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GROUP SAYS VIRGIN RIVER STILL 1 OF MOST THREATENED

Mother Nature has pummeled the Virgin River this spring - flooding it throughout southern Utah and slamming a landslide into it that formed a dangerous dam in Zion National Park.

But the environmental group American Rivers says humans pose a greater long-term threat to the river as Utah, Arizona and Nevada fight over its water. So the group Tuesday put the Virgin on its annual list of the most threatened rivers in North America.That's actually better than last year when it was listed as the 10th most endangered river. Now, as American Rivers seeks to highlight other problems nationally, the Virgin is merely listed among 20 other "threatened" rivers.

And to protect the river and some endangered fish species, the group suggests limiting growth around St. George, retiring agricultural lands near there and using better water conservation methods - all sure to raise the ire of local residents.

The group's report, released Tuesday in Washington, said, "Although both Las Vegas and the Washington County area of southwest Utah have laid claim to virtually the whole flow of the Virgin River, the greatest threat is from Washington County."

It said Las Vegas hopes to meet its water needs from the Colorado River but is not willing to relinquish claims on the Virgin.

"Washington County, on the other hand, fully intends to satisfy future water needs from the Virgin," the group said.

"To this end, 92 potential dam sites in the basin have been identified, 16 dams have been proposed and four development projects have recently been proposed as part of a `habitat and conservation management plan' being developed by the local water conservancy district."

The group worries withdrawals of water could hurt native plants and animals in the desert regions the Virgin feeds, and hurt the endangered woundfin minnow and Virgin River chub - and the Virgin spinedace, which local agencies are trying to protect with conservation agreements to avoid need for listing it as a threatened species.

"The imminent threat of extinction that hangs over the native fishes and the growing threats to the remainder of the flora and fauna of the riparian ecosystem can be alleviated by bold federal actions within an ecosystem management approach," the group said.

It added, "Growth management, water conservation, retirement of agricultural lands and water marketing are all potential alternatives to more dams and diversions in Washington County."

For the second year in a row, the group said the most endangered river in North America is the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River in Montana and Wyoming because of the proposed nearby New World gold mine - which environmentalists worry will pollute the river.

Former CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, who lives part time in the Yellowstone area, announced the listing and said, "We should not sacrifice the natural and recreational values of Yellowstone, the Clarks Fork and the surrounding region for a gold mine and potential Superfund site."

He added, "Yellowstone, just the way it is, is much more beautiful and much more valuable to the American people than the gold found there."

The second-most endangered was the Los Angeles River, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to add more concrete lining - which had made much of the river already look like a giant rain gutter.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

In danger

American Rivers, a nonprofit conservation group, Tuesday released its 10th annual list of the 10 "Most Endangered" and 20 "Most Threatened" rivers in North America. The river name is followed by the major threat it faces in parentheses and the states it runs through. Rivers on the threatened list are equally threatened, not in order of threat.

Most endangered

1. Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River (mining), Montana, Wyoming

2. Los Angeles River (toxic runoff), California

3. Columbia and Snake rivers (dams), Washington, Oregon, Idaho

4. Animas River (diversion project), Colorado

5. Missouri River (dams, channels), Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota

6. Kansas River (farm herbicides), Kansas

7. Mississippi River (levees), Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin

8. Cheat River (acid runoff, planned dam), West Virginia

9. Penobscot River (proposed dam), Maine

10. Thorne River (logging), Alaska

Most threatened

1. Elwha River (dams), Washington

2. Little Bighorn River (proposed diversion project), Wyoming

3. Rogue and Illinois rivers (dams, logging), Oregon

4. Skokomish River (logging, dams), Washington

5. Gila and San Pedro rivers (channelized), Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico

6. New River (agricultural runoff), California, Mexico

7. Rio Grande (toxic waste, raw sewage, agricultural runoff), Colorado to Mexico

8. Russian River (dams, mining), California

9. San Jacinto River (toxic waste), Texas

10. Virgin River (diversion proj-ects), Utah, Nevada