Three Endangered Rivers, Countless Memories: Saving Our Nation’s Great Waters
By Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, Great Waters Program Manager
American Rivers recently released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Although its methodology is imprecise, the report highlights real and serious threats the rivers could face this year that would change their fate for years to come.
The top three rivers hold special significance to me personally, and to the national parks that surround them.
The Potomac River
According to American Rivers, the most-endangered river in America is the Potomac River, which runs through Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—“the nation’s river.” As a D.C. resident, I am one of the millions who depend on this river for drinking water. I also enjoy the recreational opportunities that it provides, such as hiking and biking the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, which runs alongside the Potomac for 184 miles. And in my opinion, the best view of the Lincoln Memorial is from the Potomac, with the Washington Monument standing tall behind it.
The Potomac suffers from urban and agricultural pollution that will only get worse if Congress weakens the Clean Water Act. Since the start of this Congress, there have been more than 25 votes on separate amendments or bills to gut Clean Water Act protections, to derail ongoing clean-up and restoration efforts, or to add loopholes to bedrock environmental laws. Nearly a dozen bills to limit the administration’s authority to protect and restore our waterways have been introduced in the last five months. If stream and wetland protections are reversed, it is estimated that 10,000 miles of Potomac streams and wetlands will be in danger.
The Green River
American Rivers’ report named the Green River in Utah the country’s second-most endangered river. The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park. One of my most unforgettable national park experiences was canoeing a 52-mile stretch of the Green River, as it meandered through Canyonlands just above its confluence with the Colorado River. For four days, my husband and I embarked on this adventure through Stillwater Canyon in near-solitude, stopping occasionally for hikes to see ancient Puebloan ruins and slot canyons. One day we hiked from the river, out of the canyon, and into the Maze—the most remote district of Canyonlands. With limited water and daylight, we could only get so far before having to turn around and head back to the Green River. However, we promised each other we would return and experience this red rock wilderness properly, which we would likely access from the Green River again.
The Green River faces threats from the proposed 500-mile Flaming Gorge Pipeline, which would divert more than 250,000 acre feet of water from the Green River annually to the Front Range of Colorado. This diversion would reduce water flow in a region that is already suffering from water shortages and high demands. It would also reduce water levels at Dinosaur and Canyonlands and impact the recreation and tourism economy, rural agriculture, native species, and downstream water use.
The Chattahoochee River
American Rivers named the Chattahoochee River in Georgia the third-most endangered river. It begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains and flows south through Atlanta and rural landscapes towards Florida. I lived in Atlanta for several years, where I relied on “the Hooch” for drinking water and recreational experiences, and worked to implement sustainable water management policies in Georgia. On days when I needed to escape the city, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area was the place to go to float downstream, hike and bike the many trails, or fly fish for trout.
The Chattahoochee River has been at the center of a “tri-state water war” between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida for more than 20 years. Rapid population growth combined with extreme droughts has put a strain on the Chattahoochee and its dependent communities. New proposals for dams upstream and downstream of Atlanta and a lack of serious commitment to water conservation only exacerbate the problems. Studies estimate that 5 million gallons of water will evaporate each day from the river if these dams move forward.
Thankfully, there is still time to inspire leaders to make decisions that will result in positive outcomes for the rivers and the people and parks that depend on them. I plan to take action so that my family and I can continue to enjoy these memorable experiences, and so future generations can as well. I encourage you to do the same.
To find out more about these and other endangered rivers, and to take action to help make a difference, visit the American Rivers website.
To learn more about NPCA’s work to protect endangered rivers and other vital waterways, visit our Great Waters program.