Op-Ed: Why Many American Rivers Are Running on Empty

American Rivers releases its annual ‘Most Endangered Rivers’ report—is your local waterway on it?
A kayaker maneuvers down the Colorado River. (Photo: Peter McBride)
Apr 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Jeff is the Director of Online Strategies for American RIvers.

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, providing drinking water for over 36 million people across seven states, irrigating 15 percent of our nation’s agriculture output, and supporting a $26 billion recreation economy. In fact, it is so important, that if the Colorado River were a company, it would be the 19th largest employer in the Fortune 500.

And yet, the river is so dammed, diverted and over-tapped along its 1,400-mile course that it dries to a trickle before reaching the sea. This is why American Rivers named it the number one most endangered river in the country.

As Americans, we are lucky to have this river in our proverbial backyard. It is one of the most recognized and visited rivers in the United States, with millions of people flocking to its banks each year. But a century of water management policies and practices promoting wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads.

Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report emphasizing that there is not enough water in the river to meet the current demand, let alone support future demand increases. More water leaves the Colorado River than enters it each year because of chronic drought, population growth, energy development and climate change.

In the last 13 years, water storage in the basin has decreased by 40 percent. Scientists predict climate change will reduce the Colorado River’s flow by another 10 to 30 percent by 2050. And if that is not enough to underscore the immediacy of the problem, the basin is facing another drought this summer.

It is time to put the Colorado River on the road to recovery.

American Rivers and our partners at Nuestro Rio, Protect the Flows, and the National Young Farmers Coalition are calling on Congress to give cities and farmers across the basin the tools they need to build a future that includes healthy rivers and reliable, sustainable water supplies.

We are asking Congress to fund programs that help stakeholders optimize existing water infrastructure, maximize available water supplies, and provide healthy river flows for communities and ecosystems.

While we see this most clearly on the Colorado River, it’s also a problem we are seeing on rivers across the United States. American Rivers’ 2013 America’s Most Endangered Rivers report shines the spotlight on four rivers running dry because of outdated water management, wasteful water use, and persistent drought. But that’s only part of the story.

Other rivers on the list are in danger from energy development and mining. Coal and nickel mining are not only threatening local economies that rely on the river for tourism, but are also putting communities’ clean water at risk. The coal ash left behind from outdated power plants is leaching into lakes and rivers. And one river could be buried in sediment as a result of mismanagement of reservoirs and dams along the Missouri River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What is clear for all of these rivers is that we cannot afford to wait—and we all need to be part of the solution. With your support, we can put the Colorado River and this year’s other endangered rivers on a path to recovery.

Click on the gallery below to view 2013's most endangered rivers.

Jeff Wiedner works with American Rivers to strengthen awareness of how important our nation's rivers are to our health and economy. He loves organizing around issues and has worked in a variety of national nonprofits rallying their activists. When he's not at work, he's usually found on his bike around Washington, D.C., or on a trail. TakePart.com