WASHINGTON -- April 13 -- Some 860 billion gallons of untreated sewage foul America's rivers with pollution and make millions of American sick each year, but the federal government has turned its back on the problem, warned American Rivers with the release of its 2005 America's Most Endangered Rivers report. These problems are particularly apparent -- and poised to get worse -- along the Susquehanna River, which tops this year's list of rivers facing uncertain futures and crucial turning points.
The group called on federal lawmakers to reject the cuts in clean water investment proposed by the Bush administration and step up their oversight of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carries out its water protection responsibilities.
"All across America, rivers link one town's toilets to the next town's faucets," said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers. "And when it rains, sewage pours into those rivers, billions of gallons of it every year."
Sewer spills, poor treatment, and other symptoms of a failing system can be found all across the country, including four of the rivers on this year's list:
-- Hundreds of outfall pipes dump raw sewage directly into the Susquehanna River (No. 1), fouling the river and Chesapeake Bay downstream, but Washington is cutting the assistance needed to remedy the problem.
-- If Denver succeeds in withdrawing more water from the Fraser River (No. 3) in Colorado, there won't be enough flow left over to dilute treated sewage to safe levels for swimming and fishing.
-- The sewage treatment plant in Mountain City, Tennessee, is so outdated that treatment plant operators have been caught spreading sludge along Roan Creek (No. 5) in the middle of the night.
-- Sewage treatment plants along Ohio's Little Miami River (No. 7), can't handle their current volumes but new roads and development threaten to make the problem worse.
Sewer spills and overflows pose a significant public health risk. Untreated human sewage teems with salmonella, hepatitis, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and many other infectious diseases. Scientists believe as many as 3.5 million Americans get sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or otherwise touching water they thought was safe. Between 1985 and 2000, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented 251 separate disease outbreaks and nearly half a million cases of waterborne illness from polluted drinking water in the United States.
"Kids in America should be able to enjoy their neighborhood creeks and rivers without playmates like salmonella, hepatitis, and dysentery," Wodder said.
Many American cities have sewage pipe networks and plants that date to the early 1970s or earlier, and this aging infrastructure is wearing out even as treatment needs grow. There are 600,000 miles of sewer pipes across the country. More than 30 percent of them will be in poor or very poor condition by the year 2020. In 2001, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's wastewater infrastructure a "D" grade overall. Overdevelopment contributes to the problem. As urban areas sprawl into the countryside, more stormwater surges into sewers -- and more pollution spews out.
The federal government only spends about a penny per day per U.S. resident to address this problem, but the Bush administration has asked Congress to slash clean water measures by more than $500 million in the coming year. This would take federal assistance to an all time low. The EPA has also proposed a "dumping policy," allowing sewage treatment plants to skip certain treatment steps when it was raining -- discharging wastewater with high concentrations of germs.
"It wasn't long ago, the deadly waterborne illness, Cryptosporidium, was found near Milwaukee and was traced back to a sewage dumping occurrence that would be allowed under this proposal. This contamination killed over 100 people and sickened over 400,000," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.-1st) said in March when introducing the Save Our Waters from Sewage Act. "Billions of gallons of human waste are dumped into our Great Lakes and other water resources each year. This sort of outbreak can happen again if we don't act now to prevent the EPA from rolling back our clean water standards."
As a first step towards rectifying this situation, American Rivers called on Congress to reject further cuts and invest more in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to $3.2 billion in 2006 and beyond. Increasing investment to $10.85 per citizen per year would be a good start, but it's not enough. According to American Rivers, lawmakers should also establish a dedicated federal trust fund to disperse aid to water utilities on a consistent basis -- something Congress has already done for airports, barges, and federal highways.
As a second step, Congress should invest federal dollars smarter -- encouraging reforestation and wetlands restoration, and reforming road construction practices to effectively expand the capacity and extend the life of existing systems by reducing the volume of stormwater they have to handle, the group said.
Following is American Rivers' list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2005:
-- No. 1 Susquehanna River (NY, PA, MD)
Contact: Sara Nicholas, (717) 232-8355
Throughout the Susquehanna River watershed, aging sewer systems discharge enormous volumes of raw or poorly treated sewage, which eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Unless local, state and federal lawmakers invest in prevention and cleanup, the Susquehanna will remain among the nation's dirtiest rivers and more and more of Chesapeake Bay will become a dead zone.
-- No. 2 McCrystal Creek (NM)
Contact: Chad Smith, (402) 423-7930
McCrystal Creek and much of the pristine Valle Vidal area that surrounds it face the prospect of intrusive coal bed methane drilling. Unless the U.S. Forest Service resists White House arm-twisting, the agency's promise to protect McCrystal Creek will be the next -- but probably not the last -- promise to posterity that will be broken in the quest for fossil fuels.
-- No. 3 Fraser River (CO)
Contact: Jamie Mierau, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3003
For years, the Denver Water Board has siphoned 65 percent of the Fraser River's water and piped it across the mountains to fuel runaway development along the Front Range. Now it plans to take most of the rest. Unless the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers puts a stop to the water board's plans, there won't be much left in the river except effluent from local sewage plants.
-- No. 4 Skykomish River (WA)
Contact: Amy Souers Kober, (206) 213-0330 ext. 23
Runaway development threatens to foul the clear waters of the Skykomish River, known for its fishing and other outdoor activities, working farms, forests, and rural quality of life. Unless the Snohomish County Council plans responsibly for growth and acts to protect the river, the very characteristics that make the valley so attractive to its residents could be lost forever.
-- No. 5 Roan Creek (TN)
Contact: Eric Eckl, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3023
The streams and rivers of the Appalachian Mountains have largely escaped the scourge of factory dairy farming -- but that may be about to change for Tennessee's Roan Creek. Unless Tennessee officials establish and enforce stricter rules, cow manure will foul the stream, expose residents to disease, and jeopardize the region's economic prospects.
-- No. 6 Santee River (SC)
Contact: Gerrit Jobsis, (803) 771-7114
For decades, an enormous hydropower dam complex has drained one of the East Coast's largest rivers virtually dry. Unless state regulators stand up to a powerful and uncooperative utility and demand that some of that water be put back, the Santee will continue to be South Carolina's "forgotten river."
-- No. 7 Little Miami River (OH)
Contact: Quinn McKew, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3069
Proposed wastewater plant expansions and new bridges and roads are poised to pollute Ohio's Little Miami River with more sewage, stormwater, chemicals, and trash. Unless the state insists on modern sewage treatment and sensible transportation planning, the crown jewel of Cincinnati's and southwestern Ohio's outdoor destinations could be sullied beyond recovery.
-- No. 8 Tuolumne River (CA)
Contact: Steve Rothert, (530) 478-5672
The City of San Francisco has proposed a new pipeline that could increase the water it removes from the Tuolumne River by as much as 70 percent. Additional diversions would deplete 100 miles of productive, pristine river habitat and compound pollution problems in San Francisco Bay. Unless San Francisco invests in making its existing supplies go further, California could lose some of its best salmon and steelhead runs, world-class outdoor recreation, and the economic diversity this river now provides.
-- No. 9 Price River (UT)
Contact: Gary Belan, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3027
Near the remote headwaters of the Price River in central Utah, the Bureau of Reclamation is under pressure to build a dam and reservoir to take away one community's water and pipe it over the mountains to another. Unless the local water district comes to its senses and the Forest Service strengthens watershed protections, communities along the Price River could lose their water, their wildlife, and their hopes for a more prosperous future.
-- No. 10 Santa Clara River (CA)
Contact: Serena McClain, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3004
Until recent years, the Santa Clara River has largely escaped the intense development transforming most of Southern California, but developers are now eyeing the river and adjacent lands for a massive expanse of new condominiums and shopping centers. Unless regulators hold new development to high standards, Southern California will lose its last significant natural river.