Energy & Environment

Colorado River deemed ‘most endangered river’ in the US: report

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The Colorado River, which provides drinking water to more than 40 million Americans, has become the country’s most endangered river amid rising temperatures and punishing drought conditions, a new report has found.

Climate change, coupled with outdated water management, poses an ongoing threat to the lifeblood of the Mountain West — a waterway that serves 30 federally recognized tribal nations, seven U.S. states and Mexico, as well as some 30 native fish species and 400 types of birds, according to the report.

In “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” published on Monday night, the conservation nonprofit American Rivers ranked the country’s 10 most imperiled tributaries, based on three criteria: the waterway’s significance to people and wildlife, the magnitude of the threat and the possibility for members of the public to influence relevant decisions over the upcoming year.

“The Colorado River Basin is ground zero for the climate and water crisis,” Matt Rice, director of the southwest region for American Rivers, said in a statement, describing the report as “an urgent call to action.”

“The seven basin states and the Biden administration must work with Tribal Nations and Mexico to act urgently,” Rice said. “Failure is simply not an option, given all that depends on a healthy Colorado River.”

Just last month, water levels at the system’s Lake Powell storage reservoir dropped below a critical threshold — and is rapidly approaching the point at which no water could be released from the reservoir’s dam, also known as “deadpool.” Meanwhile, the Colorado River system is already operating at a deficit, and forecasts predict a 10 to 30 percent additional reduction in river flow by 2050, the authors warned.

The report described the Colorado River as “the lifeblood for some of the country’s largest cities,” including Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Albuquerque.

In one region of Arizona alone — Pinal County — mandatory cutbacks in 2023 triggered by water shortages will result in the loss of more than 500,000 acre-feet, or enough to serve about 1.5 million households, according to the report.

“As the region learns to live with the river that we have, it is critically important that we continue to work together on equitable solutions for a healthy river, productive farms and thriving communities,” Rice said. “I fear that if we dig into our corners and pursue litigation over collaboration, we will not be able to meet the challenge.”

Many tribal nations, meanwhile, suffer from a lack of modern water infrastructure despite the significant water rights that they hold to Colorado River water, the authors noted.

Water rights are a U.S. West phenomenon dating back to the mid-1800s, which enabled a downstream user to secure higher-priority consumption status than a user at the river’s headwaters — based on the principle of “first in time, first in right.”

When a 1908 Supreme Court case deemed that the water priority date for tribal nations must match the date of a reservation’s establishment, most nations gained a status superior to those of existing users.

Nonetheless, systemic inequities and historic disinvestment has led to a situation in which tribal nations remain marginalized in terms of basin-wide policymaking, according to the report.

American Rivers therefore called upon the Biden administration and the seven basin states to engage with the region’s tribes, as well as allocate funds from November’s bipartisan infrastructure bill to prioritize river health and water security.

“On the Colorado River and nationwide, the climate crisis is a water crisis,” Tom Kiernan, president and CEO of American Rivers, said in a statement. “Just, equitable solutions for rivers and clean water are achievable and are essential to our health, safety and future.”

While the Colorado River took the top spot in this year’s endangered rivers list — an accolade it previously achieved in 1991, 1992, 2004 and 2013 — the other nine members also generated significant concern among the report’s authors.

The next most endangered rivers, according to the report, were the Snake River, Alabama’s Mobile River, Maine’s Atlantic Salmon Rivers, the Coosa River, the Mississippi River, California’s Lower Kern River, Arizona’s San Pedro River, the Los Angeles River and Oklahoma’s Tar Creek.

Along the Snake River — which crosses Idaho, Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest — four federal dams are generating “lethally high reservoir temperatures for salmon,” enabling nonnative predators to thrive, the report found. Maine’s Atlantic Salmon River fish are likewise “on the brink of extinction,” in large part due to destruction from dams.

The Mobile River, meanwhile, is struggling to withstand significant coal ash contamination — a result of decades of dumping from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry, according to the report.

Coal contamination there, as well as industrial agricultural pollution in the Coosa River — which crosses Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama — will likely become worse with severe flooding, causing disproportionate impact to Black and low-income communities, the authors warned.

The report authors called upon state and federal policymakers to “follow the lead” of frontline communities and tribal nations, many of whom, they said, are working to advance solutions for clean water.

“All life on this planet depends on clean, flowing rivers, so when rivers are at risk we must sound the alarm,” Kiernan added.

–Updated on April 19 at 10:22 a.m.

Tags American Rivers Climate change Colorado River endangered rivers water management

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