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5 Most Endangered Rivers of Turtle Island: Many Flow Through Indian Country

American Rivers conservation group has released its annual list of most endangered rivers, and most flow through Indian country.

It’s no secret that water pollution is clogging rivers across Turtle Island. But the annual list of the most endangered rivers in the U.S. announced on April 7 by the conservation group American Rivers confirms that a large number of them flow through Indian country, starting with Number One.

Topping the list? The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, thanks to not one but two tourism-development plans that opponents say pose much danger to the fragile ecosystems. Add to that the push to develop mineral resources there, and you have a river on the brink.

The rivers on this year’s list are found in Alaska, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, and many of them affect tribal populations and flow through tribal or ceded territories. The annual list highlights river systems that face critical decisions within the coming year, American Rivers said. Proposed mining projects, water withdrawals and pollution concerns are the main reasons rivers made this year’s list. Since 1973 the Washington, D.C.–based American Rivers organization has worked to protect and restore more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects and its annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. The organization has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters and volunteers, according to its website.

“This year’s report underscores the importance of healthy rivers to each and every American,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers. “Whether it's for clean drinking water, ample water supplies for farms and cities, abundant fish and wildlife, or iconic places vital to our heritage, we all have a stake in protecting our nation’s rivers.”

Below are the top five. Stay tuned for another batch in coming days.

Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Arizona

American Rivers declared the Colorado the Number One endangered river because of what it calls “three serious threats, each with a key decision this year: the massive Escalade construction project in the heart of the canyon, pollution from uranium mining on the north and south rims, and expansion of the town of Tusayan that could deplete vital groundwater supplies. These threats would cause irreparable harm to the river’s unique wild character, clean water, and cultural values.”

The Grand Canyon Escalade project proposed at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers on 420 acres of Navajo land. The proposal features development of shops, a restaurant with more than 1,000 parking spaces, and access to a gondola tramway on the rim of the canyon, plus walkways, restrooms, a gift shop and restaurant at the end of the tram ride on the bottom of the canyon. The plans have raised both support and opposition within the Navajo Nation, and the area, as well as the river itself, covers traditional lands of multiple tribal nations.

“The Grand Canyon is the cultural homeland of many traditional people, and this project would be a sacrilege to them,” said Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, in the American Rivers statement. “We’re honored to support Navajo community members opposed to this project as part of the Save the Confluence coalition.”

RELATED: Controversial Grand Canyon Gondola Grounded for a Year

Elsewhere, the American Rivers organization cites a proposed major expansion of the resort town of Tusayan near the south entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park and proposed uranium mining in the area as threats to groundwater and to the streams feeding the Colorado River. Mining could contaminate the waters and expansion of the town could deplete scarce water resources, according to American Rivers.

RELATED: Opposition to New Development Aims to Protect Natural Water Supplies

Columbia River, Washington and Oregon

The 1,200-mile-long Columbia River runs through or along more than a dozen tribal nations and is critical to them as a water resource and for subsistence fishing. American Rivers names the Columbia as endangered because of “outdated dam operations,” which will come under review as part of the renegotiation of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada. The treaty review process will continue into 2024, and 15 tribes within the Columbia River basin have called for a place at the table during the negotiations “to protect and benefit tribal culture and resources.

RELATED: Columbia River Treaty Recommendation Near Finalization

‘Modernize the Columbia River Treaty,’ Religious Leaders Urge U.S. and Canada

American Rivers says the health of the river’s fisheries is at risk because of dams along the river, three in Canada and one in the United States.

“The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest’s economy and environment,” American Rivers said. “The river’s dams provide more than half the region’s electricity as well as flood control and irrigation, but they have also decimated the basin’s salmon and steelhead runs.”

American Rivers sees the renegotiating of the treaty as an opportunity to protect the Columbia’s resources using today’s environmental values. The original treaty addressed only flood control and hydropower.

“Our values and needs for the river have changed, and the river is facing new challenges. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring management of our nation’s third largest river into the twenty-first century and realize lasting benefits for salmon and communities,” said Michael Garrity of American Rivers.

Restoring fish passage at historical locations and reintroducing salmon to Canadian spawning grounds are measures essential to the ecosystem, said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Paul Lumley in the American Rivers statement.

“Over the past three years an historical regional consensus developed by states, tribes, and federal agencies pushed to include ecosystem function and fish passage as a primary component of the Columbia River Treaty,” Lumley said. “This vision is shared by citizens from the estuary to the headwaters and one that we must work with Canada to ensure.”

D.R. Michel of the Upper Columbia United Tribes agreed.

“We have a huge opportunity to correct an historic wrong related to the Columbia River by including ‘ecosystem function’ and fish passage as a third purpose in river operations,” he said.

Photo: Thomas O’Keefe/Courtesy American Rivers

The Columbia River Gorge; the Columbia is the second most endangered river on Turtle Island, according to American Rivers' annual list.

Holston River, Tennessee

Toxic chemical pollution is the major threat to the Holston River, a meandering indirect tributary to the Tennessee River in the northeastern-central part of the state near Kingston.

“The river has played a key role in our nation’s history,” according to American Rivers. “It was the site of a 1791 treaty between the United States and Cherokee Indian Nation, and also saw many battles throughout the Civil War.”

American Rivers charges that the Holston Army Ammunition Plant operated by the U.S. Army pollutes the river with “harmful explosive chemicals,” threatening the drinking water supply of more than 56,000 residents, as well as the fish and wildlife, and jeopardizing the resource for recreation use. The plant spans more than 6,020 acres across two counties and is the major supplier of explosive materials to the U.S. Department of Defense, according to the website of BAE Systems, which runs the operation.

Last September the plant entered into a multi-year agreement to curtail release into the river of RDX, a white powder explosive, after the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation noted a marked increase in the amount of the possible carcinogen in the water. Sample tests, according to American Rivers, exceed by more than double the level of the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit for RDX in the water. The agreement included $20,000 per year payments from the U.S. Army toward downstream drinking water treatment, according to a story by WJHL News Channel 11. In November the Tennessee Clean Water Network filed suit against BAE and the Army to stop the pollution.

“Chemical explosives and drinking water don’t mix,” Erin McCombs of American Rivers is quoted in the organization’s announcement of the river’s endangered listing. “The families and communities along the Holston River have a right to clean drinking water. They shouldn’t have to worry about what’s coming out of the tap.”

Photo: Ben Collins/Courtesy American Rivers

South Holston River, Tennessee

Smith River, Montana

Proposed copper mining at a headwaters tributary to the Smith River is the threat that American Rivers cites in naming that waterway to its 2015 endangered list. The mining operation proposed by the Canadian company Tintina Operations could “seriously degrade water quality with acid mine drainage and toxic heavy metals,” according to the organization. The mine would be on 12,000 acres beside the Sheep Creek, “a major headwater stream that produces half of the tributary-spawning trout in the Smith River drainage,” American Rivers states.

"The Smith River offers one of the greatest backcountry angling experiences available anywhere in the United States," said Jim Klug, owner of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, an international fly-fishing travel company based in Bozeman. "As a business owner who relies on healthy rivers for my living, it's important to me that jobs in the outdoor recreation industry not be sacrificed to create jobs in the mining industry."

Smith River, renown for trout fishing, travels through a limestone canyon and along the border of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. American Rivers includes the Smith on its list to encourage proper oversight of any mining operation allowed along Sheep Creek, stating “The State of Montana should not permit the copper mine unless it can be designed in a way that eliminates any risk to the river’s water quality and habitat.”

Photo: Scott Bosse/Courtesy American Rivers

The Smith River in Montana is known for trout fishing.

Edisto River, South Carolina

The threat that American Rivers lists for the Edisto River is one that might resonate in drought-stricken areas around the country. Citing the river as South Carolina’s most heavily used river for “irrigation and excessive agricultural water withdrawals,” American Rivers scolds the state for not requiring large agribusiness operations to meet the same safeguards for “river health and water quality” required of municipalities and industrial water users.

“Excessive agricultural water withdrawals continue to be a major threat to the Edisto and other rivers across the state,” American Rivers said. “While municipal and industrial water users are required to get withdrawal permits, South Carolina’s surface water law does not require permits for agricultural water users.”

“The magnificent Edisto, as other South Carolina rivers, is in very real danger of destructive neglect in the absence of any effective measures in the law to restrain unlimited consumptive water use for agricultural purposes,” said Tim Rogers of the conservation group Friends of the Edisto, in the American Rivers statement.

American Rivers and its South Carolina partner organizations call on the South Carolina Legislature to pass a pending bill (H.3564) that would eliminate the exemption of agribusinesses in regards to water usage. The South Fork of Edisto River was on the 2014 Most Endangered Rivers list compiled by American Rivers for the same water-use threat.

Photo: Tim Palmer/Courtesy American Rivers

The mouth of the Edisto River in South Carolina