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Iconic American rivers are threatened by severe pollution

Rivers across the United States are under severe threat from extensive pollution and weakened protections, according to a a recent report led by the American Rivers Association.

The experts found that the rivers of New Mexico, including the Rio Grande, Gila, San Juan, and Pecos – which are vital to over 85% of the state’s population – stand out as the most endangered in the nation.

American rivers and dangerous pollution 

Scientists attribute the vulnerability of seasonally flowing rivers to a loophole in the 2022 Clean Water Act amendments, which fail to protect these rivers from the runoff of wastewater treatment plants, mines, and industrial sites. 

As a result, American rivers that millions depend on for drinking water are at risk of becoming dangerously polluted, posing serious health risks and disrupting ecosystems. Among the rivers facing the gravest dangers are the Tijuana River in California and the Santa Cruz River in Arizona. 

“All water is connected. We cannot allow pollution anywhere without risk to the rivers we rely on for our drinking water,” said Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of the American Rivers. “Our leaders must hold polluters accountable and strengthen the Clean Water Act to safeguard our health and communities.”

No protection for seasonally flowing rivers 

The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision removed protections for rivers that only flow seasonally, primarily during periods of higher precipitation in the fall and winter. This decision disproportionately affects arid states like New Mexico, where rivers flow primarily during the rainy season or from snowmelt.

“These rulings fly in the face of established science and ignore the value that small streams and wetlands have to their broader watersheds, communities, and economies, particularly in places with dry climates like New Mexico,” the report authors wrote. 

These waterways not only supply clean drinking water and irrigation but also support rich cultural traditions and diverse habitats essential for fish and wildlife, thus playing a critical role in both the environment and the lives of nearly 87% of New Mexicans.

Catastrophic effects of river pollution 

Furthermore, pollution in these endangered rivers can have broader, catastrophic effects, extending even to major rivers like the Rio Grande, which sustains around six million people and countless wildlife species. The pollution in the Tijuana River, which has been problematic for decades, exemplifies the transboundary nature of river pollution, affecting communities in both Mexico and the United States.

The situation is compounded by large-scale projects like the Yazoo Backwater Pumps in Mississippi, which threaten over 200,000 acres of waterfowl habitat by draining wetlands essential for migratory birds. Known as the ‘Zombie Project,’ this initiative, originally designed to control flooding, now represents a significant ecological misstep.

Ongoing rollback of the Clean Water Act

Additionally, the Santa Cruz River, once a vibrant desert oasis, faces renewed threats from water scarcity and pollution after only recently beginning to recover. 

The ongoing rollback of the Clean Water Act’s protections poses further challenges to its revitalization, prompting American Rivers to urge the Biden administration and legislators to reinforce protections for these critical ecosystems.

Human impact of polluted waterways 

A recent survey by the Rivers are Life coalition highlights the human impact, with 86% of respondents indicating that polluted waterways adversely affect their health. “I believe that addressing the pollution of waterways starts with awareness and education, and encouraging people to collectively take action,” said Chris Keefer, the co-founder of Rivers are Life.

“Our hope is that in learning about just how important rivers are to our communities globally, we can all take action to protect these vital waterways and recognize them as the lifeblood of our planet.”

This widespread call to action underscores the urgency of addressing river pollution not just as an environmental issue but as a critical component of public health and community sustainability.

Most endangered American rivers 

1. Rivers of New Mexico

2. Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers, Mississippi

3. Duck River, Tennessee

4. Santa Cruz River, Arizona

5. Little Pee Dee River, South Carolina and North Carolina 

6. Farmington River, Connecticut and Massachusetts

7. Trinity River, California

8. Kobuk River, Alaska

9. Tijuana River, California

10. Blackwater River, West Virginia 

The full report from the American Rivers Association can be found here.


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