Rivers typically evoke an image of stolid inevitability, interrupted only occasionally by joyful, dashing exuberance. But around the country today, these symbols of placid continuity have come up against political boulders and economic logjams.
Conservationists warn that despite long-standing protection efforts, these arteries of commerce and recreation increasingly are impacted by development and overuse.
The Clinton administration wants to expand federal help in river protection by designating "American heritage rivers." Many state and local officials like the idea and are taking part in the new initiative, designed to focus resources and attention on river renewal.
But many others around the country see this as a direct attack on local control and a threat to private property rights.
"Who knows what would happen if a new federal river authority began to impose new rules - with taxpayer-money bribes - on the rivers of our nation?" asks Lee Anderson, editor and publisher of The Chattanooga Free Press. "Do we want people along the Tennessee River, and other rivers that might be designated American Heritage Rivers, to have property rights infringed?"
Farmers are particularly concerned. Because of recent problems with toxic algae blooms in Maryland and elsewhere, agricultural-waste runoff has become the new focus for government regulation and cleanup legislation.
The US Environmental Protection Agency last month proposed new pollution standards for the largest cattle, hog, and poultry businesses in the country. Noting that most rivers cross state lines, a panel of state and local officials last week urged Senate Agriculture Committee members to approve such federal controls.
In its annual report on the 20 "most endangered rivers," the conservation group American Rivers this week hit hard at "agricultural pollution and overuse."
"Almost half a million animal factory farms are producing 130 times the amount of waste of the human population," says Rebecca Wodder, the group's president.
"But unlike human waste," she says, "these mountains of hog and chicken manure remain untreated and are either stored in unregulated facilities that leak or spill waste into groundwater or rivers, or spread directly on farm fields as fertilizer only to run off in large quantities when it rains, contaminating the water."
"Waste from one of these factory operations is equal to that of a medium-sized city - a city with no sewage treatment plant," she adds.
Among other activities threatening rivers, the group reported, are gold and copper mines, municipal sewage overflows, and radioactive waste contamination.
Another research and advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, this week reported that the instances of possible fish contamination in US rivers and lakes due to pollution had increased by more than 70 percent between 1993 and 1996.
Using "state fish advisories" collected by the EPA, the NRDC warned that "despite some progress, current government efforts to manage the threat of contaminated fish leave the public inadequately protected."
Among the contaminants reported by state agencies in their warnings were mercury, PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, and dioxin.
"Contaminants in fish are an important signal that toxic chemicals are accumulating in our environment," said Jessica Landman, NRDC senior attorney. "The number of advisories and the number of states issuing them are disturbing because it indicates that there is a critical problem with contamination in many of our nation's water bodies."
Both Republicans and Democrats have lined up at the state and local levels to seek help under the Clinton administration's American Heritage Rivers initiative.
They have nominated 126 such rivers in 47 states, 10 of which soon will be the first selected for special federal attention. But opponents of the White House on Capitol Hill have been building rhetorical dams against the effort.
Drying up the funding
Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington grumbled that American Rivers - which named that portion of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach as the "most endangered river" - was "trying to advance its own political agenda."
In trying to stop funding of the American Heritage Rivers initiative, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho said, "The program is illegal, has not met public-comment requirements, misappropriates funds, usurps water rights, private property rights, the sovereignty of all 50 states, and defies the constitutional separation of powers."
Opponents are particularly upset that President Clinton launched the program by executive order rather than submit it to Congress as legislation.
Led by Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, who chairs the House Resources Committee, Ms. Chenoweth and other Western conservatives sued to stop the administration's rivers initiative. But a federal judge recently ruled that the lawmakers had no standing in the case.
America's most endangered rivers
The 1998 ranking by American Rivers is in order of priority.
1. Columbia River, Hanford Reach (Washington)
2. Missouri River (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri)
3. Pocomoke River (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia)
4. Kern River (California)
5. Blackfoot River (Montana)
6. Colorado River Delta (Mexico: Baja California, Sonora)
7. Chattahoochee River (Georgia, Alabama, Florida)
8. Lower Snake River (Washington)
9. Apple River (Wisconsin, Illinois)
10. Pinto Creek (Arizona)
11. Wolf River (Wisconsin)
12. Potomac River (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia)
13. Rogue/Illinois River System (including Elk Creek and Rough & Ready Creek) (Oregon)
14. Taku River (British Columbia, Alaska)
15. Crooked Creek (Arkansas)
16. Passaic River (New Jersey)
17. Mattaponi River (Virginia)
18. Walla Walla River (Oregon, Washington)
19. Uinta River (Utah)
20. Kansas River (Kansas)
Source: American Rivers