American Rivers came out there other day with its top 10 list of endangered rivers, and No. 1 was the Upper Delaware, which flows through the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River in New York and Pennsylvania.
No. 3 also falls in the National Park System: West Virginia's Gauley River, around which the Gauley River National Recreation Area rises up from.
It would, of course, be difficult to build such a top 10 list without touching the National Park System, for within its landscape there are many incredible rivers that are confronted by issues. Streams such as the Merced River in Yosemite National Park that is at the center of development issues in the Yosemite Valley, the Gunnison River that flows through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and long endured minimum stream-flow concerns, and the Elwha River in Olympic National Park that has been dammed (though those dams are scheduled to come down beginning next year).
What are the specific threats to the Upper Delaware and the Gauley rivers? According to American Rivers, the Upper Delaware could be compromised "by natural gas extraction activities in the Marcellus Shale, where chemicals are injected into the ground creating untreatable toxic wastewater."
The entire Upper Delaware River and its watershed are located over a geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale. In order to access the reserves of natural gas in the shale, multinational energy corporations have acquired drilling rights to large tracts of land in the watershed. Two companies alone, Chesapeake Appalachia and Statoil, have a stated goal of developing 13,500 to 17,000 gas wells in the region in next twenty years.
Energy companies have requested permits to take clean water from the river to mix with over 650 chemicals (some toxic, undisclosed, and proprietary), to make hydraulic fracturing fluid for injection into wells to release the gas. Each well requires between three and nine million gallons of water for fracturing. Thousands of truck trips per well are required to transport this water, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and possibly leading to contaminated water spills.
As for the Gauley River, which runs through the heart of West Virginia, the surrounding landscape "is scarred by coal mining impacts and subjected to degradation from ongoing mining activity," the advocacy group says. Plans to continue mountaintop mining could increase pollution problems for the river, it said.
In its comments against the proposed mining, the National Park Service stated that, "pollutants pose a threat to aquatic life and human welfare. Precipitates of aluminum, iron, and manganese can coat stream bottom substrate limiting the available habitat for aquatic life, suspended solids are also harmful to aquatic life through the erosion of gills, and aluminum is known to be toxic to aquatic life, and has been associated with neurological and bone diseases in humans."
"... The proximity of these activities and discharges to GRNRA may limit the abundance and productivity of aquatic life in and around GRNRA, particularly mobile species that otherwise might use Rich Creek and its tributaries as refugia, spawning habitat or rearing habitat," the agency added.
At the National Parks and Conservation Association, Joy Oakes, the organization's senior mid-Atlantic Regional director, said the bottom line with both rivers is that their water quality be protected.
“What strikes me in having (the Upper Delaware River) be on that list is how many ways a national park is important. People go to the Upper Delaware to have fun, enjoy a hike, get on the river, get away from civilization to some extent," said Ms. Oakes. "And it’s also, as American Rivers points out, critical drinking water for 17 million people. That is something that must be protected, for the people who drink the water and the animals and plants that live in the park or travel through the park. That’s something that we really can’t take for granted.”
As for the Gauley, she pointed out that the "when people are traveling to enjoy a river for its water, for white-water opportunities, as well as fishing, kayaking, it's important that the water quality be good for that enjoyment, for that economic benefit to continue, as well as for the importance of the fish and the wildlife and the plants that depend upon clean water in the Gauley," Ms. Oakes said. "There are few things that are more important than clean water, and we take it for granted. It’s important for so many reasons. Clean water is the lifeblood of parks, like the Gauley, like the Upper Delaware, and needs to be protected.”
Another river cited by American Rivers that has national park connections is the Upper Colorado River, whose headwaters are in Rocky Mountain National Park and which is threatened by water diversions.