These US Rivers are Threatened with Climate Change, Pollution

Rivers around the world are at grave risk—either through the effects of man-made climate change or through direct abuse by human activities. Take India’s Ganges River for example, which is a notorious dumping ground for raw sewage, used plastic and industrial waste. Or the Danube River in Europe, the continent’s second largest river flowing through 19 countries, which is overfished, prone to flooding and highly polluted.

But Americans shouldn’t throw stones: There are many rivers in the United States that are equally threatened, according to the non-profit conservation group American Rivers, which last month published its 2022 “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report. Released annually since 1984, ranked The annual 10 most endangered rivers in America highlight beloved waterways threatened by climate change, pollution, and outdated water management practices, among other risks.

“All life on this planet depends on clean and flowing rivers. So when a river is threatened, we sound the alarm,” said American Rivers President and CEO Tom Kiernan in a press release. “‘America’s Most Endangered River’ is a call for bold and urgent action.”

Indeed, American Rivers compiled its list based not only on the condition of the river but also on the opportunities Americans have for improving it. In particular, rivers must meet three different criteria for inclusion on the list: First, they must be significant to humans and natural communities. Second, the threats facing them and the communities concerned must be substantial. And thirdly, they must be the subject of major decisions or actions in the coming year that members of the public can influence.

“We must unite as a strong movement to speak for the 10 rivers that are threatened with extinction, and for all the rivers that are important to our lives,” Kiernan continued.

REPORT: America’s Most Endangered River

No matter where you live in the United States, your rivers and drinking water are affected by climate change. Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x and other communities of color feel this impact the most, because of historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that perpetuate injustice.

The country’s most threatened river this year, American Rivers reports, is the Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles through seven US states, as well as two Mexican states. The river is currently operating at a deficit, according to conservationists, who say river management plans are made on the erroneous assumption that the river carries nearly 18 million acre-foot-one acre-foot into the amount of water needed to cover a football field, 1 foot deep— in fact, it is only about 13 million acre-foot wide. And thanks to climate change, river flows are expected to decline another 10% to 30% by 2050.

What’s at stake? The river, which supports a $1.4 trillion economy, is a source of drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 5 million hectares of farmland and livestock. According to American Rivers: “All of this is at risk because of rising temperatures and climate change-driven droughts, combined with outdated river management and over-allocation of limited water supplies.”

“On the Colorado River and nationally, the climate crisis is a water crisis,” Kiernan said. “Just and equitable solutions for rivers and clean water are achievable and essential to our health, safety and future.”

Also in danger is the No. 2 in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, where an endangered salmon species is threatened by the presence of four federal dams, and the Mobil River ranks No. 3 in Alabama, which is being polluted by coal ash, a by-product of burning coal for electricity.

The Kennebec, Penobscot and Union Rivers in Maine garnered the No. 4 for the dam’s negative impact on Atlantic salmon, while Alabama’s Coosa River and Georgia were ranked No. 5 due to industrial agricultural pollution, including millions of tons of chicken manure from billions of chickens .

Rounding the top 10 is: at No. 6, the Mississippi River, which is endangered by contaminants flowing into the river from agricultural fertilizers and fossil fuel facilities; at No. 7, California’s lower Kern River, which has been damaged by excessive diversion of water for agricultural operations; at No. 8, Arizona’s San Pedro River, which has been negatively affected by unregulated groundwater pumping; at No. 9, California’s Los Angeles River, whose future is threatened by mismanagement, pollution, and climate change; and at No. 10, Oklahoma’s Tar Creek, a Superfund site that has been marred by decades of mining pollution.

Solutions supported by American Rivers range from building climate-resilient infrastructure and restoring blocked salmon trails to removing pollutants from dirty water and issuing new environmental regulations that prevent future contamination.

“The stakes are very high,” Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program at American Rivers, said in an interview with CNN. “This list is not meant to be a doom-and-gloom list. This is meant to improve the solutions we have… We have the tools to [adapt]. We just need leadership and we need collaboration to get it done on a large scale.”

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