@USBR provides 27 projects $2.6 million in WaterSMART Cooperative Watershed Management Program grants

The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

Funding supports the establishment or further development of watershed groups to address water quantity and quality issues in the West

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced that 27 entities were selected to receive a total of $2.6 million to establish or further develop watershed groups in order to address water quantity or quality through Cooperative Watershed Management Program Grants. Of the 27 entities selected, 19 are existing watershed groups, including one from the Virgin Islands, and 8 are establishing a new watershed group.

“Reducing conflict over water is an important goal,” Commissioner Burman said. “Working collaboratively with locally-led groups is the best path forward to reduce conflict and develop solutions that will lead to the long-term viability of watersheds.”

Selected entities may use their funding to develop bylaws, a mission statement, complete stakeholder outreach, develop a watershed restoration plan, and to conduct watershed management project design.

A complete list of the selected projects is available at https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/cwmp.

A cottonwood forest. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division

The Save Our Bosque Task Force in Socorro, New Mexico, is one of the groups selected to receive funding. It will receive $100,000 to update their 2004 conceptual restoration plan on the Rio Grande floodplain through Socorro County where flooding can devastate farms, infrastructure and small communities. Recent drought conditions have limited available surface water supplies in the watershed, increasing wildfire risk and reliance on groundwater, which also strains aquifers. The task force will work with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, New Mexico State Forestry and numerous other local, state and federal agencies to complete outreach to stakeholders.

The Coral Bay Community Council on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands will receive $99,155 to complete a five-year update to its watershed management plan and develop a visioning document for the Coral Bay Watershed. The group has spent a significant amount of time characterizing source pollution into Coral Bay, including unmanaged stormwater, sediment transport and an inadequate solid waste system. In addition, back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 have increased the need for updated planning efforts. The council will hold stakeholder meetings to help inform the public of the importance of watershed planning and to incorporate diverse perspectives in the updated plan and visioning document.

Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with States, Tribes, and local entities as they plan for and implement actions to increase water supply through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart for additional information about the program.

Wildfire update #ActOnClimate

The map, color-coded by day, shows the rapid daily progression of the fire. (Great Basin Interagency Incident Management Team)

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

The Martin Fire broke out in the morning hours of July 5th and ripped through dry vegetation to quickly become the largest blaze in the United States, the largest this season and the largest single fire in Nevada history. As of Wednesday night, the fire had burned in more than 439,000 acres, or about 686 square-miles, an amount of land more than twice the size of New York City. It has not only destroyed grazing areas but has damaged an ecosystem for the sage grouse, the bird that has been a focal point of political wrangling because of the impact of its possible inclusion on the endangered species list.

On Wednesday, less than one week later, Stewart said that the fire had burnt nearly all of the ranch’s 100,000 acres of grazing land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s gone, it’s gone” he said. “Riding across there, it feels like you are on the moon.”

Federal land managers and rangeland ecologists expect there to be lasting impacts on grazing, wildlife and sagebrush habitat in the burned areas, with a full recovery taking up to a decade…

They also said that the fire is indicative of new dynamics on the range that leave more areas open to fire potential and make it possible for fires to grow faster and spread greater distances.

A spokesperson for the Martin Fire response team said there was 200 to 400 percent more fuel on the range because of a wet winter followed by a dry winter this year. And even though less-than-average snow fell on the Great Basin this year, there was considerable precipitation in the spring, Gardetto noted, which resulted in vegetation growth. But in turn, an especially hot summer meant that much of the vegetation that grew had dried up when the fire started last week.

“It’s creating a lot of extreme fire behavior that is making these fires very difficult to control,” Gardetto said. “That’s why you are seeing fires like the Martin Fire that just blow up.”

At times, the 25-mile wide front of the fire moved at 11 miles per hour. High winds contributed to why the Martin Fire moved so rapidly, growing to about 421,000 acres in just four days. Another reason the fire grew to such a large size was the presence of cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species that has overtaken much of the range in several Intermountain West states.

“Once cheatgrass is dominant, in a sense, the damage is done,” said Erica Fleishman, a professor at Colorado State University who has done work on the Great Basin ecosystem.

The flammable invasive species is the most responsive grass to precipitation and once it has grown in an area, it is hard to eliminate. Its seeds are also resilient and grow in burnt areas. Although livestock can feed off of cheatgrass, ranchers prefer other grass species for cattle.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture has received reports of burns at six ranches.

“We are fielding reports from ranchers and will assist with anything from identifying livestock to traffic control, as requested by other agencies,” JJ Goicoechea, state veterinarian and deputy administrator for the NDA’s animal industry division, said in an emailed statement. “We are also standing by in case an emergency declaration is made or funding becomes available and will work with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to coordinate and assist affected ranchers.”

Ranchers like Stewart, who saw most of their grazing areas burnt by the fire, face tough decisions about how to operate in the coming months and even years. They might have to decide whether to sell some of their cattle or find empty grazing areas in other parts of the state.

Through the federal government, some ranchers might be eligible for compensation if their cattle were engulfed or injured during the fire, or if the fire burnt their grazing areas. At this point, there is no estimate for how many livestock or cattle had been killed during the fire…

Greater sage grouse via Idaho Fish and Game

The vast majority of the fire burned in sensitive habitat for sage grouse, land managers have said, and the blaze is likely to be a setback for sustaining habitat for the bird. For years, federal regulators have been working on a conservation framework to boost dwindling populations of the bird and keep it off the endangered species list, which would devastate rural economies.

Sage grouse rely on the presence of sagebrush in the Great Basin for protection and food.

“When we have these anthropogenic fires, based largely around the fact that we’ve introduced cheatgrass, it becomes a tremendous challenge for the bird to reproduce,” said Brian Rutledge, the vice president and director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

The concern, among many, is that wildfire will put more pressure on sage grouse populations, which could land the bird on the endangered species list when the federal government revisits the issue. It’s an outcome that many Westerners have worked to avoid for decades. A listing would mean the curtailment of many activities in rural counties, including mining and ranching.

The impact on sage grouse could depend, in part, on how the fire burned. Since the burn was not continuous — there was some land untouched — there might be some habitat within the 292 mile radius of the burn that is preserved, land mangers said. Although land managers are still assessing the damage, the fire has likely altered mule deer habitat and other wildlife.

At a public meeting in Winnemucca on Wednesday evening, first responders said all of the parties affected by the fire, including ranchers and wildlife managers, will meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to rehabilitate the range and damaged ecosystems. They stressed they would take a collaborative process and undertake projects likely to include seeding and building new fences.

“This is going to be a very, very large project,” said Donovan Walker, a fire management officer.

But restoration can be difficult and expensive. Fleishman said cheatgrass seeds are so resilient it is hard to prevent the invasive species from growing and crowding out space for native grass.

“Restoration is possible in small areas with a lot of labor and financial resources,” she said.

Thad Heater, a former state biologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, said there have been some effective sagebrush restoration efforts. He pointed to areas burned by the Soda Fire, a devastating blaze that eliminated valuable sagebrush habitat in Idaho.

“It’s really bounced back well,” said Heater, who also works with grouse through as the coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative. “You can get the habitat responses for wildlife by working together.”

According to land managers, the Martin Fire is the largest single fire that has burned in Nevada. The Southern Nevada Complex, a devastating burn in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas in 2005, burned more acres but comprised multiple fires, whereas the Martin Fire was one blaze.

In limited circumstances and on smaller scales, fires can benefit the range. Yet in the case of massive human-caused fires such as the Martin Fire, nearly everyone — ranchers, ecologists and land managers — agree they often destabilize the ecosystem and the activities that rely on it.

“It’s becoming a determining factor of whether the primary stewards of land — ranchers — can succeed or not,” said Rutledge, who works on sagebrush ecosystems with the Audubon Society. “It’s a human challenge as well as an avian challenge and an ecosystem challenge.”

As of Wednesday, the more than 600 personnel that responded to the Martin Fire had contained about 60 percent of the blaze. Nearly all of the western, eastern and southern edges of the fire have been blunted, but there is a possibility that islands within the boundaries could flare up.

Three smaller fires are burning in Eastern Nevada near the Utah border.

Across the country, Gardetto said this season has been above average for wildfires, and it’s part of a broader trend that land managers have observed across the West over the last decade.

“What we do know is that over the last 10 and 20 years, we are seeing longer fire seasons, we are seeing more extreme fire behavior” due to cheatgrass and hotter temperatures, she said.

Meanwhile the effort to restore burn scars is ongoing (The DenverChannel.com, Stephanie Butzer):

As wildfires start to weaken around the state, the Colorado State Forest Service has offered up way you can help the areas affected by the new burn scars: replanting trees.

The CSFS-administered Restoring Colorado Forests Fund uses donations to purchase seedlings and plant them in areas affected by wildfires, floods or other disasters. Every $2 donation purchases one seedling. The seedlings are grown at the CSFS Nursery in Fort Collins.

The fund, which was established in 2003, has been used to provide more than 122,000 trees.

“When a destructive wildfire hits, the first priority is protecting human life and property,” said Mike Lester, state forester and CSFS director. “But for the long-term recovery of our communities and forests, planting trees provides an important means to help stabilize soils, protect water supplies and restore the landscape.”

In the past decade, this fund has been used to replant areas in the burn scars of the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs and the Weber Fire near Durango.

The loss of trees and other vegetation in those areas led to runoff and erosion, which resulted in damaged hillsides, polluted waterways, highway closures and road damage.

This year, the Girl Scouts of Colorado made a donation that helped the Restoring Colorado’s Forests Fund provide 7,500 seedling trees for reforestation efforts.

“We will forever be grateful for the seedlings we received because of the generosity of people giving to the Restoring Colorado’s Forests Fund,” said James Williams, a Larimer County landowner…

To make a donation to the Restoring Colorado’s Forests Fund, visit http://www.advancing.colostate.edu/RestoringColoradosForests.

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

Nearly a third of the 47 wildfires actively burning across the country are in Colorado, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The state’s 15 actively-burning wildfires don’t include previously-extinguished fires.

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

From Western Slope Now (Colette Bordelon):

The Lake Christine Fire has burned over 6,800 acres, and it has many people hoping for rain. But, once the fire is put out, the rain could cause an entirely new problem. If a storm rolls through the area, it could wash all of the ash and debris into the waterways, and water providers in Mesa County could feel the ripple effect.

If rain washes the remains of the Lake Christine Fire into the water, it could float to the Grand Valley. “That fire could result in being deposited into the Frying Pan, and then the Roaring Fork, and then eventually the Colorado River,” said Dale Tooker, the manager of Clifton Water District.

Filtering the ash out of the water can be a difficult process. “Ash can be removed relatively easily, it’s the odor and the color… It does smell like liquid smoke if it’s at high concentrations,” said Tooker.

Clifton Water District depends on their advanced treatment plant process and take daily samples of the river to test it. If worse comes to worse, there are other options. “We would actually step in and supplement their water supply and provide their customers with domestic water,” said Joseph Burtard, the external affairs manager for Ute Water Conservancy District.

When it comes to our water, it all leads back to one common goal. “Anticipating the ash coming down, we’re preparing for that, we’re meeting, we’re having those discussions now. And so that when it does happen, our customers both Clifton Water and Ute Water customers don’t really even realize that it’s happening,” said Burtard.

Domestic water providers are hosting a water workshop for HOA’s on July 19. Those with Ute Water Conservancy District said it’s a chance for people to ask questions about fires near our watersheds, among other topics. RSVP by visiting http://www.utewater.org.