Is Your Favorite River Endangered? Check the List.

April 24, 2019
The Gila River was named the No. 1 most endangered in the country on American Rivers’ annual list. Photo: CWanamaker, Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Is Your Favorite River Endangered? Check the List.

The endangered rivers list is an annual spring ritual on the environmental beat. With the list just out, it is a good time to take a look at river issues.

The environmental advocacy group American Rivers, which produces the list, is plugged into a broad conservation constituency, which includes paddlers, anglers, wildlife fans and drinkers of water. This year, their list of 10 “most endangered” rivers focuses on climate threats, among others.

Many environmental journalists realize that the conversation about rivers hardly ends with the annual list of 10. But it is a conversation starter. And one of the 10 may actually be not far from you.



Rivers are the arteries of our continental ecosystems, sustaining both human life and the natural world. Congress has passed laws to protect (and exploit) them since the nation’s beginning. At first, the emphasis was on their role in transportation and commerce (e.g., the Rivers and Harbors Act, which goes back to 1824).

Since the rise of the modern environmental movement, the United States has protected rivers with the Clean Water Act (most notably in 1972) and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968). But rivers are also affected by federal laws on drinking water, dams, hydropower, infrastructure, public lands, wilderness, mining, fish and wildlife.

Not all the rivers that need protection are wild and remote. Some go through urban or agricultural areas. Much can be done to restore them.

Today, new forces are affecting rivers — and that, in turn, affects us. The recent floods in the Great Plains and Midwest are an example. They caused enormous damage, and many observers have attributed the floods to climate change.

Conversely, the California drought of roughly 2011-16, which caused huge hardship in the state, was also attributed to climate change (may require subscription).


Why it matters

Water is life. Surface waters (streams and the lakes they feed) provide a major fraction of the drinking water consumed by people in the United States. While not all rivers are pristine — quite the opposite — at least the Cuyahoga no longer catches on fire.

Rivers are also important for industrial water supply, agricultural irrigation, cooling for power generation, hydropower, trade and navigation and other human purposes.

But rivers also have a value in themselves — in their natural state and by virtue of their naturalness. They have flowed since long before humans existed and are an essential part of making the landscape what it is. They interlink with a larger set of ecosystems.

Their grace and power is a spiritual inspiration. Swimming, paddling and fishing in them gives us joy (and often supports robust recreation economies.)


Story ideas

Of course, this year’s (2019) endangered list can be a starting point for many regional stories.

The rivers include the:

One trick for reporters is to look back at previous years’ American Rivers endangered lists. They go back to at least 1998, and you are likely to find a river near you on one of them. How have efforts to conserve the river worked out?

Of course, you needn’t write just about rivers on the endangered list. Every river, including your local one, is unique and has a unique set of issues.

Some suggested starting points:

  • Is the river free-flowing? Do any dams or weirs exist on it? Are any proposed? Recently removed? Are there plans to remove any?
  • What is the quality of water at various points along the river?
  • Do storm sewers or effluent from sewage treatment works flow into it? Is it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Impaired Waters List?
  • What fish, mussels, etc. are currently found in your stream or river? Do they spawn or reproduce?
  • What species lived there before human settlement? Are any efforts afoot to restore them? What are the obstacles?
  • What is going on in the river’s watershed? Is it developed or pristine?
  • What happens to stormwater that drains from the watershed and into the river?
  • What is going on along the immediate banks of the river you are interested in? Who owns the land? Is it pristine or developed? What vegetation grows there? What erosion is happening? Any agriculture or livestock?
  • How have flows changed on your river over time? Are unusual drought or floods an issue? How do you know what is unusual?
  • Is climate change a factor? Has the temperature of the water changed?    


Reporting resources

Some useful sources include:

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, 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.

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