In some ways, the history of America can be told by our waterways. By the mills and tow paths along New England’s streams and canals, by the rivers of empire – the Cumberland, Ohio, Missouri, Columbia – that led to new and valuable territory. By the great industrial rivers – the Detroit, the Maumee, the Monongahela – that powered our Iron Belt.
“America is a great story,” wrote the journalist Charles Kuralt, “and there is a river on every page.”
But if rivers have been good for America, Americans haven’t always been good to our rivers. Think of the industrial-scale pollution we’ve spewed into them, the diverting and channalizing we’ve inflicted on their courses and the neglect we’ve shown – or not shown – to these life-giving, nation-building streams.
It’s understandable. It’s the nature of a river to go somewhere else, around the bend and out of sight. So it’s easy to assume that someone else will care for the waterway.
But a couple of groups in modern America have taken an active role in caring for our waterways, and they deserve some attention for the attention and care they’ve shown our rivers. They have very different approaches, even though their outcome is the same: To heal impaired rivers around the country.
The first group, American Rivers (www.americanrivers.org), is well known for its annual report card that lists the ten most imperiled American waterways. The group, based in Washington, DC, is a tenacious environmental watchdog, and its Most Endangered Rivers report typically has a topical agenda. Rivers that make the list are threatened by mines or logging at their headwaters, power plants along their course, industrial or residential development in their floodplains.
It’s a testament to the group’s single-minded commitment and lobbying chops that the threats to rivers on its endangered list are often neutralized or mitigated, thanks largely to the publicity American Rivers gives these issues.
The second organization takes a different, more grassroots, approach to river health. It’s the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (www.fishhabitat.org), a coalition of public and private conservation groups committed to funding clean-up projects on rivers across the country.
The Fish Habitat folks also distribute a list of rivers each year, though its list is one that details waterways that have been restored to health thanks to coalition partners.
The lists from American Rivers and Fish Habitat are derived from opposite sides of the same clean-water coin, but both deserve attention from Project Save-A-Stream participants. Perhaps the neighborhood stream you’re cleaning will make one, or even both, lists.
American Rivers’ 2008 ‘Most Endangered Rivers’
1. Catawba-Wateree River– North Carolina and South Carolina
Threat: outdated water supply management
2. Rogue River– Oregon
Threat: logging and road construction
3. Cache La Poudre River– Colorado
Threat: water diversion and reservoir project
4. St. Lawrence River– New York and Canada
Threat: outdated dam management plan
5. Minnesota River– South Dakota and Minnesota
Threat: proposed coal-fired power plant
6. St. Johns River – Florida
Threat: unsustainable water appropriation
7. Gila River- New Mexico
Threat: water development project
8. Allagash Wilderness Waterway– Maine
Threat: loss of Wild & Scenic River protection
9. Pearl River– Mississippi and Louisiana
Threat: irresponsible floodplain development
10. Niobrara River– Wyoming and Nebraska
Threat: unsustainable irrigation diversions
National Fish Habitat Board’s 2008 ’10 Waters to Watch’
1. Aaron Run– Frostburg, Maryland
Project: stemmed flow of acid-mine drainage
2. Big Spring Branch– Madison, Wisconsin
Project: bank stabilization and in-stream enhancements
3. Lake Oconee Island– between Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia
Project: stabilization of island shoreline and enhanced near-shore habitat
4. Little Susitna River– near Wasilla and Anchorage, Alaska
Project: removal of fish-passage barriers
5. O’Dell Spring Creek– near Bozeman, Montana
Project: headwaters habitat restoration
6. South Folk Chalk Creek– near Fillmore, Utah
Project: culvert replacement and bridge construction
7. Stinky Creek– near Alpine, Arizona
Project: removal of non-native fish
8. Tampa Bay Shoreline– MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
Project: sediment stabilization and promotion of sea grass
9. Trout Run– Filmore County, Minnesota
Project: bank revegetation and recontour
10. Williams Run– near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Project: treatment of acid mine drainage