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Major U.S. river systems threatened by drought, water mismanagement
4/22/2016
Credit:
American Rivers

Washington, DC – American Rivers today released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®, identifying the 10 most threatened waterways and highlighting the urgent need for conservation, greater efficiency, and better management of water resources to prevent further harm to river health, wildlife, fish and recreation. Fierce competition for water from rivers under ever greater strain from growing demand and the impacts of climate change is threatening the health of rivers across the country. As pressure on limited water resources grows, conflict must give way to cooperation if we are to satisfy the nations’ growing water needs and maintain clean and healthy rivers.

The American Rivers report finds that outdated and ineffective methods of water management threaten major river basins on both the east and west coasts. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, which includes portions of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, ranks number one on the list, followed by the San Joaquin River in California at number two.

More than eight million people depend on clean drinking water from these two systems combined, and water shortages threaten billions of dollars in agricultural production and fisheries.

The America’s Most Endangered Rivers list spotlights rivers facing urgent threats across the country. The Susquehanna River, for example, which flows through Pennsylvania and Maryland, is threatened by harmful dam operations. In Montana, the Smith River is at risk from a proposed mine and remains on the endangered list for a second year.

A key and growing concern across the country is increasing pressure on water supplies. The ACF and San Joaquin river basins, where some streams are so over-used they run dry, are among the most acute examples. Both basins have been gripped by water conflict for decades, with critical and long overdue water management decisions pending this year. (See details on both endangered basins below.)

“We can’t live, work, grow crops, or enjoy healthy rivers without clean water, and we don’t have an unlimited supply,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers. “As more people compete for a limited resource, everyone is losing: farmers don’t have reliable water for their crops, commercial fisheries are collapsing, urban supplies are strained, fish and wildlife are declining, and recreation businesses are closing their doors. Instead of continuing conflict, we need a new era of water cooperation that strikes a balance among all users. We must not only understand and respect the needs of upstream and downstream communities, but also appreciate the importance of healthy, functioning rivers to those communities.”

ACF Basin: Three rivers, a national treasure, and the ‘water war’ that refuses to end

For over 20 years, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have fought in court over the allocation of water in the ACF Basin. Dubbed the “Tri-State Water Wars,” the conflict stems from a lawsuit filed over a 1989 decision by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to use some water flowing through the Buford Dam, located on the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia, for the Atlanta area’s water supply. In the ensuing decades, interstate compacts have come and gone, along with federal court decisions alternately favoring each of the states over their neighbors. Meanwhile, status quo management has essentially remained in place: water consumption has largely continued to increase, and the Corps of Engineers has continued to labor under outdated assumptions in its management of dams in the river system. While there has been some progress in water conservation over the years, two major droughts within the last decade have hit the region hard, pushing the river system to the breaking point, and showing that further water conservation and reforms to water management are sorely needed.

The ACF Basin provides water for industry, power generation, agriculture, recreation and fisheries. More than four million people, including 70 percent of metro Atlanta, rely on the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers for drinking water.

One of the most productive estuaries in the nation, Apalachicola Bay in Florida is located at the bottom of the ACF Basin. Historically, the bay has yielded more than 10 percent of the nation’s oyster harvest, as well as significant shrimp, crab and fish harvests. But dam management and excessive water withdrawals throughout the ACF Basin—due to increasing population growth and agricultural production, as well as electric power generation—have significantly reduced freshwater flowing into the bay, contributing to the collapse of the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay, which is devastating the local economy.

“Our bay has changed drastically in the last 10 years,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Florida Seafood Workers Association. “There are less than half the oystermen there used to be, and each of us used to bring in four or five times as much as we do now. The lifeline to our bay is that river. Without enough river flow, we don’t have a productive bay.”

“We are calling on the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia to swiftly act to form a water-sharing agreement that protects the rivers, and on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to significantly improve water management to sustain river health,” said Irvin. American Rivers and its partners support the recommendation of the ACF Stakeholders’ 2015 Sustainable Water Management Plan to create a formal tri-state institution to foster transparent coordination and science-based management throughout the basin. Unless a tri-state agreement is reached soon to ensure long-term, sustainable water usage, a federal court decision could bypass local stakeholders and state governments, likely leading to continued conflict and environmental degradation.

San Joaquin Basin: Finding the Flow

There has been a decades-long debate over how the San Joaquin’s limited supply of water should be allocated between the northern and southern parts of California.

The San Joaquin and its tributaries support some of the most productive and profitable agriculture in the world, irrigating more than two million acres of arid land. Four million people live in the San Joaquin watershed. The current drought is placing additional stress on the river and revealing that the status quo water management strategies are inadequate for both people and the environment.

Years of managing the San Joaquin primarily for agriculture, hydropower and flood control have taken their toll. Dams, levees and excessive irrigation and water diversions have harmed river habitat and reduced opportunities for recreation and community access. More than 100 miles of the mainstem river have been dry for more than 50 years, and water diversions along the tributaries take more than 70 percent of the natural flow. The river’s salmon and steelhead populations are on the brink of extinction and the San Francisco Bay-Delta could face ecological collapse. Today, the river and surrounding communities are vulnerable to increasingly frequent and severe droughts and floods.

“Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of our country. When you dry up the rivers, you’re in deep trouble. You can’t live without water. The San Joaquin was one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and now it’s bone dry,” said Walt Shubin, a farmer who has been fighting to restore the health of the San Joaquin River for decades.

“The California State Water Resources Control Board, as the agency charged with allocating water rights and protecting water quality, must significantly increase flows to the San Joaquin River in order to properly protect the river for future generations,” said Irvin. American Rivers is calling on the board to finalize a plan for managing the river and its three principal tributaries – a plan that was supposed to be finished two years ago.

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