Santa Fe Tops 2007 List of Most Endangered Rivers

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2007
New Mexico's Santa Fe River has earned the dubious distinction of being 2007's most endangered river in the United States.

The designation comes from the conservation group American Rivers, whose annual top ten list names the U.S. waterways most in need of aid during the coming year.

Candidates for the list, "America's Most Endangered Rivers," are nominated by grassroots organizations based on the waterway's risk factors, including pollution, water extraction, and dams.

"Each of these ten rivers is at a crossroads," said Andrew Fahlund, vice president of conservation programs at American Rivers. "Major decisions are coming next year that can either make them or break them."

The Santa Fe suffers from chronic water extraction that leaves its bed a dry ditch for most of the year. "Everybody can agree that a healthy, flowing Santa Fe River is good for the community of Santa Fe," Fahlund said.

"I think that the governor and the mayor are both solidly behind this, and I think that they are going to put some water back in the river. But it's a matter of the timing and the permanence of that."

The city's growing water needs have drained the Santa Fe's flow at the expense of dams and wells (related: "Florida's Thirst for Water Pressuring Wild River, Experts Say" [November 21, 2006]).

"The challenge comes when you really get down to paying the piper—are you really going to make the kind of commitment that's necessary or are we going to come up short because of competing demands?"

River Ups and Downs

Some rivers on the list appear poised for positive change.

Condit Dam blocks salmon and steelhead migration on endangered river number five, Washington State's White Salmon River, even though the aging facility isn't very productive.

The dam's owner, PacificCorp, has agreed to its removal, but federal authorities have not yet sealed the deal.

"Realistically it's an old dam, it produces little power, and retrofitting it for fish passage does not seem to make much sense," said Dan Haas, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Richland, Washington.

Haas worked on the White Salmon, the upper portions of which are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

"I hope the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will agree with PacificCorp, and I suspect they will."

But the fate of other rivers appears far more contentious.

The proposed Fastrill Reservoir in Texas would submerge the Neches—river number six—and much of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge to provide water for the growing Dallas area.

"To trade a local economy worth millions and a place treasured by tens of thousands of people for a dam that isn't even remotely necessary is the definition of a bad deal," American Rivers' President Rebecca Wodder said in a statement.

"The Fastrill Folly is a deal where nearly everyone loses."

But the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) disagrees.

TWDB has filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of the Interior seeking to reverse the FWS decision to establish the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge and to stop the agency from adding land to the refuge.

TWDB refuses to comment on pending legislation, but its formal complaint makes it clear that the organization considers the dam necessary to fill the needs of a fast-growing and increasingly thirsty local population.

A release announcing the suit said the proposed reservoir could provide water during drought for about 1.5 million Texans in and around the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area.

"There are stringent analyses required to determine the impact of new reservoir development," said TWDB executive administrator Kevin Ward.

"We want to ensure that the FWS meets the same stringent requirements in evaluating the effects of developing a wildlife refuge that would negatively impact the future of water supply needed by one of the fastest-growing areas of Texas."

Ten Most Endangered

Carissa Wong, program officer for the international conservation organization WWF's global freshwater program, explained that the waterways on American Rivers' list are emblematic of the problems that rivers face around the world.

"The Santa Fe in New Mexico is facing overextraction, and the same problem is happening in [India's] Ganges and the Rio Grande—which in the future may not be reaching the ocean," she said.

"Pollution is a problem in the Iowa River and also in China's Yangtze River. Dams affect the greatest number of rivers in our own top ten list ["World's Top Rivers at Risk"], so it's the same sort of problems in the U.S. and abroad."

The complete list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2007 and the threats they face is as follows:

#1 Santa Fe River (New Mexico): Drying up due to continuing water extraction.

#2 San Mateo Creek (California): Threatened by a proposed road that could be built over large sections of the creek.

#3 Iowa River (Iowa): Suffering from high pollution levels caused by human and animal sewage.

#4 Upper Delaware River (New York): Threatened by a proposed large-scale power line that would cross 73 miles (117 kilometers) of river corridor.

#5 White Salmon River (Washington): Experiencing stunted fish migration due to an aging hydroelectric dam.

#6 Neches River (Texas): At risk of being submerged by a massive proposed dam project.

#7 Kinnickinnic River (Wisconsin): Heavily polluted by toxic sediments, which the river carries into Lake Michigan.

#8 Neuse River (North Carolina): Polluted by waste from extensive hog farms and growing human populations.

#9 Lee Creek (Arkansas, Oklahoma): Could be submerged by a proposed dam.

#10 Chuitna River (Alaska): Could be polluted by a proposed nearby coal mine.

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