Colorado River Tops The 2013 Endangered Waterways List

A Latino group that has clamored to raise awareness about the drought-stricken Colorado River seemed to have found some success.

The river, which snakes across seven states and parts of Mexico, grabbed the No. 1 spot on the annual top-10 endangered rivers list released this week by American Rivers.

The group, Nuestro Rio, hailed the listing as partial victory of their young movement. Andres Ramirez, Nuestro Rio’s director, said for a river so rich in Latino history it was important to call national attention to its problems.

“We wanted to be first on the list not because it’s the nation’s worst river, or because it’s the most damaged,” Ramirez said. “We see it as a call to action. At this point in its history, we can change course and prevent the river from going down the same path – so we don’t continue to destroy the river.”

American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, projects the Colorado River’s dwindling supply will be outstripped over the next 50 years.

Pointing to a three-year Federal Bureau of Reclamation study, the findings show the Colorado River won't always be able to serve all the residents, businesses, ranchers, Native Americans and farmers who rely upon it.

Already, it is drained of nearly every drop by the time it reaches Mexico, American Rivers spokeswoman Amy Kober said.

For Latinos, the Colorado River is more than a body of water. It also serves a historical and cultural role. Labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez grew up near the basin of the river and so did hundreds of farm workers.

“Without the Colorado River, there would be no farm worker movement, and without it there would be no Cesar Chavez,” Ramirez said.

The listing drew an endorsement from an Interior Department official who praised it for raising the profile of problems facing what she called a critical resource.

"The river is the essential foundation to the health and prosperity of the American Southwest," Assistant Interior Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle said in a statement. It "provides multiple and diverse benefits including water supplies for agriculture and people, outdoor recreation, clean energy generation, and unparalleled ecosystems."

The list, produced with Protect the Flows and Nuestro Rio, notes that the Colorado is sometimes called the most controlled and plumbed river on Earth, and has more dams and diversions planned. River water irrigates nearly 4 million acres of farmland, which yield about 15 percent of the nation's crops, and serves as a primary drinking water supply for cities including Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Officials talked about the report Wednesday at a marina on the scenic but drought-scarred Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam. A white mineral "bathtub ring" stretches more than 100 feet up the rocky shore from the current water line to the 1983 high-water mark. Officials say Lake Mead is still about half-full.

"The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, not just for people but also for fish and wildlife and the river ecosystem," Gary Wockner, an official with the Denver-based advocacy group Save the Colorado, said in a separate interview.

"It's time for Congress to recognize that it is stretched to the breaking point right now, and to begin appropriating funds to support water conservation and river protection programs in the Colorado River basin," Wockner said.

Kober noted the Colorado River also topped the America's Most Endangered Rivers list in 1991 and 2004, and made the list in 1992, 1997, 1998 and 2010. Rankings are determined by nomination from river groups and advocates based on the size of the threat, the significance of the waterway to people and nature and whether it can help influence action in the coming year.

"The bureau report underscores that there's not enough water to meet demand," Kober said of the 163-page Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. "No one is going to fix the Colorado River in one year. But we need people to come together and we need Congress to fund efforts like WaterSMART and Title XVI."

Title XVI is a Bureau of Reclamation-led water recycling and reuse program. WaterSMART, an acronym for Sustain and Manage America's Resources for Tomorrow, was established in February 2010 to coordinate and encourage the efficient use of water and a blend of hydrologic and energy policies.

Castle noted that in addition to completing the three-year study, the federal government signed a recent supplement to a Colorado River water use treaty with Mexico. It provides for international cooperation to ensure that river water reaches the Gulf of California for the first time in decades.

American Rivers listed the Flint River in Georgia, the San Saba River in Texas, the Little Plover River in Wisconsin and the Catawba River in the Carolinas as at-risk from drought, overuse and pollution.

The 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota ranked sixth on the Endangered Waters list, followed by the Black Warrior River in Alabama, the Rough and Ready and Baldface creeks in Oregon, the Kootenai River in Canada, Montana and Idaho and the Niobrara River in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Merced River, which flows through Yosemite Valley in California, was added as an 11th threatened waterway due to concerns that Congress may weaken wild and scenic protections, Kober said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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