Flowing Through Indian Country: 5 More Endangered Rivers

Tim Palmer, Courtesy American Rivers Rainie Falls on the Rogue River in Oregon. These rivers may look pristine, but they are in peril, according to the conservation group American Rivers, which released a list of 10 most endangered rivers on Turtle Island.

Flowing Through Indian Country: 5 More Endangered Rivers

Editor’s note: While the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is the most endangered river on Turtle Island according to the conservation group American Rivers, there are nine more besides it. Last week we brought you the top five; here is the rest of the list of 10 rivers under the most threat.

Chuitna River, Alaska

The Chuitna, or Chuit, River traverses 25 miles from the Tordrillo Mountains west of Anchorage to Cook Inlet, paralleling for part of its journey the Pan Am Highway and passing a number of Native communities along the way. American Rivers points to a strip-mining coal operation proposed by PacRim Coal as its reason for listing the Chuitna River on its top 10 endangered list for the year.

“The Chuitna River supports Alaskan Native communities, wild salmon, abundant wildlife including moose, bear, and wolf, and excellent opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other recreation,” said American Rivers in calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a mining permit for the project. “PacRim Coal’s proposal to develop what would be Alaska’s largest open-pit coal strip mine at the Chuitna River’s headwaters poses an unacceptable threat to the economy and communities that rely on clean water and healthy salmon runs.”

PacRim Coal is an Anchorage-based company under the Petro-Hunt Group of Dallas that holds the rights for the mining area. PacRim maintains that its Chuitna Coal Project will develop resources, boost local economies, and support mental health and land trust programs throughout Alaska. The company argues that the Chuitna River is not directly within the proposed eight-mile square proposed strip mine, but acknowledges that a tributary, Middle Creek, runs through the middle of the project. Among owners of lands within the proposed mine area are the Tyonek Native Corporation, the Cook Inlet Regional Corporation and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The land itself would be leased under the Alaska Mental Health Land Trust.

Local residents are divided on the project, some supporting the economic benefits and others fearing the environmental consequences.

Rogue River System, Oregon; Smith River, Oregon and California

This entry comprises a number of water systems in Oregon and northern California that American Rivers said are in danger because of proposed nickel mines. The organization also called on the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior to withdraw these waterways from mining immediately.

Known for their healthy salmon runs, biodiversity and recreational opportunities, the Wild and Scenic Illinois, Rogue and Smith rivers are threatened by proposed nickel mines in their headwaters, as well as in the headwaters of Pistol River and Hunter Creek.

“These rivers are a part of our local heritage,” said Joseph Vaile, executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center to American Rivers. “This is one of the largest, intact wild areas we have left on the entire West Coast.”

In addition, the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Oregon is one of the West Coast’s most productive salmon and steelhead habitats, with 100,000 fish returning annually on average. Its largest tributary is the Illinois River, which is a well-known wild salmon and steelhead refuge, as well as full of rare plants.

Some of the proposed mining sites are on federal lands, including the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

St. Louis River, Minnesota

The St. Louis is the largest U.S. tributary into Lake Superior and flows more than 180 miles through northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead region before reaching the lake. A proposal for a copper-nickel sulfide mining operations around Hoyt Lakes and the headwaters of the river is what landed it on the American Rivers list. The mine threatens drinking water as well as Ojibwe treaty-protected hunting and fishing rights, the group noted. Three Ojibwe tribes have been part of the review process—the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands. The river flows through the ceded territories of concern to the Ojibwe nation and provides fish and wild rice habitat.

Fond du Lac and Grand Portage have voiced strong concern about the proposal, while the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa take a more moderate view.

Kevin Leecy, chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, said Bois Forte wants a full scientific analysis before proceeding. Bois Forte lands are the closest to the proposed mine.

Photo: Blue Lapis, Courtesy American Rivers - The St. Louis River in northern Minnesota.

Harpeth River, Tennessee

Sewage pollution and water withdrawals are the main environmental threats faced by the Harpeth River, which flows through Williamson County, one of the fastest growing counties in Tennessee, and crossing downtown Franklin, one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.

“This rapid development has already impacted the river with treated sewage and water withdrawals,” American Rivers stated. “The river’s waters, fish and wildlife, and recreation values are threatened by sewage and water treatment plant expansions. Unless state officials require state-of-the-art technology to improve sewage treatment, the river will be overwhelmed by treated sewage pollution and public health could be compromised.”

The organization called on state officials and the EPA to require state-of-the-art technology for nutrient pollution in considering a pending permit for the expansion of Franklin’s sewer plant and called on the state to incorporate more recent science-based understanding of river flows before issuing water-withdrawal permits.

Photo: Dorie Bolze, Courtesy American Rivers - The Harpeth River near a rec center in Tennessee.

Pearl River, Louisiana and Mississippi

Proposal of a new dam, nine miles downstream from an existing dam and reservoir, would endanger the Pearl River, American Rivers stated in placing it on the most endangered. The dam would create a 1,500-acre lake and is being proposed as a flood control measure.

“Building a new dam on the Pearl River would be an expensive boondoggle that would cause irreparable damage,” said Ben Emanuel of American Rivers. “Now is the time to protect and restore our rivers, not build new dams and destroy the health of rivers and fisheries.”

Other concerns over the dam project center around the plans for widening, deepening and straightening seven miles of the river.

“Jackson (Mississippi) is unlikely to see flood control benefits from this project, and areas immediately downstream of this new dam will feel the negative effects of faster flows,” American Rivers said. “The project will also submerge riverside habitat in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.”

The plans could also affect prime bird habitat along a major migration corridor and may threaten commercial oyster and fishing operations in the area by affecting salinity, other objectors say.

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