WASHINGTON -- Sprawl is one of the most pervasive and menacing threats to face the nation's rivers in years, according to American Rivers, a national river conservation organization.
In a series of press conferences held around the country, American Rivers announced this year's list of the ten most endangered rivers in the country as part of the release of its 14th annual report, America's Most Endangered Rivers of 1999.
This year's America's Most Endangered Rivers report demonstrates for the first time how devastating unbridled development is to the nation's rivers and catalogues areas where sprawl and rivers are on a head-on collision course.
"We've all seen and felt sprawl -- from lengthy commutes and crowded schools to polluted air and lost open space. It is seeping into every aspect of our lives. But few people understand the unique and devastating impacts of unplanned, rapid growth on rivers or the hardships that communities face from a wholesale degradation of rivers across the country. We have made great progress in cleaning up our rivers in the 25 years since the Clean Water Act, but sprawl is threatening to reverse those gains," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers.
American Rivers called on local and state governments to reduce the damage sprawl causes to rivers. Governments must encourage re-development of high-density areas and make them more attractive and livable -- in part by restoring urban riverfronts -- to limit the amount of new impervious cover spreading out over the land. Governments must also encourage use of mass transit and carpools to reduce the need for more roads and parking lots. Further, local governments must set zoning for site development that reduce runoff and protect riverside lands.
State and federal agencies should protect and restore rivers that are impaired by excessive water withdrawals, the study says. This can often be accomplished by encouraging water conservation by pricing water sensibly, as well as through existing laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and state water laws. Water allocation plans must recognize the needs of fish, wildlife, and humans, according to the group.
Sprawl chews up riverbanks, wetlands and floodplains, critical components of a river ecosystem that provide wildlife habitat, filter sediment and toxins, and act like sponges to absorb floodwaters, says the study. Paving over the land with roads, parking lots, rooftops, and anything else that can't absorb rainwater creates "impervious cover" and dramatically increases the amount of polluted runoff flowing into rivers and streams. Impervious cover causes more frequent and severe flooding and leads to streambank erosion and habitat loss, the study says. According to the Center for Watershed Protection, when 10 percent of a watershed is sealed under such cover, the rivers and streams that receive its runoff will be degraded. And when 25-40 percent of a watershed is paved over, its rivers and streams can often no longer support fish and wildlife and are not safe for human uses.
In the Seattle area, uncontrolled development is sucking excessive amounts of water from the Cedar River and runoff is polluting the water that remains -- destroying the river's fragile salmon and steelhead runs, according to the study. Chicago's rampant growth is overloading the suburban area's sewage treatment system, the study reports, forcing an increasing number of regular discharges into the Fox River to get rid of the excess.
While sprawl increases water pollution, it also increases human demand for water. Desperately in need of water to serve exploding populations, urban areas are pumping water directly from nearby rivers -- or from area aquifers that feed rivers -- at alarming rates and with devastating impacts for fish and wildlife, says the group.
The suburbs of Atlanta are diverting more and more water from the Coosa and Tallapoosa headwaters which feed an Alabama river basin, one of the richest sources of freshwater aquatic animals in the world. Sierra Vista, Arizona is depleting groundwater so quickly that flows in the San Pedro River, one of the country's most important migratory bird flyways, are already down by 30 percent. Salt Lake City's wasteful water consumption is reducing flows in the Bear River and threatening one of the world's most remarkable bird refuges, says the report.
"The rivers flowing across our country are precious beyond words. Few people realize that the United States supports the greatest diversity of freshwater animal species in the world," added Wodder. "But at the same time, freshwater animals are the most threatened group of species in the country. The loss of these species is a warning to us. If sprawl continues to ravage rivers, we will lose not only wildlife but also our drinking water supplies and economic and recreational opportunities," Wodder said.
Ironically, the same rivers that are now being ravaged by sprawl are in some regions serving as an effective antidote to sprawl, according to Wodder. Rather than being eyesores and dumpsites, urban rivers are actually helping to reverse sprawl by drawing people and businesses back to the core of the city, says the report.
"Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of our communities. Virtually every major city and thousands of towns across the country rest on the banks of a river," said Wodder. "Today, more and more of us want to get out of our cars and back into nature, and our local rivers offer the most appealing and convenient destinations. A river renaissance is sweeping the country, urban and rural communities everywhere are rediscovering and revitalizing the waterways that flow through them. As rivers and riverside parks become cleaner and more attractive, people of all ages, cultures, and income levels can enjoy a heightened quality of life."
While sprawl puts rivers at risk all over the country, a host of other chronic threats continue to damage waterways, including mining waste which pollutes and buries waterways, dams which block rivers and kill fish, and riverbank manipulation which destroys plant life and animal habitat, according to the report.
One of the gravest problems this year is occurring on the lower Snake River in Washington State, named the most endangered river in America. Over a million salmon and steelhead once migrated up the Snake every year. But today, the river's salmon runs are close to extinction because four dams on the lower river have destroyed its natural flow, says the report.
American Rivers' 14th annual report examines and ranks rivers that this year face the most serious and immediate degradation and provides an overview of the state of rivers today. The purpose of the report is to call attention to these threats and mobilize communities around protecting and restoring locally and nationally significant waterways.
American Rivers 1999 most endangered rivers in America
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