#Maybell Project Restores Hope for Irrigators and Endangered Fish — The Nature Conservancy #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From the Nature Conservancy:

As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.

Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.

That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.

MAYBELL DIVERSION Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. © The Nature Conservancy

The Maybell Diversion

The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.

“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.

In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.

Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion

The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.

The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.

“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”

Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.

This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.

RAZORBACK SUCKER The Maybell ditch is home to four endangered fish species [the Humpback chub (Gila cypha), Bonytail (Gila elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)] © Linda Whitham/TNC

One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.

While one ditch in northwest Colorado may seem like a drop in the bucket, its story provides hope for the whole system. Bringing together agricultural, recreational and environmental interests is necessary if we hope to see positive change for this river system.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.

As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.

The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:

The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.

The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.

Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.

Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.

You can learn more about the Maybell Diversion Project at http://Nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/colorado/stories-in-colorado/maybell-water-diversion-project. In addition, you can learn more about the Yampa River Fund and other funded projects at http://YampaRiverFund.org.

Irrigators look to replace hydro plant — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

Orchard Mesa Irrigation District power plant near Palisade. Water from Colorado’s snowpack is distributed across the region through a complex network of dams, pipelines and irrigation canals. Photo credit: Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.

The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.

The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.

Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at jliff@usbr.gov or 970-248-0625.

A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.

Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.

The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…

Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.

Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.

Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.

The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.

However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.

Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.

The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases = 400 cfs May 8, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Saturday, May 8th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.

A boater, John Dufficy, makes his way down the lower end of the San Juan River toward the take-out, in 2014. Photo Credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases = 500 cfs (May 7, 2021) #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico. View looking north toward marina. The Navajo Dam can be seen on the left of the image. By Timthefinn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4040102

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, May 7th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.

@Interior Department Takes Steps to Revoke Final Rule on Migratory Bird Treaty Act Incidental Take

Photo credit: The Department of Interior

Here’s the release from the Department of Interior:

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposed rule to revoke the January 7, 2021, final regulation that limited the scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Significant concerns about the interpretation of the MBTA have been raised by the public, legal challenges in court and from the international treaty partners.

This proposed rule provides the public with notice of the Service’s intent to revoke the January 7 rule’s interpretation of the MBTA and return to implementing the MBTA as prohibiting incidental take and applying enforcement discretion, consistent with judicial precedent.

“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a bedrock environmental law that is critical to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Today’s actions will serve to better align Interior with its mission and ensure that our decisions are guided by the best-available science.”

“Migratory bird conservation is an integral part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission,” said Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams. “We have heard from our partners, the public, Tribes, states and numerous other stakeholders from across the country that it is imperative the previous administration’s rollback of the MBTA be reviewed to ensure continued progress toward commonsense standards that protect migratory birds.”

On January 7, the Service published a final rule defining the scope of the MBTA as it applies to conduct resulting in the injury or death of migratory birds protected by the MBTA. This rule made significant changes to the scope of the MBTA to exclude incidental take of migratory birds, with an effective date of February 8.

The Service extended the effective date until March 8 and opened a public comment period. Rather than extending the effective date again, the agency believes the most transparent and efficient path forward is instead to immediately propose to revoke the rule.

The Service requests public comments on issues of fact, law and policy raised by the MBTA rule published on January 7. Public comments must be received or postmarked on or before June 7, 2021. The notice will be available at http://www.regulations.gov, Docket Number: FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090, and will include details on how to submit your comments.

The agency will not accept email or faxes. If you provided comments in response to the February 9, 2021, notice to extend the effective date, you do not need to resubmit those comments. All comments will be considered.

On March 8, 2021, Interior rescinded the 2017 Solicitor’s Opinion M-37050 on the MBTA that had overturned decades of bipartisan and international consensus. The reasoning and basis behind that M-Opinion were soundly rejected in federal court. The Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, as well as state laws and regulations, are not affected by the Solicitor’s Opinion M-37050 or the January 7 final regulation.

All the documents related to the rulemaking process and further information are available at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regulations page.

San Luis Valley Wetlands: Critical stopover habitat for bird migration and the ‘kidneys’ of the Earth — San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

Cinnamon Teal by NPS Patrick Myers.

From the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (Zaylah Pearson-Good):

Introduction
Each spring and fall, thousands of feathers slice through the brisk San Luis Valley (SLV) sky, alerting resident wildlife, local farmers, and eager birders to the change of season. Ranging from shorebirds to songbirds, a myriad of avian species visit this high-elevation desert as they migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding and wintering grounds. Nurtured by the Valley’s mosaic of wetlands, riparian corridors, and agricultural fields, the SLV is a critical stopover for these determined travelers.

Foundational to the health of any stopover habitat is the presence of water. As local hydrology continues to be threatened by high agricultural demands, persistent drought, mining of the aquifer, and water export proposals, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is unknown. By protecting both ground and surface water reserves, we honor the miraculous winged creatures that bring energy, life, and color to the San Luis Valley.

The Importance of Migratory Stopovers
From distributing nutrients, seeds, and pollen, to balancing local food chains, animal migrations enhance ecosystem health. Spanning hundreds to thousands of miles in distance, these impressive voyages speak to the beauty, intelligence, endurance, and collective determination of species worldwide. Coming at tremendous energetic costs, migrations also highlight the importance of maintaining healthy habitat along migratory corridors.

Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia, SLV biologists and partners at Wetland Dynamics, explain that many people “overemphasize the importance of wintering and breeding grounds,” when in fact, a successful migration also requires the presence of intact, resource rich habitats along the way (Interview, 2021). Without areas to rest and refuel like the SLV, birds would arrive to their destinations underweight and undernourished. For this reason, birds navigate not by the arbitrary borders and boundaries designed by humans, but by the geographical landmarks, such as rivers and wetlands, that represent feeding and resting opportunities.

Connected by threads of wetland and marsh habitats, the Central Flyway offers safe passage to thousands of birds during their biannual migrations. From the thick boreal forests of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, this flight path is believed to support the movement of over 400 bird species each year (Bode, 2020). The San Luis Valley, a vast high desert shrubland in Southern Colorado, is a critical stopover for many migratory species. Blessed with interspersed wetlands, it is an especially important stop for Central and Pacific Flyway ducks, water birds, shorebirds, and the iconic Sandhill Crane (Ducks Unlimited).

SLV Significance to Migratory Birds
According to soil scientist and field ornithologist John Rawinski, the SLV’s drastic range in elevation, and therefore climate, creates a variety of distinct habitats for birds. Cradled by the impressive San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristo’s to the east, the semiarid San Luis Valley ranges in elevation from 7,600 feet on the valley floor to over 14,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the harsh alpine tundra to the tranquil grasslands of the lowlands, this diverse habitat in the SLV yields impressive avian biodiversity. Over 360 species have been recorded in this Valley and surrounding mountains (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Over 250 bird species have been identified at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve alone. Of this count, many are migratory species including the Great Blue Heron, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Cedar Waxwing, (GSDNPPC,pgs. 1-8).

The SLV Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment identifies the San Luis Valley as being the “southernmost significant waterbird production area in the Central Flyway and the most important waterfowl production area in Colorado…” (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19). For birds that winter in Mexico and South America, the area is ideal for breeding. In fact, it is one of North America’s most critical breeding grounds for various species of duck and colonial wading birds, specifically the Cinnamon Teal (Ducks Unlimited). Similarly, priority duck species, such as Mallard and Northern Pintail depend on the Valley’s flooded wetlands and densely vegetated habitats for migration, nesting, and wintering (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19).

For bigger bird species and waterfowl, the Valley functions as a vital rest-stop to regain stamina for the journey onward. For example, the SLV is an important destination for nearly the entire Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes as they fly along the Central Flyway. Due to their spectacular numbers and continued presence, this iconic wading bird highlights the value of the SLV’s high quality habitat.

Sandhill Cranes in the SLV

Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

Human Connection
Dynamic, loud, and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Greater Sandhill Crane migration has attracted perhaps the most attention out of any bird to visit the Valley. These grey, long-bodied creatures have flocked to the San Luis Valley for ages, inspiring ancient Native American petroglyphs that date back up to 3,000 years (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Spanning nearly 6 feet in length, the “Big Bird” petroglyph located outside of Del Norte speaks to the impact that cranes have always had on SLV residents.

As the cultural landscape of the region changed throughout time, so did the cranes’ relationship to the land. For example, early cranes primarily ate the resources found in wetlands such as mice, frogs, snails, tubers, and invertebrates (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). As European settlement and widespread agriculture took root in the SLV, cranes adapted their diet to become more general. Waste grain from farmlands, especially barley, began to comprise a large portion of their diet. While the cultural and physical environment has changed overtime, humans continue to celebrate this majestic bird. Since 1983, locals and tourists have gathered to honor, experience, and learn from the species at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. The annual celebration attracts thousands of visitors each year to marvel at nearly 20,000 dancing, chortling, and swooping cranes.

Experiencing a Sandhill Crane migration can be a surreal and incredible moment. Cody Wagner, Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC), shares that Sandhill Crane migrations are “one of the last great migrations on the planet,” comparable to the caribou in Canada (Interview, 2021). It is incredibly powerful, and spiritual for some, to witness such a large quantity of charismatic travelers.

Like the SLV, Nebraska’s Platte River (INAC’s location) is a critical stopover for cranes along the Central Flyway, hosting copious amounts of birds each season. Wagner reports that there can be as many as 200,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes on any 5-mile segment of the river at a given time. One thing that Wagner loves about being surrounded by so many cranes is that by watching them, you find they have a lot of relatable qualities. Like humans, cranes dance, play, get loud, and also show both an awkward and elegant side. When out on the river, he describes their calls as being “ancient,” “unique,” and “a thing of beauty.” (Wagner, Interview, 2021).

Local SLV ornithologist and soil scientist John Rawinski shares a similar sentiment with Wagner. Visiting the cranes every chance he gets at the Monte Vista Refuge, he describes the encounter as deeply therapeutic. By “observing the beautiful sounds of the cranes, their majestic flight, and archaic appearance” it sets his day at peace (Interview, 2021). While he acknowledges that one can view the migration of the cranes in various locations on the continent, there is something extraordinary about their presence in the SLV. Snow-capped peaks, a crisp blue sky, and a vast open valley all combine to set an incredible backdrop for the spectacular crane spectacle.

SLV Significance to Cranes
Due to the memory of high-quality resources, nearly the entire population of Rocky Mountain Sandhills bottleneck in the SLV during their migration (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). In early February, the birds follow the Rio Grande River northward from their wintering grounds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Upon reaching the SLV, they scatter themselves throughout barley fields, lakes, wetlands, and the Rio Grande, feeding on high calorie grains and nutrient dense aquatic invertebrates.

While waste grains from the agricultural fields provide the birds with energy-rich carbohydrates, they derive the majority of their nutrients from invertebrates, which are especially important for healthy eggshell production (Wagner, Interview, 2021). For 1-2 month periods, flocks of cranes congregate in the region’s National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa, Monte Vista, Baca), Blanca Wetlands, and Russell and San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, where there are high concentrations of viable habitat (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 73).

Travelling up to 300 miles in a single day, Sandhills exert incredible energy during their biannual migrations (INAC). The stopover in the Valley allows the cranes to regain energy and strength to complete the journey to their breeding grounds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (including portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah). The Lesser Sandhill Crane, a slightly smaller version of the Greater Sandhill, travels even farther with its northern territory extending into the arctic. In the fall, the Valley will again serve as a rest-stop for the cranes as they venture back to their winter home in New Mexico.

John Rawinski speaks to the importance of the Valley as a safe resting place for the cranes. He describes the aquatic habitats of the San Luis Valley as a“safe haven” for birds to relax and rest (Interview, 2021). By roosting in 6-8 inches of water, Sandhills are protected from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, and foxes. Water serves as an alarm system for the birds, as few predators can enter their roosting habitats without splashing loudly and alerting the birds to danger.

From a conservationist perspective, the current Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes is stable. As omnivores, cranes have a fairly generalist and diverse diet, which speaks to their resilience as they do not depend on one sole food source to be well nourished. As well, cranes can modify their route if they sense insufficient resources along their traditional path. Rerouting demands additional energy, however, which can hurt crane populations and lead to malnourishment and unhealthy body weight (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). Efficiency is an important component to avian migration, and thus is the significance behind reliable, consistent stopover destinations.

While cranes fortunately exhibit some resilient traits, they are currently vulnerable due to loss of habitat and the unforeseen impacts of climate change. The species, along with other migratory birds, cannot survive without wetlands. Wetlands are currently one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, putting the cranes and countless other species in danger. By recognizing the significance of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover, we are helping to keep habitat along migratory corridors connected. In this way, conserving ecosystems in the Valley is essential for the wellbeing of all birds along the Central Flyway.

The Importance of Water
Receiving less than 8 inches of precipitation each year, the San Luis Valley is one of the driest regions in the state of Colorado. In the past two decades, drought, reduced precipitation, and high rates of ground and surface water withdrawals have threatened some of the Valley’s most precious habitats: wetland and riparian areas.

Sunrise Over Wetland by NPS/Patrick Myers

SLV Wetland Habitats
Whether it is for nesting, breeding, feeding, or resting, all species that migrate through the San Luis Valley depend on the region’s wetlands. Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that exist in low-lying depressions in the terrain. They are often referred to as the “kidneys” of the earth because they filter out pollutants, excess nutrients, and sediment from surface waters. They are also essential to the recharging of groundwater and protection against flooding and erosion events.

Depending on the type of wetland, the habitat may be wet permanently, semi-permanently, seasonally, or temporarily. Variations in soil type, elevation, location, vegetation and climate create distinct types of wetland habitats, that service wildlife in different ways and at different times in their life history (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 17). For example, the Mallard and Northern Pintail ducks require wetlands with shallow water to forage, but seek refuge in wetlands with tall emergent vegetation during sheltering periods (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20). During nesting, both waterfowl species require distinct habitat, with the Mallards preferring habitats abundant with Baltic rush, and the Pintails choosing less dense vegetation, such as greasewood (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20).

The SLV supports such a thriving community of migratory species, in part, because of its wide range of seasonal wetlands. In an analysis submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on SLV habitats and bird migration, Animas Biological Studies determined that shallow emergent and playa wetlands are “the most critical habitat type for migratory birds in both spring and fall” (pg. 15). Shallow emergent wetlands host a wide range of migratory species in their shallow pond and marsh like habitats. Characteristic of emergent vegetation like rushes and sedges, these habitats offer excellent feeding, nesting, and resting opportunities for migratory wading birds, waterbirds, and secretive marsh birds (ABS, pg. 3). Due to their semi-permanent to permanent quality, these SLV habitats are believed to be the most densely populated and used habitats by migratory shorebirds and waterbirds (ABS, pg. 3).

Also supporting high biological density and diversity, playa wetlands are some of the Valley’s most unique wetland habitats. Intermittently saturated by either surface or groundwater, these wetlands have high soil alkalinity and salinity that may result in the formation of a white crust during drying cycles. According to John Rawinski, playa wetlands are both the most critical and vulnerable of wetland habitats because they host species that cannot survive in other environments. For example, SLV playas represent the largest nesting area for the Snowy Plover, a threatened North American shorebird that thrives in dry salt flats (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Additionally, several birds classified as “rare” are known to inhabit these distinctive wetlands, especially at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Long-billed Curlew, Short-eared Owl, Black-crowned Night-heron, Foster’s Tern, and the White-faced Ibis (Malone, p. 3) Playa wetlands are also host to a globally endangered plant species, the slender spider flower (Malone, p. 4).

Wetland threats in the SLV
Wetlands are both the Valley’s most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems. While only representing 2% of Colorado’s total area, wetland and riparian habitats support over 80% of wildlife species throughout their lives (Wetland Dynamics, p 36, 2019). Furthermore, wetlands are believed to be the most imperative habitats for birds that are classified as “at-risk” (Rondeau et al., pg. 93). In other words, Colorado’s most threatened species are also most reliant on wetland ecosystems.

Unfortunately, wetland conservation has been historically insufficient. In a report prepared by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the authors write that “Threats to wetland species are high and protection is generally poor” (Rondeau et al., p 128). Cody Wagner with the Audubon confirms this point in saying that many people undervalue these habitats; “Wetlands are held in less esteem by the public and have been historically viewed as a waste of space” (Interview, 2021). As a result, across the country, these habitats have been intentionally drained, burned out, converted into cropland/developments, polluted, or compromised by invasive species.

Due to reduced precipitation, severe droughts, earlier peak runoff, unsustainable agricultural practices, and high demands from water users, wetlands in the SLV have suffered. Wetland Dynamics, a small business committed to the conservation of critical SLV ecosystems, reports that nearly half of the Valley’s total wet acres have been lost since the 1980’s (pg. 80). With water use continuing to exceed supply, conservation of local water resources will be instrumental to restoring and protecting these habitats.

Wetland declines are of great concern for many reasons. Not only does it strain bird migrations, but losses also pose a threat to the surrounding environment. With less available habitat, birds will be forced to congregate in the few viable wetlands that remain. According to a study under the Society for Conservation Biology, wetlands overburdened by high densities of birds can cause “the destruction of wetland vegetation, impose heavy losses in local agricultural crops, increase the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and decrease water quality” (Post, et al., p. 911). Furthermore, crowded habitat is also detrimental to wildlife, potentially leading to increased competition for resources, poor reproductive success, and reduced longevity.

Willet and White Faced Ibis by NPS/Patrick Myers

Riparian Habitat
Defined as the interface between a river or stream and the surrounding terrain, riparian areas are hotspots for migratory species. Densely vegetated with native grasses, willows, sedges, rushes, and cottonwoods, these areas are sanctuaries for resident and seasonal wildlife in the arid SLV. Common bird species to utilize these local ecosystems include the Bullock’s Oriole, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and the American Kestrel (USFWS, 2014). Similar to wetlands, riparian habitats are some of the sparsest habitats in the region. Riparian habitats support about 80% of resident bird species but represent only 3% of the landscape in the Intermountain West (Wetlands Dynamic, p 20).

Intersecting the SLV near Del Norte, the Rio Grande supports imperative riparian habitat for avian species. For example, the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area protects 4.5 miles of the Rio Grande, which is considered “Critical Habitat” for the federally-endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (COGO, 2018). The surrounding uplands (sagebrush and grasslands) host Sage Thrashers and Mountain Plovers, both of which are suffering a decline in population (GOCO, 2018). The Higel State Wildlife Area also protects several miles of the Rio Grande. This area is known to be critical habitat and breeding ground for the Willow Flycatcher, and the threatened, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 42).

The Rio Grande is considered a critical migratory corridor as it offers species a continuous stretch of riparian habitat along their path. From the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande River supports an otherwise thirsty landscape along its 1,900-mile path. Feeding seasonal wetland and riparian habitats, the Rio Grande brings life to parched deserts and valleys, allowing for both human and wildlife communities to thrive.

Jenny Nehring describes the Rio Grande as a “green ribbon in a very dry landscape” that directs birds towards resources along their high-energy voyage (Interview, 2021). The Rio Grande offers safe passage to countless migratory species, including the Sandhills, who utilize the river for both navigation and nourishment. Audubon New Mexico reports that roughly 18,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes, 200,000 waterfowl, and thousands of other water and shorebird species utilize New Mexico’s Rio Grande Corridor. Whether it is for wintering, migration, resting, feeding or nesting, the Rio Grande is an irreplaceable resource for migratory birds.

Threats to the Rio Grande
Excessive water use of the Rio Grande has become a growing concern. As early as the start of the 20thcentury, surveyors were already noticing the impact of SLV irrigation on the river. A USGS survey of the San Luis Valley in the early 1900s relayed that “the waters of this stream [Rio Grande river} are greatly over appropriated, even in the flood season” (Siebenthal, pg. 19). Currently, high water demands by agriculturalists, coupled with the drying impacts of climate change, have continued to tax this critical water supply. The upper Rio Grande is projected to decrease in volume by one-third in the coming years (Audubon New Mexico). Furthermore, over 90% of historical wetlands and riparian habitat along Rio Grande Corridor have already been lost in the last 150 years (Bode, 2020).

Wetland Dynamics shares that with the projected impacts of climate change, warmer water temperature and reduced stream flow could decrease the Rio Grande’s “extent of overall flooding across the watershed” (pg. 28). Already, the Rio Grande Basin Implementation plan is anticipating a 30% decrease in the river’s stream flow (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 28). Reduced flow and thus flooding from the Rio Grande would have dramatic consequences for the wetland and riparian ecosystems that require surface water input. Visiting and resident wildlife would greatly suffer as a result of this major habitat loss.

Young Great Horned Owl by NPS/Patrick Myers

A Changing World for Birds
Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

The Importance of Birds
A Changing World for Birds
Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

The Importance of Birds
Besides their striking beauty and relaxing melodies, birds play essential roles in balancing ecosystems and ensuring a healthy environment. During migrations, birds visit a diverse range of landscapes. Travelling thousands of miles, birds pick up and disperse nutrients and seeds. This process contributes to a more biologically diverse and productive ecosystem. Many birds also consume large quantities of insects as they migrate, which serves as a natural pest control for farmers. Lastly, certain aerial migrants, such as bats and hummingbirds, are important pollinators along their respective flyways. This is especially true for flower pollination.

In addition, birds are sensitive to environmental fluctuation, and therefore are considered good indicators of ecosystem health. Scientists have used the presence or lack of birds to learn about the impact of toxic pollutants such as PCBs and heavy metals in the environment. By ensuring healthy landscapes for birds, we reflect a healthy environment for human residents too. In this way, birds play a helpful role in teaching humans about the land in which they are a part. In the San Luis Valley, the continued visitation of large numbers of migratory species indicates that our landscape is blessed with prosperous habitats capable of supporting a wide range of life forms. With water export proposals such as RWR threatening our local water reserves, we cannot take these ecosystems for granted.

Renewable Water Resources (RWR)
Proposal Connected by a series of pipelines running through Poncha Pass, Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposes to remove 22,000 acre-feet of SLV water from the deep aquifer each year. This trans-basin water diversion would transfer local water to growing municipalities in the Front Range at the cost of SLV’s economy, ecology and future. Backed by former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner and former Governor Bill Owens, RWR is one of many nonlocal investors who have attempted to remove thousands of acres of feet of water from the SLV a year. Opposed by SLV water managers, towns, environmental advocacy groups, and many ranchers/farmers, the impacts of RWR’s proposal would have horrific impacts on the local environment.

Potential Impact
Central to the study of ecology is that everything is connected. Hydrology is no different. By removing thousands of acres of water out of the deep aquifer each year, the health of the shallow aquifer, as well as wetlands and rivers that sustain life above it, are put at risk. As SLV ground and surface water reserves are already over-appropriated and declining, the San Luis Valley cannot afford to lose any more water. As a scientist and advocate for the environment, John Rawinski notes that, whenever there is potential for water to leave the San Luis Valley, “the big loser is always wildlife” (Interview, 2021). While humans have the ability to buy and transport water, wildlife and the habitats on which they depend do not have this freedom. The resident and migratory species of this Valley cannot afford to lose their most precious resource at the hands of those who desire to profit from it.

Conclusion
Spanning nearly 120 miles from north to south, the San Luis Valley supports vibrant communities of wildlife. Attracting avian species from all across North America, the SLV stands out as a significant stopover for migratory species. High quality wetlands and riparian areas sustain these winged travelers as they cover thousands of miles during their migrations. These incredible voyages attract nature lovers, balance local ecosystems, and encourage local biodiversity. However, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is jeopardized due to water scarcity. The Valley is faced with an urgent call to conserve water resources. For wildlife and human inhabitants, we must prevent water miners from exporting water, implement more sustainable forms of irrigation and land stewardship, consider water re-use, and unite private and public landowners in habitat conservation. The future of wildlife and humans in the San Luis Valley is depending on a commitment to protect our water.

Works Cited

Animas Biological Studies (ABS). “2015 Migratory Waterbird and Shorebird Surveys to Inform Solar Energy Zone Planning, Avian Impact Minimization, and Species Conservation in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.” 2016.
Audubon New Mexico. “Priority Birds in New Mexico.” National Audubon Society. https://nm.audubon.org/birds/priority-birds
Bode, Christi. The Fragile Flyway: Conserving the Rio Grande Corridor. Vimeo, 4 November 2020, https://vimeo.com/475587503
Ducks Unlimited, “Colorado Conservation Projects.” https://www.ducks.org/colorado/colorado-conservation-projects
Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). “New State Wildlife Area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Thanks to Collaborative Effort on the Upper Rio Grande.” 2018. https://goco.org/news/new-state-wildlife-area-colorado’s-san-luis-valley-thanks-collaborative-effort-upper-rio-grande
Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC) at Rowe Sanctuary, “Sandhill Crane Facts.”National Audubon Society.https://rowe.audubon.org/crane-facts
Malone, Dee. “Ecological Systems of Colorado: Inter-Mountain Basins Playa.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP). November 2017. https://cnhp.colostate.edu/projects/ecological-systems-of- colorado/details/?elementID=365181&wetland=1
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Colorado (GSDNPPC). “Bird Checklist.” National Park Service, 2006. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/upload/bird-checklist-2006-508.pdf
Nehring, Jenny & Aloia Cary (SLV Biologists and Owners of Wetland Dynamics). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 8 March 2021.
Post, et al. “ The Role of Migratory Waterfowl as Nutrient Vectors in a Managed Wetland.” Conservation Biology, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1998.
Rawinski, John. (SLV soil scientist and ornithologist). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good,12 March 2021.
Rondeau, R., et al. “The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program,ColoradoState University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 2011. Siebenthal, C.E. “Geology and Water Resources of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. United States Geological Survey, Water Supply paper #240, 1910.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS) “Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife and Habitat.” 2014. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Baca/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS). “Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado” 2020. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html.
Wagner, Cody. (Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 2 March 2021.
Wetland Dynamics. “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment: Historic and Current distribution of Wetlands and Riparian Areas Recommendations for Future Conservation.” Final Edition 2, 8 May 2019,

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to drop to 600 cfs May 1, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Saturday, May 1st, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: Release = 700 CFS April 24, 2021 #ColoradoRiver #SanJuanRiver #COriver #aridification

San Juan River. Photo credit: USFWS

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Saturday, April 24th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update (April 21, 2021) #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from the Bureau of Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Wednesday, April 21st, starting at 12:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Low flows on #DoloresRiver will hurt fish — The #Cortez Journal #snowpack #runoff

Dolores River snowpack
April 16, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Below-average snowpack and ongoing drought will hurt flows and fish habitat below McPhee Dam going into spring and summer, reports Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Water releases from the dam are expected to be under 15 cubic feet per second and could possibly drop as low as 3 cfs, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist, in a April 14 news release.

During normal snowpack years, McPhee Reservoir fills, and the allocated fish pool allows for a sustained dam release of 60 cfs in summer.

Fish flows increase if snowpack runoff exceeds reservoir capacity, which prompts a recreational boating release. But a recreational water release will not happen this year because of below average snowpack and low reservoir carryover from last water season.

As of April 13, Snotels in the Dolores Basin reported 39% of average snowpack for snow water equivalent.

Trout and native fish will be adversely impacted by the water shortage below the dam, White said.

The 12-mile section of river that flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first 6 miles.

White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat, and many brown and rainbow trout likely will die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream…

Roundtail chub

The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.

Making the problem worse is the smallmouth bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores River but preys on young native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for smallmouth bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and have no bag or possession limit.

As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will face the same scenario — this year and beyond.

“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb runoff and no carryover water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.

Dolores River watershed

@USBR: #GlenCanyonDam Spring Disturbance Flow #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Glen Canyon Dam high flow release photo.

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

The Department of the Interior will conduct a spring disturbance flow release from Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, beginning March 15 at 5 a.m. and ending March 26 at 8 a.m.

A spring disturbance flow is planned at Glen Canyon Dam from March 15 to March 26. It is expected to maximize ecosystem benefits to the Colorado River ecosystem through the Glen, Marble, and Grand canyons, while meeting water delivery requirements and minimizing negative impacts to hydropower production. The spring disturbance flow will not affect the monthly or annual release volumes from Lake Powell through Glen Canyon Dam.

The spring disturbance flow capitalizes on a unique low flow of 4,000 cubic feet per second for 5 days, which is needed to conduct maintenance on the apron of Glen Canyon Dam. This low flow will be followed by a gradual increase to higher releases that will culminate in a discharge of approximately 20,150 cubic feet per second for 82 hours. The peak release of the spring disturbance flow will stay within the maximum release levels allowed under normal operations.

This combination of low and high flows is expected to disturb river bottom habitats and may drive positive aquatic ecosystem responses like increased algae and insect production. This could increase aquatic insect prey available for endangered humpback chub, non-native rainbow trout, an important sportfish, as well as other wildlife. The spring disturbance flow may disadvantage brown trout in Glen Canyon by reducing survival of emerging fry. The spring disturbance flow may also provide new scientific information that can be used in future decision making.

Recreational users are reminded to exercise caution along the Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons during the entire spring disturbance flow period.

Proposed #PlatteRiver #water transfer could have far reaching ripple effect — #Nebraska TV

Platte River. Photo credit: Cody Wagner/Audubon

From Nebraska TV (Danielle Shenk):

More than 65,000 gallons of water per minute is being proposed for an interbasin transfer from the Platte River to the Republican River, but Audubon Nebraska is taking legal action to stop it.

Audubon works to protect wildlife like birds and their habitats.

As part of an agreement between Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, this water transfer would help meet the state’s delivery obligations within the Republican River Compact.

But over the years, water from the Platte River has heavily been used by municipalities and agriculture.

This has led to the compact being short on water deliveries for quite some time.

The state also has an agreement with other neighboring states to balance this overused water supply through the Endangered Species Act, which began about 30 years after the river compact, and through the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that aims to add water back to the river…

A diversion of the already short water supply to the Republican could create a ripple effect.

“Overall, taking water from one basin that is already water short and transferring it to another basin that’s water short.. that doesn’t really give us a long term solution. It doesn’t provide certainty for water users and it potentially has ecological impacts for both river basins,” said Mosier.

Taddicken said almost 70% of the water from the Platte River is gone before it even makes it to Nebraska and an interbasin transfer would heavily impact the its supply.

“This water removed from the Platte actually leaves the basin which is a real problem. Moving water around irrigation canals and things like that, eventually a lot of that water seeps back into the groundwater and back to the Platte River. This kind of a transfer takes it out completely,” said Taddicken.

He said farmers in the Platte River Valley should be really concerned if the transfer goes through…

Streamflow also helps to create multiple channels and varying depths which attract many wildlife species, especially birds.

Sandhill Cranes in flight via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, piping plovers and other birds.. they use those sand bars for protection. That’s where they like to nest and roost, so that’s really important. Stream flow makes that happen,” stated Mosier, “there’s also an important connection between streams on the Platte River and wetlands. Those wetlands are where a lot of birds and other wildlife find their protein sources.”

Taddicken said we’ve made a lot of compromises for wildlife already as the width of the Platte River has slowly declined and vegetation has taken over where the waters don’t extend.

The impact then extends its reach to the economy, with less sandhill cranes coming to the area that could impact tourists traveling to Central Nebraska.

Invasive species making their way into Kansas is also a concern.

Back in 2018, former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer wrote a letter objecting to the transfer due to the risk of invasive species.

Judge dismisses several water uses in #WhiteRiver reservoir case — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A water court judge has agreed with state engineers and dismissed several of a water conservancy district’s claims for water for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.

Division 6 Water Judge Michael A. O’Hara III, in a Dec. 23 order, determined that Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has not provided enough evidence that its current existing water rights won’t meet demands in the categories of municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, commercial and augmentation for Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District.

The Rangely-based conservancy district is seeking a conditional water-storage right to build an off-channel reservoir using water from the White River to be stored in the Wolf Creek drainage, behind a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. It would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

Rio Blanco initially applied for a 90,000 acre-foot water-storage right but later reduced that claim to 66,720 acre-feet for the off-channel reservoir, which would be located between Rangely and Meeker.

According to Colorado water law, new conditional water rights cannot be granted without a specific plan and intent to put the water to beneficial use. For more than five years, top state water engineers have repeatedly said the project is speculative because Rio Blanco has not proven a need for water above its current supply.

State engineers asked the court to dismiss Rio Blanco’s entire application in what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. The court agreed to dismiss only some of Rio Blanco’s requested water uses.

“The applicant has failed to demonstrate that its existing water rights for municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, and commercial uses are insufficient to meet its needs and are therefore dismissed,” O’Hara wrote in his order.

The town of Rangely’s water needs and whether water was needed for irrigation were two main topics of questions from state engineers in hundreds of pages of depositions in the case.

O’Hara’s order said there are three water-use claims left to resolve at trial: whether Rio Blanco can get a water right for augmentation in the event of Colorado River Compact curtailment, water for endangered species and water for hydroelectric power.

The trial is scheduled to begin Monday, but the parties could still reach a settlement agreement before then.

“We are involved in productive settlement discussions with the engineers and both sides hope that produces a settlement rather than a trial,” said Alan E. Curtis, an attorney for Rio Blanco.

Even if the parties reach a settlement, the judge will still have to approve the final water-right decree. Curtis said parties often reach settlements at the last minute, sometimes even after a trial has begun.

Ducks swim on Kenney Reservoir, which sits near Rangely, in late October. The reservoir is silting in and approaching the end of its useful life, according to the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, which wants to build a new reservoir with water from the White River. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Compact curtailment

If the case goes to trial next week, a main point of contention will be whether Colorado River Compact compliance is a valid beneficial use of water stored in the White River project. Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

Water managers are especially worried that those with junior water rights, meaning those later than 1922, will be the first to be curtailed. Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the compact, meaning these users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks in the event of a compact call. Augmentation water would protect them from that.

State engineers argue that augmentation use in the event of a compact call is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. But O’Hara disagreed, saying there is sufficient legal authority for Rio Blanco to develop an augmentation plan for a compact call.

“While it is tempting for the court (to) rule, as a matter of law, that the requested augmentation use is speculative because it is based on an event that may or may not occur, it chooses not to do so here,” O’Hara’s motion reads.

This map shows the potential locations of the proposed White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. A water court judge has dismissed several of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s claims for water. Credit: Colorado Division of Water Resources via Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Endangered fish water

Rio Blanco says it needs 60,555 acre-feet of water per year for maintenance and recovery of federally listed and endangered fish. Releases from the proposed reservoir could benefit endangered fish downstream, including the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

But the gauge used to measure these flows — the Watson gauge — is located downstream in Utah. State engineers say this violates Colorado’s law regarding exporting water across state lines. Rio Blanco says the water will benefit fish in the White River within Colorado and that they use the Watson gauge because there isn’t one between Taylor Draw dam in Rangely and the state line. Where exactly the fish will benefit from reservoir releases is a matter to be hashed out at trial.

“The court finds that the location of beneficial use is a material fact in dispute,” O’Hara’s order reads. “The expert reports conflict and the characterization of how and where water is to be used vary.”

Another point the parties can’t agree on is how much water from the proposed reservoir would be used by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The program has not committed to a specific amount of water.

A May 2019 letter from program director Tom Chart says the recovery program “does not know whether, or how much, allocated storage in the project or other White River basin projects may be needed in order to offset depletion effects to the endangered species to assist in the recovery of the endangered fish.”

But, as O’Hara points out, the letter does not say the program will not need water from a future Wolf Creek reservoir.

“The letter creates a material fact in dispute, one more suitable for resolution at trial,” O’Hara’s order reads.

Also to be decided at trial is water use for hydroelectric power. State engineers say hydropower is not an independent use and depends on the court granting the other water uses. They say that if the other uses are dismissed, then hydropower should be dismissed too. But Rio Blanco says water should be stored in the reservoir specifically for hydropower generation and should not be contingent on other uses.

The trial is scheduled to begin [Thursday, January 7, 2021] in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 31 edition of The Aspen Times.

Coke, Coors Seltzer, water trust announce #ColoradoRiver initiative — @WaterEdCO #COriver

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

A coalition of high-profile businesses, including Coors Seltzer and Coca-Cola, as well as the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust have signed up to add additional water for fish, farmers and hydropower generation to a key segment of the drought-stressed Colorado River known as the 15-Mile Reach.

This stream segment begins just east of Grand Junction, Colo., and ends west of town where the Gunnison River merges with the Colorado River.

For decades this reach has been under intense scrutiny, in part because it is a key source of water for Western Colorado ranchers and fruit growers, and it is also considered critical habitat for four endangered fish species: the razorback sucker; the humpback chub, the bonytail and the Colorado pikeminnow.

Dec. 15, the Colorado Water Trust unveiled a 10-year funding commitment from Business for Water Stewardship that will help ensure that there is more water in the river during dry times to keep irrigators, a small federal hydro plant, and the fish healthy.

The Colorado Water Trust is a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to helping secure water rights through purchase, lease or donation to benefit the environment. Business for Water Stewardship is a program of the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation that brings companies together to aid the environment.

Bringing in corporate funders, who have the resources to commit to a multi-year effort is key, according to Todd Reeve, the founder of Business for Water Stewardship. Danone and Intel Corp. are also funders.

“Companies are increasingly realizing the state of our water resources,” Reeve said. “And they are stepping up to support these environmental water solutions.

“This project stands up as an important example of all of these entities coming together. We’d like to see more of them,” Reeve said.

How much money and water will be provided under the agreement isn’t clear yet, according to the Colorado Water Trust, in part because it will depend on weather conditions and the condition of the river each year.

To date nearly $100,000 has been raised to buy water, according to the water trust.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

Efforts to preserve Colorado’s 15-Mile Reach are coordinated by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative launched in 1988 that also includes Utah and Wyoming. But because the river has multiple users, from growers to rafters and anglers, to power generators, dozens of other agencies, water users and towns are also involved, according to Kate Ryan, an attorney for the water trust.

The hope, according to Ryan, is that this long-term commitment to the area will build on and add more durability to what others have begun.

Under the agreement, the Colorado Water Trust each year will buy water from upstream sources for delivery to the Grand Valley Power Plant near Palisade. The power plant produces electricity to pump irrigation water to members of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and is operated by the Orchard Mesa Irrigation Company (OMIC).

After the water moves through the plant, it will continue downstream to the 15-Mile Reach.

“The water that comes down through the hydropower plant makes my system work better,” said Max Schmidt, OMIC’s manager. “But it’s also good for the fish.”

As the Colorado River Basin continues to dry out, natural flows in the river will have to be supplemented by water that can be obtained from those who have water in storage that they don’t need and are willing to sell or lease on a temporary or permanent basis.

Ryan said she is pleased the water trust was able to secure the agreements and funding that will allow it to be a long-term contributor to the health of the 15-Mile Reach.

“What was amazing and sobering this year is that the dry-year targets for flow are 650 cubic feet per second (cfs). But most of the summer they were down at 300 cfs,” Ryan said.

Despite the dire water forecasts, the potential for more cooperative efforts on the river appears to be growing.

Schmidt can reel off a list of cities, irrigation districts and water agencies that have stepped up in recent years to help, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District, and the cities of Aspen, Snowmass, Palisade and Grand Junction.

That doesn’t count the cash and operating support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the recovery program, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or the new contributions from the Colorado Water Trust and Business for Water Stewardship.

“When everybody wins, everybody wins,” Schmidt said. “I don’t care if it’s power water, irrigation water or fish water, wet water in the river makes everybody’s lives better.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Here’s What It Takes To Keep #ColoradoRiver Fish From Going Extinct — KUNC #COriver

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The Colorado River is one of the most engineered river systems in the world. Over millions of years, the living creatures that call the river home have adapted to its natural variability, of seasonal highs and lows. But for the last century, they have struggled to keep up with rapid change in the river’s flows and ecology.

Dams throughout the watershed create barriers and alter flows that make life hard for native fish. Toss in 70 non-native fish species, rapidly growing invasive riparian plants and a slurry of pollutants, and the problem of endangered fish recovery becomes even more complex. The river system is home to four fish species currently listed as endangered: the razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and humpback chub.

For decades, millions of dollars have been spent on boosting populations of the river’s fish species on the brink of extinction. While scientists are learning what helps some species survive in the wild, others are still struggling.

Ouray National Fish Hatchery. Photo credit: USFWS

“Darling little divas”

Much of the work of keeping these fish from going extinct is centered in a handful of hatcheries scattered throughout the West. One such hatchery, the Ouray National Fish Hatchery, is situated along the Green River in eastern Utah. It’s a squat, unassuming building next to a series of ponds where two of the river’s endangered fish — the bonytail and razorback sucker — are raised.

Inside, the room is filled with aqua-colored tubs of water. A pipe feeds each tub with fresh water and creates a whirlpool, simulating a river’s flow. Above the tubs, lights automatically dim up and down to give the fish some semblance of a sunrise, high noon and sunset.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Fry peers into one of the tubs and warns not to do it too quickly to keep from stressing them out. “When they see you, they’ll scatter,” he said.

Fry is the acting manager of this hatchery. This kiddie pool-sized tub is full of bonytail, so named for their slender, tapered bodies.

“I call these guys my darling little divas because you really got to treat them with kid gloves,” Fry said.

A couple decades ago, bonytail were nearly extinct, the last few scooped up from Lake Mohave in the Colorado River’s lower reaches. Hatcheries like this one have kept them alive, while scientists tried to figure out the best way to help them survive and overcome the challenges humans keep throwing at them out in the wild…

“Hurdles to overcome”

That is the question for Tildon Jones, Fry’s colleague at the Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s a habitat coordinator for the agency, and looks for ways to help the endangered fish complete their life cycle in the wild, not just rely on people to keep raising them in hatcheries.

On a bluff overlooking the Green River near the hatchery, Jones points out the features of a riverside wetland. The river — a majority tributary to the Colorado — makes a narrow U-shaped bend, and in the middle is a wetland.

“The river would come up and flood these areas regularly in the past,” Jones said, pointing to the lines of cottonwood trees over a chorus of sandhill cranes that has taken up residence nearby.

Green River Basin

This stretch of the Green, with its abundance of low-lying wetlands, used to be a haven for the razorback sucker, known for its bony hump and down-turned vacuum-like mouth. The fish adapted to the Colorado River’s wild swings between high and low flows by spawning just before its annual spring snowmelt rise. Those flood waters would carry the tiny, just-born fish into protected riverside ponds to grow. At that point, the larval fish look like a grain of rice with two black dots for eyes…

But the Green River hasn’t acted like its former self in more than 50 years. The Flaming Gorge Dam just upstream holds back those flood waters, and regulates the river’s flow, making the tiny razorbacks less likely to end up in wetlands, and more vulnerable to non-native fish that gobble them up…

The fish don’t just have one thing working against them, but a confluence of factors keeping them from thriving. If it were just the restricted, regulated flows or just the addition of non-native fish predators, the problem might be easier to solve, Jones said.

Since 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service along with other partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have turned their focus to managing wetlands to give razorbacks a better chance of reproducing in the wild, and giving juvenile fish the opportunity to grow.

Canals move river water into the wetland during high flows, or coordinated releases from Flaming Gorge reservoir, and metal screens keep out the predatory fish. Researchers can then keep an eye on the growing razorbacks before releasing them back into the river.

After seeing some initial success in this approach, and seeing adult razorback populations stabilize due to stocking, Jones’s agency is proposing to move razorbacks from an endangered status to threatened…

Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer via Utah Public Radio

Reconnecting the river to its wetlands

After seeing managed wetlands demonstrate successes on the Green River, The Nature Conservancy’s Linda Whitham says it made sense to replicate the idea on a stretch of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. The environmental group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.

On a warm fall day, big yellow dump trucks moved dirt, excavated as part of a pond expansion at the Matheson Wetlands Preserve. A deepened channel and water control structure with a screen to keep out the predatory fish were also added.

Cheatgrass in Sagebrush Country: Fueling Severe Wildfires — @Audubon

North America’s sagebrush steppe ecosystem is home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, many of which live nowhere else. It sustains the water supply, economies, and culture of Western communities. But a deadly invader threatens to send it all up in flames. Learn how cheatgrass and other invasive weeds threaten this ecosystem’s very existence and what we must do to save it: https://rockies.audubon.org/sagebrush/cheatgrass-fire

#Water lease agreement could help fish and help meet #ColoradoRiver Compact requirements — The Farmington Daily Times #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy hope to demonstrate that the strategic water reserve can help endangered fish recover while also providing the ability to meet water compact requirements in the San Juan Basin.

San Juan River. Photo credit: USFWS

The Interstate Stream Commission approved allowing ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen to continue negotiations with the Jicarilla Apache Nation to lease up to 20,000 acre feet of water annually that became available as it is no longer needed for operation of the San Juan Generating Station.

San Juan Generating Station. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

The Jicarilla Apache Nation acquired rights to water stored in Navajo Lake in 1992 and has the authority to lease this water to other entities to help the tribe. Up until recently, the nation has leased water to Public Service Company of New Mexico to operate the San Juan Generating Station.

Navajo Lake

But the potential of the power plant closing in 2022 as well as a reduction in the amount of water needed to operate it due to the closure of two units in 2016 means that this water is now available for the state to potentially lease.

The water would be placed in the strategic water reserve, which has two purposes: assisting with endangered species recovery and ensuring the state meets its obligations under water compacts. When needed, the water could be released from the reservoir to help with the fish or to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact…

Terry Sullivan, the state director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said the organization has been working on the San Juan River for 15 years trying a variety of restoration projects to help create habitat. The fish rely on slow backwaters for reproduction…

Sullivan said the water lease is a great step forward to achieve both compact requirements and benefits to endangered species.

The amount leased each year would depend on funding available. One of the details of the lease agreement that has not yet been determined is the price…

Peter Mandelstam, the chief operating officer for Enchant Energy, said in a statement that the company believes it has enough water rights without the Jicarilla Apache lease to successfully retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology and operate it.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 300 CFS November 21, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs on Saturday, November 21st, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

#Utah’s state engineer rejects plan to divert #GreenRiver water for #Colorado entrepreneur — The #SaltLake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

The entrance to the popular Gates of Lodore stretch on the Green River, not far downstream from where Aaron Million of Ft. Collins has proposed to divert 55,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year and pipe it to the Front Range. There’s plenty of opposition to the idea, but there is also interest in the water in eastern Colorado.

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Brian Maffly):

Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen has rejected a controversial proposal to divert 55,000 acre-feet of the Green River’s flow from Utah to Colorado’s fast-growing Front Range cities.

A detail of a map produced by Water Horse Resources, and published by the state of Utah, showing the proposed diversion point on the Green River, between Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument. The red and white line represents a pipeline that heads northeast out of Utah, across a corner of Colorado, and into Wyoming, where it joins an alignment of another potential pipeline that is connected to the Green above Flaming Gorge.

Colorado entrepreneur Aaron Million has been pursuing this idea for more than a decade, resurrecting his pipeline proposal in 2018 after two prior failed attempts at approval. This time his firm White Horse Resources proposed a scaled-down pipeline tapping the Green below Flaming Gorge Dam at Browns Park and running 325 miles underground to Denver. Dubbed the “Green Sun Storage Hydro Power Project,” it would generate hydropower along its 3,800-foot decent from the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

Wilhelmsen found the proposal ran counter to policies Utah has been pursuing for decades regarding the recovery of endangered species of fish and the Beehive State’s own interest in developing its share of water in the Colorado River system…

Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen is considering Utah’s own proposal to substantially alter an 86,000-acre-foot water right associated with Flaming Gorge, moving the point of diversion downstream to feed the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

At a hearing before the state engineer two years ago, Million likened his project to the 140-mile pipeline across southern Utah to St. George, claiming there was sufficient flows in the Green to accommodate both diversions.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has previously twice turned down similar Green River diversions proposed by Million.

“This [latest] decision is a big win for the Green River as well as the people and endangered fish that depend on it,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the state engineer’s decision is the final nail in the coffin of this absurdly greedy, irresponsible plan.”

[….]

Diverting the water at Browns Park would have undermined costly efforts underway to rescue some of the Green’s native fish, McKinnon and other environmentalists argued.

Click here to read the order.

Green River Basin

To save threatened plants and animals, restore habitat on farms, ranches and other working lands — The Conversation #ActOnClimate


Planting strips of native prairie grasses on a farm in Iowa provides habitat for pollinators and protects soil and water.
Omar de Kok-Mercado/Iowa State University, CC BY-ND

Lucas Alejandro Garibaldi, Universidad Nacional de Rio Negro; Claire Kremen, University of British Columbia; Erle C. Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Sandra Díaz, Universidad de Córdoba (Argentina)

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Restoring native habitats to at least 20% of the world’s land currently being used by humans for farming, ranching and forestry is necessary to protect biodiversity and slow species loss, according to a newly published study conducted by a team of environmental scientists including us. Our analysis found that this can be done in ways that minimize trade-offs and could even make farms more productive by helping to control pests, enhancing crop pollination and preventing losses of nutrients and water from soil. These working landscapes can still be grazed, mowed, harvested or burned, as long as these activities sustain or restore native species diversity.

So-called “zero-net-loss policies” would prevent any further destruction or conversion of wild lands on developed property. There are creative and experimental options for the most heavily cultivated regions, such as incorporating strips of prairie plants into crop fields across the U.S. Midwest or planting flower strips to restore pollinators in Switzerland.

Only 38% of the 82 countries we reviewed have national laws requiring native habitat on working lands. Most were in Europe and required that just 5% be kept wild. In many countries only forest habitats are regulated, while grasslands and other highly threatened landscapes are ignored. These decisions are driven by politics, economics and cultural values, but overall they lack clear scientific guidelines.

Ranch land with ponds
Through the establishment of a conservation bank on the Sparling Ranch in California, more than 2,000 acres of valuable habitat for tiger salamanders and red-legged frogs will be protected, including 14 breeding ponds, while the Sparling family continues to raise and graze cattle on their land.
Steve Rottenborn, USFWS/Flickr

Why it matters

Restoring habitat creates homes for wildlife, but it also contributes to human well-being and supports all life on Earth. Native vegetation prevents erosion and purifies the water we drink and the air we breathe. It sequesters carbon, mitigating climate change, and acts as a buffer against flooding, landslides and storms. The wildlife species that move in may pollinate crops or control pests.

For more than a century, conservationists have worked to save threatened species by protecting them within large national parks and refuges. This clearly hasn’t been enough: The Earth is losing plants and animals at more than 100 times the normal rate, in what some scientists believe is the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

[The Conversation’s newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]

Under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty ratified by 196 nations, countries have pledged to conserve 17% of the planet’s land area in protected zones by 2020. So far, they have failed to meet that target. Now many conservationists are proposing an expanded effort that would conserve as much as 30% of land by 2030, and as much as half by 2050. Where will all this land come from?

With global land use expanding and becoming more intensive and dominated by monocultures, there is an urgent need to conserve and restore native species outside of protected areas – within landscapes managed for people.

Map of NYC water supply system
Forests in upstate New York protect and filter New York City’s drinking water supply. The forests are managed and monitored to ensure water quality; they also provide habitat for wildlife and recreation opportunities.
NYDEC

What’s next

Though the benefits are many and there are numerous successful restoration models to draw upon, wild habitats continue to be degraded, razed and eliminated.

Preventing, stopping and reversing the degradation of ecosystems is also an essential strategy for meeting United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and commitments for the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration that launches next year.

Critical policy opportunities are just ahead. Europeans are now deciding how much agricultural land to devote to “landscape and habitat features.” New conservation targets will be part of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework negotiated at next spring’s 15th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its ambitious global vision is nothing less than “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.The Conversation

Lucas Alejandro Garibaldi, Professor and Director, Institute for Research in Natural Resources, Agroecology and Rural Development, Universidad Nacional de Rio Negro; Claire Kremen, Professor of Resources, Environment and Sustainability and Professor of Zoology, University of British Columbia; Erle C. Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Sandra Díaz, Professor of Community and Ecosystem Ecology, Universidad de Córdoba (Argentina)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dr. Jane Goodall Decries Delisting of Grey Wolves from ESA

Following the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves in all lower 48 states, world-renown animal behavior expert and conservationist, Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace, decried the decision citing the important roles that wolves play in their ecosystems and the fact that the move lacks both the support of the scientific community, as well as the public.

Gray wolves occupy only a tiny area compared to their historic home range. Wolves are essential predators in their ecosystems. It is important to understand that where wolves have been restored, the ecosystem comes back into balance. Today’s decision further challenges existing vulnerable populations of wolves with hunting and trapping. Removing these protections fundamentally threatens their survival and the balance of ecosystems across the U.S.

As we approach Election day next Tuesday, November 3rd, American citizens must vote to affirmatively elect leaders who respect nature and protect endangered species, believe in science, who act on climate change, and who will advance sustainable green economies. We have the power to turn things around, but we have a small window of time. Your votes can protect endangered species like gray wolves, their habitats, fight climate change, and safeguard human health and livelihoods.

#Wildlife #StopExtinction #Vote

Learn more at: http://www.janegoodall.org/graywolves

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 500 CFS October 27, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Tuesday, October 27th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

San Juan River. Photo credit: USFWS

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 650 CFS October 20, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #SanJuanRiver

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 650 cfs on Tuesday, October 20th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.

The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.

#Colorado cutthroat restored to 23 miles of Hermosa Creek — The #Durango Herald

Connor Bevel, an Aquatic technician with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, holds one the 450 adult Colorado River Cutthroat trout released into the Hermosa Creek drainage October 9, 2020. Photo credit: Joe Lewandowski/Colorado Parks & Wildlife via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A decades-long effort to restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek has been completed, resulting in the largest continuous stretch of waterway for the native fish species in the state…

Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango, releases Colorado River cutthroat trout fingerlings into the East Fork of Hermosa Creek on Oct. 9. CPW released 4,000 fingerlings.
Courtesy of Joe Lewandowski/Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The Durango Herald

The upper reaches of Hermosa Creek were instantly recognized as an ideal place for a restoration project, both for its outstanding water quality as well as easy access through a Forest Service road that runs behind Purgatory Resort.

Over the years, barriers have been installed to isolate certain stretches of water and an organic poison known as rotenone has been used to clear out invasive species, like brown, brookie and rainbow trout.

All this to clear the path for cutthroat reintroduction.

Last weekend, CPW stocked an estimated 4,000 cutthroat fingerlings and an additional 475 mature cutthroats in the final stretch of the Hermosa Creek project, giving the waterway back to the native fish for the first time in 100 years.

And now, the project to restore 23 miles of cutthroat habitat is finally complete…

Hermosa Park

For the stretches of upper Hermosa Creek that have been restocked with cutthroats, populations are showing encouraging signs. White said there’s about 400 to 600 fish per mile, which he called a “nice, healthy population.”

Because the area is a popular draw for anglers, there is a strict catch-and-release policy. Local fish-guiding companies have said in the past that anglers come from all over the country to fish native cutthroats.

The Hermosa Creek project was a collaboration between CPW, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Story Map: Swimming Upstream — The Story of the Upper #ColoradoRiver #Endangered Fish Recovery Program #COriver @CWCB_DNR

Click here to view the story map that tells the story of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Program. H/T to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Water agencies agree to $700K lease to protect #RioGrande Silvery minnow — The Albuquerque Journal #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Heron Lake, part of the San Juan-Chama Project, in northern New Mexico, looking east from the Rio Chama. In the far distance is Brazos Peak (left) and the Brazos Cliffs (right), while at the bottom is the north wall of the Rio Chama Gorge. By G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1598784

From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

Three agencies will use water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to protect Rio Grande silvery minnow habitat this fall.

On Wednesday, the water authority approved a lease of up to 7,000 acre-feet, or about 2.9 billion gallons, of its San Juan-Chama water to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at a cost not to exceed $700,000.

The San Juan-Chama project uses a series of tunnels and reservoirs to route Colorado River water into the Rio Grande Basin. Several cities, counties, pueblos and irrigation districts rely on the project for drinking water and agriculture.

The Bureau of Reclamation will pay $350,000 for the water. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District contributed $250,000 to the lease and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission contributed $100,000…

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a new biological opinion regarding water management and endangered and threatened species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Water agencies now manage the river to improve fish densities, but are not required to maintain certain river flow targets.

This year’s drought and minimal runoff have left water agencies scrambling to supply water to farmers and fish.

The MRGCD used 10,000 acre-feet from the water authority in June. The irrigation district had “repaid” that water to ABCWUA in late 2019 as a payment for a water loan from the early 2000s. But the district was forced to ask for the water payment back after running out of storage water.

Another release of stored water from El Vado Reservoir in July helped extend the irrigation season by nearly three months…

Under the lease, the water can be released from Abiquiu Reservoir through the end of 2022. Revenue from the lease will help fund the water authority’s program to plan for future water supply and demand.

The water authority has a contract with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for about 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water each year – making it the largest user of the project.

Kill fish to save fish: Behind #Colorado’s effort to save the #RioGrande cutthroat trout — The Colorado Sun

Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)

Here’s an in-depth look at the methods and motivation to restore Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo from Kevin Simpson writing for The Colorado Sun. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:

The multi-agency project to restore the native species has been years in the making. But the optics still can be shocking.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to signs posted in the area, had used a chemical called rotenone to kill all the fish in the [Sand Creek] lakes and Sand Creek, which meanders south down the mountain before veering west to eventually disappear, after 13 miles, into the depths of the Great Sand Dunes.

The project is part of a long-planned strategy to restore the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to waters where its numbers have dwindled toward the edge of extinction.

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)

Increasingly scarce in a dwindling native range and hybridized with other species like non-native cutthroats, which had been stocked alongside it many years ago, the Rio Grande cutthroat eventually will be reintroduced to the mountain lakes and streams where it once thrived…

The Sand Creek drainage was officially listed in a 2013 strategy document.

In 2019, meetings on both the Westcliffe and Alamosa sides of the mountain yielded no opposition — other than concern over the temporary loss of fishing — and little public comment. The project moved ahead, though a year later than originally scheduled due to a late fish spawn…

Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest Region, which includes the Sand Creek drainage, notes that the state agency has done similar projects before and will do more of them throughout Colorado.

“We don’t get a great deal of pleasure having to poison a stream, but it is necessary to restore native species,” he said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “This has been done in waters to restore the Rio Grande, greenback and the Colorado River cutthroat; and these projects will continue…

After the 2003 conservation agreement, federal and state authorities started doing reconnaissance in 2004 to determine if the drainage could be restored. Geography that essentially isolated water flow, and therefore fish migration, proved fortuitous.

Sand Creek flows from its headwaters high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the Great Sand Dunes, where it disappears underground. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)

Bunch points to several reasons why reintroduction of the Rio Grande cutthroat looms important. First, there’s federal policy that favors native species in national parks and preserves. Another has to do with the essential characteristics of a wilderness area. A third is for preservation of the species.

“This is an ideal opportunity to restore 13 miles of habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout,” he said.

The stakeholders who signed the conservation agreement meet annually to discuss the status of its efforts. The key thing, Bunch said, is to prevent the listing of the Rio Grande cutthroat as an endangered species and ensure it has robust habitat…

Although the battle over listing the fish persists, all sides celebrate the ideas that in the case of the Sand Creek drainage, the area could become a refugium for the species, where the fish could naturally multiply and be used as a source for future stocking or restoration if some other habitat experiences problems — say, from wildfire.

The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

@CWCB_DNR: Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Rob Viehl):

Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use on the Fryingpan River and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River

The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be considering an offer from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acting through its Colorado River Water Projects Enterprise (“District”) of a short-term lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water that the District holds in Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow (“ISF”) use. The proposal is to use the released water to supplement winter flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from January 1, 2021 – March 31, 2021; and from April 1 – December 31, 2021, to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The Board will consider this proposal at its September 16-17, 2020 virtual meeting. The agenda for this Board meeting can be found at:

https://cwcb.colorado.gov/virtual-board-meeting-september-16-17-2020

Consideration of this proposal initiates the 120-day period for Board review pursuant to Rule 6b. of the Board’s Rules Concerning the Colorado Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program (“ISF Rules”), which became effective on March 2, 2009. No formal Board action will be taken at this time.

Information concerning the ISF Rules and water acquisitions can be found here.

The following information concerning the proposed lease of water is provided pursuant to ISF
Rule 6m.(1):

Subject Water Right:
RUEDI RESERVOIR
Source: Fryingpan River
Decree: CA4613
Priority No.: 718
Appropriation Date: 7/29/1957
Adjudication Date: 6/20/1958
Decreed Amount: 140,697.3 Acre Feet

Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 Acre Feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 079D6C0106
Contract Use: Supplement winter instream flows in the Fryingpan River
Contract Amount: 5,000 Acre Feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet

The following information concerning the proposed additional use of leased water remaining after March 31, 2021 is provided pursuant to ISF Rule 6m.(1):

Subject Water Right:
RUEDI RESERVOIR
Source: Fryingpan River
Decree: CA4613
Priority No.: 718
Appropriation Date: 7/29/1957
Adjudication Date: 6/20/1958
Decreed Amount: 140,697.3 Acre Feet

Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 acre-feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 139D6C0101
Contract Use: Municipal use in Colorado River Basin; includes “use of water by . . . piscatorial users, including delivery of water to supplement streamflow. . . .”
Contract Amount: 4,683.5 acre-feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet.

Proposed Reach of Stream:
Fryingpan River: From the confluence with Rocky Ford Creek, adjacent to the outlet of Ruedi Reservoir, downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, a distance of approximately 14.4 miles.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River: From the confluence with the headgate of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company (lat 39 06 06N long 108 20 48W) downstream to its confluence with the Gunnison River.

Purpose of the Acquisition and Proposed Season of Use:
The leased water would be used to supplement the existing 39 cfs ISF water right in the Fryingpan River to preserve the natural environment, and used at rates up to 70 cfs to meet the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife flow recommendations to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The leased water would be used to also supplement the existing ISF water rights in the 15-Mile Reach to preserve the natural environment from July 1 – September 30, 2019, and to provide water at rates above the existing decreed ISF rates to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in that reach to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree from April 1 –December 31, 2019.

Water stored in Ruedi Reservoir will be released to the Fryingpan River during the winter time period. The existing instream flow water right is decreed for 39 cfs from November 1 – April 30. The objective of the lease would be to maintain Fryingpan River flows at a rate of 70 cfs to prevent the formation of anchor ice at times when temperatures and low flows could otherwise combine to create anchor ice, which adversely impacts aquatic macroinvertebrates and trout fry.

The 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River provides critical habitat for two species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions. It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish. Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime. As a result, the USFWS has issued flow recommendations for the 15-Mile Reach since 1989 to protect instream habitat for the endangered fish.

Supporting Data:
Available information concerning the purpose of the acquisition and the degree of preservation and improvement of the natural environment, and available scientific data is available at:

https://dnrweblink.state.co.us/cwcb/0/edoc/213103/6.pdf?searchid=2484c28a-57b0-4eb7-8831-b8085c8ffa2b

Linda Bassi
Stream and Lake Protection Section
Colorado Water Conservation Board
1313 Sherman Street, Room 721
Denver, CO 80203
linda.bassi@state.co.us
303-866-3441 x3204

Kaylea White
Stream and Lake Protection Section
Colorado Water Conservation Board
1313 Sherman Street, Room 721
Denver, CO 80203
kaylea.white@state.co.us
303-866-3441 x3240

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Navajo Dam operations update

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to a warmer and dryer forecast weather pattern, Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 950 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

A Critical Fight for the Rights of Nature — The Revelator

Los Cedros, the iconic cloud forest reserve in Ecuador’s Western Andes, which is under concession for copper and gold mining to Canadian company Cornerstone and Australian BHP. Photo credit: The Rainforest Project

From The Revelator (Daniel Hudon):

Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve, one of Earth’s most biodiverse habitats, could be wiped out by mining. A court case could save it — and set a precedent for the planet.

Should nature have rights? That question is being put to the test right now in Ecuador.

In 2008 the South American country made history when its new constitution declared that nature had “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It was an unprecedented commitment, the first of its kind, to preserving biodiversity for future generations of Ecuadorians.

The constitutional change did not automatically protect nature, but it gave citizens what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature describes as “the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”

Rio Los Cedros. Photo by Michael Wherley. Used with permission via The Revelator

The country could soon make history again when its Constitutional Court hears a case that seeks to apply these rights of nature to a protected forest, known as Bosque Protector Reserva Los Cedros, against large-scale copper and gold mining.

The threat stems from a 2017 change in government policy that allowed mining concessions on 6 million acres of lands, including at least 68% of Los Cedros — part of a hasty attempt to boost the mining sector and compensate for declining oil revenues. Experts say that policy appears to be unconstitutional, which has led to the present showdown.

“Mining in protected forests is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, the Rights of Nature, and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively,” says ecologist Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon, who has conducted research at Los Cedros since 2008.

A Vital Reserve

Los Cedros is a remote, pristine, 17,000-acre cloud forest in northwest Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Conservation biologist Mika Peck, of the University of Sussex, describes Los Cedros as “a biodiversity hotspot within a hotspot — and of global importance in terms of conserving our natural history.”

He adds, “the reserve and all it maintains is priceless.”

The reserve has been protected since 1988 due primarily to the work of manager Josef DeCoux and Australia’s Rainforest Information Center.

DeCoux tells me he was one of the “hippies” who moved from the United States to Ecuador in the 1980s to help “save the rainforest.”

He chose well. Not only does Los Cedros protect at least 250 species from extinction, it safeguards four watersheds. That means the court case is not just about preserving a biodiversity jewel; it’s about guaranteeing a livable environment to local people as well as protecting the forest’s own right to remain undisturbed.

A recent letter from 23 international scientists, including Roy and Peck, argued that “the value of this intact watershed is far greater than that of any possible mineral wealth that lies beneath it.”

Banded Ground-cuckoo, Neomorphus radiolosus. Endangered bird. Lowland tropical and sub-tropical forest on West slope of Andes (Choco ENdemic)

The remoteness of the reserve was one of the things that pulled me to it a few years ago.

Inaccessible by road, the final ascent up to Los Cedros is a nerve-wracking, two-hour mule ride on a muddy track with sheer drop-offs and awe-inspiring views. Once there you’re immersed in a biological paradise. You can walk among the shaggy, epiphyte-laden trees dripping from the frequent rain showers brought by the low-creeping clouds; listen to the cacophony of some of the 358 bird species that greet the dawn; seek out the six species of cats, including pumas and endangered jaguars; get to know some of the 970 species of moths; or look for 186 species of orchids, one-third of which are endangered. They include several species of Dracula orchids, named for their blood-red petals and haunting faces.

A Dracula orchid (Dracula Polyphemus) observed in Los Cedros. Photo: Nicola Peel via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Each day I explored the reserve’s trails — kept short to minimize disturbance to the ecosystem — its uniqueness became more evident. Nearly two dozen species of frogs, almost all endangered — including a species of rainfrog able to change its skin texture and a glass frog known for its transparent abdomen — occupy streams so clean you can drink directly from them. During my visit DeCoux told me he was particularly proud of that pristine resource.

The reserve is also home to the endangered spectacled Andean bear and three species of monkeys, also endangered.

On a morning hike with one of the guides employed by the reserve, I saw a troop of one of those species, the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, one of the rarest primates in the world, with a population of about 250 individuals. As most of the troop moved on, one monkey hung back to grab and eat some fruit. Although we watched from 30 yards away, it soon started hooting at us and shaking a branch to scare us off.

A clear message that we’d encroached on its personal space.

A critically endangered brown-haired spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps ssp. fusciceps) observed in Los Cedros. Photo: Bitty Roy. Used with permission via The Revelator.

The Mining Threat Looms

Yet in an encroachment of national and potentially devastating proportions, in 2017 the government put more than two-thirds of Los Cedros under a mining concession to the Canadian mining company Cornerstone Capital Resources, in conjunction with ENAMI, the state’s mining company.

Mining concessions in and around Los Cedros Reserve. Image credit: Rainforest Action Group

More than seven million acres across Ecuador are now under concessions. Additional concessions cover major portions of Indigenous territory, which threatens not only the people’s livelihoods but their lives. The permits, the majority of which are in the highly biodiverse Andean cloud forests, were issued without consulting the affected communities.

A year ago DeCoux’s legal team succeeded in getting a provincial court to revoke Cornerstone’s mining permit because of the lack of consultation. But that hasn’t stopped the company from continuing to operate, according to Elisa Levy of the mining oversight collective OMASNE (Observatorio Minero, Ambiental y Social del Norte del Ecuador).

“They have built roads to the edge of the reserve,” she says, “and broken new trails in Los Cedros” — actions that compromise the integrity of the presently intact ecosystem.

ENAMI appealed the provincial court’s decision, and in May the Constitutional Court decided to hear the case under rights of nature, probably by the end of the year.

The latest development was “very good news indeed,” DeCoux wrote in a blog post. Without rights people perceive forests, rivers and oceans as objects to be used; but with rights they become subjects to be valued on their own terms.

The case matters not just for Los Cedros — it could set precedent for the entire country.

Two of the Constitutional Court judges, Ramiro Avila and Daniela Salazar Marin, issued a written statement on May 18 that acknowledges the biodiversity of Los Cedros and explicitly mentions that it is the home of the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey and the endangered spectacled Andean bear. They further argue that the case will allow the court to rule on the “content” of the rights of nature, and to “develop parameters to set the limits of protected forests and the scope of responsibility for the state to monitor and follow up on mining concessions.” (Translated from Spanish.)

The Call to Protect

Habitat loss, now exacerbated by climate change, is the leading cause of extinction around the world. With the high number of endemic species in Los Cedros, and their small range, allowing mining exploration to continue will undoubtedly result in extinctions. In a research paper published in 2018 in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, Roy and others argue that permanently protecting Los Cedros, the last uncut forest in western Ecuador, is necessary to ensure lower-altitude flora and fauna can migrate freely to the higher altitudes found to the north, where Los Cedros borders the enormous 450,000-acre Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.

Peck echoes that conclusion. “The move to rule in favor of Bosques Protectores such as Los Cedros is vital to ensure protection of vital natural habitats, and the species they maintain, in a world that is going to undergo major climatic shifts,” he says. “Natural habitat is key to maintaining ecosystem services that buffer these changes and allow species to migrate and survive.”

An emerald glass frog (Espadarana prosoblepon) observed in Los Cedros. Photo: Niocola Peel via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Those species remain ever-present in my mind.

The sound I most remember from Los Cedros is the eerie call of the pastures frog: a high, slow electronic bleating that reverberated back and forth over the ridge — as if to warn that all this could be lost. Reserves like Los Cedros make up one-third of the protected lands in Ecuador, so a ruling in favor of rights of nature here would be a bold move that would protect other forests from mining and ultimately allow the establishment of new conservation corridors.

If ever there was a time for bold moves that will surely make history, it is now.

Peck calls a ruling in favor of the Bosques Protectores “the only rational response in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Levy is encouraged that the case will be heard under rights of nature, but remains cautious. “We don’t want to be too optimistic,” she says. “We know what’s at stake.”

For more on Los Cedros and the threat of mining in Ecuador, watch this video from the Rainforest Action Group:

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to turn down to 900 CFS August 29, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Dam in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Marc Miller):

In response to a cooler weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Saturday, August 29th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.

Concerns rise over #GrizzlyCreekFire’s impact on #ColoradoRiver’s endangered fish downstream — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River divides Glenwood Canyon slurry on the ridge from the Grizzly Creek Fire on Monday, August 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via Aspen Journalism)

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.

A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.

Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.

“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”

The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.

Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.

With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.

“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”

A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.

“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

Burned area assessment begins

The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.

Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.

But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.

“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”

When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.

“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.

The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near 19 Road in Grand Junction is home to four species of endangered fish. The Colorado River Water Conservation District is discussing releasing water from upstream reservoirs to help dilute any ash and sediment flows from the Grizzly Creek Fire. Photo © Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Solution is dilution

Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.

In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.

The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.

“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.

“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”

Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.

“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.

The #YampaRiver is under Administration for the 2nd time in its history #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Erin Light via Scott Hummer):

Right in step with the unprecedented year of 2020, the Yampa River is going on call for the second time in three years. And once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands.

We, the Division of Water Resources, are currently protecting reservoir water released from Elkhead Creek Reservoir for the protection of the endangered fish species. The amount of reservoir water currently being released for the Endangered Fish Recovery Program is 75 cfs. This in turn requires that there is 61 cfs at the Yampa River at Deerlodge Park gage station. The flow this morning is hovering around 50 cfs which means reservoir water is being diverted by water users upstream.

The entire Yampa River system is under administration for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that if the reservoir water was not in the system the structures at the bottom of the system would have no water and we would be instituting what one might consider a standard or more typical call that would encompass the entire Yampa River and its tributaries. Additionally, the water users on the mainstem of the Yampa River between Elkhead Creek and its confluence with the Green River should not have to bear the brunt of the entire Yampa River being short of water simply because their structure is located within the Critical Habitat Reach (the protected reach for the Endangered Fish).

Actions have already been put in place to institute the call and as of 12:00 PM today, the Yampa River and all of its tributaries are considered under administration. The Calling Priority right (or most junior water right that may divert at this time) is located at the Craig Station Power Plant with an administration number of 37149.00000 (this water right has an adjudication date 9/1/1960 and an appropriation date of 9/17/1951). This Calling Priority may change as the call progresses. In order to follow the call you may visit the following website:
https://dwr.state.co.us/Tools/AdministrativeCalls/Active?submitButton=Submit&SelectedWaterDivisionId=6

If you have a water right junior to the above listed priority and you are diverting water, please cease your diversions unless your diversion can operate under a decreed augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer. Also, if you are the owner of a pond, you are required to bypass all out of priority inflows.

If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me or your water commissioner.

Erin Light, P.E.
Division Engineer, Water Division 6

A wildlife refuge under siege at the border — @HighCountryNews

San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona. Photo credit: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

From The High Country News (Jessica Kutz):

New emails detail drained ponds, salvaged fish and a tense relationship with the Department of Homeland Security.

During the fall of 2019, the Department of Homeland Security began pumping large amounts of water from a southern Arizona aquifer to mix concrete for the Trump administration’s border wall. The aquifer is an essential water source for the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, so when the pumping escalated, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials watched helplessly as the water levels at several ponds — the main habitat for the endangered fish at this Sonoran Desert refuge — dropped “precipitously.”

In what Bill Radke, who has managed the refuge for two decades, called “life support” actions, staff was forced to shut off water to three of the ponds to minimize broader damage. As a result, biologists had to salvage endangered fish from the emptying ponds. It was “like cutting off individual fingers in an attempt to save the hand,” Radke wrote in an email to staff.

Since its creation in 1982 the 2,300-acre refuge’s sole mission has been to protect the rare species of the Río Yaqui, including endangered fishes like the Yaqui chub and Yaqui topminnow, and other species, such as the tiny San Bernardino springsnail and the endangered Huachuca water umbel, a plant that resembles clumps of tubular grass. Through a series of artesian wells connected to an aquifer, the refuge has kept ponds filled in this fragile valley for nearly 40 years.

Under normal circumstances, a significant construction project like a border wall would be required to go through an extensive environmental review process as dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Department of Homeland Security says it operates under the spirit of NEPA and solicits public comment. But with environmental laws — including NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act — waived for the border wall, the refuge lacks any legal protection, either for itself or the endangered species in its care. So wildlife officials have tried to work with the department, sending hydrological studies and providing recommendations about how to reduce water use near the refuge — information that the Department Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed it takes into consideration.

Border wall construction infrastructure is seen cutting through the landscape of southern Arizona. Bill Radke called the water withdrawals for the border wall Òthe current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region. Photo credit: Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity via The High Country News

But as emails recently obtained by High Country News through a Freedom of Information Act Request show, Homeland Security consistently ignored the expertise of Radke and his team. The emails, which were sent from August 2019 to January 2020, chronicle months of upheaval at the refuge and dysfunctional communication between Fish and Wildlife and Homeland Security. During crucial moments, Homeland Security kept wildlife agency staff in the dark as land managers and hydrologists worked to anticipate damages.

“What we are seeing in these FOIA documents confirms a pattern with CBP and DHS that goes back 15 years,” said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Matthew Dyman, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, stated that “DHS and CBP have and continue to coordinate weekly, and more frequently on an as needed basis, to answer questions concerning new border wall construction projects and to address environmental concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” Nevertheless, documents confirm that border wall construction caused groundwater levels to plummet and harmed endangered fish at the refuge.

The Yaqui Chub is one of the four endangered R’o Yaqui species protected at San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge. W.R. Radke/US Fish and Wildlife Service

IN OCTOBER 2019, RADKE wrote to Fish and Wildlife staff that “the threat of groundwater depletion” at the San Bernardino Refuge had gone from “concerning” to a “dire emergency.” Subsequent emails detail the refuge’s difficulty in obtaining water usage estimates from DHS contractors for an accurate risk assessment. Fish and Wildlife officials sent the department a hydrology analysis to raise an alarm and requested a five-mile buffer around the refuge for well drilling.

According to the emails, though, the Department of Homeland Security did little in response. “I was disappointed today to see first hand that DHS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not abide by the (most recent) October 16, 2019, Fish and Wildlife Service request to minimize water withdrawal from the aquifer that supports all wetlands on San Bernardino NWR,” Radke wrote. “Instead contractors made plans to drill even closer to the refuge, drilling their second new well 480 feet east of (the refuge).”

CBP spokesman Dyman maintains that construction contractors honored the buffer request. But emails show otherwise: At least one well was drilled less than 500 feet from the refuge boundary; it was abandoned only after it didn’t produce water. And Fish and Wildlife soon learned that even more well locations were being considered near the refuge, according to emails. Homeland Security also continued to pump large volumes of water from a private landowner whose well is just 1.5 miles from the refuge.

Despite a request by FWS that all wells be outside a 5 mile buffer around San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, wells have been built as close as 1.5 miles and 480 feet from the refuge border. Photo credit: Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

Around the same time, pond levels in the refuge dropped. In a series of emails in late November, Radke grew increasingly frustrated. On Nov. 22, he wrote to agency employees, “Our refuge water monitoring is already showing harm to our aquifer during months when the refuge has always demonstrated an increase in groundwater levels. We have ponds dropping precipitously (as much as a foot already) that have never gone low during the winter months — not ever.” Fish and Wildlife had warned Homeland Security that this would happen, but no apparent action was ever taken. “I do not know what reaction to expect from DHS or (the Army Corps of Engineers) to our continuing requests for them to minimize or mitigate impacts to the refuge,” Radke wrote, “but so far our requests have been consistently met with indifference.”

ON DEC. 12, RADKE CALLED the water withdrawals for the border wall “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region.” By that point, refuge staff had begun to track the impact themselves; there was little else they could do. The monitoring became “an overwhelming priority that diminishes our ability to adequately meet other important objectives, obligations and due dates,” Radke wrote.

By January, the impact on the ponds was obvious. According to a Fish and Wildlife memo, swings in water pressure and depth were clearly documented. The report noted that these changes “began to occur as water was used off refuge for border wall construction.” Earlier emails speculated that the situation would only grow more dire at the refuge during the sweltering summer months, when evaporation both from the ponds and the water being pumped would use even more of the precious desert resource.

In an email, Dyman told High Country News that Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “are working closely with the construction contractor on estimated water usage requirements for barrier construction in Arizona as well as working with San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge to mitigate the impacts of groundwater use for the project.” Beth Ullenberg, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed that the refuge is working with Homeland Security. The agency “has identified that larger capacity pumps are now needed in order to maintain pond levels and appropriate pond outflows,” Ullenberg wrote. She said the contractor is purchasing and will install the new pumps at the refuge.

Those pumps came too late for at least three ponds and according to a document obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, as recently as May water pumping near the refuge was still having a direct and detrimental impact to the refuge. Environmental groups say a pattern of secrecy, lack of communication and failure to coordinate with land managers at the border continue to endanger other biodiverse regions, such as Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where they intersect with border wall construction.

“(The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol) have consistently ignored the input of land managers and landowners and other stakeholders along the border with regard to these construction projects,” Serraglio said, “and it has resulted in serious damage time and time again.”

Mud plantain is an aquatic annual-perennial plant of the pickerelweed family. It grows partly or wholly in water, whether rooted in the mud, as a lotus, or floating as the water hyacinth. Photo credit: W.R. Radke/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at jessicak@hcn.org.

Court Strikes Down [@POTUS] Administration Policy That Let Companies Kill Birds — @Audubon

From the Audubon Society (Andy McGlashen):

In a major victory for conservation groups, a federal judge ruled that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act covers unintentional but avoidable avian deaths.

No law degree is required to get the gist of the ruling U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni handed down on Tuesday. Sure, the decision—the latest blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental laws—is marbled with the typical Latin and legalese. But beginning with its opening nod to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Caproni’s ruling in the Southern District of New York makes it plain that the Interior Department’s interpretation of the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) isn’t merely flawed—it’s flat-out wrong.

The decision strikes down a 2017 legal opinion issued by Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s top lawyer, which claimed the MBTA did not prohibit “incidental take,” a term for the unintentional but foreseeable and avoidable injury or killing of birds, often through industrial activity. For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has used the threat of potential prosecution under the MBTA to convince companies to take steps to prevent killing birds, such as covering oil waste pits or marking power lines to make them more visible to birds in flight.

Under Jorjani’s opinion, even mass killings of birds—such as the 2010 BP oil spill, which killed an estimated 1 million birds and resulted in a $100 million fine against the company under the MBTA—would not be punishable if killing birds wasn’t the intention. Guided by that interpretation, the FWS has opted not to investigate cases of incidental take, and even counseled companies and local governments that they need not take steps to protect birds.

Caproni eviscerated that reading of the law. “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,” she wrote. “That has been the letter of the law for the past century. But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence.”

he ruling is a major win for six environmental groups and eight states whose three consolidated complaints argued that the law clearly makes it illegal to kill, hunt, capture, or attempt to capture a bird or egg without a permit “by any means or in any manner.” Caproni agreed, ruling that Interior’s position was “simply an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds.” The judge also rebuked Jorjani for issuing an opinion without tapping the expertise of federal wildlife officials. “There is no evidence of input from the agency actually tasked with implementing the statute: FWS,” she wrote.

Conservationists were thrilled at the judgment’s forceful endorsement of their position. “The ruling is completely unambiguous on every count. Every rationale the government gave to try to uphold this rollback of the MBTA, the judge shot them all down,” says Erik Schneider, policy manager for the National Audubon Society, which was among the plaintiffs. “The experts had no bearing on [Jorjani’s opinion]. It was a political decision made without their input.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, another plaintiff, said in a statement that the ruling “recognizes the critical importance of protecting our precious wildlife and upholding the rule of law. We hope the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service learn their lesson and renew their commitment to acting in the best interest of the public.”

People on both sides of the case expect the administration to appeal. “Three circuit courts have already weighed in supporting the opinion underlining the MBTA rule,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance—an association of oil and gas companies that lobbied for ending enforcement of incidental take—in an email. “One district court ruling from New York will not be the final word.”

Sgamma’s reference was to other MBTA cases prior to Jorjani’s opinion. Interior cited those earlier rulings as evidence that courts hadn’t settled whether the law covers incidental take and that prosecuting accidental bird deaths was therefore legally dubious. But Caproni found that line of reasoning unconvincing. “Interior’s argument vastly overstates circuit disagreement and blurs the actual boundaries that have been drawn,” she wrote. “Tensions between the circuits certainly exist, but they are not of the magnitude or kind Interior presents.”

Caproni’s decision is a significant blow to Interior’s effort to enshrine Jorjani’s opinion in a formal rule, which would make the allowance of incidental take more difficult for a later administration to reverse. Part of the justification for such a reversal could come from the department’s recent draft environmental impact statement on the proposed rule, which says it is likely to push some bird species onto the endangered species list.

An Interior spokesperson declined to say if the department would continue work to finalize that rule despite the court decision, instead offering an emailed statement: “Today’s opinion undermines a common sense interpretation of the law and runs contrary to recent efforts, shared across the political spectrum, to de-criminalize unintentional conduct.”

Interior also declined to say how the ruling would affect day-to-day enforcement of the MBTA by the FWS. Gary Mowad, who spent 25 years with the FWS and was deputy chief of enforcement, says the agency should return to investigating industrial threats to birds and engaging companies to reduce those threats. “I hope that the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service take the special agents off the leash and let them do their jobs,” he says. “What I fear is that the service always has the ability to establish enforcement priorities, and they may still make this type of mortality a low enforcement priority.”

To buttress Tuesday’s victory, conservationists want Congress to step in and spell out even more clearly that the MBTA does not apply only to killing birds on purpose. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, which has passed a House committee but hasn’t yet received a vote in the full chamber or a companion bill in the Senate, would affirm that the MBTA prohibits incidental take. It also would set up a permitting program whereby companies would be protected from legal action as long as they adopt industry best practices to limit harm to birds. “Congressional action could potentially build on this victory,” Schneider says, “and help provide even greater stability going forward.”

Navajo Dam operations update: 900 CFS in the #SanJuanRiver below the dam, August 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Wednesday, August 12th, starting at 5:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to be increased to 800 CFS on August 11, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Tuesday, August 11th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Stocking greenback cutthroat trout into the Poudre River tributary system — @COParksWildlife

Covid-Mask-wearing Black Bear. Credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

From Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Jason Clay)

A multi-agency effort to restore the federally threatened greenback cutthroat trout into its native river basin took a giant hike upwards last week when an army of Colorado Trout Unlimited volunteers led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service staff stocked the Colorado state fish into a new body of water.

Around 10 staffers and 40 volunteers from Colorado Trout Unlimited each hiked between 12-15 greenback cutthroat trout in backpacks into a Poudre River tributary stream. This introduction marks just the fifth body of water in the state the greenbacks now can call home, with four of those five within the South Platte River basin that the greenbacks are native to.

“Today is one of those exciting instances of getting a new population established,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW. “We are trying to replicate and perpetuate this resource across the landscape, by getting greenbacks into more water bodies within the South Platte River basin.”

A total of 711 greenbacks were stocked on Tuesday, July 28. They came from the Mt. Shavano Hatchery out of Salida. It took the hatchery one year to take the fertilized eggs, hatch and raise the fish to five inches in length, primed for release into the wild.

“Colorado Trout Unlimited is a proud partner in the campaign to protect and restore our native trout,” said Dan Omasta, Grassroots Coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This stocking project is another great example of how anglers and local communities can work together to save a threatened species. We had over 40 volunteers that traveled from as far as Eagle, Colo., and Wyoming to carry fish over nine miles into the backcountry on a rainy afternoon. The passion and dedication of our community is what drives an optimistic future for the greenback cutthroat trout.”

U.S. Forest Service personnel located the fishless stream in the Poudre River basin a couple years ago and the agencies did their due diligence to make Tuesday’s stocking become a reality. Aquatic biologists conducted stream sampling with backpack electrofishing units and took eDNA samples to confirm it was indeed a fishless location. Habitat suitability work also took place to ensure the fish would survive once stocked. Everything checked out and the greenbacks were stocked into a fifth body of water in Colorado.

“We’re excited and proud to be partnering with CPW on this important effort reintroducing greenback cutthroat trout and restoring part of Colorado’s natural heritage,” said Christopher Carrol, Fisheries Biologist and Watershed Crew Lead with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland. “We especially want to thank Colorado Trout Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Flycasters Chapter of Trout Unlimited for organizing so many passionate volunteers and helping collect data that informed our decision for making the reintroduction. Shared stewardship and working together pays dividends for native species.

An important characteristic when looking to identify a reintroduction site is that the stream must be fishless. It must also have protection from invasion of non-native trout that will outcompete and overrun the greenbacks.

“This location is protected by a series of natural waterfall barriers, upwards of 20-feet, that ensures the reach we stocked will not be invaded by non-native fish downstream,” Battige said.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

The greenbacks have previously been stocked into Herman Gulch, Dry Gulch, and Zimmerman Lake – all within the South Platte River drainage. These rare fish, twice believed to be extinct, are descendants of the last wild population of native greenback cutthroat trout found in Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs in 2012. Bear Creek is the fifth body of water in Colorado where the fish currently reside.

“This project could not have been completed without the hard work and dedication of today’s volunteers. The hikes that they did range from four miles roundtrip up to nine miles and covered 1,200 to 2,400 vertical feet of elevation, so it was a pretty substantial undertaking,” Battige said.

The fish were loaded onto the hatchery truck at 3:30 a.m. and driven roughly 240 miles to the trailhead where they got loaded into bags with 1-2 gallons of water and pumped full of oxygen. The fish were put in ice water before leaving the hatchery, so they can handle the conditions better during their long journey.

“Lowering the temperature helps the fish travel well, ensures that their metabolism slows down and decreases the overall stress on the fish,” Battige said.

The water temperature in the stream was 51 degrees, so before getting stocked the volunteers tempered their fish, meaning they took time to slowly acclimate the fish to the temperature in the creek over a 10-15 minute time period.

Crews will stock additional greenbacks into the same location each summer for the next two years as they look to establish the population. They will follow up with surveys to see how the fish are doing and aquatic biologists will look for signs of natural reproduction and new greenbacks hatching in the stream in 3-4 years.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 700 CFS August 7, 2020 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a hot and dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Friday, August 7th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Reservoir Releases to Bolster Flows in 15-Mile Reach of #ColoradoRiver — The #Colorado Water Trust #COriver #aridification

A map of the Fry-Ark system. Aspen, and Hunter Creek, are shown in the lower left. Fryingpan-Arkansas Project western and upper eastern slope facilities.

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust, et al. (Mark Harris, Mark Harris, Donald Anderson, and Scott McCaulou):

On Saturday, August 1, Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will initiate their implementation of an agreement that will deliver 877 acre-feet of water to the Grand Valley Power Plant and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River above its confluence with the Gunnison River near Grand Junction, Colorado this summer. Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District identified available capacity in their water delivery system for Colorado Water Trust to deliver water decreed for power generation through the Grand Valley Power Plant, from where it subsequently returns to the 15-Mile Reach. This delivery will mark the second execution of an innovative agreement that Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District entered last year with assistance from the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The agreement furthers common goals of streamflow restoration for the 15-Mile Reach and takes steps toward unlocking a $425,000 grant from Walton Family Foundation to renovate the aging Grand Valley Power Plant. Thanks to donor support, Colorado Water Trust has purchased stored water from the Colorado River District. That water will be released from Ruedi Reservoir to the Colorado River for use in the power plant and to increase 15-Mile Reach flows to support four species of endangered fish including the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Bonytail, and Razorback Sucker.

“We are so grateful to Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District for coordinating with us to boost flows in the 15-Mile Reach. Seeing the project work for a second year in a row proves the lasting success of our partnerships, and it’s particularly important to the fish this year, with flows as low as they are.” says Kate Ryan, Senior Staff Attorney for Colorado Water Trust.

This is the second time in the past two summers that Colorado Water Trust purchased water stored in Ruedi Reservoir for release to the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River to help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperatures. Purchases since 2019 will result in delivering over 1200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River. Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the power plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish. When these two conditions overlap, Colorado Water Trust releases the water purchased out of storage for delivery to the power plant and then the 15-Mile Reach.

“Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association appreciate the Colorado Water Trust’s facilitation of this agreement–it benefits our two organizations at the Grand Valley Power Plant, and the many other water users who support flows through the 15-Mile Reach. We believe these kinds of collaborative efforts to be of great value to the people of Colorado, the Colorado River, and the fish,” says Mark Harris, General Manager of Grand valley Water Users Association.

“Maintaining adequate flows for endangered fish through the 15-Mile Reach is possible only because of the extraordinary cooperation our Recovery Program enjoys from multiple partners and stakeholders. We are delighted to add the Colorado Water Trust to that mix of cooperators. This year, in light of unusually low flow conditions in the Colorado River, the additional water made available through this leasing arrangement is especially welcome,” says Donald Anderson, Hydrologist and Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers to so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River. Finally, on the Colorado River, the water will generate hydropower, helping to produce clean energy.

“Flowing rivers are an economic engine in Colorado, providing immense value to irrigators, drinking water providers, and recreation across the state,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Director of Business for Water Stewardship. “It is for this reason that we are seeing more and more corporate funders step forward to invest in innovative projects like this one that help keep the rivers in Colorado flowing.”

Essential to the project’s success are dedicated donors: Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Coca Cola, Colorado Water Trust donors, and Daniel K. Thorne Foundation. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of local and state agencies, water releases to support the health of the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River would not be possible.

ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 12 billion gallons of water to rivers and streams across the state.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map credit: CWCB

@CWCB_DNR Appropriates Himes Creek Water Right to Protect Rediscovered Cutthroat Trout Population

Himes Creek. Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) received a water court decree for an instream flow water right on Himes Creek, located in San Juan National Forest, to protect a rare population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. This lineage of trout is native to the San Juan River Basin and was previously thought to be extinct.

“This instream flow water right on Himes Creek is one of the most significant that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has appropriated in the program’s history,” said CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “CWCB staff, along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, consulted with leading researchers and scientists for the past two years to develop a strategy to best protect this extremely rare and at-risk species.”

When this instream flow recommendation was initially brought to CWCB in 2017, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was interested in protecting flows on Himes Creek to support a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. During data collection, genetic testing confirmed that the fish in Himes Creek have the same genetic markers as the San Juan lineage once thought to be extinct. Researchers estimate that the total number of San Juan lineage trout in all known populations is estimated to be as few as 1,000.

The CWCB approved the Himes Creek instream flow recommendation in March 2019, and the water court issued a decree for the Himes Creek instream flow water right on July 27, 2020.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Gothic permanently protected under conservation easement: Research and education in perpetuity

Gothic mountain shrouded in clouds behind several cabins in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, USA. By Charlie DeTar – Own workby uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4795644

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

We all may be missing visits to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic this summer, but a conservation easement finalized last week ensures that the 92-year-old research site will remain in perpetuity beyond just one summer season.

The RMBL site itself has been relatively quiet this summer with its usual camps, tours, cafeteria, visitor center/general store and coffee house closed to the public to protect researchers and staff from the risks of coronavirus.

But a smaller number of field scientists are conducting their own business as usual there and RMBL announced on Thursday, July 16, that its 270-acre “living laboratory” has been permanently protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands for the entire town of Gothic.

The contract will create requirements for RMBL to uphold its mission for research and science, and will in turn protect the area from development beyond those purposes…

The conservation easement prevents subdivision of and development on the land and preserves the site for education and recreation into perpetuity…

This means, as RMBL stated in a press release, “that the hundreds of scientists and students that RMBL normally hosts each year have guaranteed access to conduct field research in a large, intact outdoor environment and that tens of thousands of visitors will have unique opportunities to explore environmental science in a beautiful and informal setting.”

[…]

As RMBL executive director Dr. Ian Billick phrased it, “The community can know that the Gothic Townsite is dedicated to research and education in perpetuity.”

All of the buildings must have a primary purpose of research and education. There are several buildings outside the building envelope, which Billick explains are in an avalanche zone and will eventually be replaced by structures inside the building envelope…

In 1997, Gunnison County voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund the protection of open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wetlands and public parks and trails. With these funds, the Gunnison Valley Land Protection Fund provided a transaction costs grant to support this project. The cost was $65,000, according to Billick.

Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands added, “This is a unique opportunity for a land trust to conserve an entire town, and knowing that the space will be used in perpetuity to advance critical research makes it even more meaningful.”

Conditions ‘pretty grim’ for endangered fish locally due to falling river flows — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map credit: CWCB

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun asking for water releases from high-country reservoirs to boost water flows in the Colorado River upstream of the Gunnison River confluence and aid endangered fish, while being careful not to exhaust available water that may be needed for the species later in the year.

The agency is seeing what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist Don Anderson on Wednesday said are “quickly deteriorating flow conditions” on what’s called the 15-Mile Reach of the river between the Gunnison confluence and where Grand Valley irrigation diversions occur upstream.

Speaking in a conference call with upstream reservoir operators, local irrigation officials and others who work to cooperatively manage Colorado River flow levels, he said flows in the stretch Wednesday were around 450 cubic feet per second. The longterm median flow at Palisade below where Grand Valley diversions occur is 1,780 cfs for July 23, according to U.S. Geological Survey streamflow data.

Anderson told call participants that according to a report from Fish and Wildlife Service colleague Dale Ryden, fish conditions in the 15-mile stretch “are getting pretty grim.”

[…]

There, when water is low the fish are more prone to predation, exposure to more sun especially in clearer-water conditions, and even impacts from recreational river use, Anderson said. The latter is on the upswing on that river stretch as people are restless due to the pandemic and looking to get outdoors.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and partners make use of water leases and contracts, coordinated releases from upstream reservoirs and other means to enhance flows in the river stretch.

Anderson has asked for releases totaling 150 cubic feet per second from three upstream reservoirs to boost flow levels in the stretch. While he indicated a desire to further increase flows, he’s balancing that against a desire to not too quickly go through what he referred to as firm sources of water to hit an ideal flow target, in case some of that water is needed later in the year…

Anderson said some endangered fish, such as young Colorado pikeminnow, are reportedly responding to the current conditions by moving to the lower Gunnison River, which currently has more favorable flows and turbid conditions that benefit them…

One bright spot is the moister weather that is arriving in Colorado and could boost river flows. Treste Huse, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said during Wednesday’s call that a more active seasonal monsoon pattern is setting up that will bring a steady increase in moisture to the region over the next several days. While the most rain is expected in southwest and south-central Colorado, she said a total of maybe 1.5 to 3 inches of rain is possible in north-central Colorado. She said the 30-day outlook now calls for an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation…

Another development that will boost the river’s flows is the expected restoration of operations at Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon by the end of this week. That plant has a senior 1,250-cfs water right but was damaged by river ice this spring. Flows just above the plant have fallen below that point but will be boosted once the plant exercises its right to call for more water.

Endangered fish potentially could benefit later this year from what’s called a historic users pool of water in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. While the pool was created for irrigators, municipal and other water users, some years surplus water from that pool can be used to boost fish flows.

he fish also stand to gain this year from the efforts of the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust. Last year it reached a five-year agreement with the Grand Valley Waters Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, which operate the Grand Valley Power Plant hydroelectric facility near Palisade. The deal calls for the Colorado Water Trust to secure water from upstream sources to deliver to the plant at critical times of year, boosting the plant’s operational capacity when water supply is otherwise limited while also putting more water in the 15-mile river stretch.

The penstocks and main building at the Shoshone hydropower plant, which uses water diverted from the Colorado River to produce electricity. The Shoshone Outage Protocol keeps water flowing down the Colorado River when the hydro plant is inoperable. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism