Tracking Troubled Waters with ‘Endangered Rivers’ List

April 18, 2018
Canoeing in the morning mist in Boulder Bay in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, whose recreation economy is threatened by mining, according to a new American Rivers endangered rivers report. Photo: Briandjan607, Flickr Creative Commons

TipSheet: Tracking Troubled Waters with ‘Endangered Rivers’ List

The annual “endangered rivers” list is, for many environmental reporters, a rite of spring. Sure, it’s a publicity gimmick. But it’s also a jumping-off point for good coverage of a water issue that is critical for millions of people. And for your local audience.

Every year the environmental group American Rivers puts out a list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” for the year. It’s actually worth looking at as a window into key river issues of the day.

Sure, your particular river is in crisis. It’s likely been in crisis for years, and will be years more. But have you been covering it?

The crises are real — and serious. But the list often indicates which rivers are immediately in play — subject to imminent government or industry actions which could alter their future.

Didn’t make this year’s list? No worries. A river near you probably made the list in a previous year, and is probably still endangered. Look in the archives.

Here are this year’s most endangered, according to American Rivers:

  1. Big Sunflower River (Mississippi): Threatened by Yazoo Pumps project that would drain critical wetlands.
  2. Rivers of Bristol Bay (Alaska): Salmon fishery threatened by huge open pit mine.
  3. Boundary Waters (Minnesota): Recreation economy threatened by mining.
  4. Lower Rio Grande (Texas): Threatened by the border wall.
  5. South Fork Salmon River (Idaho): Threatened by mining.
  6. Mississippi River Gorge (Minnesota): Threatened by obsolete locks and dams.
  7. Colville River (Alaska): Polar bears and caribou threatened by oil and gas development.
  8. Smith River (Montana): Headwaters threatened by a copper mine.
  9. Middle Fork Vermilion River (Illinois): Threatened by coal ash pollution.
  10. Kinnickinnic River (Wisconsin): Dams threaten a blue-ribbon trout stream.

Again, these are hardly the only endangered rivers. In 2017, rivers on the list were:

  • Lower Colorado River (Arizona, California, Nevada)
  • Bear River (California)
  • South Fork Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Mobile Bay Basin (Alabama)
  • Rappahannock River (Virginia)
  • Green-Toutle River (Washington)
  • Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers (North Carolina)
  • Middle Fork Flathead River (Montana)
  • Buffalo National River (Arkansas)
  • Menominee River (Michigan, Wisconsin)

You can download the annual Endangered Rivers report for any year back to 1998 from this page. You can also cut to the chase geographically and see a list of rivers in your region here.

Angles to consider

Every river is different — which is why we have environmental journalists. There are a few big points to consider as you cover them. American Rivers can lead you to many more.

  • Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: This 1968 law set up a framework for conserving some of the more undeveloped rivers in the United States. Designation does offer some protection, but it doesn’t happen without local buy-in.
  • Dams and hydropower licensing: Dams can have benefits, but by restricting river flow they can keep fish from spawning and cause other environmental problems. Many new and existing dams produce hydropower and must be licensed (or relicensed) by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That’s always political.
  • Clean Water Act discharge permits: You can’t just pollute a river. The Clean Water Act requires potential polluters to clean up their discharges into a river according to certain standards. And they have to get a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (or state agency) to do it. Check EPA’s NPDES permit database or your state water pollution control agency. Rivers often supply drinking water. Look into your local Source Water Protection Plan.
  • Agriculture and nonpoint runoff: Not all pollution comes out of a pipe. The diffuse (nonpoint) pollution that stormwater washes off of streets and farm fields is a major pollution source, often controlled (if at all) by programs that are more voluntary than regulatory. What is your county or state doing about it?
  • Mining — old and new: Mines produce more pollution than we have room to write about. For newly engineered mines, much can be controlled. When these mines are dug on federal or state lands, a permit is often required, and that gives government leverage for pollution controls. But the many more inactive and abandoned mines continue to pollute through acid drainage. There are few easy or effective ways to control this.
  • Pipelines, highways, bridges: When things cross rivers, there is an opportunity for mischief. Floodwaters often destroy bridges — and bridge structures can worsen flooding. But pipelines are what everybody is fussing about. Technologically, there are ways to make pipelines safer — but shortcuts and the profit motive often defeat them. Permits are a chance to stop leaks. But sometimes pipeline rights-of-way actually follow rivers, worsening risk. Remember the 2010 pipeline rupture that polluted the Kalamazoo River?
  • Wetlands and headwaters: Every river starts somewhere. Before it gets mighty, a river comes from rivulets, ditches and wetlands. Protecting these protects rivers, and there is a federal permit program administered by EPA and the Corps of Engineers that is supposed to protect wetlands. Urged on by the construction and agriculture industries, the Trump administration is currently at war (may require subscription) (and in court) against broader protections.

Some source ideas

Apart from American Rivers itself, there are a lot of good sources to talk to about your local rivers.

One of the best will be your local kayakers, canoeists and float fanatics. You will discover that these people organize into clubs, pods, networks, flotillas, rafts and alliances. Of course you can find them via Google, but an even better way is to go to the places where they put their boats into the river on a Saturday spring morning.

Near Washington, D.C., it is the Canoe Cruisers Association, but similar groups are widespread. The national group American Whitewater links to many local and regional groups. So does the American Canoe Association. A state-by-state directory of canoe and kayak clubs is here.

For a range of river conservation issues, you want to talk to your local riverkeeper. These groups are organized under the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Fishers and fishing groups have an intimate knowledge of their rivers, and an understanding of threats and protections. You can meet them where they fish. But check in with local chapters of groups like Trout Unlimited, Salmon Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League for insights.

To get other perspectives, check in with your state office of the American Farm Bureau Federation or the National Association of Home Builders.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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