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Report: Half of the West’s Rivers Altered by Development, Diversions

A new report from the Center for American Progress found that rivers in Western states have been disturbed, from headwaters to floodplains. Kate Kelly sheds more light on the project, one of the most extensive of its kind.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A small stream of wastewater flows into a creek that feeds the Animas River in San Juan County, Colorado, in 2015. The contaminated wastewater came from a spill at the Gold King Mine, which polluted the Animas River for many miles downstream. It's an example of the disturbances that have disrupted half of all rivers in the West.Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Many Americans may not realize it, but rivers throughout the West are increasingly under siege. The threats are not as apparent as they once were in the era of big dam building, which makes them that much more troubling. Climate change, land development and catastrophic forest fires are the big concerns today. These are relatively slow-moving threats, but no less transformative.

Water development is still a player. Colorado, Utah and California are all entertaining big new dam proposals. All three states are also pondering major pipelines to divert river flows, even as those flows diminish due to persistent drought and a warming climate.

A new report by the Center for American Progress helps put all this in perspective. The report, produced in partnership with Conservation Science Partners, found that 49 percent of all river miles in Western states have been modified from their original condition, either by changes in flow or adjacent land development. High-elevation headwaters have not been spared, with 35 percent disturbed by some form of development. The report includes an interactive map that illuminates conditions on thousands of western rivers.

To explain the report further, Water Deeply recently spoke with Kate Kelly, public lands project director at the Center for American Progress.

Water Deeply: Your report claims that it “defies conventional wisdom about the West.” How is that?

Kate Kelly: I think there’s a sense, especially for people that live on the East Coast, that the West is a place that in some ways remains a frontier. And once you get outside some of the metro areas, that there is an abundance of wild and open space. We wanted to test that assumption. And we found there is a football field of land that’s disappearing every 2.5 minutes from various human activities, whether that’s energy development or agriculture-based activities. That was a really startling statistic.

This is, in many ways, the first comprehensive snapshot of how rivers in the West are doing. We found that nearly half are altered from their natural state. That number jumps much higher if you’re just looking at the large, boatable rivers that most people think about. About 82 percent of those large rivers are altered from their natural state.

This analysis also found that even the headwaters of rivers are very impacted from human activities, mostly due to development along the surrounding land for headwaters. More than a third of headwaters were impacted.

Headwaters are the source of clean drinking water for many Americans. So that has a very direct impact on the health of communities, and if headwaters start out damaged, diverted or polluted, it literally all goes downhill from there.

Water Deeply: What are some of the worst cases in the West?

Kelly: I think one of the states that fared the worst was Utah. That state had the most altered rivers in the West. Nearly all of its major rivers are dammed or diverted or altered by human activity. I think part of that is because Utah doesn’t have as many waterways as other states. So a lot of the development has happened along fewer places.

Also, many people know that the Colorado River is under incredible stress. This analysis helped put some numbers to what that means. The number that stood out to me was that by the time the Colorado River reaches the border with Mexico, it has flowed past 20,000 active or abandoned mines.

We wanted to highlight that, because the policies we have in place to deal with mining and mine cleanup are incredibly outdated and underfunded. This speaks to one area where the federal government has fallen asleep at the wheel, and we are hopeful Congress can act to strengthen the policies around mining and mine cleanup. Senator Bennet of Colorado has introduced a proposal to implement a fee or royalty program that helps fund mine cleanup.

Water Deeply: You also looked at the role of river-related recreation. What did you find?

Kelly: There were sort of two good-news nuggets to come out of this report. One is that rivers that flow through protected areas – whether national parks, wilderness areas or state protected lands – are 50 percent more natural than those that flow through unprotected area. I think that speaks to the value of conservation, not only when it comes to water usage but also to the importance of public lands and private lands around rivers.

The other piece of good news was that, basically, the more rivers a community has the stronger their outdoor recreation economy is. What that says is that river-rich communities are at a real distinct advantage when it comes to their economy. We wanted to explore that question of whether there was a link between rivers and outdoor recreation economies, because there are a lot of policies that governments can put in place to strengthen outdoor recreation.

For example, there are states across the West that are starting to hire outdoor recreation managers. These are people whose full-time job is to think about the state’s outdoor recreation economy and facilitate that. There are also policies that can strengthen access to outdoor recreation. Montana has a particularly strong stream access law.

Residents sit on the edge of the Animas River in Durango, Colorado in 2015. The river was closed to public access as a safety precaution after millions of gallons of wastewater spilled into the river from an abandoned mine upstream. It was one glaring example of the threats western rivers face from development and diversion. (Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Water Deeply: We depend heavily on these damaged rivers for things like water supply and flood control. Do you identify any alternatives that satisfy these needs while helping rivers?

Kelly: Our goal with this analysis was to provide data and arm local, state and federal policymakers with a picture of what threats exist for their rivers and what those impacts are. It’s up to local communities and states, especially right now, to pair those threats with solutions. This analysis is not a prescription for a certain avenue or policy. It’s really starting to sketch out a road map for how to restore and protect rivers.

Water Deeply: What’s the climate like right now for rectifying some of the problems rivers face?

Kelly: There have been a lot of troubling signs from the Trump administration that they are not going to be serious about protecting and restoring rivers. That includes ignoring climate change, an emphasis on gray infrastructure at the expense of green infrastructure and total disregard for any conservation policies or funding.

However, water can be one of the few places where there is bipartisan agreement. So, perhaps Congress will be able to advance some policies that are more balanced and recognize what rivers need.

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