This land of elegant light and vast mountainous spaces is shaped and distinguished by its rivers, whether rivulets sourced in Rocky Mountain snowfields or in the desert harshness where temperatures climb at the border with Mexico. Canyons are the byword here in a landscape extravaganza beyond compare: the Arkansas bursting out of the southern Rockies, the Green in its 450-mile dam-free red-rock wonderland, the Rio Grande’s edgy frontier of cacti, and, of course, the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon—one of a kind worldwide.

Here in the Yampa and Green Rivers we have three-foot-long endangered pikeminnows that migrate hundreds of miles up and down the desert waterways, while greenback cutthroat trout are endemic to a few Rocky Mountain streams. Here cottonwood groves along the waterways account for most of the wildlife habitat in an enormous geographic estate now troubled by energy development, thirsty cities, depleted groundwater and booming growth.

Key Issues

The lifeline of the Colorado River sustains more than 36 million people, along with a great majority of our nation’s food supply, and endangered fish and wildlife across seven states and two countries. The Colorado also supports a $26 billion dollar recreation economy that supports tens of thousands of jobs across the west. However, demand on the river’s water exceeds its supply, leaving the river so over-tapped that it dries up nearly 100 miles from its mouth at the Sea of Cortez.

Water scarcity has always dictated the rhythm of life in the Southwestern US. Pre-puebloan people followed water across the vast landscape, and many waterways in the Southwest are considered sacred to Native American tribes living in the vast and arid region. Settlers and pioneers followed the plow to forge a hardscrabble life along river bottoms and wide plains, some of which have become the modern cities of today. Along the way, these rivers have drawn the attention of trailblazing conservationists, from Theodore Roosevelt’s landmark protection of Grand Canyon, to David Brower’s courageous stand against new dam construction on the Colorado, Yampa, Green, and many other western rivers. Today, groups like American Rivers and our partners across the West advocate for rivers through community-based programs, collaborative strategies to support agriculture and municipalities, and legislative means like the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The lay of the land, the quality of the light, and the flow of water all inspire the defenders of these rivers to do even more to protect what’s left of a place that’s like no other.


In 2019, the Gila River in New Mexico was America’s #1 Most Endangered River®, serving as a bellwether for the remaining free-flowing rivers across the American Southwest. Overall stream flows are projected to decline substantially under future climate scenarios. Human demand for water consumption will increase. Development will further encroach and threaten headwater regions. Invasive species will continue to compete with native species for limited resources, and devastating wildfires will occur more frequently. In short, rivers across the Southwest demand our attention. And while the outlook can sometimes feel grim, there has never been a more important or exciting time to think proactively about the resources we value.

To that end, the Southwest River Protection Program (SRPP) is a focused, coordinated, and impact-driven strategy for protecting the Southwest’s last best rivers and streams, including key headwater areas, meandering riparian  reaches, and large desert rivers flowing through iconic public lands. For nearly 50 years, American Rivers has worked to protect rivers across the country through a demonstrated commitment to healthy ecosystems, thriving communities, and clean water. That same thoughtful and collaborative approach guides our work within the Southwest River Protection Program.

Key rivers we are actively engaged on at this time:

  • Greater Gila and San Francisco Rivers, Southwestern New Mexico
  • Desolation-Gray Canyon area of the Green River, Eastern Utah
  • Yampa River, North-Central Colorado
  • Mesa and headwaters streams of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona such as the Paria and Escalante rivers
  • San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, Western Colorado
  • Upper Rio Grande River, Northern New Mexico
  • San Juan River, Four Corners Region
  • Alan Cressler
    Gunnison River Black Canyon
    Alan Cressler