America's finest rivers awash with raw sewage

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The Independent US

Back in the mid-1950s US President Dwight Eisenhower used to travel to the Fraser River in Colorado to spend his summers fishing for trout. He was such a regular visitor and an avid fisherman ­ typically casting a Red Quill fly ­ that the Byers Peak Ranch where he used to stay became known as the Western White House.

Back in the mid-1950s US President Dwight Eisenhower used to travel to the Fraser River in Colorado to spend his summers fishing for trout. He was such a regular visitor and an avid fisherman ­ typically casting a Red Quill fly ­ that the Byers Peak Ranch where he used to stay became known as the Western White House.

But now the Fraser River on which the President spent his afternoons fishing the cold, clear waters is imperiled like never before. Having long been plundered by the regional water board, the 30 mile stream was yesterday named in a report as one of the 10 most threatened rivers in the US.

"For years the Denver Water Board has siphoned 65 per cent of the Fraser River's water and piped it across the mountains to fuel runaway development," said the report by AmericanRivers.Org, a Washington-based environmental campaign group. "Now it plans to take most of the rest."

The 10 rivers highlighted by the group are spread across the US. While several are located in states known for their industry, such as Ohio, others are in the west and in the Rockies. The Fraser River forms in the snowfields of the nation's continental divide and flows 30 miles to the north and west before it joins the Colorado River, itself little more than a mountain stream at that stage.

The threat to the river is from over-extraction. In the years since President Eisenhower stayed in a lodge at the ranch overlooking the small town of Fraser, the Denver Water Board has been taking 65 per cent of the river's flow to meet the demands of burgeoning development in an area on the east of the mountains known as the Front Range. Now the board, the largest utility in the state, is to seek permission to extract up to 85 per cent of the river's flow.

Adam Cwiklin, a local councillor from Fraser, where people have launched a project to collect photographs, documents and oral histories relating to Eisenhower's visits, said the extraction was slowly killing the river. He said: "This is called the Fraser River Valley and there are several towns that depend on the river. Soon it may be that we no longer have a river, just a dry riverbed."

Over-extraction is just one of the problems affecting America's waterways. Yesterday's report highlighted a number of threats including pollution from development and factory farming, as well as the building of dams and reservoirs. One of the biggest problems was the release of untreated sewage. Last year more than 860bn gallons of untreated sewage was poured into US rivers, making millions of people ill and causing widespread environmental damage. At the same time the Bush administration is planning to lower clean water standards.

"All across America, rivers link one town's toilets to the next town's faucets," said Rebecca Wodder, president of AmericanRivers.Org. "And when it rains, sewage pours into those rivers, billions of gallons every year.

"Kids in America should be able to enjoy their neighbourhood creeks and rivers without playmates like salmonella, hepatitis and dysentery." The most threatened river identified was the Susquehanna, which starts in upstate New York, makes its way through Pennsylvania and then enters the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US and another severely polluted body of water.

The source of the river is close to Cooperstown, and from there it flows 444 miles before broadening into a vast tidal estuary at Havre de Grace in Maryland. It drains an area of 27,510 square miles ­ more than any other river on the Atlantic coast.

But the Susquehanna is a hard-working river. On its journey to the Chesapeake it passes through several industrial cities, four hydro-electric dams have blocked its flow and a century of coal mining has left a legacy of acid pollution. The infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant, where a reactor suffered a partial core-meltdown in March 1979, is situated along the river just south of Harrisburg.

"Throughout the river's watershed, aging sewer systems discharge enormous volumes of raw or poorly treated sewage, which eventually flow into the Chesapeake," said the report. "Unless local, state and federal lawmakers invest in clean-up and prevention, the Susquehanna will remain among the nation's dirtiest rivers." In all the cases, environmental protection is threatened by industrial and residential development. But campaigners believe Congress can help by refusing to enact Bush administration plans to cut clean water measures by US$500m in the next year. Such a reduction would take federal assistance to an all-time low.

Ten Most Endangered Waterways

* Santee river Enormous hydropower dam is draining South Carolina's "forgotten river." State regulators must stop it drying out completely.

* Little Miami river Risks being pumped full of waste and chemicals from proposed sewage plants and local construction work.

* Tuolumne river San Francisco authorities plan a pipeline that could increase the water it drains from the Tuolumne by 70 per cent. Salmon and steel industries and nature resorts are at risk.

* Price river Authorities in Central Utah are under pressure to build a new dam and reservoir to divert water from Price River communities and pipe it to others.

* Santa Clara river Southern California's developers are planning on transforming the land surrounding its last significant river into shopping malls and plush new homes.

* Susquehanna river Enormous volumes of raw sewage discharged into the river threaten Chesapeake Bay, where the river meets the sea.

* McCrystal creek The New Mexico creek and the surrounding mountain area, Valle Vidal, face the prospect of intrusive coal bed methane drilling.

* Fraser river The Denver Water Board has been siphoning off 65 per cent of the river's water for years, but it plans to take even more - leaving it it with almost nothing but effluent from local sewage plants.

* Skykomish river Runaway development threatens to foul the clear waters of the Skykomish river, known for its rural quality of life.

* Roan creek Extensive dairy farming could mean manure sullying the creek.