Streams that supply drinking water in danger following 2023 Supreme Court decision that stripped wetlands protections: Report

Written by on April 16, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — A Supreme Court decision that stripped protections from America’s wetlands will have reverberating impacts on rivers that supply drinking water all over the U.S., according to a new report.

The rivers of New Mexico are among the waterways that will be affected most by the May 2023 Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA, which rolled back decades of federal safeguards under the Clean Water Act for about half of the nation’s wetlands and up to four million miles of streams that supply drinking water for up to four million people, according to the report, titled “America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2024.”.

The Supreme Court decision cut protections for streams that only run during the rainy season or for periods of the year after snowmelt, which is typical for the arid environment in the Southwest.

“When you look at the most endangered rivers this year, most of them are a result of that,” Tom Kiernan, president and CEO of environmental nonprofit American Rivers, told ABC News about the Supreme Court decision. “Those stretches of small streams that lead into the rivers or wetlands that support these rivers are no longer protected.”

About 96% of New Mexico’s streams are now vulnerable to pollution due to the lack of protections, with potential harmful downstream impacts in other states in the Southwest along the Rio Grande, Gila, San Juan and Pecos rivers, according to the report.

In Santa Fe, the drinking water depends on strong protections for small streams that feed into the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande, Anna Hansen, Santa Fe County Commissioner for District 2, said in a statement provided to ABC News.

“The Sackett decision has stripped away those protections and our residents are now at risk,” Hansen said.

In Connecticut and Massachusetts, the hydroelectric power dam on the Farmington River is increasingly causing algal blooms to grow in the water, Kiernan said, which “are very much harming the health of that river and the ability for that river to be a source of drinking water.”

Climate change is also a concern, as researchers are monitoring increased water temperatures in rivers throughout the country, he said.

“The combination of climate change stressing our rivers and the Supreme Court deciding to stop the protections for half of our wetlands — that creates a combination that profoundly threatens our rivers,” Kiernan said.

Although the majority of the endangered rivers on this year’s list are not broadly known, they are “critically important” for drinking water, wildlife habitat, commerce and recreation, Kiernan said.

They are especially crucial in arid states in the Southwest, he said, adding that New Mexico needs to pass legislation to strengthen state laws and provide permanent funding for conservation programs.

“We have depended on this water for hundreds of years,” Vicente Fernandez, community leader in New Mexico and mayordomo, or manager, of a centuries-old network of irrigation ditches called acequias, said in a statement. “This is our tradition, this is our culture. We don’t want to be a people that loses its traditions because we haven’t taken the right steps to protect our rivers.”

The report is a call to action for Americans to protect their rivers, Kiernan said.

These are America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2024, according to the report:

1. Rivers of New Mexico: Threatened by loss of federal clean water protections.

2. Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers in Mississippi: Yazoo Pumps project threatens wetlands.

3. Duck River in Tennessee: Excessive water use threatens water levels.

4. Santa Cruz River in Arizona, Mexico: Water scarcity and climate change threaten water levels.

5. Little Pee Dee River in North Carolina, South Carolina: Harmful development and highway construction are negatively impacting the river.

6. Farmington River in Connecticut, Massachusetts: Hydroelectric power dam creating increasing algal blooms.

7. Trinity River in California: Outdated water management impacting the river.

8. Kobuk River in Alaska: Road construction, mining impacting the river.

9. Tijuana River in California, Mexico: Pollution affecting water supplies.

10. Blackwater River in West Virginia: Highway development impacting river.

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