Coal mining. Bad management. Runoff from cities and farms. These are all things that are creating major problems for America’s rivers, according to a new report.
The report, released Tuesday by American Rivers, lists ten of the most threatened rivers in the country. These rivers all have two things in common: they’re threatened by mismanagement or various sources of pollution, and they’re all facing major policy decisions in the coming year that could either exacerbate those threats or rein them in. Millions of people depend on these rivers for drinking water, and the waterways are crucial habitats for a wide array of aquatic life.
Here are four of the most threatened rivers highlighted by the report:
Russel Fork River
One of the most dangerous developments a river can face is threatening the Russel Fork River: Mountaintop removal mining. The river, which runs along the border of Virginia and Kentucky, could be contaminated by mine waste if the proposed Doe Branch coal mine in Virginia is given the go-ahead by the U.S. EPA and state of Virginia. The mountaintop removal mine would “discharge toxic wastewater into Barts Lick Creek, Slate Branch, Wolfpen Branch, and Doe Branch — all tributaries to the Russell Fork River,” the report explains. “As with many other mountaintop removal mines in the area, Doe Branch would likely discharge a host of pollutants including iron, manganese, sulfate, and sediment, as well as toxins such as selenium, beryllium, and arsenic.”
These chemicals can seriously harm aquatic life living in the waterway, which in Russel Fork’s case includes trout — the river is a major trout fishery — and smallmouth bass. The river is also a tributary for the Big Sandy River, where several species of endangered mussels and crayfish live.
Russel Fork is also prized for its recreation: The river is a major kayaking destination, as it has some of the most difficult rapids in the southeast. Last year, Breaks Interstate Park, through which the river runs, generated nearly $10 million in Kentucky and Virginia. That’s huge, because recreation — including hiking, boating, and fishing — is seen as a major economic alternative for Appalachian communities struggling with the decline of coal. The Russel Fork River could be part of that economic transition, but not if mountaintop removal — a highly destructive process that involves blasting the tops off of mountains to get to coal underneath the surface — is allowed to pollute it. The EPA still has the ability to halt the project, something the report recommends it does.
The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint Rivers
These three rivers make up a basin that provides 70 percent of the drinking water for metro Atlanta, Georgia. But the rivers have been embroiled in a water dispute between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia for decades, and the states, along with Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers, haven’t managed the rivers as well as they should have, according to the report.
The rivers are being stressed by too-high consumption levels, the report states, which is wreaking havoc on ecosystems. They flow into the Apalachicola Bay, which is home to over 300 species of birds, 186 species of fish, and 57 species of mammals. But high consumption levels have meant trouble for the bay, which experienced a major decline in fish, shrimp, oyster, and crab populations in 2012.
Alabama, Georgia, and Florida need to work together to develop a sustainable plan for water allocation, the report states. Right now, the states are waiting to see how a 2013 lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over the dispute ends up: the case, currently, is being examined by a special master of the court.
“Unless a negotiated settlement breaks the litigation cycle, the Special Master’s decree, for better or worse, may have long-term and unforeseeable consequences,” the report states.
Half a million people depend on the Merrimack River for drinking water, but the New Hampshire and Massachusetts-based river is struggling with runoff pollution. Development along the river has turned forestland into pavement. This removes the vital filtration service trees provide and exacerbates runoff, which occurs when rain washes pollutants from cars, lawns, buses, farms, and other sources into bodies of water, worsening water quality. According to the report, “the Forest Service ranks the Merrimack River watershed as the most threatened in the country due to the development of forest lands, fourth for associated threats to water quality, and seventh for loss of habitat for species at risk.”
And the future could be even worse for the Merrimack. As the watershed’s population grows, 40 to 63 percent of its forest is predicted to be cut down for development by 2030. Protecting forest along the Merrimack is key to ensure its health, the report states, and also to ensure the health of the Gulf of Maine, into which the Merrimack drains.
Copper mining is the biggest threat to the Smith River, which winds through Montana. A Canadian company wants to mine for the metal underneath and beside Sheep Creek, one of the river’s headwater streams. This mine could leach heavy metals into any nearby bodies of water, create nitrate-high wastewater, and has the potential to contaminate drinking water with arsenic. Montana is no stranger to the dangers posed by heavy metal mining: 120 miles of the state’s Clark Fork River is designated as a Superfund site due to arsenic, copper, zinc, lead, and cadmium contamination from an old copper mine.
American Rivers recommends that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock require that the mining company “ensure with 100 percent certainty” that its proposed mine won’t impact water quality or the population of trout in the Smith River and its tributaries. The river is hugely popular for fishing and floating: Last year, more than 8,000 people applied for permits to float the river, which are limited to 1,175.