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2018 America's Most Endangered Rivers

2018 America's Most Endangered Rivers
The Gibraltar River is one of many streams flowing into Illiamna Lake, the freshwater heart of the Bristol Bay region. The nonprofit American Rivers has ranked this entire watershed as #2 on its annual list of “America's Most Endangered Rivers.” Ross Purnell photo

The 2018 America's Most Endangered Rivers list has just been released, and as usual, the results are both shocking and unexpected. Compiled by American Rivers, one of the nation's most established and well-respected conservation groups, the list of the nation's most at-risk waterways is a compilation based on not only streams that are subject to immediate ecological threats, but also ones that have the potential for current public involvement that could affect policy change in real time. 

While certain rivers are included that have long-standing status because of continued risks, there are several -- including the #1 spot -- that urgently need acknowledgment and action due to emerging political dynamics. Leading the list for 2018, the Big Sunflower River in Mississippi rates inclusion due to the revitalization by the Trump administration of a long dead Army Corps of Engineers project, The Yazoo Pumps. Officially known as the Yazoo Backwater Area Pumping Plant, the project was initially conceived in 1941 as a flood control action for the wetlands between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers north of Vicksburg. It has since become recognized as a potential bonanza for business, subsidizing massive irrigation for industrial scale farms at the cost of severe impacts to the local ecology, which have had hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars invested in protecting to date. The Yazoo Pumps are so damaging that George W. Bush used the veto authority of the Clean Water Act to block further development, clearly a sign of bipartisan disapproval of the project.

What's the concern with the Big Sunflower for Fly Fishermen? While the freshwater wetlands upriver are primarily habitat for species such as Catfish and Crappie, (which are harvested for food by area subsistence residents), the reduction in overall flow to the mouth of the Mississippi below New Orleans affects the brackish water wetlands that serve as breeding and rearing grounds for Redfish, one of the premier salt water game fish to pursue with a fly rod in shallow water. Recently, a mysterious aphid blight that is devastating the Roseau Cane in the Bayous has been identified, and may well be due to altered flows affecting overall ground saturation and salinity.

Grizzly Bears on Nakenk Lake in Katmai National Park. Photo by Paxton Woebler, Cinders to Sea Expedition.

In the unfortunate #2 position is recurring candidate Bristol Bay, AK and the associated watersheds that feed it. Bristol Bay is home to a multibillion dollar salmon fishing industry that supports the national food supply, something which is at direct risk from the notoriously toxic Pebble Mine project, which has been proposed to be sited directly above the major rivers that feed Bristol Bay and it's massive salmon spawning migrations. Huge populations of large Rainbow Trout follow the salmon upriver, providing world-class angling opportunities found nowhere else. Pebble Mine has been a long-standing subject of concern for Fly Fisherman Magazine, with numerous leading voices in the industry weighing in over the years.

Other rivers on the list are potentially at risk due to new policy initiatives from the current federal administration as well. A notable inclusion is the lower Rio Grande, where wildlife will be impacted by proposed construction of a national southern Border Wall. As the Rio Grande comprises long sections of the southern border of the US, the disruptive construction and long term presence of the wall will almost undoubtedly have as yet unknown environmental impacts to both the US and Mexico.

Illustration courtesy of American Rivers 

The full list of rivers included on the report are as follows:

  • Big Sunflower River (Mississippi), threatened by revival of the Army Corps of Engineers Yazoo Pumps project that would drain critical wetlands at enormous taxpayer expense.
  • Rivers of Bristol Bay (Alaska), threatened by the world's biggest open pit mine that could devastate a $1.5 billion salmon fishery.
  • Boundary Waters (Minnesota), threatened by mining that would pollute pristine waters and harm a thriving recreation economy.
  • Lower Rio Grande (Texas), threatened by a border wall that would cut off people and communities from the river, exacerbate flooding, and destroy wildlife habitat.
  • South Fork Salmon River (Idaho), threatened by mining that could have lasting consequences for clean water and the Wild and Scenic mainstem Salmon River.
  • Mississippi River Gorge (Minnesota), threatened by obsolete locks and dams preventing revitalization of river health and recreation in downtown Minneapolis.
  • Colville River (Alaska), threatened by oil and gas development that imperils clean water and habitat for polar bears, wolves and caribou.
Rainbow trout and five species of Pacific salmon are threatened by the Proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard -- one of the most visible environmental advocates on the world stage -- has been famously quoted as saying, "You can't do business on a dead planet". Having grown up in the western US myself, I can attest that nothing happens without clean water. Business, agriculture and recreation all depend on responsible management of a rapidly diminishing resource facing relentlessly increasing demand.

Readers should please consider making a donation to American Rivers in support of the important work that they are doing to protect our angling resources now and in the future.


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