These US Rivers Are Endangered by Climate Change, Pollution

The Colorado, Snake, and Mobile Rivers top American Rivers’ 2022 list of the country’s most endangered waterways.

Aerial view of the Colorado river against rock formations in Arizona
The Colorado River at Glen Canyon, Arizona.

Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Rivers around the world are at great risk—either through the impacts of man-made climate change or through direct abuse by human activity. Take India's Ganges River, which is a notorious dumping ground for raw sewage, discarded plastic, and industrial waste. Or Europe's Danube River, the continent's second-largest river that flows through 19 countries, which is overfished, prone to flooding, and heavily polluted.

But Americans shouldn’t throw stones: There are many rivers in the United States that are equally imperiled, according to the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers, which last month published its 2022 “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report. Released every year since 1984, the annual ranking of America’s top 10 most endangered rivers shines a spotlight on beloved waterways threatened by climate change, pollution, and outdated water management practices, among other risks.

“All life on this planet depends on clean, flowing rivers. So when rivers are at risk we sound the alarm,” American Rivers President and CEO Tom Kiernan said in a press release. “‘America’s Most Endangered Rivers’ is a call for bold and urgent action.”

Indeed, American Rivers curates its list based not only on the condition of rivers but also on the opportunities that Americans have to improve them. Specifically, rivers must meet three distinct criteria to be included on the list: First, they must be significant to human and natural communities. Second, the threats facing them and their associated communities must be substantial. And third, they must be the subject of a major decision or action in the coming year that members of the public can help influence.

“We must come together as a powerful movement to speak up for the 10 endangered rivers, and for all of the rivers that are vital to our lives,” Kiernan continued.

REPORT: America’s Most Endangered Rivers

No matter where you live in the United States, your river and your drinking water are affected by climate change. Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x and other communities of color feel these impacts most acutely, due to historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that maintain inequities.

The country’s most endangered river this year, American Rivers reports, is the Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles through seven U.S. states, as well as two Mexican states. The river is currently operating at a deficit, according to conservationists, who say river management plans were created on the flawed assumption that the river carries nearly 18 million acre-feet—an acre-foot being the amount of water that it takes to cover a football field, 1 foot deep—when in fact, it only carries approximately 13 million acre-feet. And thanks to climate change, the river’s flow is expected to decline by another 10% to 30% by 2050.

What's at stake? The river, which supports a $1.4 trillion economy, is the source of drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land. According to American Rivers: "All of this is at risk due to rising temperatures and drought driven by climate change, combined with outdated river management and overallocation of limited water supplies."

“On the Colorado River and nationwide, the climate crisis is a water crisis,” Kiernan said. “Just, equitable solutions for rivers and clean water are both achievable and essential to our health, safety, and future.”

Also in jeopardy are the No. 2 ranked Snake River in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, where endangered salmon species are being threatened by the existence of four federal dams, and the No. 3 ranked Mobile River in Alabama, which is being polluted by coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity.

Maine’s Kennebec, Penobscot, and Union rivers collected ranked No. 4 for the negative impact of dams on Atlantic salmon, while Alabama’s and Georgia’s Coosa River ranked No. 5 due to industrial agricultural pollution, including millions of tons of chicken feces from billions of chickens.

Rounding out the top 10 are: at No. 6, the Mississippi River, which is endangered by contaminants flowing into the river from farm fertilizers and fossil fuel facilities; at No. 7, California’s lower Kern River, which has been harmed by excessive water diversions for agricultural operations; at No. 8, Arizona’s San Pedro River, which has been negatively impacted by unregulated groundwater pumping; at No. 9, California’s Los Angeles River, whose future is threatened by mismanagement, pollution, and climate change; and at No. 10, Oklahoma’s Tar Creek, a Superfund site that has been sullied by decades of mining pollution.

Solutions that American Rivers advocates range from building climate-resilient infrastructure and restoring closed-off salmon runs to removing pollutants from dirty water and passing new environmental regulations that prevent future contamination.

“The stakes are incredibly high,” Matt Rice, director of Colorado River Basin programs at American Rivers, said in an interview with CNN. “This listing is not meant to be a doom-and-gloom listing. It’s intended to elevate the solutions that we have … We have the tools to [adapt]. We just need the leadership and we need the collaboration to get it done at scale.”