If you’re one of 142 million Americans heading to the outdoors this year, there’s a good chance you’ll run into one of at least 250,000 rivers in the country. Much of the nation’s 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams provide drinking water, electric power, and critical habitat for fish and wildlife throughout. If you were to connect all the rivers in the United States into one long cord, it would wrap around the entire country 175 times. But as a recent assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency points out, we’ve done a pretty bad job of preserving the quality of these waters: In March, the EPA estimated that more than half of the nation’s waterways are in “poor condition for aquatic life.”
Back in the 1960s, after recognizing the toll that decades of damming, developing, and diverting had taken on America’s rivers, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 to preserve rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.” Unfortunately, only a sliver of US rivers—0.25 percent—have earned federal protection since the act passed.
In the interactive map below, we highlight 21 rivers that, based on the conservation group American Rivers’ reports in 2012 and 2013, are under the most duress (or soon will be) from extended droughts, flooding, agriculture, or severe pollution from nearby industrial activity. Find out which rivers are endangered by hovering over them (in orange). Jump down to the list below to read about what’s threatening the rivers. For fun, we also mapped every river and stream recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was too beautiful not to.