Dire threats seen for America’s ‘most endangered’ rivers

By Johnathan Hettinger

Rivers from Arizona to Alaska, Mississippi to Connecticut, and California to the Carolinas face dire threats from climate change, overdevelopment, pollution and water scarcity, according to a new report released by American Rivers this week.

But this year, the most endangered river isn’t a single one — it’s all of the streams in the entire state of New Mexico, according to the report.

The environmental nonprofit, which focuses on river health and publishes an annual list of most endangered waterways in the US, found that New Mexico is the state most likely to be impacted by a US Supreme Court ruling issued last year in the case of Sackett v. EPA, which stripped federal clean water protections for small streams and wetlands across the country.

The Sackett ruling found that the Clean Water Act only applies to continuous and permanent surface waters, meaning that seasonal rivers and wetlands that aren’t directly connected to rivers aren’t covered by the federal law. Instead, it’s up to states to regulate these bodies of water, which account for more than half of all wetlands and streams in the US.

“These streams and wetlands are the beginning of all of our rivers. And all of that water is connected, so when we lose the protections in our headwaters, those wetlands and streams, our rivers are threatened and the long-term quality of your drinking water will likely be harmed,” Tom Kiernan, president and CEO of American Rivers, said in a video released about the list.

In New Mexico, that means the majority of streams are left unprotected because the state does not have a permitting process in place. That could mean dire downstream consequences for rivers, including the Gila, San Juan, Pecos and Upper Rio Grande.

“People depend on this water. We have depended on this water for hundreds of years. This is our tradition, this is our culture. We don’t want to be a people that loses its traditions because we haven’t taken the right steps to protect our rivers,” Vicente Fernandez, acequia mayordomo and community leader, said in a press release.