Tuesday, April 14th–American Rivers, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and restoration of our nation’s threatened rivers, released its annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.” The list highlights ten rivers that face existential threats from development, pollution, harmful agriculture practices, and the urgent implications of climate change. Do not be completely discouraged, because American Rivers offers unique solutions for each of these river systems.
Rivers supply our country with so many important services: drinking water, food, recreation, travel, the list goes on. Despite this fact and our innate reliance on rivers, we have caused unfathomable harm to our nation’s rivers, including the current administration’s sustained attempts to undermine the Clean Water Act.
Ten Most Endangered Rivers
1. Upper Mississippi River (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Mississippi River is one the most essential river system in America, but it also one of the most troubled. The Upper Mississippi River, “generates $345 billion annually,” but its flooding has severe economic and environmental impacts. Seasonal flooding is a natural phenomenon, but climate change and poor floodplain/watershed management practices are making these floods much more devastating. Currently, the Upper Mississippi River basin has lost 40-90 percent of its historic land mass to development, and nearly “every river [in the basin] has been dammed, leveed and/or constricted.” American Rivers is working to create a wholistic water management plan that, “accounts for climate change, gives rivers room to flood safely, and restores lost habitat.”
2. Lower Missouri River (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas)
The Missouri River is America’s longest river at 2,300 miles, but its lower stretch is in dire condition. Hundreds of miles of levees have destroyed the river’s natural flow and habitat, which has caused the listing of many species under the Endangered Species Act. The 2019 flood damaged 850 miles of levees, amounting to more than $1 billion in repair costs. “Unfortunately, federal policy and state relief efforts favor maintaining the antiquated levee system,” according to American Rivers’ report. To restore the Lower Missouri River, American Rivers recommends overhauling the floodplain management plans to give the river more room, preventing development in the floodplain, funding mitigation projects, and initiating an Army Corps of Engineers review of the repetitively damaged levees.
3. Big Sunflower River (Mississippi)
The Big Sunflower River is home to some of the nation’s most productive wetlands and aquatic resources, but a massive wetland draining project poses an amazing threat to the river and its associated habitat. The Yazoo Backwater Pumps is a project authorized by Congress in 1941, but the project was later discovered to be incredibly environmentally destructive and overly costly. As a result, the Bush administration issued a veto under the Clean Water Act (one of 13 ever issued), and now the Trump administration is working to overturn the 2008 veto. American Rivers is encouraging the public defend the Clean Water Act and the respective state and local governments to take advantage of the various cost-effective and environmentally sound federal programs to mitigate flooding.
4. Puyallup River (Washington)
The Puyallup River is home to the only population of spring Chinook salmon in South Puget Sound as well as other salmonids listed under the Endangered Species Act. A unlicensed and non-ESA-compliant hydropower project on the Puyallup blocks migrating salmonids from accessing essential habitats and is estimated to restrict the potential of ESA-listed salmonids by 34 percent. American Rivers notes that is a legal responsibility of the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to demand expedited correction of all causes of fish mortality associated with the Electron Hydropower Project.”
5. South Fork Salmon River (Idaho)
The South Fork of the Salmon River is an outdoor recreation oasis, with native cutthroat trout, critical salmonid habitat, and whitewater paddlers. A proposal to reopen the Stibnite open-pit mine with a 450 acre tailing storage facility poses a major threat to this river’s–and the greater Salmon River’s–habitat and recreation opportunities. American Rivers is working with local entities to convince the U.S. Forest Service to deny this mine proposal.
6. Menominee River (Michigan, Wisconsin)
The Menominee River flows 120 miles and is the largest river in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Additionally, the Menominee is a world-class smallmouth bass fishery and culturally important to the Menominee Indian Tribe. An unexperienced foreign mining company is pursuing permits for a metallic sulfide mine the size of “1,435” football fields on the banks of the Menominee River. To ensure this river and its resources remains clean and available for all stakeholders, “Michigan’s Environment, Great Lakes and Energy agency must deny the dam safety permit for the Back Forty Project.”
7. Rapid Creek (South Dakota)
Rapid Creek is a tributary of the Cheyenne and Missouri Rivers, supplies drinking water for 90,000 people, and is world-renowned trout fishery. Yet, large-scale gold mining proposals in the region threaten the water quality and security of Rapid Creek. To protect this region, the outdoor recreation economy supported by it, and the water security of these communities, American Rivers is pleading to the U.S. Forest Service to take a more thorough look at the landscape-level impacts of the proposals. If these analyses determine the mines are too environmentally dangerous, the U.S. Forest Service must deny the projects.
8. Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, Florida)
The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest blackwater wetland in North America and is one of the world’s healthiest freshwater large-scale ecosystems. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge offers tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities, producing a $64.7 million economic impact for the surrounding communities. A proposed titanium mine threatens to destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands and severely deplete water resources, which would produce a multitude of negative consequences. American Rivers is advocating that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reject any proposal that risks the long-term protection of Okefenokee Swamp and surrounding lands be permanently protected.
9. Ocklawaha River (Florida)
The historic Ocklawaha River once provided habitat for abundant species of wildlife, but a dam constructed in 1968 has wreaked havoc on this ecosystem. Fish cannot migrate past the dam, and 7,500 acres of flooded wetlands were flooded. The dam serves literally no purpose–other than to form the reservoir, which is drained every three-four years. and facilitate largemouth bass fishing. “A 2017 University of Florida study estimated direct annual recreational expenditures for a restored, free-flowing section of the Ocklawaha would be $13.6 million versus $6 million for the current, impounded section of the Ocklawaha.” American Rivers is advocating that Governor Ron DeSantis allocate funds to a restoration project to reconnect the river to the Atlantic Ocean.
10. Lower Youghiogheny River (Pennsylvania)
Thanks to the Clean Water Act and other restoration efforts, the Lower Youghiogheny River has rebounded from the decades of industrial degradation and now is an important economic driver for local communities. The Lower Youghiogheny River is widely used by whitewater paddlers, freshwater fishermen, campers and others. Fracking activities are an increasingly prevalent and risky threat for Appalachia watersheds. Natural Gas fracking operations on both sides of this river pose an immediate threat to the river’s restored health and the communities’ sustainable outdoor recreation economy and drinking water. American Rivers is calling on Governor Tom Wolf to ensure his agencies thoroughly weigh the irrevocable costs of large-scale natural gas extraction on this river and communities.
While this list could continue with another 100 rivers, American Rivers identified these ten for good reason: they face serious and irrevocable harm. Rivers are quite literally the veins of our country and are cherished by us fly fishermen. Unfortunately, humans have caused extensive damage to river networks from coast to coast. So, if we as fishermen want to continue chasing trout and smallmouth on rivers anywhere in America, we have to protect them. For more details on each of these endangered rivers and how you can help, check out this informative page on American Rivers’ website: America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2020.