “We all depend on it, our children depend on it, future generations depend on it.”

Daniel Press, who leads the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California Santa Cruz, says the administration’s proposed budget suggests environmental quality in the U.S. is good enough, resulting in “minimum budgetary support and legal defence for existing environmental programs.”

“Rather than taking small steps forward, the administration seems to be gleefully leaping backwards,” Press says. “The results will harm everyone in the United States, regardless of place or party.”

America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2017:

#1: Lower Colorado River (Arizona, California, Nevada)

Threat: Water demand and climate change

#2: Bear River (California)

Threat: New Dam

#3: South Fork Skykomish (Washington)

Threat: New hydropower project

#4: Mobile Bay Rivers (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi)

Threat: Poor water management

#5: Rappahannock River (Virginia)

Threat: Fracking

#6: Green-Toutle River (Washington)

Threat: New mine

#7: Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers (North Carolina)

Threat: Pollution from hog and chicken farms

#8: Middle Fork Flathead River (Montana)

Threat: Oil transport by rail

#9: Buffalo National River (Arkansas)

Threat: Pollution from massive hog farm

#10: Menominee River (Michigan, Wisconsin)

Threat: Open pit sulphide mining

Header Image: The Colorado River makes a horseshoe bend around a butte. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK NICHOLS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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