Environmentalist group names 11 rivers as most endangered

By Heather Dewar
The Baltimore Sun

4/26/02 -The first Europeans to explore America found a land rich in rivers 3.5 million miles' worth.

The rivers near Jamestown, Va., were "so stored with sturgeon and other sweet fish as no man's fortune has ever possessed the like," wrote one of Capt. John Smith's companions in 1607. The French explorer LaSalle dazzled the court of Louis XIV with his descriptions of the mighty Mississippi in 1682.

Today the James River is tainted with pesticides, sewage and farm runoff. The once-wide Mississippi has been walled in by levees a process that began in the 1720s.

Over the past three centuries, dams have tamed about one in every six U.S. river miles, choking off the great runs of salmon, herring and shad that sustained early settlers.

Farmers and builders have drained roughly half of the riverside marshes where winged, webbed and finned creatures dabbled and dived.

And the detritus from a continent's worth of parking lots and pastures taints more than 2 million miles of rivers and streams, rendering them unfit for fishing and swimming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, compiles a list of America's "most endangered rivers" each spring. The activists single out waters on the verge of "a public policy decision that is either going to send it down the tubes or turn things around," says American Rivers spokesman Eric Eckl.

This year, the group also took a swipe at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which it accuses of "destroying your rivers (and) wasting your money."

Corps dredging and construction projects are the main issues affecting four of the 11 rivers on this year's list, and similar projects have been involved in 60 percent of the rivers included on the list since it began in 1986. Corps officials have defended each of the criticized projects.

The conservationists' most endangered waterways of 2002 are:

1. The Missouri, the nation's longest river at 2,500 miles, flows from western Montana to its junction with the Mississippi at St. Louis. In 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rode this watery High Plains highway west into unknown territory on their history-making expedition. Even today, travelers crossing "the wide Missouri" of folk-song fame sense that they are crossing the boundary between the Midwestern heartland and the arid, wind-swept West.

The activists criticized the corps' use of dams and locks to control the river's flow, altering the seasonal rise and fall of water levels.

A National Academy of Science report found the unvarying flows benefit barges, but deprive endangered fish and birds of essential spawning and nesting sites. The corps is under pressure from conservationists and some members of Congress to restore a more natural flow pattern.

2. The Big Sunflower meanders in lazy loops past small Mississippi towns like Indianola, its banks dense with the hardwood forests that have become rare along Southern rivers. About 55 varieties of fish swim in its water, and waterfowl spend the winter in its marshes.

The corps has proposed construction of the Yazoo Pumps, which would drain much of the marshes for farming, and also wants to dredge the river to help move the pumped-out water more quickly. Environmentalists say the dredging would release pesticides like DDT that are now buried in bottom sediments. The corps says the pesticides can be contained.

3. The Klamath flows through Oregon's arid eastern half across the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Like most Pacific Northwest rivers, the Klamath once supported abundant salmon and other fish runs and an American Indian culture that depended on them. Now the depleted fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Last summer, amid a drought, water managers held back part of the river's flow for the salmon's benefit. Angry farmers briefly took control of a river lock, diverting irrigation water to their fields.

4. The Kansas River roughly parallels Interstate 70, draining the cattle country west of Kansas City. It is heavily polluted with livestock manure and urban runoff. Environmentalists have sued the state to force a clean-up.

5. Arkansas' White River supports a popular trout fishery as it falls cold and clear from the Ozark Mountains. The White River National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for ducks and black bears. The Corps of Engineers operates five dams on the river. Environmentalists oppose a corps proposal to divert river water to irrigate farms.

6. The Powder River of Montana and Wyoming was the scene of bloody fighting and bitter suffering in the war between the U.S. Army and the Plains Indians. Here in 1876, an Army attack on a Sioux camp prompted Chief Sitting Bull to gather all the tribes of the northern Plains, preparing for the attack that killed Gen. George Armstrong Custer and all his men. Sitting Bull's followers later were decimated by hunger and cold as they fled along the river to Canada.

A few ranches dot the sagebrush prairie along the river. Energy companies want to drill thousands of natural-gas wells on private property and federal land. The Bureau of Land Management is assessing the environmental effects.

7. Georgia's Altamaha River winds through farmland and cypress swamps, sheltering seven varieties of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The state is reviewing a plan to build a series of dams and reservoirs, diverting river water to booming Atlanta. Several proposed power plants would also use the Altamaha.

8. The Allagash River was chronicled by Henry David Thoreau in "The Maine Woods." Moose, lynx and river otters thrive on its densely-forested banks. The Allagash was designated a national Wild and Scenic River in 1970. But after disputes about the development restrictions that come with that designation, a state legislator has introduced a bill to make the Allagash the first river ever taken off the federal list.

9. The Canning River lies within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Flowing across wide-open tundra from the snowy Brooks Range to the Arctic Sea, it is inhabited by polar bears, caribou, musk oxen and tundra swans.

Environmentalists contend the river would be damaged if Congress and the Bush administration allow oil drilling along a 2,000-acre part of the refuge's coastal plain. Administration officials say the drilling can be done without harming wildlife. The Senate has rejected ANWR drilling that was in an earlier House version of an energy bill.

10. South Texas' Guadalupe River provides fresh water to the refuge where most of North America's endangered whooping cranes live. The river supports sport fishing and nature tourism, but its water is in demand for farming and development.

11. The bay at the mouth of the Apalachicola, in North Florida, produces shrimp, crabs and one-tenth of the U.S. oyster harvest. Its flood-plain forests produce the country's entire crop of tupelo honey.

Environmentalists oppose the corps' dredging of the river for navigation, and its control of the water flow to benefit the river's scanty barge traffic.

The banks of the river are lined with a variety of plant and animal life.

A dispute over the river's future among Florida, the upstream states of Georgia and Alabama, and the corps is now in its third decade.

Note:  American Rivers is one of the environmental organizations to join in a lawsuit to protect "wild" salmon from "hatchery" salmon, even though both have the same gene pool, according to scientists.  Check out there site:  AmericanRivers.org

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