Troubled Waters

By Russell, Dick | E Magazine, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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Troubled Waters

Russell, Dick, E Magazine

America's 13 Most Endangered Rivers: Can They be Saved?

Peter Lourie, a chronicler of river life, says that rivers are living mysteries, linking the past to the future. Today, that link has been largely broken. Through damming, dredging and channelization, we have changed the way rivers flow--diverting water to generate hydropower, support navigation and irrigate crops. Half of our drinking water still comes from rivers, yet non-point source pollution poses an ongoing threat.

"A lot of things were done before it was understood how important rivers are to our environment," says Rebecca Wodder, president of the conservation organization American Rivers. "The United States leads the world in diversity of freshwater creatures. Yet these same species are equally as endangered as those in tropical rainforests." (So far, 17 species of freshwater fish have gone extinct.)

At the same time, restoration of healthy rivers has climbed high on many local agendas, resulting in some 4,000 river-oriented grassroots groups around the country. Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers patrol in search of pollution violators, and even government entities such as the Army Corps of Engineers have begun to think twice about altering nature's course.

Robert Kennedy, Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, warns of hard struggles ahead: "The Supreme Court recently dealt the biggest blow to the Clean Water Act in its 30-year history, lifting the protection of hundreds of millions of acres of wetlands and opening them up to developers the stroke of a pen." President Bush's new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, "saw environmental regulation as an impediment to business," notes Kennedy. He calls her "a disaster for the Hudson River and New Jersey waterways." He also points out that Bush's Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, has argued that the Surface Mining Act, which protects Western streams from pollution, is unconstitutional. "Those are bad omens," Kennedy concluded in an interview with E, "for people who care about America's waterways"

Each year, Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers profiles the nation's 13 most endangered rivers to call attention to imminent threats as well as opportunities for change. Spotlighting these rivers with policy-makers and the public has brought results. The Yellowstone's Clark Fork, for example, topped the endangered list from 1994 to 1996; President Clinton, in August 1997, had the government buy out the gold mine threatening it. The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, No. 1 in 1998, was declared a national monument by Clinton in July 2000.

A central theme of this year's listing is energy. "Large segments of both the development and production side of energy have a significant impact on rivers and wildlife" says the group's energy policy director, Andrew Fahlund.

The lineup of America's Most Endangered Rivers, 2001, in descending order of threat, looks like this:

1. The Missouri

When first traversed by Lewis and Clark during their 1804 expedition, this was surely Americas most dynamic waterway. It came to be called the "Big Muddy," an ever-shifting combination of multiple side channels, sandbars and islands. Beginning in Montana and running for 2,500 miles before joining the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, the Missouri drains about one-sixth of the surface area in the contiguous U.S., covering some 530,000 square miles.

Today, however, the river might more aptly be called the "Big Boondoggle." Shortly after World War II, most of the river's natural character was altered by dams and channels to create a deep, rock-lined barge canal and a series of slack water reservoirs. The average width of the "wide Missouri," sung about in the song "Shenandoah" has been reduced by two-thirds, and below Sioux City, Iowa, it's been shortened by 127 miles. In the Dakotas and eastern Montana, most of the original Missouri has been buried under America's largest reservoirs.

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