Last year, the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, was a big year for rivers. But there are still a lot of rivers in the country that are unhealthy and at risk. “I would say the two biggest threats we’ve seen have been oil and gas, and dams,” says Amy Kober, communications director of the non-profit American Rivers. “Either existing dams or proposed new dams.” Watershed health is complicated because rivers are tied up with energy debates and public land use. And the issues are immediate. We need clean water now and we need enough of it to sustain us in the future. Here are 10 rivers to put on your radar. —Heather Hansman
Fracking, and the rush to get to the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale Formation, is putting the Susquehanna at risk. Toxins from the solution used in fracking get into the river as well as the groundwater. There have already been uncontrolled leaks from unregulated sources. Last year, Chesapeake Energy “donated” $500,000 to water-quality monitoring after a spill leached drilling fluids into Susquehanna tributaries. Fish in the river started showing up with strange black spots that scientists couldn’t trace. According to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which released a state of the river report on February 13: "more than 2,000 miles of streams remain polluted by mine drainage. The incidence of disease in the smallmouth bass population, particularly in the lower Susquehanna region, continues to increase due to yet unknown sources. Drinking water protection is a concern as the percentage of assessed stream miles impaired by microbial pollution, such as high bacteria levels, has doubled between 2010 and 2012."
The Pebble Mine, an open-pit copper and gold mine proposed by the Pebble Mines Corp. would exist in a land of superlatives. Bristol Bay is one of the most profitable wild salmon fisheries in the world, while the Pebble deposit is the largest known untapped copper deposit in the world. Alaskans, including tribes like the Ekwok, who have a stake in the land, have to decide which is more profitable, and which would do more long-term good. Proponents argue for job creation and revenue for the state, but the mine would be dredging up toxic materials in a pristine habitat. Eighty percent of locals are opposed. An estimated 10 million tons of waste, including heavy metals like arsenic and zinc, would come out of the mine, and construction of the two-mile deep pit would happen on untouched wilderness. The EPA has to approve the project, which is on state-owned land.
Parts of the Chattahoochee are actually, currently, pretty clean—Trout Unlimited calls it one of the 100 best trout streams in the country—but that could change quickly. The river is heavily regulated and the closer you get to Atlanta the less healthy it gets. In 2000, the city had to remove 568 tons of trash from the river because of a federal consent order. The Chattahoochee supplies 70 percent of metro Atlanta’s drinking water and it’s at the heart of a water war between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over allocation of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin. After it flows through Atlanta, the river heads south and joins the Apalachicola, but the city sucks up a lot of the river water, and as its population swells, as it has constantly for the past 30 years, it’s putting a strain on the rest of the basin.
The Colorado is the grandfather of American rivers, tied up in politics, myth, recreation, and the livelihood of the West. It’s the most heavily, and probably most confusingly, allocated river in the world. It runs from Colorado to California and provides most of the water for the arid Southwest, including big desert cities like Las Vegas. It’s so tapped that it now dries up 80 miles from the Pacific Ocean. There aren’t any big immediate changes coming to Colorado, but dry winters in its headwaters and across the region mean that the river may reach a breaking point where junior rights holders might not get water. “It’s a giant river and it has a lot of issues, but I think that has to be on everyone’s radar, simply because of the recreation value, and the water issues,” says Amy Kober, communications director of the non-profit American Rivers.
Call it a pipe dream but developers in Colorado, most recently Aaron Million from Fort Collins-based Wyco Power and Water, have long been trying to transfer water from the Flaming Gorge reservoir in northeast Utah across the Continental Divide to hydrate Denver. If the project is approved it would pump 250,000 acre-feet of water out of the Green and into a 500-mile-long pipe to the Colorado’s Front Range. Million, who has already proposed the project twice, got shut down again in January when he was denied a task force for the project. It’s a hold up, and one that river supporters are tentatively excited about, but Million is reportedly rebuilding his plan, and there’s another group asking questions about leasing the water. Denver is thirsty and growing, and water on the east side of the Divide, most notably the Arkansas and the South Platte rivers, is heavily allocated.
Other rivers might be threatened, or facing risks, but the Ohio, which runs from Pittsburgh into the Mississippi in Cairo, Illinois, is currently the dirtiest. According to a 2012 report from Environment Americas, it holds 32,111,718 pounds of toxic discharges, almost three times as much as the next dirtiest river, the Mississippi. (The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation gives mixed advice about swimming in the river.) The report also looked at the worst polluters, including AK Steel Corp. and North American Stainless, which both release wastewater into the Ohio. The tricky thing about trying to curb water pollutants in rivers like this one is that what companies are dumping almost always complies with the Clean Water Act.
Lower Snake River
The Lower Snake, a tributary of the Columbia River, which runs from Wyoming through Idaho and in to Washington, once held half of the Columbia’s Chinook salmon. When four dams were put in on the Lower Snake as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Rivers and Harbors Act, it cut the fish migration routes. There are fish passages, but fish populations are constantly declining, and Central Idaho, above the dams, still holds some of the best salmon breeding ground, which fish below the dam struggle to access. There have been proposals from environmental groups and legislators to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake; if the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor all came down it would be the largest dam removal in the country. Taking down the dams on the Lower Snake could bring back 50 to 80 percent of the salmon population, proponents have argued that it would save taxpayers money, and, because the river runs through public land and has existing rapids, it has the potential for huge recreational value, too.
The Potomac, which provides 90 percent of the drinking water to the Washington D.C. area, leads a double life. It’s impacted by urban pollutants within the Beltway, but it also runs though farmlands in Virginia and West Virginia where fertilizer and agricultural runoff get into the streambed. The health of the Potomac is also closely tied to the strength of the Clean Water Act, which groups like American Rivers and Clean Water Action are worried about. It topped the American Rivers most endangered rivers list this year partially for it’s political significance. The 40-year-old law has cleaned up rivers considerably—before it was enacted only 35 percent of the countries rivers were fishable and swimmable— and attacked issues like point-source pollution, but it’s still being defined and redefined. In January, the Supreme Court reversed a 9th Circuit Court ruling that would have tightened regulations on storm water runoff. Those minor changes are key in the health of the Potomac and a lot of other rivers that run through multiple ecosystems.
The Crystal could lose its status as one of the last and longest undammed rivers in Colorado. The proposed West Divide project, which has been on the table in different iterations since the ‘60s, would put in two dams and a water diversion project on the Crystal to hold water for municipalities and irrigation. The hydro projects would limit sediment and groundwater flow, negatively impact fisheries, and flood the Placencia wetlands, which is a calving ground for elk. Proponents of the dams, including the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy, say that they’re trying to store water for dry falls, especially now, after a few winters with below-average snowpacks. Opponents argue that there isn’t enough water in the Crystal to make a reservoir valuable, and that the river is more beneficial as a recreation area and habitat. Local groups, like the Roaring Fork Conservancy, are trying to save the river using the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would protect it from damming in perpetuity.
When mining companies conduct mountaintop removal, common since the ‘70s because it's the easiest way to access full coal seams, they backfill the removed earth into nearby valleys, filling in stream beds and leaching mine tailings into the water system. Mining heavily impacts the Coal, West Virginia’s second longest river. According to American Rivers, 20 percent of the river’s watershed is permitted for coal mining, and one-third of that area has already been mined. Now, Coal River Mountain, the last major mountain in the river valley, could be removed. The mining company involved, Marfork Coal Company, is waiting on valley fill permits, but already has mining permits for more than 5,000 acres of the mountain. People who live in the valley are worried about the environmental changes, like flooding, loss of stream flow, and erosion, as well the public health impacts.