Conservation Group Highlights Western Rivers Facing Imminent Threats

An annual report by the nonprofit American Rivers is turning the spotlight on rivers that face threats from the rollback of environmental protections, resource development and other policy decisions.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Grizzly bears at Naknek Lake in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, where the permitting process is moving forward for a controversial gold and copper mine.Paxson Woelber, Cinders to Sea Expedition

Every year since 1984, the advocacy organization American Rivers has compiled a list of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S. – a distinction that is awarded, in part, based on a major decision that is looming for those rivers in the coming months.

“The report is not a list of the nation’s ‘worst’ or most polluted rivers, but rather it highlights rivers confronted by critical decisions that will determine their future,” the report explains. “The report presents alternatives to proposals that would damage rivers, identifies those who make the crucial decisions and points out opportunities for the public to take action on behalf of each listed river.”

This year, the listed rivers include in the No. 1 spot the Big Sunflower River in Coahoma County, Mississippi, which is threatened by an agricultural drainage project overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that could damage up to 200,000 acres of wetlands.

“This project was originally vetoed by George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Senator John McCain called it one of the worst projects he’d ever seen come through Congress,” said Christopher Williams, senior vice president of conservation at American Rivers. “Along with our allies, we worked hard on this years ago, we thought we’d won and now it’s back.”

Western rivers on the list this year include two Bristol Bay rivers in Alaska (threatened by an open-pit mine), the Lower Rio Grande in Texas (border wall), the South Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho (mining), Montana’s Smith River (more mining) and the Colville River (or Kuukpik River) in Alaska (oil).

Water Deeply spoke with Williams to learn more about the threats to Western rivers and the challenges of river conservation work today.

Water Deeply: What’s the process for deciding which rivers to pick each year?

Christopher Williams: We take nominations from all over the country. Some are generated by our own staff, some are generated by local river groups or local activists. And we look for rivers, based on three characteristics: One, that the river is nationally or regionally significant. Two, that the river is under imminent threat. And three, that there is some decision that is going to take place while the river is on the list.

Water Deeply: There are rivers from all over the country on your list – Alaska to Mississippi – and they face a variety of threats. Were there any common themes between them?

Williams: The common theme for this year that runs through seven of the 10 rivers is that the fate of these rivers, this year, is tied to the Trump administration and its allies in Congress either reversing an old decision or making a new decision regarding a river.

In the 33 years we have been doing this list, at least in my experience, this particular administration and its allies in Congress are among the most anti-environmental protection that we’ve faced. This plays out across air, water, land, and this list demonstrates how it’s really playing out in terms of river conservation.

Water Deeply: One of the rivers on your list this year is the Lower Rio Grande in Texas, which is in the spotlight because of Trump’s border wall. What would the environmental impacts of that be?

Williams: One of the biggest issues with the wall is you’re building the wall right through the middle of an ecosystem. You’re cutting off wildlife movement of everything from ocelot to jaguarundi to pronghorn, you name it.

On the Lower Rio Grande, there was the latest appropriation that was approved by Congress for the building of an additional 30 miles of wall. That essentially is a levee bollard fence, which is a small levee with a metal fence on top that’s built right through the middle of a floodplain. So you’re essentially cutting the river off from its floodplain. You’re cutting wildlife off from the river, you’re cutting local communities and sometimes local property owners off from the river.

By building a structure in the floodplain, you’re potentially aggravating flooding, you’re potentially aggravating erosion.

Water Deeply: What kind of environmental review process is there?

Williams: One of the real problematic aspects of the wall construction is that those potential environmental impacts will most likely not be completely studied and not be completely known, because there is a law on the books that allows the Department of Homeland Security to bypass all environmental reviews when they are building a wall.

Congress did approve money to build this 30 miles of wall in the Lower Rio Grande valley, but that’s just the beginning if Trump gets all the money he wants. You’re looking at not only new wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande, but the Middle Rio Grande, moving up toward potentially Big Bend National Park, where all the those problems I just mentioned could manifest in one of the absolute crown jewels of the national park system.

Water Deeply: Many of the other rivers in the West are threatened or in danger because of proposed resource extraction, like the Smith River in Montana.

Williams: The Smith River is one of the most beloved rivers in Montana. It doesn’t have a lot of big water, so it’s a great place if you want to float a river and it has world-class fishing. It’s under threat by a copper mine.

The Smith River, Montana, made the list of endangered rivers because of a proposed mine. (Fish Eye Guy Photography)

It’s up to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to look at this mine very closely to make absolutely certain that if a mine goes forward there, it’s managed in such a way that it doesn’t damage that river.

Water Deeply: It was interesting to see that the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers of Bristol Bay, Alaska, are on the list because of the proposed Pebble Mine, which is a project that people have fought for years and years because of its threats to the largest run of wild sockeye salmon. What’s happening there?

Williams: A decision that was made by the Obama administration, by Gina McCarthy’s EPA, that essentially said: ‘This project is so destructive we’re going to veto it, we’re going to use our EPA Clean Water Act veto authority to stop this.’ And so, that was it, it was stopped cold. But the Trump administration essentially reversed that decision, and now the permitting process for an incredibly destructive mine is going forward.

The proponents of the mine are essentially the mining company, and that’s about it. There’s opposition from the state of Alaska, from Native American groups, from recreational fishers, from commercial fishers. This is a fishery worth $1.5 billion annually and 14,000 jobs.

Water Deeply: What’s the big picture look like right now for organizations like yours that are advocating for river conservation?

Williams: At the national level, our organization is working to protect the suite of environmental laws that are under assault by the Trump administration and allies in Congress. For example, our organization worked for years to get the Clean Water Rule put into place that protects small rivers and streams and wetlands that are sources for drinking water for 100 million Americans. Working with the Obama administration, we got that regulation put into place, that cleared up the Clean Water Act’s authority to protect those rivers and streams, and that Clean Water Rule has been a primary target for rollback by President Trump and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

That’s just one example. I believe it’s now 30-plus environmental rules that the administration has rolled back and attempted to roll back.

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