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America’s Most Endangered River of 2013: The Colorado

It is a river that goes by many names – Red. Grand River Red. The Canyon Maker. And today it is the Most Endangered River in the country. American Rivers released our annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report today, listing the Colorado River at #1 because demand for water is outstripping supply. Outdated water management...

American Rivers named the Colorado River the #1 Most Endangered River in the country for 2013. Photo by Amy Kober

It is a river that goes by many names – Red. Grand River Red. The Canyon Maker. And today it is the Most Endangered River in the country.

American Rivers released our annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report today, listing the Colorado River at #1 because demand for water is outstripping supply. Outdated water management across the basin is inadequate to respond to the pressures of over-allocation and persistent drought (Check out Change the Course, a campaign by National Geographic and partners to help restore the Colorado River.)

According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (December 2012), there is not enough water in the Colorado River to meet  the basin’s current water demands, let alone support future demand increases. Scientists predict climate change will reduce the Colorado River’s flow by 10 to 30 percent by 2050.

Working with Nuestro Rio, Protect the Flows, and the National Young Farmers Coalition, American Rivers is calling on Congress to fund programs – like the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSmart and Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse programs – that encourage 21st century water management, while protecting rivers and the people, communities, and wildlife they support across the Colorado Basin. (See a geostory of a journey down the Colorado.)

There are glimmers of hope, like the bi-national agreement to restore some flows to the dried up Colorado Delta. But more work needs to be done. We will need more of these kinds of innovative solutions across the basin if we are to restore the health of the river as a whole.

The 2013 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers also highlights other rivers across the country threatened by outdated water management.   The Flint River in Georgia is going dry due to excessive agricultural withdrawals in its southern reaches, as well as increasing municipal demands. The San Saba in Texas is running dry due to excessive agricultural withdrawals. The Little Plover in Wisconsin is at risk due to withdrawals from high capacity wells.

“This year’s America’s Most Endangered Rivers report underscores the problems that arise for communities and the environment when we drain too much water out of rivers,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers.  “We all must be part of the solution if we want clean water supplies and healthy rivers for our children and grandchildren.”

America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2013:

(Click to view a geostory of the rivers, with photos and maps.)

#1: Colorado River (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming)

THREAT: Outdated water management

AT RISK:  Water supplies, recreation, fish, and wildlife

The Colorado River is a lifeline in the desert, its water sustaining tens of millions of people in seven states, as well as endangered fish and wildlife. However, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply, leaving the river so over-tapped that it no longer flows to the sea (see more rivers that no longer reach the sea).

A century of water management policies and practices that have promoted wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads. To address ongoing drought and increasing demand for water due to climate change, and  to put the Colorado River on a path to recovery, the U.S. Congress must support robust funding of critical programs like WaterSmart that address water supply sustainability in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.

#2: Flint River (Georgia)

THREAT: Outdated water management

AT RISK:  Water supply for communities, farms, recreation,  and wildlife

The Flint River provides water for over one million people, 10,000 farms, unique wildlife, and 300 miles of exceptional fishing and paddling. Despite being in a historically wet area of the country, in recent years many Flint River tributaries have dried up completely. American Rivers and Flint Riverkeeper are working in collaboration with diverse partners to restore the flows and health of the Flint. The State of Georgia also has a role to play and must act to protect the Flint in droughts and at all times to safeguard the river’s health for current and future generations.

#3: San Saba River (Texas)

THREAT: Outdated water management

AT RISK:  River flow for ranchers, citizens, and lakes

The San Saba River is a scenic waterway located on the northern boundary of the Edwards Plateau in Texas. Flows of sparkling, clear water course through limestone bluffs and hills, supporting fish and wildlife and recreation. Through wasteful water use and unregulated pumping, irrigators are transforming a vibrant, pristine river into a dried up riverbed. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must enforce the law to ensure adequate flows are maintained. Further, the Texas Legislature should appoint a watermaster on the upper stretch of the San Saba River to better manage flows and protect the river long-term.

#4: Little Plover River (Wisconsin)

THREAT: Outdated water management

AT RISK:  Fish habitat and water supply

The Little Plover River flows six miles from clear, cold headwater springs before joining the Wisconsin River. However, dramatic increases in groundwater withdrawals have reduced river flows. Once prized for native brook trout and popular with anglers, the river’s flow has decreased to levels that threaten fish populations. In the past decade, portions of the Little Plover River were repeatedly sucked dry, making the river the unfortunate poster child for Wisconsin’s inadequate groundwater management. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must adequately manage high capacity water wells to safeguard the Little Plover and other rivers and lakes across the state.

#5: Catawba River (North Carolina, South Carolina)

THREAT: Coal ash pollution

AT RISK: Drinking water and recreation

Millions of people in the Southeast depend on the Catawba River for drinking water and recreation. However, storage ponds for coal ash, a byproduct of power generation, are threatening the river and local water supply with pollution. North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources must require Duke Energy’s Riverbend power plant to ensure the coal ash ponds are sufficiently maintained in perpetuity to safeguard the river and water supply for future generations.

#6: Boundary Waters (Minnesota)

THREAT: Copper and nickel mining

AT RISK: Recreation economy, drinking water, and wilderness

The 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most popular wilderness area in the country. The South Kawishiwi River, which flows into the Boundary Waters, is threatened by copper-nickel mining proposals by Twin Metals Minnesota and others on adjacent unprotected public lands. If mining is permitted, the Boundary Waters and its clean water will be irreparably harmed by acid mine drainage containing sulfates and heavy metals. President Obama, Congress, and Minnesota’s Governor Dayton must block proposals to mine and efforts to weaken water quality standards in this sensitive and well-loved area.

#7: Black Warrior River (Alabama)

THREAT: Coal mining

AT RISK: Drinking water quality and fish and wildlife habitat

The Black Warrior River is a valuable resource for drinking water, recreation, fishing, and rare fish and wildlife. However, the river’s Mulberry Fork is threatened by the Shepherd Bend Mine, a 1,773 acre coal mine which would discharge polluted wastewater only 800 feet from a major drinking water intake.

To mine the proposed area, Drummond Company must obtain leases from property owners, particularly the University of Alabama. The University must stand up for the health of area residents, students, and drinking water customers by permanently refusing to sell or lease its land and mineral rights at Shepherd Bend for coal mining.

#8: Rough & Ready and Baldface Creeks (Oregon)

THREAT: Nickel mining

AT RISK: Clean water, wildlife, rare plants

Rough & Ready and Baldface Creeks, tributaries of the Wild and Scenic Illinois and North Fork Smith rivers, flow clean and clear through some of the wildest country in the West. These eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers are celebrated by wildflower enthusiasts and hikers. Unfortunately, nickel mines threaten to destroy these unique, wild streams.

Members of the Oregon Congressional delegation previously asked the Obama Administration to withdraw the area from mining, but the Administration did not act. Congress and the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture must now permanently protect the natural treasures of Rough & Ready and Baldface Creeks from mining before their clean water, fish and wildlife, and wild character are irreparably harmed.

#9: Kootenai River (British Columbia, Montana, and Idaho)

THREAT: Open-pit coal mining

AT RISK: Clean water, fish and wildlife habitat

One of our country’s wildest rivers, the Kootenai River provides critical habitat for several rare and threatened native fish species, as well as wildlife like grizzly bear and woodland caribou. However, the river is threatened by runoff and waste from current mining and proposed expansions of five open-pit coal mines along the Elk River in British Columbia, a tributary to the Kootenai. The U.S. State Department must involve the International Joint Commission in order to halt the mine expansions until an independent study of the impact of current and future mines on water quality, fish, and wildlife is completed.

#10: Niobrara River (Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming)

THREAT: Sediment build-up and flooding

AT RISK: Property, crops, and public safety

The Niobrara River is an oasis for paddlers, anglers, and wildlife. A major tributary of the Missouri River, the lower portion of the Niobrara is protected as a federal Wild and Scenic River. The Lower Niobrara is increasingly threatened by too much sediment backing up in the upper reaches of Lewis and Clark Lake behind the Missouri River’s Gavins Point Dam.

The sediment is raising the level of the Niobrara and threatening local communities with flooding. To safeguard the Wild and Scenic Niobrara and its communities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must improve sediment management within the Missouri River system and must prioritize funding for this critical issue in their Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

*** Special Mention: Merced River (California) ***

THREAT: Intentional flooding of a Wild and Scenic River

AT RISK: Wildlife habitat and recreation

The Wild and Scenic Merced River is a special destination for paddlers, anglers, and hikers, and is home to a variety of fish and wildlife, including a rare salamander. These outstanding values are threatened by a proposal to raise the New Exchequer Dam, which would flood a stretch of river and wildlife habitat. Congress must halt legislative proposals to remove Wild and Scenic protections for the purpose of raising the dam.

Removing protections would degrade this special place for a very minor amount of water storage capacity, and set a dangerous precedent for Wild and Scenic Rivers across the country.

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Meet the Author

Amy Kober
Amy Kober is the senior communications director for American Rivers, a national non-profit river conservation organization. She lives in Portland, OR.