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10 Most Endangered Rivers for 1999

by American Rivers, Paddler Magazine - July/August 1999

The lower Snake River: dams have brought salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction.

Unbridled development is one of the most pervasive and menacing threats to the nation's rivers, according to Washington, D.C.-based river conservation organization American Rivers, which recently released its 14th annual list of the nation's top 10 most endangered rivers. "Never have our nation's rivers been more in need of attention," says American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder. "American Rivers has been compiling the Most Endangered Rivers report for 14 years in order to rivet the nation's attention on the crises of our waterways and to inspire and mobilize communities to save them." Of particular concern, she says, is unplanned growth. "We've all seen and felt sprawl," she says. "But few people understand the impacts of unplanned growth on rivers. We have made great progress in cleaning up our rivers since the Clean Water Act was founded 25 years ago, but urban sprawl is threatening to reverse those gains." Following are the organization's top 10 endangered rivers for 1999.

  1. Lower Snake River: Washington
    Threat: federal dams. Dams on the Lower Snake River have brought salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction. Since the early '70s, its fish populations have dropped by nearly 90 percent. Yet, year after year, administrators use the same approach to try and save them: on their way downstream, young fish are loaded in trucks and barges and carted around the dams; on their way upstream, adult fish must climb hard-to-find ladders. Many fish fall back through the hydropower turbines and are killed. Scientists believe many fish that survive the journey to their spawning grounds are too exhausted to reproduce successfully. "A terrible hoax is being perpetrated on American taxpayers," says American Rivers' Wodder. "Every year we spend millions on bizarre schemes to try and save these fish and every year fewer and fewer return to spawn." By the end of 1999, the Clinton Administration will be required by law to produce a Snake River recovery plan, which must dictate removing a portion of four dams on the Lower Snake to let the river flow more naturally and enable fish to swim around the dams. "It's cost-effective and straight-forward and will provide enormous environmental and economic benefits," maintains Wodder.

  2. Missouri River: Midwest
    Threat: channelization, dams, bank stabilization, poor grazing practices. Once one of the world's most dynamic rivers, the Missouri has been channelized into barge canals, blocked by dams, and cut off from its floodplain by levees. Now the river's few remaining wild sections are in trouble from stabilizing banks by lining them with rock, overgrazing fragile riversides, and disrupting the river's flow with dams. Several key opportunities exist this year to restore large stretches of the river: In particular, the Army Corps of Engineers will propose long-awaited reforms in the way Missouri River dams operate.

  3. Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin: Georgia, Alabama
    Threat: urban sprawl, water withdrawals, pollution. The water wars of the West have now moved east. Atlanta, the most sprawling city in the country, is growing so fast it threatens the health of nearby water-sources. The city's rate of land consumption is eight times greater than its population growth. As its boundaries grow, outlying towns are swallowed by sprawling suburbs whose demand for water is increasing. One of the area's primary water sources are the headwaters of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, which feed a major river basin in Alabama--one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world. Water managers now want to build a dam on one of the last remaining free-flowing stretches of the Tallapoosa that will create a storage reservoir to save Atlanta suburbs. In addition, major industries and communities along the rivers are already pulling too much water out of those rivers, making it difficult for the rivers to dilute pollutants.

  4. San Pedro River: Arizona and Sonra, Mexico
    Threat: urban sprawl, groundwater pumping. Arizona's San Pedro River is home to an amazing number of bird, animal and fish species (it is one of the country's most important flyways for migratory birds that winter in Mexico and breed in the U.S. and mid-Canada). Urban sprawl around the river is destroying their habitat. The nearby communities of Sierra Vista and the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca are pumping water out of the region's aquifer--which maintains the river's year-round flows--faster than it can be replenished. Groundwater feeding the San Pedro is already down by 30 percent.

  5. Yellowstone River: Montana, North Dakota
    Threat: bank stablization, flood control. The Yellowstone, one of the nation's last freely meandering rivers, is becoming a rock-lined channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is premitting property owners to stabilize the river's banks with rocks and build flood control levees. The result impacts the river's wildlife. In just two years (from 1995 to 1997), the Army Corps doubled the number of permits given to property owners fro bank and flood control projects over the previous 12 years. As the river becomes channelized, wildlife habitat is destroyed. In two years, trout populatioins in a section impacted by bank projects and levees dropped by half.

  6. Cedar River: Washington
    Threat: urban sprawl, water withdrawals. Seattle sprawl may destroy one of Washington's largest runs of salmon and steelhead. The Cedar River contains some of the highest quality fish habitat left in the Lake Washington watershed, and the city's plan for allocating water among competing needs (from endangered species to suburban customers) may actually cause more damage to river wildlife. The plan will allow the city to more than double its water withdraws from the Cedar to meet water needs of suburbs. No studies have been done, however, on how flow changes will affect fish runs. The plan will also exempt the city from sanctions under the Endangered Species Act if, in the process, endangered fish are harmed.

  7. Fox River: Illinois, Wisconsin
    Threat: urban sprawl, pollution, agency inaction. The Fox River is becoming a showcase for two of the most significant threats to our nation's rivers--urban sprawl and the failure to enforce clean water regulations. Treated sewage released into the river from wastewater treatment plants--already ill-equipped to handle Chicago's growth--is expected to increase 50 percent by the year 2010. Because the Fox drains into the Illinois, which drains into the Mississippi, Chicago's sewage and runoff find their way all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Fox is one of the most heavily used recreational sites in the Midwest, producing almost $40 million in revenues for a five-state area. It also supports many nature preserves. State officials, however, have failed to take action to clean up the Fox, have been lax in regulating the plants, and have proposed weakening limits on certain sewage plant discharges.

  8. Carmel River: California
    Threat: urban sprawl, water withdrawals, dams. The Carmel River is losing its battle against central California's sprawling population and thirst. Monterey County, one of the fastest growing counties in the state, is developing the watershed at a rapid rate. As a result, more water is being pulled out of the river to serve exploding populations--much of it illegally. The county is responding to the water supply problem by trying to build one new dam and retrofit another without considering other cost-effective and more environmentally sound alternatives like water conservation. The dam project would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, increase residential water bills by 60-80 percent, and permanently alter the river and its wildlife.

  9. Coal River: West Virginia
    Threat: mountaintop removal coal mining. The Coal River is threatened by the largest mountaintop mine ever proposed in West Virginia. The 3,000-acre mine would be located at the Spruce Creek watershed, which the Environmental Protection Agency now calls "near-pristine." Coal would be extracted by decapitating the mountains and dumping leftover rock and soil into the valleys and rivers below. Mountaintop mine operations have already buried hundreds of miles of West Virginia streams. In 12 years, almost 500 miles of state streams have been lost to mountaintop removal mining.

  10. Bear River: Utah
    Threat: urban sprawl, water withdrawals, proposed dam. Salt Lake City is consuming water faster than almost any other urban area in the country. Because of low water prices throughout the state, much of the region's limited water is being used wastefully--almost 50 percent goes to lawns and golf courses. As a result, flows in the Bear River have been dramatically reduced, threatening a bird refuge that supports one of North America's largest populations of migratory fowl. Instead of creating incentives to control wasteful water practices, the water district wants to build a dam that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars and further reduce water flows to the refuge.

American Rivers
10 Most Endangered Rivers for 1999
Paddler Magazine - July/August 1999

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