Snake River Tops American Rivers’ 2021 Endangered Rivers Report

For nearly 40 years, American Rivers has published the “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report to save imperiled rivers through advocacy and education. This year’s report highlights rivers that are currently “at a tipping point, facing an urgent decision in the coming months.” The river conservation organization has a long history of restoring river systems and waterways all around the country. At nearly 300,000 supporters strong, American Rivers is a powerful voice for clean and healthy rivers. Many of our favorite fisheries depend on healthy rivers, and just many, unfortunately, are being held back by poor river health.

American Rivers selected rivers for this year’s report based on the degree to which the public can influence action, the river’s significance to communities, and the magnitude of the threat facing the river and community. Below, you’ll see this year’s most endangered rivers. Did your home river, unfortunately, make the list?

America’s Most Endangered River: The Snake River

The Snake River flows more than 1,000 miles through Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. This river once produced millions of salmon and steelhead, but that was when it was, well, a river. Today, the Snake River suffers the effects of a fractured river. Four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington have promoted a strong barging industry but at the cost of the region’s once prolific runs of wild salmon and steelhead. The extinction of these fish is imminent unless the river can be reconnected.

“The four lower Snake dams turned 140 miles of cool, flowing river into a series of stagnant reservoirs. The dams disrupt and slow natural river flows, create lethally high reservoir temperatures which allow non-native predators to thrive, impede migration of salmon to and from the Pacific Ocean, and kill young salmon attempting to pass through the dams.”

Lower Granite Dam, Army Corps of Engineers

Chances are you’ve heard of the plan spearheaded by Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho. Over hundreds of meetings with stakeholders, he developed a concept to remove the four lower Snake River Dams, save the salmon and steelhead, and help the affected industries. This innovative and bipartisan approach might be the best–and last–chance to save these fish and the communities that depend on them.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to save rivers in need of urgent action,” said Tom Kiernan, President of American Rivers. “We’re facing a critical choice on the Snake River. We can either stay with the status quo, which means failing salmon runs, more costly ligitation, increasing energy insecurity and broken promises to tribes. Or we can choose to invest in salmon recovery and infrastructure solutions that create a future of abundance and prosperity for the region. We think the choice is clear and we’re calling on the Northwest congressional delegation to take action now.”

Missouri River flooding, courtesy of Brandon Knoblauch

#2: Lower Missouri River

America’s longest river also shares the title of America’s most altered river. The Missouri River flows more than 2,300 miles and has a watershed encompassing one-sixth of the United States. The Lower Missouri River, which stretches from Sioux City, Iowa to St. Louis, plays a vital role for the economies of the Plains states and the Nation. Decades of development on the lower Missouri–dams, channel dredging, and hundreds of miles of levees–has created a very different river, and one that threatens public safety and and is less hospitable to native species. Recent floods, which are intensifying  due to climate change, destroyed communities in the Missouri River Basin. This issue compounds with the fact that the river is far too constrained with its extensive levee system–during floods, the river has nowhere to go but into these riverside communities.

“In order to address the issues associated with outdated floodplain management in the lower Missouri River basin, states and local governments located in areas where catastrophic flooding has occurred must commit to non-structural and nature-based solutions, including setting back levees to give the river room, preventing development in the Missouri River floodplain that contributes to rising flood waters and increased flood risk, and funding relocation and flood mitigation projects for communities already located in flood-prone areas.”

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, courtesy of Brad Carlson

#3: Boundary Waters

Much like the efforts to restore the Snake River, if you’ve been following us for the last year or so, you’re familiar with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This wilderness area in Minnesota is the most visited wilderness area in the country and enjoys 1,200 miles of rivers and streams and more than 1,000 lakes. Yet a proposed sulfide-copper ore mine threatens the tourism and recreation economic benefits of the Boundary Waters and its clean water.

“Hydrologists say that pollution from mining in this area is inevitable. Hardrock mining is the most toxic industry in America, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Sulfide-ore copper mine contamination harms water, aquatic and terrestrial species, forests and soils, and poses a serious risk to human health.” The coalition working to save the Boundary Waters is strong and is now lobbying Congress to permanently protect the Boundary Waters.

#4: South River

Georgia’s South River begins in metropolitan Atlanta and suffers from extensive pollution, much of which stems from defective raw sewage systems. Just outside of Atlanta, thousands of recreationists enjoy what appears to be a beautiful river. However, the pollution coming from the river’s headwaters has not been addressed, and violations of the Clean Water Act persist.

“It is critical for the health of South River communities and the river that they take immediate action to ensure that the river and all impacted communities are afforded all clean water protections required by law.”

The Pecos River, courtesy of Jim O’Donnell

#5: Pecos River

The Pecos River represents a beacon of New Mexico’s culture and rich indigenous heritage. Originating in northern New Mexico at nearly 12,000 feet, the Pecos flows 926 miles all the way to Texas’ Rio Grande River. In its high elevation stretches, the Pecos provides essential habitat for the imperiled native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Unfortunately, a proposed hard rock mine threatens to affect over 5,000 acres of essential subalpine habitat and the river’s clean water.

“The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division must deny the exploratory mining application, the U.S. Forest Service must adequately assess the environmental impacts of the mining proposal, and Congress must pass legislation to permanently protect this special place for communities today and for generations to come.”

Water sampling at Tar Creek

#6: Tar Creek

Home to what was once the world’s largest lead and zinc mine, Tar Creek is also one of the largest superfund sites in the country. Superfund sites are areas that the EPA identifies as contaminated by hazardous substances, initiating cleanup efforts. “The Tar Creek Superfund Site’s epicenter contains forty square miles of abandoned mines with more than 30 major tailings piles as high as 200 feet tall with lead-contaminated soils throughout much of the county. For forty years, one million gallons of contaminated water has discharged daily into Tar Creek, killing most of the Creek’s aquatic life and turning the water orange due to oxidation.”

Cleanup efforts at Tar Creek continue to be inadequate, and pollution continues to taint the creek orange and poison adjacent communities. Efforts by the EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, State of Oklahoma, and local Tribes to clean up the pollution and protect the public through a landscape-scale solution are immensely needed.

The McCloud River, courtesy of Tracey Diaz

#7: McCloud River

California’s McCloud River once flowed free and gave life to tribes and the connected ecosystems. However, construction of Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River in 1945 disrupted the entire watershed. Impacts included complete blockage of habitat for migrating salmon and flooded culturally important lands. Today, an effort to raise the already 600-foot dam another 18.5 feet to provide more water for the Central Valley Project would further degrade this region. In 1989, the McCloud was protected as Wild and Scenic River to prevent this exact scenario, and raising the dam’s height is illegal under California Law.

“Under the direction of Secretary Haaland, Department of Interior staff must complete a swift review of the proposed Shasta Dam raise, fully consider and expose its injustice and illegality, and issue a public determination that the project is infeasible (in part because it is illegal in California under the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act). The Secretary must then kill the project for good by publishing a Record of Decision that rejects the dam-raise alternatives.”

#8: Ipswich River

New England’s largest salt marsh, source of drinking water for 350,000 people, and a multi-million-dollar shellfish industry are all made possible because of Massachusetts’ Ipswich River. The relatively short river, 45 miles, is located just north of Boston and provides great opportunities for outdoor recreation and wild ecosystems to thrive. The river is being starved, however. Today, its greatest threat comes from excessive water withdrawals.

“The Ipswich River is the poster child for the state’s outdated water system. An astounding 80 percent of Ipswich water is exported out of the watershed. Worse, more than 90 percent of withdrawals are exempt from any water use conditions like conservation measures. Even in non-drought years, stretches of river are pumped dry. Dry riverbeds result in fish kills, ecological damage, loss of recreation and threats to the quality and security of the water supply. The climate crisis has made things worse.”

Two critical water registrations and permits are up for renewal this year, opening the door for much needed improvements to how Massachusetts manages its water. The goal is to establish new water use rules that will strike a balance across a range of uses and users but leave enough water for communities and the river.

#9: Raccoon River

Crippled by industrial agriculture pollution, Iowa’s Raccoon River needs major help–notwithstanding the 500,000 people that depend on the river for drinking water and thousands of others that use the rivers for recreation. More than 750 factory farms pollute the river through high levels of nutrient (animal waste) runoff. Iowa’s voluntary system to reduce agricultural runoff has proved completely inadequate and contributed to   toxic algal outbreaks and decades of unsafe drinking water for the local communities.

“The EPA must conduct a study of factory farm runoff from fields in Iowa. The agency has previously acknowledged that such runoff is the biggest source of factory farm pollution by far, but it is not monitored at all by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. EPA must also immediately ramp up its Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) inspections and enforcement actions in the Raccoon River watershed. Factory farms should be required to invest in state-of-the-art technology to treat animal waste, instead of relying on antiquated techniques that hide the problem (e.g., spreading waste on fields).”

#10 Turkey Creek

Located in Coastal Mississippi, Turkey Creek is a freshwater stream and brackish estuary that has supported culturally diverse fisheries, communities, and habitats for decades. More recently, development of wetlands and flooding (intertwined issues) are having significant impacts on Turkey Creek Communities. Additionally, more development is in the planning stage, which would further exasperate the ongoing issues at Turkey Creek.

“Economic development must not come at the cost of human and ecological health, or environmental justice. Decision-makers must ensure that any economic development proposals in the Turkey Creek area are supported by the local community and protect the health of the community and environment. To this end, they must refer to the neighborhood’s Community Plan and Watershed Plan.”

As you can see, these ten waterways all face serious threats. Further, no matter how prolific their fisheries are–if even at all–the fact remains that clean water and healthy aquatic ecosystems are essential to human life and have many more uses than previously understood. Further, in most of these locations, underpinning the river’s threats is a human attempt to modify a waterway. Whether it is a dam, levee, injecting unnatural nutrients, or just taking too much water out, we continue to have an outsized role in river degradation. This is exactly why restoration and advocacy efforts, much like with the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, are needed. For more on the report and individual rivers, be sure to check out the full report here.

American Rivers: “69 dams Removed in 2020, Reconnecting 624 Miles of Rivers”

American Rivers Releases Its List of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers”

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