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California’s San Joaquin tops list of America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers

This isn’t a list of the worst rivers, but of rivers at crossroads, says American Rivers

For many Americans, rivers bring to mind languid summer days, exuberant tubing adventures, or family fishing excursions. For me, they represent a kind of wild, untamed beauty, which I take every opportunity to enjoy.

In reality, few of America’s 250,000 rivers are truly untamed. They have been used for centuries as a source of energy, drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and recreation. This use has taken a steep toll, and many rivers are now threatened by excessive water diversions and withdrawals, outdated water management plans, dams, and pollution.

photo of a grassland and a reservoir, sailboats visiblephoto by eutrophication&hypoxia on FlickrMillerton Lake on the San Joaquin River, California. Improving water conservation and efficiency would go a long way when it comes to preserving endangered rivers.

American Rivers, an organization that works to protect and restore rivers and streams across the county, has responded to these mounting threats with their annual report: America’s Endangered Rivers 2014. The report whittles down a list of thousands of threatened rivers to a list of the “top ten.”

Rivers are selected for the list based on three primary criteria. “One is the significance of the river, the second is the significance of the threat, and the third, and probably the most important, is whether there is a decision point in the coming year that will change the river’s fate, put the river on a different path,” says Amy Kober, senior communications director at American Rivers. “It isn’t a list of the worst rivers. It is really a list of rivers at a crossroads.”

Improving water conservation and efficiency would go a long way when it comes to preserving these endangered rivers. Other preservation strategies include groundwater recharge, water recycling, storm water reuse, and forest and meadow restoration. “Healthy, natural forests and meadows kind of function like sponges – they suck up water and release it slowly,” explains Kober. “Restoring [meadows and forests] can help with long-term downstream water supply.”

So here are the “top ten,” starting with the most at threat – the San Joaquin River in California. Find out whether one of these threatened rivers runs near you.

#1 San Joaquin River, California
The San Joaquin River supports vast wetlands and sustains tule elk, grizzly bears, waterfowl, and king salmon, among many other fish and wildlife. The river also is used to irrigate two million acres of agricultural land and provides drinking water to more than 4.5 million people. Poor water management, excessive water diversions, dams, and levees have damaged vibrant river habitat and diminished recreational opportunities. The current drought in California has magnified these issues. The California State Water Resources Board is currently developing a river management plan, meaning the board has an opportunity to increase river flows, protect fish and wildlife, preserve water quality, and support sustainable agriculture and recreational use in the new plan.

#2 Upper Colorado River, Colorado
The Colorado River is home to extensive fish and wildlife populations, supports vast agricultural water needs, and hosts popular recreational activities like fishing, hiking, and paddling. Unfortunately, the Colorado River Basin is also under threat from increased water demands and proposed water diversions. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently working on a Draft Colorado Water Plan, which will be released in December 2014, and has the opportunity to protect and restore the Colorado River in this plan.

#3 Middle Mississippi River, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky
The Mississippi River is no stranger to alteration and diversion, but until now, a gap in the New Madrid Floodway levee system offered an essential connection between the river and backwater floodplain habitat. The US Army Corps of Engineers has proposed to cut off this connection by constructing a new levee, despite protests by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and indications that the levee would put local communities at increased risk of flooding. If the Corps does not abandon this project, American Rivers suggests that the EPA should veto it under the Clean Water Act.

#4 Gila River, New Mexico
The Gila River originates in the Gila Wilderness and supports abundant wildlife, forest habitat, and native fish populations. It is facing new threats, however, under a proposal to increase water diversions for agricultural and urban use. Alternative solutions – such as water conservation, effluent reuse, and watershed restoration – could meet regional water needs more efficiently and cost-effectively than the proposed diversion project. New Mexico must inform the Secretary of the Interior what strategy it will use to meet state water needs by the end of 2014.

#5 San Francisquito Creek, California
The San Francisquito Creek is one of the only San Francisco Bay streams unconfined by concrete, providing a habitat for rare fish and wildlife within an urban setting. Searsville Dam, which is owned by Stanford University, currently poses significant threats to the creek’s fish and wildlife, including steelhead trout. Searsville has been categorized as a “high hazard dam” because dam failure would likely cause human casualties, as well as environmental damage and economic losses. A coalition of conservation groups will present recommendations regarding removal of the Dam to Stanford University in late 2014.

#6 South Fork Edisto River, South Carolina
The Edisto River, the longest free-flowing blackwater river in the US, is home to diverse wildlife, including several endangered fish species. In South Carolina, agricultural interests are exempted from water permitting requirements that apply to industrial and municipal users. These exemptions allow agricultural users to withdraw 35 percent of the Edisto’s flow, even during droughts. A revised law that holds agricultural interests to the same standards as other users could go a long way towards restoring the Edisto.

#7 White River, Colorado
Colorado’s White River provides drinking water to 7,000 people, as well as habitat to rare fish and wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed to allow development of an estimated 15,000 new oil and gas wells in the White River Basin. This “preferred alternative” under the BLM plan would cause irreversible harm, including pollution, loss of surface and groundwater supplies, habitat destruction, and degraded air quality. A revised plan that protects water quality, air quality, and wildlife habitat, and which considers energy development within the context of these other interests, would help preserve this unique river.

#8 White River, Washington
Washington’s White River is home to four species of salmon and two species of trout – fish that play an important role in the culture of local Indian tribes. Every year, however, thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of salmon and steelhead trout die as they attempt to swim upriver to spawn due to an undersized and outdated fish trap system at the Buckley Diversion Dam. (The diversion dam guides them into a trap, from which they’re hauled by truck about 12 miles around the Mud Mountain Dam to continue their seasonal migration.) NOAA Fisheries believes that the Army Corps of Engineers is required to upgrade the dam and fish trap under the Endangered Species Act, but the Corp has yet to take action.

#9 Haw River, North Carolina
North Carolina’s Haw River provides drinking water to almost one million people, habitat to blue heron, bald eagle, beaver, and otter, and diverse recreational activities to local populations. The river has suffered from significant wastewater spills and polluted runoff, which has led to algal blooms in connected reservoirs. The state developed a cleanup plan in 2009 under directives from the EPA, but the North Carolina General Assembly has passed several laws delaying and weakening cleanup activities.

#10 Middle Fork Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers, Idaho
The Middle Fork Clearwater River and the Lochsa River were among the first rivers to be designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Both rivers have historical significance, are culturally important to the Nez Perce Tribe, and support diverse and threatened wildlife. Tar sands developers in Alberta, Canada have requested permission to transport large mining and refinery equipment on “megaload” trucks up Highway 12 (which parallels the rivers), through Montana, and into northern Alberta. The trucking operation would disrupt visitors trying to access and enjoy the rivers, delay highway traffic, and in the event of an accident, threaten pristine river habitat. The US Forest Service has authority to protect Wild and Scenic River corridors, but the local Clearwater National Forest has not taken a leadership role in restricting trucking activities on these roads.

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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