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|The Colorado River topped the list of endangered rivers from advocacy group American Rivers this year. Above, an aerial view over Reflection Canyon, a protected area of the Colorado River system in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, showing extreme low water level in 2021. Photo: Jay Huang, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).|
TipSheet: There Are a Lot More Than 10 Endangered Rivers. Is One Near You?
By Joseph A. Davis
The annual list of the 10 most endangered U.S. rivers provides lots of news for environmental reporters. While the report by the advocacy group American Rivers comes with a policy agenda (in any given year, it zeroes in on just 10 rivers for public attention), it can teach us a lot about how to cover the wide and varied landscape of river issues.
You probably have one or more special rivers in your own media market that may not be on the list this year but are still vital to your audience. And the Endangered Rivers report serves as a good template for how to cover them.
Why it matters
Rivers matter for so many reasons that the list would be an endless, hmm, stream. Start with this: Water is life. For many people in the U.S., rivers are a key source of drinking water. For others, they provide fish, which may (or may not) be food.
If you ask a farmer, they will tell you rivers are essential for irrigating their crops. For Native Americans, they may be sacred treasures guaranteed by treaty rights. Some rivers are critical to shipping and commerce.
Rivers in many cases supply enormous amounts of clean, climate-friendly electric power at low prices. Some folks are happy just to swim or boat or tube in one.
Rivers have many downsides as well. They can wreak catastrophic floods that destroy lives, crops, infrastructure and property. They can carry toxic pollution to places where it should not be. They may erode valuable soil ― and put it where it is a nuisance instead of a resource.
Rivers collect and connect many of the best things about a place. They were essential highways to the exploration, exploitation and settlement of North America.
Fur-trading voyageurs in their canoes named and opened big stretches of the continent. The Mississippi River and the Ohio carried cargo before there were the interstates of the day. In the early 1800s, Lewis and Clark explored the new Louisiana territory by following the Missouri and Columbia River systems.
Since before the American Revolution, the Army Corps of Engineers has supported commercial navigation, dredged harbors and built locks and dams on American rivers.
Rivers were also key to the rise of the modern
environmental movement. Opposition to the
Glen Canyon Dam galvanized environmentalists
long before the first Earth Day.
Rivers were also key to the rise of the modern environmental movement. Opposition to the Glen Canyon Dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation began building on the Colorado in 1956, galvanized environmentalists long before the first Earth Day. Some environmentalists have been trying to get it torn down ever since.
Today, the environmental movement reaches out to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who love recreation and nature observation on rivers. Those people with kayaks on top of their cars are a potent political force.
In more modern times, the building of dams has slowed to a trickle (sorry) and Congress has passed various laws since 1970 that — at least in a good year — give legal protection to the noncommercial value of rivers. An example is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which protects rivers from development when there is political consensus and Congressional action.
No matter where you live, there are rivers that help define the value of your environment. Start by trying to figure out what they are.
Your river may not be on this year's list of “most endangered rivers” (although you might check past years’ reports from American Rivers, which has archived all the lists going back at least to 1998, and which actually go back even further).
Over that stretch of time, they have covered a lot of rivers. So search through the lists to see if your river is on one. And remember that many rivers are small parts of much larger river systems, so be sure to understand that potential connection.
And even if your river has not been on the “endangered rivers” list, you can borrow the many methods American Rivers uses to explore river issues.
For example, talk to local conservation and development groups. These will vary river by river. And, of course, don’t feel a need to parrot American Rivers’ perspective (not every dam is bad).
Here are some more questions to get you started:
- How is climate change affecting your river? Will there be more drought? More flooding? Both?
- What is climate change doing to fish or recreation? What is it doing to flow and pollution?
- Do fish use your river to migrate for spawning? Is their migration obstructed by dams or other river-control structures? How are fish affected by changes in temperature or flow?
- Is there navigation on your river? Hydropower? Locks?
- Are there dams on your river? If so, what are they for? What are their ecological effects? Are there any abandoned dams on your river? Any plans to remove them?
- Are there any fish consumption advisories in your watershed? What are the sources of pollution that may be harming fish or making them unsafe to eat? What is being done about that?
- Is your river used as a source of drinking water? What is the quality of the water going into the intakes of your drinking water system? What are the sources of any pollutants of concern and what is being done about it?
- What are the dominant land uses in the watersheds that drain into your river? What are their effects on water quality? What (if anything) is being done to protect the watershed and the runoff it supplies?
- Are any parts of your river “impaired” waters under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act? Has the state set a “total maximum daily load” for pollutants of concern?
- What are the major uses of the water in your river? Do they ever conflict?
- How would your river fare under different versions of the “waters of the U.S.” rule, which the Supreme Court is currently pondering?
- Is water taken out of your river for irrigation or other purposes? Where does it go or drain to? Does any of the drainage go back to the river?
- What laws and legal constraints apply to your river (Western and Eastern water law are different)? Who gets to use it? Who gets to “withdraw” water?
- Who owns the land adjacent to the river? Can owners build on it? Have they already? How does this affect the river?
- Is there public access to your river for boating, fishing or swimming? Is it restricted to certain places? How accessible is the river to disadvantaged people? Are there conflicts over access?
- American Rivers: An advocacy group, as well as an informed and plugged-in source. It has state and local chapters and affiliates, who may know more about your local rivers.
- Waterkeeper Alliance: A network of over 350 water-protection groups, most of which are “riverkeepers.” Find yours.
- Other local groups: Look for groups of people with a stake in your river. These may be anything from kayaking and fishing clubs to irrigation districts and shipping groups.
- State environmental and water pollution control agencies.
- World Wildlife Fund: This large nonprofit publishes a “Practitioner's Guide to Developing River Basin Report Cards” that may be helpful to journalists.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The agency periodically publishes the “National Rivers and Streams Assessment,” which surveys the ecological condition of rivers.
[Editor’s Note: Look back at our past coverage of the endangered rivers list, from 2019 and 2018, plus see our TipSheet on dam removal. And watch, too, for EJToday headlines about rivers.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 17. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.