The 10 Most Endangered U.S. Rivers of 2012

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The Potomac River  Photo: MV Jantzen/American Rivers

River conservancy American Rivers just released its 27th annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, naming the Potomac the most threatened river. This waterway earned the top spot not so much due to pollution levels (it’s much cleaner today than in decades past) but due to its proximity to Congress, which American Rivers says is failing to safeguard waterways across the country.

“There are a number of bills in play that would weaken the Clean Water Act,” says Amy Kober, American Rivers’ senior communications director, “which is ironic, because the Act turns 40 this year.”

Other rivers on the list highlight concerns over hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas, as well as  hydropower development. “Fracking is still a big problem, and that has been a theme on the list for a couple years running,” says Kober. Fracking produces wastewater that contains toxic chemicals, and fracking activities have polluted waterways in some areas. 

While it might seem like hydropower is becoming less of an environmental concern in the U.S.—with the removal of major, outdated hydro projects across the West—the group is watching and fighting a number of newly proposed dams on American rivers.

The south fork of Washington’s Skykomish River, for example, is on this year’s top 10 list because the Snohomish Public Utility District wants to erect a dam on it to generate power.

“We need hydro power,” says Kober, “but we don’t have to build new dams to get hydro power. A lot of dams can be improved or retrofitted, and the south fork of the Skykomish River is not a place for a dam. It’s a State Scenic Waterway, a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Area, and is recommended for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River for its remarkable scenic, recreational, fish, and wildlife values. We can get it from other sources.”

Here’s the full list of this year’s 10 most endangered rivers:

1. Potomac River (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Washington D.C.)
Threat: Pollution; Clean Water Act rollbacks
At risk: Clean water and public health

2. Green River (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado)
Threat: Water withdrawals
At risk: Recreation opportunities; fish and wildlife habitat

3. Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
Threat: New dams and reservoirs
At risk: Clean water and healthy fisheries

4. Missouri River (10 states, from Missouri to Wyoming)
Threat: Outdated flood management
At risk: Public safety

5. Hoback River (Wyoming)
Threat: Fracking; natural gas development
At risk: Clean water and public health

6. Grand River (Ohio)
Threat: Fracking; natural gas development
At risk: Clean water and public health

7. South Fork Skykomish River (Washington)
Threat: New dam
At risk: Recreation and wilderness

8. Crystal River (Colorado)
Threat: Dams and water diversions
At risk: Fish, wildlife, and recreation

9. Coal River (West Virginia)
Threat: Mountaintop removal coal mining
At risk: Clean water and public health

10. Kansas River (Kansas)
Threat: Sand and gravel dredging
At risk: Clean water and wildlife habitat

Some specific bills that American Rivers and other river conservation groups are watching:

H.R. 2018: Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011, which has already passed through the House, would amend the Clean Water Act by allowing each state to make determinations relating to its water quality standards. The bill also calls for a number of limits to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in terms of its ability to revise or introduce water quality standards for a pollutant (unless the state concurs with the EPA Administrator's opinion). It would also shorten the window during which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could comment on dredge and fill permits.

H.R. 872: The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, which also passed the House, would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Clean Water Act such that they would no longer require parties to seek a permit before using a pesticide, even if that pesticide could enter a waterway, as long as the pesticide is authorized for sale, distribution, or use under FIFRA.

Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization and Improvement Act: Congressman Bob Goodlatte is spearheading this bill which would limit what he considers the EPA’s overreaching authority by giving states, rather than the federal government, the ability set acceptable levels of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

View a gallery of all 10 rivers that made the list.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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