Colorado River’s Grand Canyon Named America’s #1 Most Endangered River of 2023
Fate of Grand Canyon hangs in the balance with upcoming river management decisions
Contact: Sinjin Eberle, American Rivers, (719) 294-9388
Washington — American Rivers today named the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon America’s Most Endangered River of 2023, citing the harm that climate change and outdated river management have caused to the river’s unique cultural and ecological values. American Rivers highlighted a critical upcoming decision by the Bureau of Reclamation that will decide the fate of the canyon for the years to come.
Basin-wide drought over the last two decades has forced river managers to alter flows released from Glen Canyon Dam, which has severely impacted the health of the Grand Canyon, one of the nation’s most iconic and beloved landscapes. Without high flows to mobilize sand and sediment, beaches within the canyon have eroded severely, harming the habitat of native fish and wildlife, as well as cultural and recreational values. American Rivers urged the Bureau of Reclamation to recognize the important links between human health, healthy communities, and the environment, and to implement measures to better balance water supply and demand that consider and protect the life-promoting Grand Canyon ecosystem
“The Colorado River is on the brink of collapse and the Grand Canyon is in the crosshairs,” said Sinjin Eberle with American Rivers. “Decisions are being made now that will impact the Grand Canyon and the entire river for decades to come. One of our biggest concerns is that leaders will try to solve the basin’s water challenges by sacrificing the health of the Grand Canyon. That would be an utter tragedy. We must pursue lasting solutions that balance water demands with environmental health and safety, and the protection of this beloved national treasure.”
“Diné Natural Law tells us that we should treat Mother Earth as we would treat our own mothers. When she is in distress we should respect and nurture her,” said Erik Stanfield, Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department. “Our concern for her should not be a reflection of self-interest, but rather an altruistic endeavor to give back when we have taken. We cannot repay all of her gifts, but we can show her kindness, gratitude, and a willingness to sacrifice when she suffers. This is the ethic that we would like to impart to the world outside of Diné-land. The Colorado River, Tooh in Diné Bizaad, is in deep crisis and needs our kindness, gratitude, and sacrifice to heal.”
“The Colorado River is in poor health. Climate change and drought increasingly impact the health and ecosystem of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon as a whole,” said Jakob Maase, AMWG Representative, Hopi Tribe. “The Hopi people have long been stewards of the Grand Canyon and mother Earth. We hope that agencies will listen and work with tribes on tackling these challenges of how to manage and protect the Colorado river and Grand Canyon. Glen Canyon Dam can no longer function in its same capacity and purpose of why it was built, requiring a lot of tribal input & consideration in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The Hopi Tribe will continue to work as stewards in addressing these issues impacting this wonderful place, we all share. It is important to maintain natural flows of the river for a healthy ecosystem for all.”
Winter snowpack has eased the threat of immediate drastic water restrictions, but climate change is still forcing painful decisions about water availability. Over the past two decades, river flows have dropped precipitously, and water levels of Glen Canyon Dam’s Lake Powell and Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead have fallen to historic lows, in large part driven by climate change.
To protect critical infrastructure including dam integrity, hydropower generation and the ability to deliver water through the Grand Canyon to Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico, the federal government and the seven basin states must continue to work together to develop an equitable system that determines the amount and timing of water flowing through Glen Canyon Dam. (Grand Canyon National Park starts 16 miles below the tailwaters of Glen Canyon Dam.)
Adequate base flows, in addition to frequent high flow events, are more important than ever to plan and maintain in order to support and sustain the vital Grand Canyon ecosystem. These flows are critical to maintaining the natural ecosystem, safeguarding cultural values and archeological sites, and supporting the vibrant recreational assets within the canyon.
“The flowing river is the heart, the lifeblood, of the canyon’s special power.
If the Bureau decides now that in future drought years, dam managers can reduce releases from the dam and turn the river into a mere trickle, that would have drastic consequences for people and nature,” Eberle said.
More than a dozen Tribal Nations and Pueblos consider the Canyon sacred, and millions of visitors a year find awe, excitement, and connection. Diminished flows in the river mean a diminished experience for people. Reducing flows would also further harm the canyon’s ecology and biodiversity, from bighorn sheep and mountain lion, to endangered fish including Humpback Chub and Colorado River pikeminnow.
“For everyone who loves the Grand Canyon, this is an ‘all hands on deck’ emergency. It is vital that the public speaks up loud and clear on behalf of this special place,” Eberle said.
American Rivers called on the Bureau of Reclamation to protect public health and safety and support the ecosystem by ensuring that water delivered through the Grand Canyon is released in a way that not only accounts for critical infrastructure and sustains the river’s essential connection to the Lower Basin States and Mexico, but also protects the canyon’s cultural heritage and natural environment. Ultimately, the decisions being made now will impact the availability of drinking water, agricultural water, and water for the environment for everyone touched by the Colorado River.
American Rivers also underscored the importance of leadership and representation of Colorado River Tribes. As sovereign nations, tribes must have an equal role in the deployment and implementation of federal infrastructure dollars and all future Colorado River management decisions.
Recognized as a World Heritage Site, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and one of the most famous landscapes on earth, the Grand Canyon is the heart of the Colorado River Basin’s natural and cultural fabric. The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million people, including some of the nation’s largest cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver, as well as 30 federally recognized Tribes including the Navajo, Ute, Havasupai, and many others. The Colorado River provides irrigation water for nearly six million acres of ranch and farmland, including farms that grow 90 percent of this country’s winter vegetables. The river is also the engine of a recreational economy dependent on adequate river flows and water supplies to operate. In all, the Basin feeds a $1.4 trillion economy integrally connected to the broader national economy.
Now in its 38th year, the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. The report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.
The entire Colorado River was listed as America’s Most Endangered River last year. The river has appeared on the list a total of 12 times since 1991.
America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2023
- Colorado River, Grand Canyon (Arizona):
THREAT: Climate change, outdated water management
AT RISK: Ecosystem health, reliable water delivery, regional economy
- Ohio River (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois):
THREAT: Pollution, climate change
AT RISK: Clean water for 5 million people
- Pearl River (Mississippi):
THREAT: Dredging and dam construction
AT RISK: Clean drinking water, local and downstream communities, fish and wildlife habitat
- Snake River (Idaho, Oregon, Washington):
THREAT: Four federal dams
AT RISK: Tribal treaty rights and culture, endangered salmon runs, rural and local communities
- Clark Fork River (Montana):
THREAT: Pulp mill pollution
AT RISK: Public health, fish and wildlife
- Eel River (California):
AT RISK: Fish and wildlife, tribal culture and sustenance
- Lehigh River (Pennsylvania):
THREAT: Poorly planned development
AT RISK: Clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, rural and local communities, open space
- Chilkat and Klehini rivers (Alaska):
AT RISK: Bald eagle, fish, and wildlife habitat, tribal culture and sustenance
- Rio Gallinas (New Mexico):
THREAT: Climate change, outdated forest and watershed management
AT RISK: Clean drinking water, farming, watershed functionality
- Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, Florida):
AT RISK: Fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands, water quality and flow
About American Rivers
American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on Rivers. For more information, please visit AmericanRivers.org