The Colorado River winds through canyons near Page, Ariz.
American Rivers named the Colorado (here winding through canyons near Page, Ariz.) the most endangered river in the United States. Credit: Stephen Edmonds, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A leading U.S. environmental conservation group has released its annual list of the country’s most endangered rivers. The Colorado River tops the list, but states across the nation must address polluted, dry, and unhealthy rivers, according to the list and accompanying report published today by American Rivers.

The list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, published annually since 1984, highlights rivers in peril that are facing critical policy or management decisions in the next year. The roster is culled from nominations submitted by individuals and groups from around the country and focuses on waterways that have a significant influence on surrounding communities.

Some of the country’s biggest rivers made this year’s list, including the Colorado, Mississippi, and Snake Rivers. But waterways large and small are affected by stressors such as urbanization, agricultural and industrial waste, and climate change. And underserved communities are affected the most, according to the report.

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers highlights the threats of climate change and injustice, and is a call for bold, urgent action,” said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, in a statement. The report proposes ways to influence river management at the federal, state, and local levels and ensure that at-risk communities are included in policy decisions.

Waters Threatened by Myriad Stressors

Despite Clean Water Act regulations, pollution continues to affect major U.S. waterways. “Pollutants poke the balance that gives rise to all of the ecosystem services we depend on,” said Adam Ward, a hydrologist at Oregon State University. Some rivers on the list have been contaminated for decades by acid mine drainage (Tar Creek, Oklahoma), coal ash (Mobile River, Alabama), or animal feces (Coosa River, Alabama). In some cases, current pollution budgets and policies are not well enforced, according to the report. Fertilizers flowing into the Mississippi River, for instance, contributed to a 22,730-square-kilometer (8,776-square-mile) dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s pretty clear that we need some kind of public intervention. Doing that is hard. The alternative is worse.”

The Mississippi has seen its share of restoration projects, yet it still made it onto this year’s list, said Rebecca Lave, a critical physical geographer at Indiana University Bloomington. “It’s pretty clear that we need some kind of public intervention,” she said. “Doing that is hard. The alternative is worse.”

Climate change is compounding the effects of pollution and outdated management. Rising temperatures desiccate landscapes and intensify rainfall, worsening both droughts and flooding. The western United States is particularly susceptible. The Colorado River is reaching record low water levels. Rising temperatures have made the water in the Snake River unsuitable for native salmon—a species central to many communities’ sustenance, spirituality, and economy and one that had already been decimated by the construction of dams.

“The climate crisis is a water crisis,” according to the American Rivers report.

But the solutions are complex. “Climate change is a very different kind of problem than pollution because there is no local action that can directly undo the impact,” Ward said. “It’s a global change.”

The report focuses on actions that governments, agencies, and individuals can take; however, some of the strategies involve compelling or incentivizing corporations and farms to do more to address environmental issues.

The “Ten Strategies Report,” highlighted by the American Rivers report, suggests investing portions of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into updating agricultural operations and restoring natural ecosystems along the Colorado. More modern farming practices could reduce water waste and demand. The American Rivers report also implores Congress to pass the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative Act (HR 4202), which would establish a nonregulatory conservation and restoration program to address environmental and public health issues along the river.

At the regional level, the report demands that state governments and environmental agencies develop and enforce pollution budgets along the Coosa River and invest in dam removal along Maine’s so-called Atlantic salmon rivers.

At the individual level, the report calls attention to the way voters can influence upcoming California State Water Resources Control Board decisions about water rights. It also encourages people to respond to the Biden administration’s forthcoming requests for how to protect small streams such as the San Pedro.

Threatened Rivers Span the United States

The endangered rivers touch more than 20 states and tribal territories. They provide drinking water for some of the country’s biggest cities and irrigation water for valuable agricultural land. The top 10 critical rivers are as follows:

  1. Colorado River (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California)
  2. Snake River (Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington)
  3. Mobile River (Alabama)
  4. Atlantic salmon rivers (Maine)
  5. Coosa River (Georgia, Alabama)
  6. Mississippi River (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana)
  7. Lower Kern River (California)
  8. San Pedro River (Arizona)
  9. Los Angeles River (California)
  10. Tar Creek (Oklahoma)

The list is not meant to point out the country’s most affected rivers, according to American Rivers. It’s intended to highlight where people can make a real impact, while there is still time.

In particular, the report highlights the importance of rivers to Tribal nations and the contributions of Traditional Knowledges to saving them. Indigenous Peoples consider themselves tightly interconnected with the environment, said Daryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, in an interview with American Rivers. Vigil, a cofacilitator of the Water & Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River basin, added that Traditional Knowledges and Indigenous Peoples’ lived experience could help guide more sustainable policy decisions.

“It shouldn’t take the collapse of a resource for us to have the political will to protect it.”

“I think that’s something we overlook,” he said, “the value of what thousands of years in the basin can bring to the current solution process.”

Indigenous farming practices, for example, have adapted to the ebb and flow of rivers over millennia and focus on working with the water available. The “Ten Strategies Report” references natural irrigation practices and capitalizing on beaver dams to store water as ways to combat the effects of climate change on the Colorado River.

Importantly, Tribal communities often lack modern water delivery infrastructure. The American Rivers report highlights recent collaboration between tribes and state and federal governments and calls for equitable investment in solutions.

Such a clear checklist of actions at federal, regional, community, and individual levels could be valuable for mobilizing change, Ward said. “It shouldn’t take the collapse of a resource for us to have the political will to protect it.”

—Jennifer Schmidt (@DrJenGEO), Science Writer

Citation: Schmidt, J. (2022), Endangered rivers plagued by pollution, climate change, and outdated management, Eos, 103, Published on 19 April 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.