Chicago River, Illinois

10 Most Endangered Rivers in America

American Rivers is the leading management association fighting for healthy rivers so population can increase. American Rivers protects and restores the nation’s rivers and the clean water that sustains people, wildlife, and nature.

Founded in 1973, American Rivers has more than 65,000 members and supporters, with offices in Washington, DC and nationwide.The Susquehanna River drains 27,500 square miles (71,224 square kilometers) of land in the eastern two-thirds of Pennsylvania, and parts of bordering states, flowing through the Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction area before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. It provides drinking water for more than six million people.

Now in its 26th year, the American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers List includes not necessarily the nation’s most polluted rivers, but those “at a crossroads, whose fates will be determined in the coming year.” The Susquehanna tops out the American Rivers list this year because it’s in the Marcellus Shale region, which has become a target in the rush to develop natural gas reserves.

The process used to extract the natural gas, called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” starts with large quantities of water. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped underground to create extreme pressure, which cracks non-porous rock formations and allows the natural gas or oil trapped inside to rise to the surface.

Rivers are selected based upon the following criteria:
• A major decision (that the public can help influence) in the coming year on the proposed action.
• The significance of the river to human and natural communities.
• The magnitude of the threat to the river and associated communities, especially in light of a changing climate.

Environmentalists worry because most of today’s water-treatment facilities can’t adequately treat the toxic—and potentially carcinogenic—waste water that is generated.They are concerned that the current rules are inadequate to prevent the contamination of underground and surface drinking water supplies. Accidental spills have already threatened the Susquehanna and its tributaries.

Clean water is vital to the health of our families and communities. 65% of our drinking water comes from rivers and streams, but many of our rivers are too polluted to use.
Working with local partners and concerned citizens, American Rivers fights to protect, preserve, and restore our rivers and clean water, and help save this year’s endangered rivers — and rivers nationwide for generations to come.

10 rivers are selected each year for inclusion in our list, not because they are the most polluted, but rather because they are facing a turning point in the coming year that could negatively impact the river into the future.

1. Susquehanna River, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland

Susquehanna River, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland
Susquehanna River, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland

One of the longest rivers in America, the Susquehanna River provides over half of the freshwater to the Chesapeake Bay and drinking water to millions of people. Communities and businesses depend on the river for drinking water, commerce, hydro power generation, and recreational boating. Now this resource is at risk of contamination.

The Susquehanna River and its tributaries flow over the Marcellus Shale region, a rock formation underlying much of New York and Pennsylvania, containing reserves of natural gas. The rush to develop natural gas has come without consideration of the impacts to clean water, rivers, and the health of these communities.

The hazard of pollution is high. As part of the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process to extract natural gas, massive amounts of water are withdrawn from rivers and streams. The water is then mixed with sand and toxic chemicals and pumped underground to fracture the shale under extreme pressure. A portion of that highly toxic, highly saline, and potentially radioactive waste water will return to the surface, and requires specialized treatment, but at this time, only a limited number of waste water treatment facilities have the capacity to handle it.

Already, spills from trucks hauling waste water, leaks from lined fluid holding pits, and cracked well casings have contaminated private water wells. The potential for future environmental and public health catastrophes along the Susquehanna will only increase, considering the number of new wells projected and the amount of toxic waste water produced.

While Pennsylvania and New York have been working to improve clean water safeguards for natural gas development, they fall short of adequately protecting the water supply for millions of Americans. It is the responsibility of these states, along with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), to analyze all of the potential cumulative impacts that could result from natural gas extraction, and ensure proper regulations are in place and capable of being enforced before development is allowed to continue.

Pennsylvania, New York, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission need to announce a complete moratorium on water withdrawals and hydraulic fracturing until there are comprehensive regulations in place for natural gas development or they will put public health and drinking water at risk.

2. Bristol Bay, Alaska

Bristol Bay, Alaska
Bristol Bay, Alaska

The Nushagak and Kvichak rivers that flow into southern Alaska’s Bristol Bay, along with their tributaries, are home to the last great wild salmon fishery in the world.

For more than 10,000 years, indigenous families have sustainably harvested salmon returning to the rivers during their annual migration. The same waters support a commercial fishery worth U.S. $350 million for its rainbow trout, char, dolly varden, and five salmon species.

But a proposed, 2-mile-deep (3.2-kilometer-deep) open pit mine at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers has tribes and environmental groups worried. Opponents say the Pebble Mine, in its production of copper and gold, could consume 35 billion gallons of water each year that normally course through nearby streams.

In turn it could produce 10 billion tons of waste, including antimony, arsenic, copper, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, zinc, and sulfate. To contain the waste, the mining company would build an impoundment taller than Hoover Dam, which could further impede the fishery. The tribes and environmental groups are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Water Act to prevent Pebble Mine from going forward.

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership, said all of American Rivers’ figures are speculative. Pending feasibility tests for the proposed project that are just now getting started.

“We have undertaken one of the largest environmental studies programs for a mining project in US to understand and characterize the environment in and around our deposit area,” Heatwole said. “We have invested over $120 million dollars in this effort.”

3. Roanoke River, Virginia and North Carolina

Roanoke River, Virginia and North Carolina
Roanoke River, Virginia and North Carolina

The Roanoke River flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Along the way, it provides drinking water to more than one million people in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and other communities.

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s legislature is considering lifting its own ban on uranium mining that’s been in place since 1982. The ruling would clear the way for a mining company interested in developing a deposit on a tributary of the Roanoke in Pittsylvania County, near Chatham just north of Virginia’s southern border.

American Rivers and other environmental groups say that giving the green light to uranium would threaten the Roanoke’s ecosystem as well as drinking water supplies in the region with radioactive pollution and toxic chemicals. Virginia’s climate—which includes frequent, heavy downpours—would make it difficult to safely contain radioactive waste, they argue. Uranium mining in other locations, including the U.S. Southwest, has been linked with health impacts in nearby communities including cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and damage to vital organs.

4. Chicago River, Illinois

Chicago River, Illinois
Chicago River, Illinois

The Chicago River flows through downtown Chicago, urban and suburban communities, forest preserves, parks, and industrial corridors.. Millions of Chicago-area residents use the river for recreational and commercial activities, including fishing, boating, transportation, and shipping.

Chicago’s founders chose it due to its location close to the river, which remains central to the city. The benefits of river restoration are reflected in the new waterfront economy, including shops, restaurants, and paddling outfitters. In the last ten years, Chicago-area municipalities have spent more than $100 million to improve riverfront access.

However, more is needed. A study by the Illinois Attorney General’s office concluded that restoring water quality would provide a $1 billion boost to the economy – from recreation alone – in the next 20 years.

Every day, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) dumps 1.2 billion gallons of undisinfected waste water into the Chicago River. This waste water comprises 70 percent of the water in the Chicago River, and threatens the health of area residents. Nearly all other US cities disinfect their waste water before dumping it into their rivers.

After a five-year study, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency concluded that recreational activity on the river called for disinfection of sewage outflow. However, the MWRD is spending more than $13 million in taxpayer dollars to aggressively fight this proposal.

The agency’s position is that the waterway is a manmade system designed for shipping and sewage, and therefore good water quality is not necessary.
Water quality standards for the Chicago River have not been reviewed in more than two decades. Now is the time for the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) to approve the Illinois EPA’s proposed disinfection rule and require MWRD to join modern municipalities across the country in requiring disinfection of sewage before releasing it into the river.

5. Yuba River, California

Yuba River, California
Yuba River, California

The Yuba River begins in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and ends in the Sacramento Valley. In addition to supplying drinking water to 480,000 residents and irrigating thousands of acres of farmland, the Yuba provides critical habitat for wild Chinook salmon and steelhead.

But two Army Corps of Engineers dams—one built in 1946 and the other in 1906—cut salmon and steelhead off from more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of historic spawning habitat upstream, required for salmon survival.

American Rivers and other environmental groups are asking the Army Corps of Engineers to consider all options, including dam removal, for moving fish around the 280-foot-high (85-meter-high) Englebright Dam and 25-foot-high (8-meter-high) Daguerre Point Dam. The National Marine Fisheries Service is under a court order to address the issue of fish passage at Englebright Dam.

6. Hoback River, Wyoming

Hoback River, Wyoming
Hoback River, Wyoming

Not far from Jackson Hole, the Hoback River is treasured for its clean water, spectacular scenery, and thriving native cutthroat trout fishery. The Hoback River system is extremely valuable as a pure drinking water source and a destination point for the region’s recreation-based economy.

The river is treasured by local residents and tourists alike for its paddler-friendly rapids and superb fishing opportunities. The forested slopes and meadows surrounding the river provide vital habitat for migratory big game herds and dozens of other wildlife species, including the threatened Canada lynx and grizzly bear.

Springs, seeps, and beautiful wetlands characterize its upper reaches, which flow through a roadless area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It’s so treasured, that in 2009, Congress designated the Lower Hoback as a Wild and Scenic River.

The Hoback River is threatened with catastrophic damage to water quality if the US Forest Service permits natural gas drilling in its headwaters.

In addition to significant sedimentation risk from well construction and other development, the river’s clean water is threatened by industrial chemicals and toxic waste water from the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process.

Many water wells across the Rocky Mountain west are suspected to have been contaminated by natural gas activities, and similar pollution could impact the Hoback. Near the Upper Hoback, drilling wastes may be buried onsite creating future contamination sources. Three proposed underground disposal wells for waste water would create additional pathways for cross-contamination.

The Bridger-Tetons National Forest is not requiring a comprehensive baseline analysis of the area’s surface and groundwater quality prior to development. So if contamination happens, it would be difficult to attribute responsibility to the drilling company. This threat of contamination would pose significant risks to public health and recreational uses.

Industrial-scale natural gas drilling in the river’s headwaters is a toxic threat to the Hoback and local residents. Unless the US Forest Service prepares a new environmental analysis and develops a true conservation alternative that fully protects the river, the Hoback will lose its unique wild character and local citizens could face serious health risks.

7. Green River, Washington

Green River, Washington
Green River, Washington

The Green River flows from Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument to the Toutle River, eventually converging with the Cowlitz River in southwestern Washington. Along its path, the river supplies drinking water to 50,000 residents in three communities.

A Canadian corporation recently started exploratory drilling for a copper mine near the headwaters of the Green River. Historically, prospectors have explored the area for copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc, but only copper was mined with commercial success in the first half of the 20th century, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Local environmental and recreation groups say further exploration isn’t worth the river’s health.

“I have been hunting and fishing in this area for 25 years and I hope future generations have the opportunity to do the same,” said Craig Lynch, a conservation correspondent for Clark Skamania Flyfishers.

8. Black Warrior River, Alabama

Black Warrior River, Alabama
Black Warrior River, Alabama

The Black Warrior River and its tributaries are a major drinking water source for the communities of Birmingham, Jasper, Cullman, and Tuscaloosa in northern Alabama.
The river is renowned for its fishing, boating, recreation, and wildlife, but also passes through the Warrior Coal Field, which contains most of Alabama’s coal resources.

Despite coal regulations in other Appalachian states that have gotten tougher over the years, the Army Corps of Engineers has continued to regulate the Black Warrior River watershed’s 90-plus active coal mines under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21. NWP 21 does not take local wetland and stream conditions into account, according to American Rivers.

The national nonprofit and regional environmental groups are asking the Corps to end the use of NWP 21, consider the cumulative impact of mines on the Black Warrior River, and allow locals to comment on the management of the mines.

9. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri

Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri

The beautiful, bluff-lined Current and Jacks Fork that make up the Ozark National Scenic Riverways are the region’s premier rivers for paddling, fishing, and other recreation. These streams annually attract more than 1.3 million visitors and are the cornerstone of the area’s economy.

The lands surrounding the Riverways include a world-class spring system that is unparalleled in North America, with more than 350 springs (including the National Park Service’s largest spring) and 338 recorded caves.

The area is an international center for biodiversity, with more than 200 species found nowhere else in the world, four federally listed endangered species, over 100 state-listed species of conservation concern, and the largest Important Bird Area in Missouri. The 134 miles of the River ways also feature archaeological sites and historic structures reflecting 12,000 years of human habitation.

But ironically, the Riverways are now in danger of being loved to death.

10. St. Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin

St. Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin
St. Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin

The St. Croix River begins in northwest Wisconsin and flows south, forming the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin and joining the Mississippi River near the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

In 1968, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was established as one of the original eight Wild and Scenic Rivers, and four years later the Lower section was designated. The river provides a unique wilderness-like experience for outdoor recreation opportunities in a growing metropolitan area.

Now a proposal to build a costly superhighway bridge would undermine the values that make the river a regional and national treasure – and set a dangerous precedent for other Wild and Scenic Rivers nationwide.

For nearly 20 years a four-lane highway bridge over the Lower St. Croix has been debated in the courts, among federal and state agencies, and between local residents.
It is clear that the existing Stillwater Bridge has outlived its usefulness as a primary route for vehicles to cross the river.

Several proposals for a replacement bridge have been evaluated over the years. Though the specifics have changed, a bigger, faster, four-lane highway has consistently been the “preferred” alternative put forward while more reasonably sized options have been dismissed. This four-lane freeway alternative is currently estimated to cost up to $690 million of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and federal taxpayer’s dollars.

In 2010, after the US District Court decision, the NPS was forced to reevaluate the current bridge proposal and concluded that the massive bridge would damage on the Lower St. Croix’s scenic and recreational values. But now, legislation has been introduced in Congress that, if enacted, would not only result in construction of a bridge that will harm the St. Croix River, it would also set a dangerous precedent for all Wild and Scenic Rivers under pressure from those who seek to rollback river protection.

According to the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has never been exempted for a transportation project, or for any project of this magnitude.

The National Park Service has determined that a proposed costly superhighway bridge is inconsistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If Congress allows legislation to override the Act, it will greatly impact the St. Croix River and set a dangerous precedent for all Wild and Scenic Rivers.

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