Lower Colorado River tops list of most endangered in U.S.: ‘The future looks very bleak’

Lower Colorado River canal in the desert. (Photo: Justin Clifton)
Lower Colorado River canal in the desert. (Photo: Justin Clifton)

The Lower Colorado River topped this year’s list of the 10 rivers most in danger from pollution and environmental degradation — particularly if President Trump carries out his plans to undo protections put in place under the previous administration.

American Rivers’ annual report, released Tuesday, cites the possible consequences of budget cuts proposed by President Trump for rivers throughout the United States.

The Lower Colorado provides drinking water for one in 10 Americans, in metropolitan areas including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Slideshow: 10 most endangered rivers in the United States for 2017 >>>

“If the Trump administration and Congress don’t continue to address the water issues in the Lower Colorado Basin, we’re facing a real crisis in that region,” Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers, told Yahoo News. “We are experiencing historic droughts in the Colorado Basin, and that’s a result of climate change. Unless we pay attention to that and actually address the impacts of climate change on water supplies in the basin, things are only going to get worse.”

The river also supplies water for over five million acres of farmland. Irvin said the water irrigates fields that provide roughly 90 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The Lower Colorado starts at Lee’s Ferry, a natural corridor between Utah and Arizona, and runs through Nevada, Arizona and California. So much water is drawn along the way for agricultural, industrial, municipal and recreational purposes that it dries up before it reaches its natural mouth in the Gulf of California. American Rivers calculates its annual economic value at $900 billion.

Water demand in the region is outpacing the river’s capacity, and the ongoing drought, intensified by climate change, makes the situation worse. The water level in Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, has been dropping at 12 feet per year on average.

Farming along the Lower Colorado River. (Photo: Amy Martin)
Farming along the Lower Colorado River. (Photo: Amy Martin)

If the crisis is not addressed, the Bureau of Reclamation would need to enforce limitations on water delivery, forcing farmers and homeowners to scale back their water use. This would have harsh economic consequences throughout the Southwest.

American Rivers is calling upon Trump to follow former President Barack Obama in prioritizing the sustainability of American rivers, and on Congress to fully fund the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which have provided support and resources for new water transport and conservation projects.

“That’s why we’re bringing the nation’s attention to this incredibly important river, as well as the other rivers on this year’s most endangered list,” Irvin said. “We can allow the progress that’s been made on rivers like the Lower Colorado to be reversed or we can let Congress and the Trump administration know that we’re not going to stand for that.”

Environmentalists and scientists have denounced Trump’s attacks on Obama-era environmental protections. He has signed an “Energy Independence” executive order that starts the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants. He also signed other executive orders advancing the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Green groups say Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the 2018 fiscal year would also undermine river preservation and restoration projects across the country. Trump’s EPA is reviewing the Clean Water Rule, which has protected rivers from development and pollution.

Preserving the Lower Colorado is a priority for the region’s Latino population. It’s important to their heritage, culture and livelihoods.

Maite Arce, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of Hispanic people in the United States and promoting civic engagement, said roughly one-third of the country’s Latino population lives in the Colorado River Basin, which includes portions of seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Lower Colorado River canal fields. (Photo: Justin Clifton)
Lower Colorado River canal fields. (Photo: Justin Clifton)

“The Colorado River water has been overtapped, overused, so the future looks very bleak,” Arce told Yahoo News.

The HAF works with longtime residents, including farmworkers, in the Lower Colorado Basin near the U.S.-Mexico border and with other stakeholders on mitigating the harm of water shortages.
Arce said preachers have been delivering sermons on the moral obligation to protect the river and be “good stewards of God’s creation.”

“There are such strong cultural connections to water and to the Colorado River. It’s part of their heritage and way of life. They see it as a lifeline,” Arce told Yahoo News. “Their jobs are very strongly connected to the land there, but they understand the water is what makes it possible for them to grow food for America.”

“This is where what used to be an ocean becomes a trickle,” Arce said. “We’re encouraging the new administration to increase investment in critical water infrastructure. And, of course, that has to happen with a really strong group of local folks at the basin.”

American Rivers and the Hispanic Access Foundation say the president and Congress should support water management solutions throughout the country, including:

“The reality is the United States has tremendous thirst for clean, safe drinking water and water to irrigate our crops, and that’s not going to go away,” Irvin said. “What we are asking Americans to do is to let Congress know that having clean and abundant supplies of water from our rivers is important and to not cut the programs that are necessary to insure that.”

The Morelos Dam on the Lower Colorado River. (Photo: Justin Clifton)
The Morelos Dam on the Lower Colorado River. (Photo: Justin Clifton)

On April 3, White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced that Trump — in an apparent attempt to soften his reputation as an enemy of the environment — would donate his first-quarter salary of $78,333 to the National Park Service, an agency of the Interior Department. The gesture failed to win over environmentalists, who pointed out that the administration’s budget proposed slashing the Interior Department budget by 12 percent.

“If Donald Trump is actually interested in helping our parks, he should stop trying to slash their budgets to historically low levels,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “This publicity stunt is a sad consolation prize as Trump tries to stifle America’s best idea [the national parks]. It’s a distraction that falls far short of the $12 billion needed to address the current backlog of park maintenance and does nothing to offset the almost $2 billion Trump asked Congress to cut from the Department of the Interior in his budget.”


Here are the United States’ 10 most endangered rivers for 2017, according to the new American Rivers report:

1: Lower Colorado River in Arizona, California and Nevada

Threat: Water demand and climate change

2: Bear River in California

Threat: New Dam

3: South Fork Skykomish in Washington

Threat: New hydropower project

4: Mobile Bay rivers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi

Threat: Poor water management

5: Rappahannock River in Virginia

Threat: Fracking

6: Green-Toutle River in Washington

Threat: New mine

7: Neuse and Cape Fear rivers in North Carolina

Threat: Pollution from hog and chicken farms

8: Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Montana

Threat: Oil transport by rail

9: Buffalo National River in Arkansas

Threat: Pollution from massive hog farm

10: Menominee River in Michigan and Wisconsin

Threat: Open-pit sulfide mining


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