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American Rivers Releases 2023 List of the Most Imperiled Rivers

Several fly-fishing destinations make the list, including the Colorado again at the top.

American Rivers Releases 2023 List of the Most Imperiled Rivers

The Colorado River was again named America's Most Endangered River by American Rivers. (Photo courtesy of Ken Neubecker)

American Rivers released its 38th annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers today, spotlighting ten rivers where climate change, pollution, and dams are putting the water supplies and well-being of innumerable fish and people at risk.

Of particular note to fly anglers on this year's list are the Colorado River, the Snake River, Montana’s Clark Fork, California’s Eel River, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh River, and Alaska’s Chilkat and Klehini rivers.

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

For the second year in a row, the Colorado River was named America’s Most Endangered River.

According to the American Rivers report: “The Colorado River’s Grand Canyon is one of our nation’s, and the world’s, greatest natural treasures. A sacred place of deep cultural significance, it is also a beloved recreation and travel destination, and home to endangered plants and animals. But rising temperatures and severe drought driven by climate change, combined with outdated river management and overallocation of limited water supplies put this iconic river at serious risk. As it makes critical decisions about water management along the Colorado River, the Bureau of Reclamation must consider the environment a key component of public health and safety and prioritize the ecological health of the Grand Canyon.”

Snake River

A landscape scenic photo of a dam on the Snake River.
Restoring salmon runs to the Snake River requires removal of the four lower dams. (Photo courtesy of Carl Zoch)

Fly Fisherman has reported extensively on the importance of removing the four lower Snake River dams, and American Rivers agrees. According to the report: “Salmon in the Columbia-Snake River basin are on the brink of extinction in large part due to four dams on the lower Snake in eastern Washington. Restoring salmon runs and honoring treaties and responsibilities with Tribal Nations across the region requires removal of these four dams. Momentum and support for this river restoration effort is growing, but it is critical that the hydropower, transportation, and irrigation services of the dams are replaced before dam removal can begin. The region’s congressional delegation and the Biden administration must act with urgency to invest in infrastructure so that the dams can be removed, setting the Northwest on a course to climate resilience, economic strength, abundant salmon, and cultural revitalization.”

Clark Fork River

An aerial scenic photo of the Clark Fork River near Missoula, Montana.
Sitting along four miles of the Clark Fork downstream of Missoula, Montana, the shut-down Smurfit-Stone is poisoning the groundwater and river with dioxins and heavy metals. (Photo courtesy of the Clark Fork Coalition)

Montana’s Clark Fork, from it’s tiny headwaters near Butte, Montana to its brawling mouth at Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, it’s an important and improving fishery–and offers truly incredible trout fishing in places. But it’s also been a decimated Superfund site due to past copper mining operations in its headwaters, and now a shuttered pulp mill downstream of Missoula.

Says American Rivers: “The Clark Fork is a regional boating and angling destination and supplies some of the richest habitat in the lower 48. Throughout European settlement and industrial development, the Clark Fork was the backbone of large-scale enterprises that left a legacy of pollution and ecological damage. Community members, advocates, Tribes, and government officials are among many who have been helping to heal the river, however, the shuttered Smurfit-Stone pulp mill threatens to reverse the gains made. Sitting along four miles of the Clark Fork downstream of Missoula, Montana, Smurfit-Stone is poisoning the groundwater and river with dioxins and heavy metals. These pollutants threaten fish and wildlife and put the health of Tribal subsistence fishers at risk. Through federal Superfund law, the polluters are responsible for cleaning up the site.”

Eel River

A small bubbling Eel River in its headwaters.
California's Eel River holds one of the best opportunities in the country to reestablish thriving wild salmon and steelhead populations. (Photo courtesy of Michael Wier)

The Eel River is considered the birthplace of fly fishing for steelhead, and it’s one of the best opportunities in the country to reestablish thriving wild salmon and steelhead populations. It’s the third largest watershed in in California, and holds wild winter and summer steelhead, and both coho and Chinook salmon.

But two obsolete dams impede this. Though caught in a legal battle to decommission them, they are currently still in place. Removal of the Potter Valley Project would open 300 miles of additional spawning habitat to salmonids and other native fish. According to American Rivers: “The Eel River once teemed with abundant native fish and other wildlife, supporting the Wiyot, Sinkyone, Lassik, Nongatl, Yuki and Wailaki peoples, who have lived along the river since time immemorial. Today the river’s Chinook salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey are all headed toward extinction in large part because of two obsolete dams that make up Pacific Gas and Electric’s Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project. Together the dams completely block salmon migration and harm river habitat. The license for the dams recently expired and PG&E no longer wants to operate the facilities. It’s up to federal regulators to require PG&E to remove the dams as part of the decommissioning plan, expected during the fall of 2023.”




Lehigh River

A wide-angle scenic photo of the Lehigh River Gorge.
The Lehigh Gorge is a 1,000-foot-deep trench with no road crossings in 25 miles, and only two access points. (Photo courtesy of Tom Storm Photography)

Pennsylvania’s magnificent LeHigh River has the potential to be one of the East's greatest trout fisheries and is gradually becoming a regional destination. The Lehigh Gorge is a 1,000-foot-deep trench with no road crossings in 25 miles, and only two access points. Many spring-fed tributaries feed the Lehigh River, keeping the water cold enough in summer for a healthy population of wild trout. But the land around it has become a hotspot for the logistics industry, and with that comes many threats for pollution.

“The Lehigh River, flowing out of the Appalachian Mountains and through the densely populated Lehigh Valley region, is the ‘backyard river’ for half a million people, and the keystone to Northeastern Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation industry,” the report notes. “The areas that surround the river offer outdoor gathering spaces and accessible recreation opportunities for folks throughout the watershed, but especially in the cities of Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem. But as the region becomes the logistics hub of the eastern seaboard, with over four square miles of warehouses and distribution centers built to date, the river’s health is at risk. Unless federal, state and local decision makers act to improve protections for local waterways, the area’s clean water and wildlife habitat could suffer irreversible harm.”

Chilkat and Klehini Rivers

A bald eagle stands guard over a dead salmon on the banks of a river.
American Rivers urges Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to act quickly to ensure that a grave environmental injustice is not allowed in the Klehini and Chilkat watersheds. (Photo courtesy of Andy Hedden)

A proposed copper and zinc mine is threatening to cripple the Chilkat and Klehini drainages with toxic effluent, which would have irreversible negative impacts on these pristine Alaska fisheries.

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“But the Palmer Project, a proposed copper and zinc mine, is about to move to the next stage of development, which could release hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic wastewater per day into nearby creeks that feed directly into the Klehini and Chilkat rivers, potentially crippling the entire ecosystem of the Chilkat Valley,” says American Rivers. “This is in addition to the already concerning impacts of climate change, such as rapid glacier melting and a historic increase in rainfall. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must act now to ensure the fundamental protections guaranteed by the federal Clean Water Act are not abandoned and a grave environmental injustice is not allowed.”

American Rivers’s Complete 2023 List of America’s Most Endangered Rivers

  1. Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
    • THREAT: CLIMATE CHANGE AND OUTDATED WATER MANAGEMENT
  2. Ohio River
    • THREAT: POLLUTION & CLIMATE CHANGE
  3. Pearl River
    • THREAT: DREDGING & DAM CONSTRUCTION
  4. Snake River
    • THREAT: FOUR FEDERAL DAMS
  5. Clark Fork River
    • THREAT: PULP MILL POLLUTION
  6. Eel River
    • THREAT: DAMS
  7. Lehigh River
    • THREAT: POORLY PLANNED DEVELOPMENT
  8. Chilkat and Klehini Rivers
    • THREAT: MINING
  9. Rio Gallinas
    • THREAT: CLIMATE CHANGE AND OUTDATED FOREST AND WATERSHED MANAGEMENT
  10. Okefenokee Swamp
    • THREAT: MINING

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