California's Biggest Wild River in Peril

The Smith River flows through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park | Photo: David Fulmer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The largest entirely free-flowing river in California is among the most-threatened rivers in the United States, according to the group American Rivers.

The Smith River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean in Del Norte County about five miles south of the Oregon state line, is the largest river in California with no dams anywhere along its length. That free-flowing nature, along with the protected status of much of the land through which it flows, prompted Congress to grant the Smith Wild and Scenic River status.

But environmentalists are concerned that proposals for nickel mining in the Oregon headwaters of the Smith River's North Fork pose significant peril to the Smith, as well as the Rogue River a little ways north. They say that if the nickel mines go in, both rivers could suffer significant degradation, threatening the Smith River's fabled steelhead run -- along with the majority of Del Norte County residents who rely on the Smith River for drinking water.


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As a result of those mining proposals, American Rivers awarded the Smith and Rogue rivers the uncoveted position of seventh place in the group's annual America's Most Endangered Rivers list.

The nickel mining proposal in the watershed of the Smith River North Fork would allow 59 exploratory drilling sites across about 3,000 acres of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, an important wildlife habitat area with unique botanical diversity. Activists say that's inappropriate for a river whose 719-square-mile watershed is almost completely undeveloped.

"If one mine starts operating, thousands of acres of wild watersheds could be developed on nearby federal public lands," says American Rivers in its report, "impacting designated and eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers and turning a rare oasis of clean water, wild salmon, and rare plants into an industrial wasteland."

The group notes that the U.S. Forest Service has recommended against nickel mining in the Rough and Ready Creek drainage, which empties into the Rogue via the Illinois River near Cave Junction. Representative Jared Huffman, who represents California's 2nd Congressional District, has asked the Obama administration for a temporary ban on mining in the area. Huffman was joined in that request by Oregon Representative Peter De Fazio and Oregon's senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Along with the Smith and Rogue rivers, 2015's list includes (in increasing order of threat):

  • The Pearl River in Louisiana and Mississippi, threatened by a proposed dam near Jackson, MS;
  • Tennessee's Harpeth River, threatened by pollution and being drawn down for drinking water by the city of Franklin, TN;
  • Minnesota's St. Louis River, which has a copper-nickel sulfide mine proposed for its headwaters;
  • Alaska's Chuitna River, threatened by a proposed open pit coal mine that would be one of the nation's largest;
  • South Carolina's Edisto River, threatened by agricultural diversions;
  • Montana's Smith River (unconnected to the Smith in California), which has a proposed copper mine in its headwaters;
  • Tennessee's Holston River, threatened by leakage of a chemical with the alarming name Research Development Explosive from the Holston Army Ammunition Plant;
  • The Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, whose salmon and other fish are dying off due to obsolete dams, and;
  • The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, which faces threats ranging from industrial tourist development to depletion of groundwater to radioactive mine tailings.

American Rivers has released its America's Most Endangered Rivers list annually since 1984. The list is credited with successful local campaigns to remove dams on rivers like the Klamath and Washington State's Elwha, as well as helping combat pollution from mining and industrial activities in a number of watersheds nationwide.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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