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Water Demands Draining U.S. Rivers, Report Says

by J.R. Pegg

1998 endangered rivers list
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- Many of America's rivers are suffering from severe water shortages, with drought and human water consumption placing some of these waterways in acute peril, warns a report released April 10 by American Rivers.

The conservation organization's report, "America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2003," details ten rivers that face immediate and severe danger, but paints a larger picture of a nation tumbling towards a possible water crisis.

"America's seemingly insatiable demand for fresh water is nearing nature's limits," American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder told reporters. "And we have designed much of the human landscape to make the problem worse, not better."

At the center of the concern is a simple fact -- the United States uses more water per person than any other country with little regard for waste or cost. The U.S. average of 1,300 gallons per day is some 60 times the average for many developing countries, according to the World Water Council, with some 85 percent used for irrigation.

U.S. irrigation habits, urban sprawl, increased groundwater pumping and loss of wetlands are endangering the nation's rivers and draining its fresh water supply, Wodder explained, and more often than not government policies are making things worse.

Two federal government projects, one to drain 300 square miles of wetlands and another to scour more than 100 miles of river bottom, put Mississippi's Big Sunflower River at the top of this year's list. These U.S. Army Corps of Engineer flood control projects are poised to go forward this year, unless reviews by state officials or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) judge otherwise.

"Unless the EPA stands up to political armtwisting," Wodder said, "the Corps of Engineers will drain and scrape the life out of the Big Sunflower River to help a small number of farms collect bigger subsidy checks from American taxpayers."

The effects of federal agricultural policy and subsidies have had a severe impact on the Klamath River, which is the second cited by American Rivers.

The Bush administration's decision to increase irrigation flows to farmers in the upper region of the river contributed to the deaths of some 33,000 salmon last September. This was the worst recorded fish kill in U.S. history.

Balancing the water needs of competing interests in the Klamath River Basin is not easy, said Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat. But the Bush administration's policy, by pitting upstream farmers against conservationists and fishers, is an attempt "to shoehorn a political solution to a scientific problem," Thompson said at the press conference.

"The problem with the Klamath River is a uniquely local problem that is unfortunately exacerbated by this administration's policies," he said.

Thompson introduced legislation in the House that would allocate $200 million to landowners and tribes throughout the Klamath Basin who participate in water conservation projects. It is designed to bring together stakeholders from the upper and lower basin, Thompson explained, to "eliminate competing interests and find feasible solutions."

"The communities within the Klamath Basin cannot afford to wait any longer," he said.

Severe water shortages earned the Ipswich River the number three slot on the list, but it is not agricultural policy that is causing the crisis in the Massachusetts river. It is excessive groundwater pumping and municipal water consumption that leave portions of the river dry each summer.

The river often looks more like a dirt road, said Kerry Mackin, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.

"We count more dead fish than living fish," Mackin said.

The combination of excessive municipal water consumption and groundwater pumping are directly related and threaten water supplies across the nation, warned Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and author of the book "Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters."

The United States now pumps some 28 trillion gallons of groundwater every year, Glennon explained, with little regard for how this affects the hydrological cycle.

"We are allowing limitless access to a finite resource," he said. "There is a disconnect between the law and science."

Pumping groundwater, Glennon explained, reduces the natural flow of water into the nation's rivers and depletes a resource that took thousands of years to accumulate. But as demand for water increases, local and state entities are increasingly looking below ground for additional supply.

This has created a direct threat to the Platte River, which is on the endangered list, and threatens to undermine an agreement to secure adequate flows in the Platte River and to protect its adjacent wetlands.

The Platte River, which runs through Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, is considered by conservationists to be the most important stopover for migratory birds in the nation's heartland.

Excessive diversion and consumption are also responsible for putting the Rio Grande on this year's list, Wodder explained, and water flow issues also led the organization to put Colorado's Gunnison River on its list.

In part because of population growth, the nation's municipal water consumption is the fastest growing sector of U.S. water use, in particular from low density sprawl development.

This is a serious concern for the Mattaponi River, which makes the endangered list because it is threatened by a planned reservoir that would provide water for the sprawling cities of Virginia's Tidewater region.

"Healthy watersheds capture and store water for human and natural needs, but sprawl development creates landscapes that shed water like a raincoat," Wodder said. "Water rushing down storm drains when it rains is water that will not come up from your well when it is sunny."

Wodder also warned that the Bush administration's decision to revise the scope of the Clean Water Act's protection for wetlands could add to the long list of threats to the nation's rivers. Conservationists believe the reinterpretation of the law by the administration effectively removed protection for as much as 20 percent of the wetlands in the lower 48 states.

"Draining, filling or paving over wetlands and small streams sets off a chain reaction that eventually reduces the water available in river for people and wildlife," Wodder explained. "As wetlands are lost, flash floods increase but less rainfall soaks into the ground. As groundwater levels fall, springs dry up and stream flows drop."

U.S. Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, told reporters at the press conference that he supports a legislative effort to reverse the Supreme Court decision that the Bush administration has used to justify its narrow reinterpretation of what constitutes a protected wetland under the Clean Water Act.

"The Supreme Court decision is undermining a 30 year effort to improve America's waterways," Oberstar said. "We have to get back on track to what the Clean Water Act intended."

The other rivers on the list are Colorado's Gunnison River, which is burdened by unnatural water flows, along with the Snake River and Georgia's Tallapoosa River, which are both threatened by impacts from dams, and the Trinity River in Texas, which could be severely affected by planned flood control and floodplain projects.

The water issues that are affecting America's rivers will only get more serious, said Glennon, and will require strong leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.

"This is a tragedy of the commons," he said. "We need to start to recognize the economic value of water."

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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