But the river has suffered from decreased flows in recent years. During extended droughts no water at all makes it to its lower reaches.
Chinese officials cite decreased rainfall as an explanation for drops in river-water levels and suggest that climate change could make the problem worse.
But human hands are also at work. Countless gallons are removed from the river to water the growing cities, vast farmlands, and booming factories that have exploded along its banks.
"The problem has been rapid development of the whole basin over the past 25 years," Turner said.
(Related news: "S. Korea Salmon Fest Highlights Dwindling Fish Population" [November 3, 2006].)
During 2006 river levels reached historic lows, a situation that only exacerbates the pollution problem.
"Dilution is a solution for pollution," Turner said. An influx of fresh water would help lessen the concentration of pollutants in the river.
"So the river's drying up has really been a double whammy for the fish populations."
Though the extinct fish species are lost forever, others may still be saved and the river's waters cleaned. Turner said that such improvements must begin with political changes.
"China's economic reforms were successful because they decentralized authority to local governments," she explained.
"But their motivation is economic development. A lot of the pollution problems are linked to corruption, and the central government hasn't really had the power to enforce environmental laws."
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