Human actions created the #SaltonSea, #California’s largest lake – here’s how to save it from collapse, protecting wild birds and human health — The Conversation

Exposed lakebed at the Salton Sea on Dec. 29, 2022. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Robert Glennon, University of Arizona and Brent Haddad, University of California, Santa Cruz

The Salton Sea spreads across a remote valley in California’s lower Colorado Desert, 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Mexican border. For birds migrating along the Pacific coast, it’s an avian Grand Central Station. In midwinter tens of thousands of snow geese, ducks, pelicans, gulls and other species forage on and around the lake. Hundreds of other species nest there year-round or use it as a rest stop during spring and fall migration.

At the dawn of the 20th century, this massive oasis didn’t even exist. It was created in 1905 when Colorado River floodwaters breached an irrigation canal under construction in Southern California and flowed into a basin that had flooded in the past. In earlier years, the sea covered roughly 40 square miles more than its current size of 343 square miles (890 square kilometers).

Since then, agricultural runoff from newly formed nearby irrigation districts has sustained it. By midcentury, the sea was considered a regional amenity and stocked with popular sport fish.

Now, however, this resource is in trouble. Wasteful irrigation practices that maintained the sea have been reduced, and excess water is now being transferred to thirsty coastal cities instead. The sea’s volume has declined to roughly 4.6 million acre-feet, losing nearly 3 million acre-feet since the mid-2000s. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons – the amount of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot).

As water evaporates from its surface, its salinity has spiked: The sea is now almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.

Map of California with inset showing location of Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is a large inland lake in southeastern California fed by Colorado River irrigation water from farms in the Imperial Valley. Legislative Analysts’s Office, state of California, CC BY-ND

In November 2022, the federal government pledged US$250 million for environmental restoration and dust suppression at the Salton Sea. It’s a historic contribution, but experts agree that other critical steps are needed.

We just completed more than a year of service to the California Salton Sea Management Program’s Independent Review Panel, which was charged with evaluating proposals to import water to the sea. In our view, the panel’s recommendations represent the best path forward. They also reflect the complexity of managing water in the increasingly dry U.S. Southwest, where other water bodies, such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake, share the same general challenges of net water loss.

An ecosystem on the brink

There’s no question that the Salton Sea desperately needs a fix. Rising salinity threatens worms, crustaceans and other organisms that make up the base of the sea’s food web and has killed off many of its fish species. Without intervention, the sea’s entire ecosystem could collapse.

The sea’s declining water levels also threaten human health. Nearby residents, who are mostly low-income people of color, already experience high rates of respiratory illness. A recent study found that dust mobilized by wind blowing across the playa triggers lung inflammation.

Without government intervention, the sea would reach a lower equilibrium size by 2045 that matches smaller inflows with evaporation losses. Even greater areas of playa would be exposed, potentially generating even more airborne dust. https://www.youtube.com/embed/KOcB0A3K_bw?wmode=transparent&start=13 Land managers and local residents explain how the Salton Sea’s decline is affecting people and wildlife.

Many bad options

The state review panel analyzed strategies for adding water to the Salton Sea as a long-term restoration strategy. Most of the proposals envisioned pulling water from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, 125 miles to the south, desalinating it and moving it north by canal.

These schemes called for building immense desalination plants along the Sea of Cortez, up to 10 times bigger than California’s Claude “Bud” Lewis plant in Carlsbad – the largest such facility in the United States.

The proposals could not overcome three significant problems. First, they were projected to cost many tens of billions of dollars and take more than 20 years to complete. Second, they threatened to inflict nasty environmental consequences on the Sea of Cortez, dumping huge quantities of brine into sensitive and protected marine ecosystems and turning pristine beaches into industrial zones. Third, Mexico would derive little benefit from building a huge desalination plant in a remote area, other than some jobs from building and running the plant. https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/juxtapose/latest/embed/index.html?uid=1c70a2bc-9035-11ed-b5bd-6595d9b17862 These satellite photos show how the Salton Sea shrank between 1984 and 2015, exposing dry playa around its edges (move slider to compare years).

Focus on salinity, not size

Ultimately, the panel concluded that expanding the Salton Sea to its former size was less important than controlling its salinity. The panel made four recommendations that center on building a desalination plant at the Salton Sea to the treat water that’s already there.

This plant would remove 200 million gallons of high-salinity water daily from the Salton Sea and produce 100 million gallons per day of desalinated water, which would be returned to the Salton Sea. In short order, this exchange would begin to significantly lower its overall salinity.

A desalination plant using reverse osmosis generates a brine stream equal to approximately half the volume of the treated seawater. Accordingly, the panel called for California to negotiate a voluntary paid transfer program in which the state would pay farmers to transfer enough water to the Salton Sea to replace the volume of brine removed at the desalination plant. The net effect would keep the sea from becoming even smaller and hasten the process of lowering salinity.

The desalination plant would generate an immense quantity of salt, which would require careful disposal. The panel recommended drying out the brine in evaporation ponds and transferring dried salts from the ponds to landfills or industrial uses.

Finally, the panel called for California to step up support for an aggressive program to stabilize the exposed playa. Techniques could include planting vegetation on the playa and plowing long rows of furrows to reduce dust mobilization during wind storms. The estimated total cost for this plan is $63 billion, compared with $95 billion-$148 billion for various proposals to desalinate and import water from the Sea of Cortez.

Since 2020, the state has conducted pilot projects to reduce dust blowing off the playa, with promising early results. The federal government’s $250 million pledge will enable this work to move more quickly.

Stabilizing the playa is essential to address significant public health concerns associated with windborne dust, although more must be done regionally to fully address air quality problems.

Looking forward, not backward

This approach will not satisfy critics who want to restore the Salton Sea to its maximum volume. These advocates recall the mid-20th century when the sea was a tourism draw and would like to reconnect the few small towns that once bordered the sea, which are now separated by extensive playa. Expanding the sea to its original size also would address concerns about playa-sourced air pollution.

In our view, however, the panel’s recommendations offer a genuine opportunity to solve the main problems: blowing dust and increasing salinity. This solution is more likely to actually be implemented than an enormous binational desalination project. It would happen more quickly, at about half the cost of the binational importation options.

We believe that the sooner California officials accept the reality of a smaller Salton Sea, the sooner the state can move ahead, focusing on air quality improvement and ecological restoration.

Robert Glennon, Regents Professor Emeritus and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy Emeritus, University of Arizona and Brent Haddad, Professor of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

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

Federal Government Advances Big #Water Projects: Congress focuses on flood protection and disaster recovery — Circle of Blue

Marsh Wren. Photo: Ramkumar Subramanian/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

While much of the country was relaxing over the winter holidays, federal lawmakers remained busy.

Before ending its session and swearing in new members, Congress passed a fiscal year 2023 budget with key provisions for water infrastructure and disaster recovery. That’s in addition to approving legislation that authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects for flood protection, navigation, and environmental restoration.

Combined, the two bills run to more than 8,000 pages. Water sector advocates, though confounded by how some infrastructure funds are being allocated, were generally pleased with what the bills contain.

“Anybody who cares about water should be excited about what we accomplished at the end of last year,” Mae Stevens told Circle of Blue. Stevens, who works with environmental groups and utilities, is chair of the water practice at Banner Public Affairs, a lobby group.

The Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, is the legislation that authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects. The bill focuses on flood protection, commercial waterways, and improving community engagement, particularly with Native American tribes and communities historically burdened by pollution.

Major projects authorized or modified in WRDA include:

  • $1.8 billion Upper Barataria Basin project, a 30-mile levee to protect seven southeastern Louisiana parishes from storm surges.
  • $34.4 billion Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration project, a massive system of levees, flood gates, dunes, and marsh restoration to safeguard the Texas Gulf Coast from hurricane storm surges.
  • $3.2 billion for a larger lock at Soo Locks, a pivotal transit point for Great Lakes commercial shipping.

WRDA also made it easier for the Army Corps to deploy natural features such as marshes and dunes to guard against floods. And it authorized the Army Corps to study a second drinking water source or additional water storage for Washington, D.C.

The capital’s water supply is vulnerable, said Stevens, who worked on two previous WRDA bills as part of Sen. Ben Cardin’s staff. The Potomac River — the city’s sole drinking water source — could be compromised by industrial accidents, oil spills, or other incidents. Shutting down the Potomac water intake would put the city in a serious bind.

In an action separate from WRDA, the Army Corps issued final permits for a $2.3 billion environmental restoration project to rebuild eroding land along the Louisiana coast.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a state project, will provide an off-ramp for sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River. Those land-building particles will be diverted during periods of high flow. Exiting the river at a point south of New Orleans, the sediment will be funneled to the Barataria Basin, where it is intended to reestablish coastal wetlands and protect inland areas from storm surges.

WRDA authorizes projects but does not fund them. Allocating money is the purpose of the appropriations bill.

That bill identified water infrastructure priorities. It allocated $140 million to rebuild water treatment facilities in New Mexico that were affected by last year’s Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest in state history.

The bill maintained the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds at 2022 spending levels. These low-interest loan funds are two primary sources of federal funding for water infrastructure.

Funding this year for the Clean Water SRF is $1.6 billion, while the Drinking Water SRF is $1.1 billion. Both will get several billion dollars annually over the next four years in supplemental funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Water groups, however, are upset with operational changes to the funds. Earmarks, which returned to the budget process last year, are being subtracted from the SRF totals. For water infrastructure, earmarks amounted to roughly half of the total funding for the SRFs in this budget.

The remaining SRF dollars will be distributed to the states according to a standard formula. This creates winners and losers. If your senator was especially good at lobbying for dollars, your state gets more than its usual SRF share.

For utilities in losing states, the result is a scramble for the leftovers, Stevens said. There might not be enough money in the SRFs for projects that would have been funded in the past.

“It means that every utility now really, really, really needs to go and get earmarks because they can’t count on the SRF funding in the state to be high enough,” she said.

Rekindling the Practice of Cultural Burning: An Act of #Climate Hope — The Revelator

UC Davis students, academics and members of the local Native American community take part in a collaborative cultural burn at the Tending and Gathering Garden at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland, Calif. Photo: Alysha Beck/UC Davis

Click the link to read the article on The Revelator website (Tara Lohan):

Indigenous-led prescribed fire is helping to restore depleted lands and long-suppressed cultural practices.

After more than 100 years of suppressing the West’s fires, land managers and government agencies are finally warming to the idea that fire can be beneficial — and necessary — for many landscapes.

This idea is far from new among Indigenous communities in the region. For many Tribes, the use of fire to manage plant communities was common practice until it was outlawed by colonizers.

Today, as climate change increases threats of more severe and more frequent large-scale wildfires, Tribes are re-engaging with the practice of Indigenous-led fire — also referred to as cultural burning. These smaller and lower intensity burns can help replenish soil nutrients that aid native plants and restore the land.

“There’s this inherent fear of fire right now that’s totally justifiable,” says Melinda Adams, who is studying the reclamation of cultural burns as a doctoral student in the department of Native American Studies at University of California, Davis. “So what we try to do as practitioners is to work on reestablishing that good relationship, that respectful relationship, because fire is a relative too.”

The Revelator spoke with Adams about how cultural burning changes the land, why attitudes about it are shifting, and what it can do for communities.

How did you become interested in cultural burning?

I come from a Tribe in Arizona, and I grew up in New Mexico, and I went to a Tribal college in Lawrence, Kansas. It was in the Midwest that I started being interested in fire through research with biochar. I’ve worked with pyrolysis and making soil amendments, creating them and putting them back into the soils to regenerate some of the more highly degraded soils that we have in the Midwest due to mining or over-usage by agriculture.

I did prairie burns, which are culturally significant to Tribes in the Midwest for food, medicine and basket materials.

Now at U.C. Davis my dissertation topic concentrates on land-stewardship practices that have been created and sustained by Indigenous peoples of what we now know as the United States, and specifically in what we know as California.

I am a trained ecologist and environmental scientist. I’m studying the physical and chemical soil responses of what we’re calling “good fire” — that’s cultural fire led by Native practitioners. These burns differ from what a government agency would consider a prescribed burn or a controlled burn because they are rooted in Indigenous knowledge and practices.

Being a Native person and taking up space in scientific fields, I also am called upon to talk about colonization, land dispossession, erasure of our histories, and our lived experiences. So with cultural fire, I use that as an entry point to talk about the history of California, of Native peoples of the United States, and how we’ve always held these land stewardship tools.

What’s different about cultural fire?

Cultural fire that’s a slow and low-intensity burn helps provide nutrients that native plants favor. Those chemical reactions from those lower-intensity burns provide better and more fertile areas for the plants, soil and microbes.

Cultural fire is also more guided. In the burns that I participate in, we tend to back away from using heavy fuels or machinery. With cultural fire, there’s more time spent getting ready for the burns and cleaning up afterwards than when fire is actually on the ground. That end care is huge and it makes a big difference.

I was at one of the practitioner’s properties and I could see where people didn’t prep the piles or they used fuels, and there’s white ash that looks like the ground has been scorched. There weren’t any plants coming back on that plot.

Then 100 feet to the right, I could see a cultural burn that was prepped — where we cut the plant materials, piled it and lead the burn. Then we went in after and mixed the soils. Native plants came back on that plot.

How are attitudes about cultural burning changing?

Most of the ways that [federal and state] agencies are trained to work with fire is suppression. And it’s been that way for a very long time. The very first piece of California state legislature in 1850 was to remove “Indian fire” based on very skewed misconceptions about Indigenous people’s relationship to the land.

When John Muir set foot here and saw these wonderful mosaics of different plants growing together, he didn’t give credit to Indigenous peoples for stewarding those lands and maintaining that biodiversity.

The California legislature prohibited small burns or family burns, and they’ve more or less been upheld until now, when legislation [in 2022] changed that. On top of physical violence to remove us from our lands, there was also the removal of stewardship practices, land tending, water care, and relationships with relatives other than humans. All of that was removed once colonizers arrived.

Today, in the West, an increase in the amount of catastrophic wildfire has been created because of the buildup of fuel and the under-utilization of prescribed burns. We’re feeling the effects of no-burn policies that have been upheld for close to 200 years now. And with climate change, when things burn, the large-scale wildfires are emitting greenhouse gases. And it’s creating higher-risk living areas where wildfire can consume entire homes, entire communities.

But we’re seeing some change [in practices] and more inclusion of voices that haven’t had a say in decision-making before. Biden just acknowledged traditional ecological knowledge that’s supposed to be in government training and working relationships with Tribes. It also helps that we have Secretary Deb Haaland as the head of the Department of Interior, who controls the vast majority of public lands.

There are shifts in perceptions of the intelligence and knowledge that our communities hold. And they’re being called upon now, although maybe not at the speed and scale that our communities have been waiting for since colonization.

Where is cultural burning taking place?

I’ve been a part of these cultural burn demonstrations since 2018, and we work with Chairman Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe near what we know as the Yosemite area. I also have partnerships and friendships with the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Tribes that are far north in California. They’re doing some amazing cultural fire work. They’re training people in the art and the science of good fire. They’re leading the way with a lot of the knowledge building and reclamation of larger-scale cultural fire.

Melinda Adams lights a field of deergrass on fire during the Tending and Gathering Garden Indigenous fire Wworkshop at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland, Calif. Photo: Alysha Beck/UC Davis

I also work at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, which has a small section that’s called Attending and Gathering Garden. That space came about specifically for Patwin practitioners, harvesters, traditional gatherers and Native peoples of the greater community to gather basketry materials.

It was envisioned 25 years ago by a geography student at U.C. Davis and the Native elders as a space to do cultural reclamation. The fires started to be planned and implemented more regularly when I came there in 2018.

What we’re burning is tule, a reed wetland species. It’s hollow on the inside and dry on the outside. So it’s the perfect igniter and the perfect carrier of fire. We don’t need propane and fuels. When we do our burns, we just use tule.

When we burn, it’s on an island and the water dries up [part of the year], so you can see the soil layers that these women have created — the rich, dark charred materials on the top, then some organic material underneath, and then some gray material from the water trickling in and out, and some orange from oxidation.

I love soil profiles and horizons. They’re amazing because as Native people, we’re storytellers, and you can see the story of the land if you look at the layers.

It’s also a former gravel-mining site with degraded soils that don’t hold nutrients very well. It makes it interesting to apply good fire to the space to replenish those soil nutrients. We have burned every year in that space, and I’m tracking the changes in soil and the yield in the plants.

What the practitioners who harvest these plants for basketry are seeing is that the plants are growing back taller, they’re growing back stronger, in more dense stands, and the color is more vibrant.

In addition, my qualitative data is telling me that there’s an increase of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — the big ones that you tend to need when you’re trying to grow anything.

I’m also measuring culturally significant plants for their aboveground yield over the course of a year. Because most of these are perennials, we’re looking at a snapshot of their regeneration.

What do you hope cultural burning can do?

The hope with this work is to rebuild our relationship with fire.

But this is also about more than fire. It’s about our time on the land and reclaiming parts of ourselves that were taken away a long time ago — and having the space to do that. The word that keeps coming up is healing. We’re healing these landscapes with fire, which is tied to water, animals and pollinators.

I’m participating in something that my ancestors did hundreds of years ago that was taken away. So that’s so powerful for me as a Native woman.

I just want people to know these are healing fires, they’re healing stewardship lessons — and not just for Native peoples. We’re privileged in the fact that it’s part of our culture, but there’s definitely space for allies, for people who are working towards improvement in our environment and the mitigation of climate change.

The practitioners that I work with are so excited to share their knowledge, their practices, their worldviews, and their time with allied scholars. This is climate hope. This is hope for our future actualized on the land and together.

@DenverWater scientist earns a rare slot on Congressional commission: The commission will recommend steps to reduce #wildfire threats to #water, land and people

Click the link to read the article on the Denver Water website (Todd Hartman):

Watershed scientist Madelene McDonald started at Denver Water as an intern while wrapping up graduate school in 2019.

Just four years later, she’s representing the agency — and utilities across the West — as one of just 18 primary nonfederal members appointed to a nationwide commission advising Congress on reducing the threat of wildfire to land, water and communities. 

It’s a big role.

Denver Water’s Madelene McDonald, one of the utility’s watershed scientists, takes part in a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn near Bailey, Colorado, in 2021. Photo credit: Madelene McDonald.

More than 500 people applied for the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. Of those, 18, including McDonald, were chosen to team with 11 federal representatives on the commission, a product of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021. 

McDonald is one of the 18 primary, nonfederal members. There also are an additional 18 members assigned as alternates should primary members be unavailable for a commission vote. 

Their task: To spend a single year developing a list of recommendations for Congress to implement as it grapples with the increasing risk of wildfires amid rising temperatures and drought triggered by climate change.

Join people who are passionate about all things water, at denverwater.org/Careers

The commission has been meeting virtually since late summer. This week, (Wednesday and Thursday) one of the commission’s three in-person meetings will be held at Denver Water’s Operations Complex. 

The first in-person gathering was in Salt Lake City in September. McDonald has been leading organizational efforts for the gathering at Denver Water’s Three Stones building this week. 

One big thing going for McDonald during the commission’s competitive application process: Denver Water has carved out a national reputation for its work protecting water resources from the impacts of wildfire via its From Forests to Faucets partnership. And McDonald also was one of very few utility specialists focused almost solely on addressing wildfire risks to water supplies.

Listen to Denver Water’s watershed scientist Christina Burri talk about why protecting forests protects our water supplies:

Asked her reaction when she learned she had been appointed to the commission, McDonald admitted: “I saved that voicemail for sure,” when she was phoned by federal officials last summer with the news.

She’s modest about the achievement, citing Denver Water’s long and high-profile experience with wildfire impacts as a key factor. She also credits her supervisor Christina Burri, who oversees Denver Water’s From Forests to Faucets partnership, with pushing her to apply for the commission and for Burri’s efforts to work across agencies to promote the importance of watershed protection. 

McDonald said her appointment also suggests there’s a new, wider recognition of the threat wildfire poses to water supplies. 

Madelene McDonald at a Colorado State Forest Service project called “Heavens.” The 2019 project was in the Upper South Platte River watershed near Conifer and inside an area that’s above Denver Water’s Strontia Springs Reservoir. The work was funded by the From Forests to Faucets partnership. Photo credit: Madelene McDonald.

Protecting communities, property and people have long been at the forefront of wildfire risk planning. But Denver Water’s own experiences with fires that threatened water supplies on the South Platte River in the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with threats to water in New Mexico and Arizona, have expanded the thinking on reducing wildfire risk.

“The wildfire community does understand now that water needs to be at the table,” she said. 

The commission faces a tall order in developing wide-ranging recommendations in just a year’s time. 

But McDonald, who calls the commission’s work “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape federal wildfire management policy,” is impressed with the resolve and work ethic of her colleagues. 

“Starting with that first gathering in Salt Lake City, I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a meeting more encouraged that a group of people could tackle such big challenges,” she said. “The collective expertise that’s been assembled is outstanding. I do think this group is probably our best shot at solving some of these systemic barriers to more efficient wildfire policies.”

Denver Water’s watershed scientists hosted Denver Water board members and U.S. Forest Service personnel on a half-day tour of a From Forests to Faucets project south of Bailey on Aug. 26, 2022. Pictured from left: Alison Witheridge, Christina Burri, Denver Water Commissioner Craig Jones, Commissioner Dominique Gómez, Madelene McDonald, Commissioner Tyrone Gant.

McDonald serves on three of the 10 work groups that the commission formed to divide up the workload and said those work groups are moving at a “breakneck pace.”

The commission’s focus, she said, is on “sweeping, impactful actions,” that would provide direction for future legislation out of Congress. The commission will issue its first report on its efforts Jan. 31, when it provides recommendations for improvements to aerial firefighting.

Did a friend forward this to you? Sign up for the free, weekly TAP email. (Scroll down to the light blue bar to add your email.)

McDonald, herself, is largely focused on recommendations that will take water supplies into greater account when considering federal approaches to fire prevention and post-fire rehabilitation work. She said even today, some federal policies focus solely on communities and property, without sufficient consideration to wildlife habitat, recreation, and reservoirs and the landscapes that impact them. 

“Ensuring these recommendations take water supplies into greater account is one of my top priorities,” McDonald said. 

With the commission nearing its halfway point, “I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet full of water-specific recommendations.”

Denver Water’s Three Stones building will host two major federal wildfire discussions the week of Jan. 23. 

On Jan. 23-24, the Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group, a federal entity established by President Joe Biden in 2021, will meet for a workshop, along with federal, state and local partners from Colorado and New Mexico. The focus will be on learning from post-fire recovery work in Colorado and New Mexico

On Jan. 25-26, the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, the group described in this TAP story, will hold one of its three in-person meetings slated for the commission’s 12-month project. The commission and its sub-groups meet virtually for most of its work but gather in person to take votes and have broader discussion. 

Denver Water’s Madelene McDonald (right), with the group involved in a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn near Bailey, Colorado, in 2021. Photo credit: Madelene McDonald.

Say hello to Great Salt Lake (greatsaltlake.utah.gov)

Click the link to go to the Great Salt Lake website:

Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world – boasting a rich web of relationships between people, land, water, food and survival. The lake contributes $1.9 billion to Utah’s economy (adjusted for inflation), provides over 7,700 jobs, supports 80% of Utah’s valuable wetlands, and provides a stopover for millions of birds to rest and refuel during migration each year. Lake effect snow also contributes 5-10% to Utah’s snowpack.

Drought, climate change and continued demand are threatening the lake

A drying Great Salt Lake has local and regional consequences and could result in increased dust, poor air quality, reduced snow, reduced lake access, habitat loss and negative economic consequences to the state. By protecting the lake, we help our economy, environment, wildlife and future.

How to Save the #ColoradoRiver? Use Less Water: Audubon submits comments to Bureau of Reclamation as they develop new operating rules #conservation #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

The massive dams on the Colorado River were supposed to protect us.

President Franklin Roosevelt at dedication of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, September 30, 1935

At the dedication of Hoover Dam, the colossus just outside of Las Vegas created Lake Mead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrated “its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.” The Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960’s into the red rocks of Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell. Floyd Dominy, the Reclamation Commissioner who presided over its construction extolled that “you wouldn’t have anywhere near the number of people living comfortably in the West if you hadn’t developed the projects, if you hadn’t managed the water.”

Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.

How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. Photo: Marti Phillips/Audubon Photography Awards

In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Three New Projects to Protect #Water Supplies for Over a Million Coloradans — #Colorado State Forest Service

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado State Forest Service website:

There is a critical connection between clean drinking water and forests. For 80 percent of Coloradans, their water starts in the state’s forests before making its way downstream to their taps.

Given this connection, it is important for Colorado to protect its forested watersheds from the ever-present threat of wildfire to ensure residents and communities have water for drinking, agriculture and other uses. The Colorado Legislature recognizes this need and passed House Bill 22-1379 during the 2022 legislative session to fund projects that reduce wildfire fuels around high-priority watersheds and water infrastructure.

Today, the Colorado State Forest Service announces three projects funded through HB22-1379 that will reduce the risk wildfire poses to water supplies for more than a million Coloradans.

“We are excited to put these funds provided by the legislature to work in high-priority areas where an uncharacteristic wildfire could significantly impact water supplies and infrastructure,” said Weston Toll, watershed program specialist at the CSFS. “All three projects connect to prior fuels reduction work completed by the CSFS and our partners, so we can make an impact on a large scale in our forests.”

The CSFS received $3 million through HB22-1379 to fund forest management in critical watersheds and has allocated $1 million each to three projects in these locations:

Staunton State Park, Colorado. CSFS Photo.

Staunton State Park, Park and Jefferson counties

The project in Staunton State Park will build upon more than 800 acres of prior fuels treatments to reduce the impact a wildfire could have to water resources, communities, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat. Creeks running through the park feed into the North Fork South Platte River, which flows into Strontia Springs Reservoir. Eighty percent of Denver Water’s water supply moves through Strontia Springs Reservoir.

This area, about 6 miles west of Conifer, is noted as a priority for action in assessments by the CSFS, Denver Water, Upper South Platte Partnership, Elk Creek Fire Protection District and in local Community Wildfire Protection Plans. It is also in a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.

“This project will allow us to get into areas of the park we haven’t been able to treat yet,” said Staunton State Park Manager Zach Taylor, “to reduce the risk of a wildfire spreading from the park to adjacent neighborhoods. The project also reduces wildfire risk to creeks in the park and the entirety of the drainage.”

Taylor said that the park has worked alongside neighbors in the area, including private landowners and the U.S. Forest Service, to address wildfire fuels since the park was acquired in the 1980s.

“Staunton State Park lies between all of these communities,” he said. “This project could set up the park for the next 5 to 10 years in helping us meet our goals for fuels reduction.”

Teller County, Colorado. CSFS photo.

North Slope of Pikes Peak, Teller County

The project on the North Slope of Pikes Peak will help protect essential drinking water and water infrastructure for the City of Colorado Springs. Reservoirs on the North Slope provide about 15 percent of the city’s drinking water supply. Work there will add to more than 3,500 acres of prior fuels treatments on Colorado Springs Utilities’ municipal lands and fill an important gap in treated areas around North Catamount Reservoir and the headwaters of North Catamount Creek. It will also help protect infrastructure that conveys water from the utility’s Blue River collection system to the reservoir.

The Pikes Peak Watershed is noted as a high priority area in plans by the CSFS, U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Springs Utilities. It is also in a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.

“Colorado Springs Utilities’ 34-year-long partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service has enabled many beneficial forest management activities that reduce the risks and impacts of wildfire in and adjacent to our watersheds,” said Jeremy Taylor, forest program manager with Colorado Springs Utilities. “Through the Pikes Peak Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), we’ve expanded this collaboration to include the U.S. Forest Service for cross-boundary work, and we’re now embarking on the Big Blue project on the North Slope of Pikes Peak. It’s a valued partnership that prioritizes working together to improve forest health and protect our water resources, public lands and neighboring private lands.”

Sheep Mountain, Grand County, Colorado. CSFS Photo.

Fraser Valley, Grand County

The project in the Fraser Valley will lower the risk of wildfire to water supplies for Denver and the towns of Fraser and Winter Park by reducing fuels on U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water and private lands. It connects to several prior treatment areas to establish a connected, large-scale fuel break that could allow firefighters to engage a wildfire in the event of a fire. During the William’s Fork Fire in 2020, the project area was identified as where a wildfire could spread into the densely populated Fraser Valley.

The Grand County Wildfire Council identified the project area as a high priority through planning efforts by the CSFS, USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Denver Water, Grand County and local fire departments.

“These projects are critical for watershed health and source water protection for Denver Water and our 1.5 million customers. Healthy forests equal healthy watersheds,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist with Denver Water. “Denver Water is so grateful for the partnerships and collaboration that make these projects possible.”

The CSFS expects work on these projects to begin in 2023 and will monitor the project work in future years to evaluate its impact and efficacy. All three projects allow the CSFS and its partners to achieve goals and enact strategies identified in the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan and are in areas identified as priorities in the plan.

“Governor Polis and the Colorado legislature have made tremendous investments to protect our watersheds from the increasing threat of wildfires and the Colorado State Forest Service is at the forefront in moving these projects forward”, said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The three projects announced today build on existing efforts to increase resiliency and make impactful investments in key watersheds to create healthier forests and reduce the threat of future wildfires.”

“Thank you to the Colorado Legislature for making the $3 million available for this important work and to our many partners for working alongside the Colorado State Forest Service on these projects,” Toll said. “Together, we are making a landscape-level impact and leveraging our collective resources toward the goal of lowering wildfire risk to water supplies and protecting one of our state’s most precious resources.”

What a long strange trip to kill four dams — Writers on the Range #KlamathRiver

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Rocky Barker):

Finally, after a 50-year effort, four massive dams on the Klamath River in northern California and Oregon will start coming down this July.

For the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath tribes living along this river since time immemorial, there’s much to celebrate. They have long fought for the lives of the salmon that are harmed by these dams, and for their right to fish for them.

Even PacifiCorp, which marketed the electricity of the four hydroelectric-producing dams, will also have something to cheer about. PacifiCorp, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, won’t have pricey fish ladders to install and its share of the cost of dam removal has been passed to ratepayers in both states.

Environmentalists are also hailing this latest victory for river-renewal, based on the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986. The law ordered operators of most federal dams to provide passages for fish so they could swim upstream to spawn.

For California and Oregon officials, along with farmers and others who had reached an agreement as far back in 2008, the dam removals signal that this long and emotional fight is finally over. And why has there been a settlement after all this time? A short answer is the growing reality of the West’s increasing aridity.

In 2001, yet another dry year in the upper Klamath, farmers woke up to find their headgates for irrigation water locked. It was done to preserve flows for endangered salmon, but for outraged farmers it meant their crops were ruined and they lost anywhere from $27 million to $47 million. Death threats followed, along with shootings and even a farmers’ cavalry charge.

The newly elected Bush administration reacted by making sure the farmers got their water, though this triggered one of the largest salmon die-offs in history. The Klamath Tribes were infuriated.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission started tackling the issue in 2007 by ordering PacifiCorp to install fish ladders on its four, fish-killing dams. After electric rates soared 1,000%, that left everybody mad and set the stage for a deal.

In a turnaround for the Bush administration, a pact was almost reached in 2008, when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who had stubbornly opposed breaching dams, persuaded Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reach an agreement.

The deal had something for everyone: The Klamath Tribes, with senior water rights, subordinated those rights for a large grant to purchase land. The federal government paid half the cost of removing the dams, and the state of California paid the other half.

Then a stumbling block intruded: Powerful Republicans opposed dam removal and the legislation that would have put the agreement into effect.

But negotiations continued, this time without the federal government picking up any of the costs. As 2022 ended, California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, PacifiCorp, the Tribes and others to celebrate the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the dams coming down.

When they hold the big celebration this summer as the dams crumple, I hope people remember the courageous role of former Interior Secretary Kempthorne, who broke the impasse over the dams back in 2008.

When the very first American dam was destroyed, in 1999, I was in Augusta, Maine, to help celebrate. After the Edwards Dam was breached, the Kennebec River ran free for the first time since the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne walked its banks 160 years before. On the south side of the river stood residents whose ancestors worked in the mills the dam had powered. Many were crying. It reminded me that change is never easy.

Elwha River. By Elwhajeff at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9740555

And in 2012, I celebrated with others when the first of two dams on western Washington’s Elwha River was breached. In both places, and as is true for most of the 1,200 dams that have been removed since then, rivers have quickly returned to life.

I look forward to seeing that same amazing burst of renewal after the four lower Snake River dams finally come down.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a longtime reporter about the Northwest.

Klamath River Basin. Map credit: American Rivers

#Colorado nonprofit among winners of #ColoradoRiver scarcity challenge — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

A Colorado nonprofit is one of three winners of the national Colorado River Basin Water Scarcity Challenge, a philanthropic initiative to spur creative solutions to water shortages in the crisis-ridden, seven-state Colorado River system.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust will spend the next year working with Quantified Ventures developing new models for securing funds and identifying valuable water rights that can be used to help restore riparian areas, aid streams and maintain agricultural water uses.

Founded in 2002, the Colorado Water Trust partners with existing entities, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as environmental and farm groups, to acquire or lease water rights, keeping that water in the streams to stretch the amount of water available for fish and the environment, irrigators and industry even during dry times.

Quantified Ventures is a finance and consulting company that specializes in developing sustainable solutions to environmental problems.

Across the American West, water users, government agencies, regulators and environmental groups are scrambling to find ways to save the river. Crippled by a megadrought thought to be the worst in 1,200 years, and shifts in climate that are reducing the mountain snows on which it relies, the river system is on the brink of collapse.

The Colorado River Basin Scarcity Challenge is funded by a $500,000 donation from the  Gates Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Quantified Ventures spokesman Matt Lindsay. [Editor’s note: Fresh Water News is an initiative of Water Education Colorado which receives support from the Gates and Walton foundations.] Winners were announced Jan. 12.

“The Colorado River is facing an unprecedented crisis that requires innovative thinking and investment at an equally historic scale,” said Morgan Snyder, in a prepared statement. Snyder is senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation Environment Program. “Projects like these that move past outdated systems and instead find new ways to conserve, adapt, and become more resilient are essential to ensure a sustainable water supply for the millions who depend on the river.”

Kate Ryan, a senior attorney at the Colorado Water Trust, said winning the scarcity challenge will help her organization develop new relationships in the finance world and find ways to move more quickly in an arena in which deals can take years to finalize, allowing the water trust to accomplish more.

“This will allow us to become more nimble and potentially to meet new investors,” Ryan said. “We will also be looking at strategies for using water for additional sources of revenue, such as remarketing it downstream in a way that is complementary to our project partners. It will also help us recoup investment and turn that into operating revenue, or for funding new acquisitions or leases of water.”

The Tucson, Arizona-based Watershed Management Group is another winner. The Watershed Management Group will work with Quantified Ventures to develop new “green” infrastructure to improve the health of Tucson’s groundwater system, among other projects, with the goal of using less Colorado River water, according to Watershed Management Group’s Catlow Shipek.

“Our goal is to build hydro local resilience to reduce our dependence on Colorado River supplies,” Shipek said. “The idea is how do we restore our watershed but not at the expense of another watershed.”

The third winner, Ndrip, will use Quantified Ventures to evaluate how to increase the scale of its drip irrigation systems on tribal lands throughout the Colorado River Basin. Unlike other drip irrigation systems, Ndrip uses existing water distribution systems on farms and is gravity-based. These features help offset the high capital costs of more traditional drip irrigation systems, according to Ndrip’s website.

Ndrip, which has offices in Australia, Israel, South Africa and the U.S., could not be reached for comment.

Each of the scarcity challenge winners will spend roughly the next year with Quantified Ventures developing new solutions that will help improve the sustainability of the Colorado River system.

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.

On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

#GunnisonRiver, #TaylorRiver earn Gold Medal trout fishery status — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife

A rainbow trout is pictured during survey work of the Taylor River below Taylor Park Reservoir. (Jerry Neal/CPW photos taken from video)

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website (John Livingston):

Years of consideration and conservation work all led to a golden moment for two pristine rivers in central Colorado.

During its meeting Jan. 18 in Colorado Springs, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission welcomed the Gunnison and Taylor Rivers as the newest Gold Medal trout fisheries in the state. CPW’s Gold Medal Program showcases the most elite fisheries throughout the state.

The stretches nominated and approved include 20 miles of the Taylor River below Taylor Park Reservoir and 12.5 miles of the Gunnison River starting west of the town of Gunnison at Twin Bridges extending up to the town of Almont.

“I’m pretty excited to be able to announce these two waters into our Gold Medal Program,” said CPW Assistant Aquatic Section Manager Josh Nehring. “It’s an achievement that came about by a lot of work by a lot of people over a number of decades. It’s amazing to see the quality of fisheries that we have here.”

Fisheries in Colorado may be designated by CPW as “Gold Medal” if they meet two qualifying criteria. The standard is 60 pounds of fish per acre along with at least 12 quality trout of 14 inches or greater per acre.

With the addition of the Gunnison and Taylor Rivers, Colorado now boasts 19 Gold Medal sections on 13 rivers that total roughly 362 miles. The state also has three lakes that have earned Gold Medal designation.

While the Gunnison and Taylor are newly-designated Gold Medal streams, CPW aquatic biologists believe the rivers have produced Gold Medal quality trout fishing since the 1990s. 

CPW Aquatic Biologist Dan Brauch said that while the rivers had met the biological criteria for designation for decades, it was important to ensure the streams provided long-lasting fish habitat for all life stages of trout.

“Significant work went into maintaining conditions on the Gunnison and Taylor Rivers to allow those fisheries to continue to persist,” Brauch said. “We have sampled the rivers quite a few times in the last 10 years, and we continued to see good numbers of quality-size trout and abundant trout.

“The Gunnison and Taylor Rivers really represent a successful conservation story with lots of partners that have made this fishery what it is today.”

CPW surveys streams regularly through the process of electrofishing. Fish are collected, weighed, measured and returned to the water. Data collected through these surveys provides invaluable data for CPW to assess the health of a fishery and to determine waters worthy of Gold Medal nomination.

“It does take quite a bit of work to get fisheries to this standpoint,” said Nehring, who grew up in neighboring Montrose and has enjoyed fishing the two rivers since he was a child. “Just the habitat that goes into it, the monitoring of the fisheries, making sure our regulations are appropriate and we aren’t getting too many fish harvested. There are a lot of things that go into making sure the system is healthy.”

Brauch and Nehring thanked a multitude of public and private partners that have come together throughout time to support the Gunnison and Taylor fisheries as work has been done to improve and protect trout habitat through the Gold Medal stretches.

While celebrating the conservation success story that has led to Gold Medal status for the rivers, CPW Area Wildlife Manager Brandon Diamond encouraged anglers to help protect these resources for generations to come.

“It’s extremely important right now for all water users and conservation-minded people, including anglers, to view these incredible resources through a stewardship lens,” Diamond said. “And I strongly encourage all of us to evaluate how we can contribute to the long-term conservation of these waters and how we fit in as stewards of the land and river resources.

“The Gold Medal designation is certainly something we are locally proud of. The Gunnison Valley has always been very supportive of wildlife conservation values, and we hope to continue that relationship moving forward.”

Key takeaways from the omnibus spending package: What’s in it for rivers? — @AmericanRivers

The Rappahannock River | Virginia. Photo credit: American Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the American Rivers website (Jaime Sigaran):

On December 20, 2022 appropriators released the highly anticipated fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending package which includes modest environmental and conservation funding increases.

In the remaining days of 2022, we’re happy to share some important wins for rivers – including funding for critical clean water and river restoration programs, as well as new Wild and Scenic River designations. While there’s much to be thankful for, the bill still has a number of shortcomings. In this blog, we break down the funding and policy highlights. 

On December 20, appropriators released the highly anticipated fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending package which includes modest environmental and conservation funding increases. Overall, the bill would fund the government at $1.7 trillion for most of 2023 – $858 billion toward defense and $772.5 billion in domestic spending.  

The omnibus spending bill funds federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Interior (DOI). The EPA received a $576 million increase from current levels to support the agency’s science, environmental, and enforcement work. The bill also includes $14.7 billion for DOI programs, an increase of $574 million above fiscal year 2022. 

These funding increases support river restoration and river health goals across the country.  

Key Takeaways From The Omnibus Spending Package: 

  • General increases to EPA, DOI, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 
  • Additional supplemental funding for National Park Service to restore 500 of the 3,000 staff positions that have been lost over the past decade 
  • $40 billion for disaster recovery and drought 
  • $600 million to address water issues in Jackson, Mississippi. 
  • $682 million for EPA’s geographic program including $92 million for Chesapeake Bay Program and $368 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative 
  • $1.67 billion for EPA’s Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds 
  • $50 million for EPA’s Sewer Overflow & Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant program 
  • $65 million for Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART grants 

KEY RIVER BUDGET PRIORITIES & PERFORMANCE: 

AgencyProgramFY 23 Rec. from 
American Rivers
Omnibus Spending bill 12/20/22About the Program
EPAReducing Lead in Drinking Water$100M$25MReduces the concentration of lead in drinking water.
EPASewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grants Program $280M$50M Manages combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and stormwater flows. 
USBRDam Safety Program $200M $210.2M Ensures Reclamation dams do not present unreasonable risk
USBRKlamath Project $25M $34.8M Provides funding to improve water supplies in the Klamath River Basin. 
USBRLower CO Operations Program $45M $46.8M Implements the Drought Contingency Plan and the Lower Colorado Multi-species Conservation Program. 
USBRYakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project $30M $50.3M Enhances streamflows and fish passage for anadromous fish in the Yakima River Basin. 
CorpsUpper MS River Restoration $55M $55M Ensures the viability and vitality of Upper Mississippi River fish and wildlife. 
CorpsEngineering with Nature $12.5M $20M Aligns natural and engineering processes to deliver economic, environmental, and social benefits 
FEMAFloodplain Mgmt. & Mapping $200M $206M Improves floodplain management, develops flood hazard zone maps, and educates on the risk of floods 
FEMANational Dam Safety Program $92M $9.65M Reduces the risks to human life, property, and the environment from dam related hazards. 

Policy Wins for Wild and Scenic Rivers, Western Water 

In addition to the funding noted above, American Rivers is very pleased to share that key provisions supporting river restoration are advancing. We applaud the hard work championed by Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and many others on the Hill to make this omnibus spending bill a bipartisan effort. Though we are disheartened that we didn’t get to see the bipartisan, bicameral public lands and water package, we can celebrate two new Wild and Scenic River designations: the York River in Maine and Housatonic River in Connecticut. Together these bills would designate more than 70 river miles. Two Wild and Scenic River studies from Florida were also added. 

Upper Mississippi River, IA. Photo credit: American Rivers

Several western water bills made it into the omnibus spending bill which will improve drought resilience, boost water supply, and support wetland conservation. For example, the Colorado River Basin Conservation Act (S. 4579/H.R. 9173) would allow DOI to continue to partner with Upper and Lower Basin states alike, to keep more water in the Colorado River and its reservoirs, by incentivizing voluntary water conservation projects at the user level.  

Shortcomings in the Omnibus Spending Bill 

The omnibus spending bill falls short of meeting bold river health goals that are grounded in advancing scientific efforts, supporting enforcement, and directing growth in river communities that could have benefited from additional funding. While we noticed gains in WaterSMART, Dam Safety Program, Yakima, and Klamath Projects under Bureau of Reclamation, American Rivers noted less than optimal funding levels for the Central Valley Project Restoration Fund in California and the Columbia and Snake River Salmon Recovery Project in the Pacific Northwest. 

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1). By Ansel Adams – This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118192

The Army Corps of Engineers programs such as Engineering with Nature, Floodplain Management Services, Sustainable Rivers Program, and the Upper Mississippi River Restoration programs did not suffer significant cuts. Nor did NOAA programs specifically Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. However, we acknowledge small reductions in funding to the Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program (RiskMAP). 

Another item American Rivers noticed is large money carve outs for “Community Project Funding Items” also known as earmarks. When taken out of the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRFs) capitalization grants, it leaves the EPA programs with less than half of what these programs received in Fiscal Year 2021. The long-term viability of the SRFs is in question and American Rivers will work hard to ensure its success in future years so high-priority projects are not delayed or increase the risk to public health and the environment. 

We’re disappointed the sweeping omnibus legislation did not boost more funding to protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish and wildlife, but are hopeful that the focus in drought resilience in the Southwest, water infrastructure in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as modest increases to Corps, DOI, NOAA and EPA programs will continue to place a focus on water quality and quantity.

In the Amazon, Indigenous and Locally Controlled Land Stores Carbon, but the Rest of the Rainforest Emits Greenhouse Gases — Inside #Climate News #ActOnClimate

Adapted from File:South America (orthographic projection).svg by User:Luan, (CC-BY 3.0) and File:Amazon biome outline map.svg by User:Aymatth2 (CC-BY-SA 4.0). By CactiStaccingCrane – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=122066796

Click the link to read the article on the Inside Climate News website ( Bob Berwyn and Katie Surma):

Forests managed by Indigenous peoples and other local communities in the Amazon region draw vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while the rest of the rainforest has become a net source of the greenhouse gas, a new report has found. 

The discrepancy results from differences in deforestation rates between the two types of land. 

The study from the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit global research organization focused on solving environmental challenges, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that land held by Native peoples and other local communities around the world has better environmental outcomes than government and privately owned land.

The WRI study, published on Jan. 6, marks the first time researchers have quantified the forest carbon benefits of Indigenous territories and land stewarded by local communities in the Amazon region, which spans Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. 

From 2001 to 2021, forested areas in the Amazon managed by Indigenous communities removed about 340 million more metric tons of carbon from the air each year than they emitted, an amount equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of the states of California and Massachusetts combined. Land managed by other local communities had similar outcomes, researchers found.

Impact of deforestation on natural habitat of trees. By Daniele Gidsicki – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgidsicki/1469098242, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76979668

All other forested land in the Amazon region was a net source of carbon over the same time period because of high rates of forest loss.

While the main contributors to planetary warming are greenhouse gases released from the burning of fossil fuels, forests can also become a source of carbon dioxide emissions. Trees store carbon dioxide within their leaves, branches, trunks and roots. When they are destroyed through fires or clear-cutting, once-sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere. In the Amazon region, drivers of deforestation include development from industrial agriculture, cattle ranches, mining, oil extraction and other activities, both legal and illegal.

The WRI report’s findings add an exclamation point to the evidence that Indigenous peoples and local communities are a major force in preserving the Amazon rainforest amid the rapid deforestation on land held privately or by governments.

According to Peter Veit, a co-author of the report and the director of WRI’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative, about 17 to 18 percent of the Amazon has been deforested in the last 50 years. Scientists estimate that once those levels get to 20 to 25 percent, the rainforest will hit an irreversible tipping point from which the region will transform into grasslands and savannah. The change would result in the release of an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, kill off thousands of plant and animal species and wipe out hundreds of distinct human cultures tied to the rainforest.

“We are very close to that tipping point,” Veit said. 

The WRI report comes as land not just in the Amazon region but throughout the world is under increasing pressure for food production, resource extraction and other demands linked to human population growth. 

About half of Earth’s land is stewarded by Indigenous and other local communities. Many of those groups have insecure land tenure, making them vulnerable to land theft, appropriation and related violence. Each year, about 200 land defenders, including many Indigenous people, are killed, although that estimate is widely considered an undercount. 

Veit suggests that governments can support Indigenous and local communities in protecting their territories by integrating their efforts into national climate plans, giving them secure title to their land and increasing direct funding to those communities. 

“We’re showing one of many reasons that forests controlled by Indigenous peoples should be valued,” said David Gibbs, a researcher at Global Forest Watch and a co-author of the report. The research, he said, “adds to the list of reasons that we already have to help protect those communities.” 

The Benefits of Local and Indigenous Control

In general, Indigenous peoples and local communities manage their land in a sustainable way based on customs and cultural values that are intertwined with the forest. 

“For Indigenous people and other communities, their land is a primary source of food, medicine, fuelwood and construction materials, as well as employment, income, welfare, security, culture and spirituality,” the report notes. 

That interdependence with intact forests creates an incentive for communities to sustainably manage their lands, Veit says. 

If left alone, most of those communities would continue to live as they have for hundreds of years. But they are increasingly under threat from outside pressures like legal and illegal mining, logging and agriculture, he said. 

While all forest in the Amazon region both stores and emits carbon, Indigenous lands capture more carbon than they emit each year when the entirety of that flux is considered. Veit and Gibbs said their analysis identified which Indigenous territories have higher carbon emissions and found that those communities may face greater pressures from resource extraction.

In Brazil, home to the greatest portion of the Amazon rainforest, the Indigenous communities in forests with the greatest carbon emissions are located in the country’s southeast, an area known as the “arc of deforestation.” In Peru, Indigenous lands that were net sources of carbon were located in regions dominated by gold mining. 

Of all the ways that governments can help communities defend their forestland from incursions that could increase the carbon emissions, Veit said that providing them with secure land title is the most important. 

In Brazil, the demarcation and formal titling of Indigenous peoples’ land stopped under former President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which held power from 2019 to 2022. Bolsonaro also defunded governmental agencies tasked with enforcing the rights of Indigenous peoples. Over the course of his presidency, deforestation rates in the country surged.

While obtaining legal title to land is important, the type of legal title communities obtain also makes a difference in their ability to defend their land from incursions by resource extraction and agricultural interests.

In most Amazonian countries, national governments reserve ownership of material that lies below the surface of the land, making it easier for them to grant companies licenses for mining and other extractive activities. 

“When you get security of land, you don’t get security like we do in the United States of all subsurface rights,” Veit said. “Your rights in the Amazon extend 10 inches below the surface and that’s it.” 

Veit has done research comparing the legal authority granted to extractive companies through means such as mining concessions with the legal rights given to landowners like Indigenous communities. 

“They don’t compare,” he said. “The natural resource rights holders have tremendous power to go onto and use land.” Human rights experts have advocated for communities’ gaining greater control over their territories and a right of refusal when governments and businesses seek to engage in resource extraction on or near their land. 

“Many governments around the world still view themselves as the best holders of common property rights to resources,” Veit said. “It’s ridiculous. There’s a real mistrust that communities can manage these important resources despite the evidence that shows that they can.” 

Amazon Emissions in Flux

The WRI report is based in part on a 2021 study in the journal Nature Climate Change that offers one of the best estimates of how much carbon dioxide was emitted by forests and how much they removed from the atmosphere globally in the last 20 years. The paper concluded that, during the 2001 to 2019 study period, forests sequestered about twice as much as they emitted each year—storing about 7.6 billion metric tons per year, or 1.5 times more than the United States emits annually.

The Amazon is a big part of that global equation, but the international team of authors acknowledged in their opening paragraphs how challenging the measurements are at global and regional scales. Emissions and absorption can take place simultaneously within regions, depending on when and where the forests are disturbed and managed, they wrote. 

The carbon fluxes, as scientists call them, also have high seasonal variability, and it’s not easy to distinguish between natural fluctuations and those caused by disturbances like fires and logging. All of that makes it hard to reproduce them in global climate models, although measuring them accurately is “increasingly important for climate policy,” the paper noted.

The scientists found that during the study period, forests in the Brazilian Amazon were a net source of .22 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions per year but that the forests spanning all nine countries of the greater Amazon River basin (526 million hectares) were a net carbon sink, taking up .10 gigatons of carbon dioxide. By contrast, they noted, the net sink in forests of Africa’s Congo River basin (298 million hectares) was approximately six times stronger than in the Amazon basin.

The main reason is the far lower rate of human disturbance in the Congo River forests, Gibbs said. 

Variable streamflow response to forest disturbance in the western United States — USFS

Disturbances that do not remove the entire canopy, such as this beetle-caused tree mortality, tend to result in decreased rather than increased water yield.

Click the link to read the article on the USFS website (Sara A. Goeking and David Tarboton):

Forest disturbance is expected to lead to increased streamflow – but in very dry watersheds, the opposite is often true.

Forest disturbance is typically expected to lead to increased runoff – and therefore more water available for aquatic ecosystems and people – because loss of forest vegetation results in less water being taken up and transpired by plants. However, recent studies in the western U.S. have found no change or even decreased streamflow following forest disturbance due to drought and insect epidemics.

We investigated streamflow response to forest cover change using hydrologic, climatic, and forest data for 159 watersheds in the western U.S. during 2000–2019. Forest change and disturbance were quantified in terms of net tree growth (total growth volume minus mortality volume) and mean annual mortality rates, respectively, from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis database. Annual streamflow was analyzed using multiple methods to understand the contributions of precipitation, temperature, aridity, and tree mortality.

Many watersheds exhibited decreased annual streamflow even as forest cover decreased. This decreased streamflow was not attributable to precipitation and temperature changes in many disturbed watersheds, yet streamflow change was not consistently related to disturbance, suggesting drivers other than disturbance, precipitation, and temperature.

Multiple regression analysis indicated that although change in streamflow is significantly related to tree mortality, the direction of this effect depends on aridity. Specifically, forest disturbances in wet, energy-limited watersheds (i.e., where annual precipitation exceeds potential evapotranspiration [PET]) tended to increase streamflow, while post-disturbance streamflow more frequently decreased in dry, water-limited watersheds (where the PET to precipitation ratio exceeds 2.35).

Effect of tree mortality and aridity on change in annual streamflow (ΔQ) for 2000–2009 vs. 2010–2019, based on 159 watersheds. PET=potential evapotranspiration; P=precipitation.

Key Findings

  • While streamflow often increased following forest disturbance, it decreased in some watersheds.
  • The direction of streamflow response to forest disturbance (increase vs. decrease) is dependent on aridity.
  • Tree mortality during 2000-2019 was highest in arid watersheds – the same watersheds where disturbance tends to result in decreased streamflow.
  • Forest disturbances in wet, energy-limited watersheds tended to increase streamflow, while post-disturbance streamflow more frequently decreased in dry, water-limited watersheds.

Other Resources

Disturbance effects on water yield in western coniferous forests

Using Forest Inventory & Analysis data for broad-scale assessments of vegetation effects on water resources

Featured Publications

Variable streamflow response to forest disturbance in the western US: A large-sample hydrology approach

Goeking, Sara A. ; Tarboton, David G. , 2022

White Paper 1: Fill Mead First: A Technical Assessement — #Utah State University #LakeMead #LakePowell #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A bend in Glen Canyon of the Colorado River, Grand Canyon, c. 1898. By George Wharton James, 1858—1923 – http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/17037, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30894893

Click the link to access the paper from the Utah State University website (John C. Schmidt, Maggi Kraft, Daphnee Tuzlak, and Alex Walker | November 10, 2016):

The Fill Mead First (FMF) plan would establish Lake Mead reservoir as the primary water storage facility of the main-stem Colorado River and would relegate Lake Powell reservoir to a secondary water storage facility to be used only when Lake Mead is full. The objectives of the FMF plan are to re-expose some of Glen Canyon’s sandstone walls that are now inundated, begin the process of re-creating a riverine ecosystem in Glen Canyon, restore a more natural stream-flow, temperature, and sediment-supply regime of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and reduce system-wide water losses caused by evaporation and movement of reservoir water into ground-water storage. The FMF plan would be implemented in three phases. Phase I would involve lowering Lake Powell to the minimum elevation at which hydroelectricity can still be produced (called minimum power pool elevation): 3490 ft asl (feet above sea level). At this elevation, the water surface area of Lake Powell is approximately 77 mi2, which is 31% of the surface area when the reservoir is full. Phase II of the FMF plan would involve lowering Lake Powell to dead pool elevation (3370 ft asl), abandoning hydroelectricity generation, and releasing water only through the river outlets. The water surface area of Lake Powell at dead pool is approximately 32 mi2 and is 13% of the reservoir surface area when it is full. Implementation of Phase III would necessitate drilling new diversion tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam in order to eliminate all water storage at Lake Powell. In this paper, we summarize the FMF plan and identify critical details about the plan’s implementation that are presently unknown. We estimate changes in evaporation losses and ground-water storage that would occur if the FMF plan was implemented, based on review of existing data and published reports. We also discuss significant river-ecosystem issues that would arise if the plan was implemented.

Executive Summary 

$1 million fire mitigation project planned near #ColoradoSprings Utilities’ reservoir — The Colorado Springs Gazette

A 300-acre fire mitigation project scheduled for 2023 is shown on the map in light green. COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE

Click the link to read the article on The Colorado Springs Gazette website (Mary Shinn):

Contracted crews will remove trees across 300 acres to reduce the high risk of catastrophic wildfire near North Catamount Reservoir south of U.S. 24, said Luke Cherney, a forester with the State Forest Service. The area on U.S. Forest Service land was prioritized for fire mitigation because of the dense trees, damage from pests and proximity to drinking water infrastructure. The goal is to ensure when the forest burns, it will not be as extreme and hot as some of the state’s most destructive fires, such as the Waldo Canyon fire, that run through the crowns of trees, blackening the landscape and killing nearly all the vegetation. This type of fire can hurt the watershed and water infrastructure because without living plants the ash and sediment will wash into reservoirs and intake pipes, creating major problems for water managers. Areas hit by intense fire also can see major debris flows without any vegetation to hold back soils. Thinning trees will help create conditions where fires will burn at a lower intensity through the underbrush, leaving many trees alive…

View of Pikes Peak from the South Catamount Reservoir. Photo: Andy Schlosberg, CSFS

The parcel, adjacent to areas that Colorado Springs Utilities already has mitigated, never has been mitigated for fire risk, said Jeremy Taylor, Utilities’ forestry program manager, and the work will protect pipelines, electrical lines and the overall watershed. Runoff from a healthy watershed is also far cleaner and easier to treat.  

“We are restoring the landscape to a more historic and healthy condition that previously would have been achieved by wildfire,” he said in an email. 

The project will remove about half the trees in an area where western spruce budworm and Douglas-fir beetle have damaged the forest, Cherney said. The work will increase the space between trees and allow each tree more access to water and nutrients to improve their health, putting them in a better position to fend off pests, he said.

Bobcat® Compact Track Loader with Masticating Attachment. Photo credit: Wilderness Forestry, Inc.

The crews may use masticators to thin trees, Cherney said. The masticators, similar to front-end loaders, are equipped with large drums loaded with metal teeth to remove and mulch trees. In steep areas, crews may also need to use chain saws.

Conserving the #DoloresRiver: a decades-long effort — KSJD #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. The Dolores River Canyon is included in a proposed National Conservation Area. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Click the link to read the article on the KSJD website (Gavin McGough). Here’s an excerpt:

The Dolores River starts high in the San Juans southwest of Telluride, passes through Dolores, Colorado, where it fills the Reservoir at McPhee Dam. From then on it trickles north through hundreds of miles of desert, meeting the San Miguel and feeding eventually into the Colorado River. Those who have boated it say it’s a river like no other.

“You start below the dam and you head into the Ponderosa Gorge with these big canyon walls and amazing majestic Ponderosa Pines, and you start to see more and more of this red rock coming out,” said Amber Clark, director of Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA) which promotes stewardship and recreation along the river.

“Then you transition down into less trees and more red rock canyon walls, and the Wilderness Study Area, and at different places it opens up more, and it’s kind of this ever-changing landscape, but the majesty of it never diminishes,” she said…

The DRBA is one of dozens of stakeholders who have been working to protect the Dolores as a National Conservation Area, or an NCA. Some rivers are protected by Congress under The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but protection as an NCA is less controversial, especially amongst agricultural interests. Al Heaton, a cattle rancher in Dolores, is involved in the conservation effort.

“Wild and Scenic comes with some rules and regulations, some laws, that are pretty dramatic and would affect a lot of things, private property and things down the river,” said Heaton.

“Of course, grazing could continue in a Wild and Scenic setting but it could also be restricted, so I felt there had to be a better way.”

Dolores River watershed

Interview: Giving Rivers the “Freedom Space” to Heal Themselves and Protect Against #ClimateChange: Investments in natural infrastructure improve river health and help us become more climate #resilient — The Walton Family Foundation #ActOnClimate

Click the link to read the article on The Walton Family Foundation website (Sheldon Alberts):

Time has not been kind to our rivers. For centuries, humans have diminished, degraded and simplified rivers around the world, creating unhealthy waterways that have lost ecological value.

The good news is that our collective understanding of how to restore rivers is improving, with a greater focus on using natural systems to meet society’s needs while also protecting the environment. With nature-based management, we have an opportunity to rebuild rivers with the space and freedom they need to thrive. In turn, these healthier rivers lead to healthier communities and a healthier planet.

I spoke with Peter Skidmore, senior program officer with the foundation’s Colorado River initiative, about how restoring river health through natural processes can help us in the battle against climate change. He is the co-author of a recent article in the journal Anthropocene exploring the issue.

Can you describe some of the ways that rivers have been degraded over the past several hundred years?

As a society, we have relegated rivers and streams to constrained channels. These simplified and stabilized channels have lost a lot of their freedom, complexity and biodiversity. Starting in the 19th century, the extermination of beavers fundamentally changed the character of streams as dams were removed and riparian wetlands disappeared. With development in their valley bottoms, rivers have also lost the space to run free, flood, erode and deposit soil. The construction of dams and diversions have further constricted river flows.

What are we learning about emerging opportunities to restore the health of rivers so they can provide critical ecosystem services?

There has been a lot of hard work done to restore river health over the past few decades, but we’ve fallen short in addressing the challenge at a scale to have lasting impact. Over this time, we learned a lot about the potential of “natural infrastructure” to better manage rivers and restore their health through dynamic, natural processes. That can mean removing constraints wherever possible – setting levees back, concentrating infrastructure at a few pinch points, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and renewing native vegetation.

Peter Skidmore is a senior program officer in the Environment Program focusing on the Colorado River initiative. Photo credit: Walton Family Foundation

Is there an example of how natural infrastructure can restore river health and improve climate resiliency?

One way is by promoting the return of beavers and beaver-related wetlands that reintroduce much-needed complexity into river systems. Messy rivers and streams – with features like braided and irregular channels, wetlands, eroding banks and gravel bars – are more diverse, dynamic and healthy. A success story is Bridge Creek, in Oregon, where the installation of beaver-inspired natural dams led to the expansion of beaver activity. These structures create a virtuous cycle of restoration that slows down water flow, revives mountain meadows and recreate stream meanders and wetlands that are ultimately maintained forever by beavers. They help maintain and retain groundwater, provide natural firebreaks and refuge for wildlife, and can alleviate the sedimentation impacts of post-fire flooding. Since 2005, Bridge Creek has had a dramatic increase in aquatic habitat and native fish populations. In addition to those fish and wildlife benefits, scientists are also finding that this kind of low-cost, low-tech restoration helps with carbon sequestration, nutrient capture and moderation of stream flow and temperature – critical ecosystems services in the face of drought and climate change.

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Beaver dams serve as inspiration for restoration projects that re-establish small, leaky and temporary dams in degraded stream systems. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What potential does this kind of restoration have to increase climate resiliency if done on large scale?

River ecosystems have a tremendous capacity for passive restoration if given the freedom space for dynamic interactions between the channel and the floodplain. They can literally heal themselves, often more quickly and effectively than we can. Just like humans need exercise to stay healthy, rivers also need that exercise. They need the space to move around. That’s important because, right now, ongoing development is exacerbating the impacts of a warming climate and straining the capacity of aging, expensive gray infrastructure to provide water security and protection from floods and drought. Natural infrastructure holds the potential to be a cost-effective and self-sustaining way to improve environmental health. It can be a critical component in a mix of solutions to the social and ecological challenges posed by climate change.

The good news is that if we give the incised streams some room, they can be restored to their healthy state and bring us the fire protection and water storage benefits that we really need. Graphic credit: SLO Beaver Brigade: http://www.slobeaverbrigade.com/2021/06/01/something-to-chew-on/

How is the foundation supporting natural infrastructure in the Colorado River basin?  

The foundation’s five-year Environment program strategy increases our efforts to improve river and watershed health by working to improve public policy so it promotes nature-based solutions, and leveraging funding to implement them on a larger scale. We’re working with partners to test and increase the use of nature-based solutions that improve water security for farms and cities and also provide environmental benefits. We’re investing in beaver-related restoration that re-establishes wetlands and begins to restore degraded stream systems. And we’ve initiated an effort to identify and map changes in vegetated wetlands and beaver ponds throughout the basin as a way to measure progress and assess the potential of this work to provide system-wide benefit for the Colorado River.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

President Biden signs bill to study salt lakes in #drought-hit US West — The Associated Press

PHOTO CREDIT: McKenzie Skiles via USGS LandSat The Great Salt Lake has been shrinking as more people use water upstream.

Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Sam Metz). Here’s an excerpt:

Scientists will get $25 million to study salt lake ecosystems in the drought-stricken U.S. West, as President Joe Biden signed legislation Tuesday allocating the funds in the face of unprecedented existential threats caused by the lack of water.

Tufa columns, Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California. By Vezoy (talk · contribs) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30004462

The funding allows the United States Geological Survey to study the hydrology of the ecosystems in and around Utah’s Great Salt Lake, California’s Mono Lake, Oregon’s Lake Albert and other saline lakes.

Interpretive sign describing Lake Chewaucan. By Bureau of Land Management – http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/bpd.html ; select “Oregon” and search for photos of “Abert Lake”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9465237

Amid a decadeslong drought, less snowmelt has flowed through the rivers that feed into the lakes, causing shorelines to recede and lake levels to plummet. Dwindling lake levels jeopardize the people, animals and businesses that rely on maintaining the ecosystem. The lakes often serve as critical habitats for migratory birds. Dust exposed by receding water levels can be blown into the air and have dangerous health effects on surrounding communities. And further depletion threatens the canals and infrastructure that a multi-million dollar mining industry needs to extract salts from the lakes…

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake shrunk to its lowest point in recorded history, posing threats to economic output, snowpack, public health and wildlife…In eastern California, state officials have dramatically curtailed the amount Los Angeles can divert from the creeks and tributaries that feed Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras…

Marcelle Shoop, the Saline Lakes Program Director for the Audubon Society, said in a statement that the funding would complement existing conservation efforts. “The Great Salt Lake and the network of saline lake ecosystems in the arid West face very serious challenges with increasingly low water levels, placing local communities and millions of migratory birds at risk,” she said…The bill adds to $40 million that Utah lawmakers allocated to the Great Salt Lake for watershed enhancement programs this year and supplements $10 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding for the saline lakes passed as part of a defense spending bill.

A year after the #MarshallFire, #Boulder communities are taking fire mitigation into the plains — #Colorado Public Radio

Boulder. By Gtj82 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Patriot8790., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11297782

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Publie Radio website (Sam Brasch). Here’s an excerpt:

The setting of the 2021 disaster shocked Boulder County residents and scientists. While the original cause is still under investigation, the blaze got rolling in protected grasslands before hurricane-force winds rocketed it into suburban communities far outside the mountains…

“We’ve ignored grasslands in terms of fire risk. We’ve concentrated a lot on forests — and we need to really better understand the differences,” [Kathryn] Suding said.

One critical distinction is the resilience of deep-rooted grasslands. No burn scar is visible from Suding’s perch above the fire zone, proving how quickly fuels can return to prairie landscapes. In woodlands, by contrast, studies show thinning trees and removing low branches can reduce dangerous wildfire fuels for years.  Suding said the challenge is even trickier due to climate change, which has brought drier summers and falls to the Front Range and packed areas with quick-burning thatch. She said the result is a “high window of risk that wasn’t there before.”

[…]

A year after the disaster, here are five ideas local governments in Boulder County are considering to guard against future grassfires.

1. Hardening homes

In November, Boulder County voters approved ballot issue 1A, which will raise $11 million annually to fund wildfire mitigation efforts. The money will expand Wildfire Partners, a program that previously helped mountain and foothills homeowners make their homes less vulnerable to fire…

2. Mowing

Other methods reduce fuel in natural landscapes rather than the built environment. That task is especially important in places where grasslands border homes, giving wildfires a clear and dangerous pathway into communities…

3. Grazing

Grazing is another method Boulder County communities already use to reduce grassland fuels. One question is whether it could be deployed even closer to suburban neighborhoods…

4. Landscape wetting

Through her research, Suding also plans to investigate plans to build stone structures across grassland drainages. The hope is that will help retain water, keeping plants wetter throughout the year and less vulnerable to fires…

5. Prescribed fire

The Front Range is no stranger to wildfires. Before Euro-American settlers brought a culture of fire suppression, North American prairies burned every two to 12 years, helping to reduce future fire risk and preserving rangeland for wildlife. 

Congress sends the #Water Resources Development Act of 2022 to the desk of the President — American Rivers

Elwha River. By Elwhajeff at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9740555

Click the link to read the release on the American Rivers website (Katie Schmidt):

On December 15th, 2022, the Senate voted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act in which the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (WRDA 2022) is included. It was passed by a vote of 83-11. Last week, the House passed the bill on December 8th with an overwhelming majority of 350-80. It will now go to President Biden’s desk for signing into law.

This is the largest Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in history and comes in at a time when our nation needs it most. The bill provides authorization for the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out water resources infrastructure projects to address flooding, waterway transportation, and ecosystem restoration. Importantly, this bill includes provisions to support Tribal and underserved communities, and address climate change.

American Rivers has worked with Congress to include provisions to protect and restore our nation’s rivers and floodplains. Below are some of the key provisions that we are most excited about.

Sections 8111. Tribal Partnership Program; 8112. Tribal Liaison; 8113. Tribal Assistance; 8114. Cost sharing provisions for the territories and Indian Tribes; and 8115. Tribal and Economically Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Committee are valuable provisions. We support these efforts to improve outreach to, and engagement with, these communities and give them a seat at the table. We are also pleased to see the initiative to build out the Corps of Engineers workforce through outreach in schools, colleges, and universities with a prioritization of recruiting from economically disadvantaged communities. We believe these steps will serve both the Corps and the communities well.

With climate change impacting the nation, promoting nature-based approaches on a project and watershed level scale is imperative to adapt to increasing floods and water scarcity. WRDA 2022 includes several provisions that will help promote the use of nature-based approaches and better serve and protect our communities while promoting ecosystem resilience through more responsible levee management and floodplain restoration.

Section 8103 – Shoreline and riverbank protection and restoration mission calls for restoring the natural functions and values of rivers and shorelines throughout the United States. Section 8121– Assessment of Corps of Engineers levees, will assess for opportunities for modification of levees, including for restoring connections with adjacent floodplains. American Rivers also worked to include language for the Corps to identify floodplain reconnection opportunities on federal lands. While this provision was not included in the final bill, we will work with the Corps to support sections 8103 and 8121, while continuing to work on getting additional federal levees assessed.

General currents upstream and downstream from a low-head dam. Graphic via Bruce a. Tschantz

American Rivers worked diligently with our partners at American Whitewater and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to include section 8122- National Low-Head Dam Inventory. This inventory will contribute significantly to public safety as low-head dams are known public safety hazards, and yet not inventoried nationally, and making this information publicly available will help river users identify life-threatening low-head dams. We also hope that this inventory will help the public identify obsolete structures that continue to pose a safety hazard and would be suitable for removal. In areas where dam removal is not an option, we support additional funding to go towards grants for signage and public education about low-head dams

Section 8123– Expediting hydropower at Corps of Engineers facilities, allows for retrofitting Corps dams with hydropower. We support this provision with the understanding that the structures in question are already serving their legislatively authorized purpose and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Recognizing that retrofitting a non-powered Corps dam with hydropower is not always feasible, we will continue to advocate for the diligent assessment of these projects and their use to determine if they would better serve the taxpayers, community, and local ecosystem by being disposed of instead of extending their life solely for non-power purposes.

Wetlands, which are havens of biodiversity, offer priceless ecological benefits. As wetlands are lost to development nationwide, critics of the dam project worry about its local impact. (Photo Credit: John Fielder via Writers on the Range)

The consideration of reforestation in section 8137 is an exciting and forward-thinking provision that encourages measures to restore swamps and other wetland forests in studies for water resources development projects. This is another important step towards focusing on ecosystem restoration. The benefits of flood control and water quality improvements that come from healthy swamps and wetlands are incalculable.

There are several provisions related to river restoration and protection and better river management, including section 8144 – Chattahoochee River Program, section 8145 – Lower Mississippi River Basin demonstration program, and section 8219 – Hydraulic evaluation of Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River. The Chattahoochee River program will provide assistance to non-federal interests for water-related resource protection and restoration projects affecting the Chattahoochee River Basin. The Lower Mississippi program will provide assistance to non-federal interests for projects focused on flood or coastal storm risk management or aquatic ecosystem restoration. The hydraulic evaluation of the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River basins will provide studies on the flows for rivers in the upper basin, which we hope will contribute to more effective management and restoration plans.

Chattahoochee River in Georgia. Photo credit: The Department of Interior

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) studies authorized in section 8236 are encouraging, especially the review of mitigation projects and the evaluation of their performance. These studies will require a report on the results of projects and activities to mitigate fish and wildlife losses that occurred as a result of a water resources development project. Within this section, we also support the study on the integration of information into the national levee database as this information is essential to the management and improvement of our nation’s levees.

We are pleased to see section 8140 – Policy and technical standards directing the Secretary to update the agency standards. With this update, the Corps will have to include climate change and nature-based solutions in their practices. We look forward to the report on the Corps of Engineers reservoirs under section 8153 so that Congress may further evaluate the operation, utility, and future of these reservoirs.

Overall, we applaud the safety and environmental provisions in this bill and the passing of this paramount piece of legislation to protect our natural and engineered water infrastructure and the people that rely on it.

Section by section summary can be found here and the full WRDA bill can be found here.

This blog was written by Katie Schmidt. Jaime Sigaran, Ted Illston, Brian Graber, and Eileen Shader

#Colorado launches $25 Million, multi-state effort to improve soils, reduce ag #water use — @WaterEdCO

Derek Heckman, who farms near Lamar in eastern Colorado, is implementing various soil health practices to build the organic matter of his soil, improve water retention, and stretch limited water supplies farther. Credit Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Allen Best):

This simple statistic may shock you: Each time a farmer plows his or her field, the soil loses three-quarters of an inch of moisture.

The solutions? They’re more complicated and part of new and expanding soil health programs that seek to help farmers explore how to retain water, improve fertility, and create greater resilience to buffer weather extremes.

Now, with the aid of $25 million in new federal funding, the Colorado Department of Agriculture plans to expand a program called STAR — an acronym for Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources — from 124 producers, including both farmers and ranchers, to 450. The conduit has been through 16 of the state’s 74 conservation districts, along with three organizations representing corn, sugar beet, and other crop growers. The funding comes through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Project.

It’s a “game changer,” says Jim Pritchett, an agriculture economist at Colorado State University who grew up on a farm in southeastern Colorado.

“In my career and my childhood in Colorado, I’ve never seen this much direct investment at the producer level,” Pritchett said in September when the grant was announced.

The expanded program, called STAR Plus, will allow Colorado to assist six other Western states in implementing soil health practices and advancing learning. The states are Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Washington. CSU, with a $6 million share of that grant, will be the focal point for quantification, verification and other research.

State officials say that fostering techniques to improve soils, making them more sponge-like, can help Colorado improve water quality and use existing water more efficiently. Agriculture continues to account for more than 80% of Colorado’s water use.

For example, healthier soils can absorb moisture from hard rains, while unhealthy soils allow the water to run off. That improved retention also sets the soils up to better withstand dry periods and greater heat. Some techniques in particular, such as less frequent tilling and use of cover crops, can help farmers in the face of rising temperatures.

In 2021, Colorado legislators passed two bills to ramp up efforts to improve soil health. One bill, HB21-1181, authorized creation of a voluntary soil health program housed within the Colorado Department of Agriculture and overseen by an advisory committee composed of representatives from around the state. Another bill, SB21-235,  appropriated $2 million in state stimulus funding for the program. With other grants and funding sources, the three-year program had $5 million to work with through 2022.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said her department began asking farmers and ranchers in 2019 how adoption of soil health practices might best be accelerated.

The resulting programs are both voluntary and incentive based. They also are highly tailored to individual growers. Instead of top-down regulation, which Greenberg says would “quelch imagination” and necessary innovation, the Star Plus program seeks collaboration, recognizing that farmers bring much expertise to the table and that great uncertainties remain about how best to achieve soil health objectives.

Improvements in soil health won’t occur immediately. The programs have three-year terms for participants during which they will get technical help, including soil testing. CSU researchers meanwhile have been testifying the efficacy of various techniques.

Crop residue. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

Experts say that five principal tools enhance soil health including keeping the soil covered; keeping living roots in the soil; diversifying crops; minimizing disturbances—for example using no till or minimal till field preparation—and incorporating livestock grazing into land management.

Soil health can be defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and people.

“The key thing in that definition is that soil is alive,” said Shawn Bruckman, an educator and former professional composter who is on the Eagle County Conservation District Board of Directors. She is also on Colorado’s soil health advisory committee.

“When we are looking at soil health, we are not looking at certain properties of the soil independently,” said Bruckman. “We are looking how it all works together as a whole.”

Bruckman emphasized that soil health varies greatly depending upon climate, soil types and other factors. It can vary greatly even within close proximity, from one field to another.

Given that variability, the Star and Star Plus programs were designed with flexibility as a high value. “You can’t cut and dry the approaches and put them in boxes,” said Bruckman. “They vary so much.”

Some producers may feel comfortable only adopting one or perhaps two of the approaches.

Derek White Heckman values the voluntary nature of the program. He has implemented cover crop, rotation and other soil health practices on 200 acres in the Arkansas River Valley near McClave, Colorado. Next spring he expects to add another 120 acres of the 1,000 acres that he and his father farm.

“I do believe that soil health is very beneficial,” he says. “It has helped our farm out. But I don’t want to ever see things being forced on guys. It really turns them off.”

Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.

Sambrito Wetlands restoration project beginning in January at Navajo State Park — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife #SanJuanRiver

The Sambrito Wetlands at Navajo State Park will undergo a project to restore 34 acres of the wetlands and streamside habitat beginning the first week of January. John Livingston/CPW

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website (John Livingston):

A project to restore an additional 34 acres of wetland and streamside habitat is set to begin its final phase in January at the Sambrito Wetlands Complex at Navajo State Park. The area will be closed to the public during construction and will be well marked with closure signs.

This project, coordinated by the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited, will bring to life the vision of a myriad of partners who have participated in various planning efforts for the project during the last decade.

“We are happy to see this project come to fruition after multiple years of work and planning,” said CPW Deputy Southwest Region Manager Heath Kehm. “Through the work of key partners and funding through several grants, we are eager to see this area of Navajo State Park restored for the benefit of wildlife, wildlife viewing and waterfowl hunting here in southwest Colorado.”

The Sambrito Wetlands are on federal land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed under agreement by CPW. Sambrito is part of a wetland complex in Colorado that was enhanced to benefit wildlife during construction of Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.

Since its construction, the water infrastructure and ditches have fallen into disrepair, resulting in diminished environmental and recreational benefits.

In 2012, CPW commissioned a management plan that identified several areas where infrastructure improvements could be made to restore wetland function and increase recreational opportunities. In 2013, CPW funded an initial phase of work which was completed in 2016.

This current project will continue and complete all work identified in the management plan published in 2013 to restore the Sambrito Wetlands to full functionality.

The Sambrito and adjacent Miller Mesa Wetlands Complex were intensively managed for wildlife between 1964 and 1993 through habitat improvements, food production units and wetland creation and enhancements. However, the complexes were not as actively managed in the intervening years and became dilapidated because of limited resources.

The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus) is native to the southern Rocky Mountains. It is 7 to 9 inches long including its tail, which is more than half of its length. The mouse is a jumper, making use of its inch-long back feet. It lives among dense, tall, herbaceous (non-woody) plants that are next to flowing streams and eats a variety of plant material, such as grass seeds and flowers. Photo credit: National Park Service

The current project will reinvigorate waterfowl habitat and improve recreational opportunities by renovating and repairing the existing water diversion and conveyance system, which will deliver water from West Sambrito Creek (Vallejo Arroyo) to five wetland impoundments. The project will also restore hydrologic functions to a section of West Sambrito Creek and potentially benefit the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

Strategies to avoid and minimize impacts to the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and its habitat guided development of the project, and Bureau Reclamation staff will be onsite to monitor construction activities occurring in critical habitat.

Ducks Unlimited designed and engineered the wetland improvements and will lead as the project manager. Geringer Construction, a contractor from the San Luis Valley experienced in wetland restoration, will work on the project from early winter through spring 2023.

“We are very excited to move forward with this project,” said John Denton, Colorado Manager of Conservation Programs for Ducks Unlimited, Inc. “The habitat improvement work in this unique and important wetland complex will highlight this great conservation partnership and will pay dividends for wildlife and the public for years to come.”

CPW will provide any ongoing management and maintenance for the wetlands.

Funding for this project has come through the Colorado Water Conservation Board Water Supply Reserve Fund grant, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant and the CPW Colorado Wetlands and Wildlife Program grant.

The Southwest Wetlands Focus Area Committee has also been a champion for the project through its continued leadership and support.

CPW’s ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Wetlands for Wildlife Program is a voluntary, collaborative and incentive-based program to restore, enhance and create wetlands and riparian areas in Colorado. Funds are allocated annually to the program, and projects are recommended for funding by a CPW committee with final approval by the Director.

For more about the CPW wetlands project funding, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/WetlandsProjectFunding.aspx

Navajo State Park is a major recreational facility in southwest Colorado, drawing more than 300,000 visitors every year. The 2,100-acre park offers boating, fishing, trails, wildlife viewing, 138 camp sites and three cabins.

Why Scientists Are Rallying to Save Ponds: Humble ponds have a key role to play in fighting #climatechange and aiding conservation — but only if we protect them — The Revelator

“Swamp Cedars” (Juniperus scopulorum) and associated pond, wetland and meadow in Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada. Photograph by Dennis Ghiglieri from http://images.water.nv.gov/images/Hearing%20Exhibit%20Archives/spring%20valley/WELC/Exhibit%203030.pdf

Click the link to read the article on The Revelator website (Jack McGovan):

Thomas Mehner’s research team has spent the past few years wading through ponds in Brandenburg — the state surrounding Germany’s capital city, Berlin. It wasn’t the increasingly hot summers that forced them into the cool water. They were collecting samples for analysis — something not many other people are doing.

“Northeast Germany is blessed with lakes, so if you talk with people about ponds, they say, ‘Are they so important?’” says Mehner, a researcher at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Friedrichshagen, Berlin.

The answer, it turns out, is yes.

Ponds take so many forms across the world that the word “pond” can be quite difficult to define. Typically, however, they’re smaller and shallower than lakes. As to their importance, research suggests that ponds are better for biodiversity than many larger bodies of water. They’ve been found to support more plants and animals overall, including many endangered species.

That’s part of what guides Mehner’s research on ponds. His team gathers information on insect larvae and environmental DNA to detect the presence of fish and amphibians. They also collect traces of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide to examine the link between the biodiversity of water bodies and its impact on emissions in the environment.

Their work is part of a larger effort.

Mehner is the German partner for POND Ecosystems for Resilient Future Landscapes in a changing climate — PONDERFUL, for short. The international project examines hundreds of ponds across Europe — and beyond — to see how they can help provide climate change solutions and boost conservation.

But for these often-ignored water bodies to help us and support wildlife, researchers say ponds also need protections.

Establishing Safeguards

Ponds can be just as diverse as the ecosystems they support. In Germany, for example, ponds were typically carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, says Mehner. In the United Kingdom, they were largely excavated by farmers for rearing cattle. Some ponds are a permanent fixture of the landscape, while others only exist during certain periods of the year.

Regardless of their origins, ponds have helped provide refuge for wild animals and plants. Unfortunately, despite decades of research showing ponds’ importance to biodiversity, they’re often overlooked by policymakers and the public.

The current policy that covers standing waters in the U.K. and European Union — the EU Water Framework Directive — largely excludes bodies of less than 50 hectares.

As a result, ponds are essentially ignored, which means they’re not monitored by authorities and are allowed to languish, blocking potential climate and biodiversity benefits.

PONDERFUL hopes to change this. One of its major goals is to gather data that can be shared with policymakers to highlight the importance of ponds so they’re given more attention.

A PONDERFUL project in Switzerland. Photo: Julie Fahy (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Disappearing Ponds

Time is of the essence.

Some of the ponds that Mehner studies are located in the small municipality of Schöneiche, on the border of Berlin and Brandenburg, where ponds are disappearing.

“This is really a reflection of climate change,” he says. The lack of rain in recent years has depleted the ponds, which also suffer from urban pressures. Berlin consumes a lot of groundwater from surrounding areas, further pushing the groundwater-fed ponds to the breaking point.

This isn’t an isolated problem.

Research from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology found that 90% of ponds in Switzerland have been lost over the last two centuries. The U.K. had an estimated 800,000 ponds at the start of the 20th century; today less than a quarter of those remain. In Austria, researchers found that 70% of temporary saline ponds were lost over a 60-year period.

Unlike in Brandenburg, in these countries the loss of ponds has been linked to agricultural intensification, with farms either filling in the ponds, ploughing over them or draining them.

Global Action

Whatever the reason for their perilous states, researchers hope that better data can help guide government policy.

There’s evidence elsewhere that it can.

Elias Bizuru, director of research and innovation at the University of Rwanda, helped to build the Rwanda Biodiversity Information System. Starting in 2018, researchers collected data from wetlands and other freshwater habitats and made it all available on one system.

“The information related to biodiversity in Rwanda was scattered across institutions, and getting that information was a very, very big challenge,” says Bizuru. Without the information at hand, researchers like himself found it difficult to make suggestions on the kind of actions decisionmakers should take to protect wetlands.

When they do have easily accessible data, Bizuru says, the Rwandan government can be quite successful in its interventions. The Nyandungu Eco-Tourism Park, for example, was a degraded wetland six years ago. Now, after a restoration project, it’s host to a wide range of native species, including dragonflies, snakes, amphibians, birds and a range of plants.

Another restoration project in Switzerland created hundreds of new ponds and managed to increase the regional populations of eight endangered frogs, toads and newts, especially helping the European tree frog. The effort helped boost those regional populations by 52%.

In the U.K., the Norfolk Pond Project has conducted similar work. Carl Sayer and Helen Greaves, colleagues in the geography department at University College London, have together helped to restore more than 200 ponds originally dug for agricultural purposes.

To restore them, Sayer and Greaves would simply clear up mud and remove trees from the area, letting nature do the rest. A study published by the pair in 2020 highlighted significant increases in aquatic plants, invertebrates and amphibians after their interventions.

A European tree frog. Photo: Nicholas Turland (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“You’re almost reinstating natural processes, really, because in a natural state ponds are disturbed,” Sayer says.

Cascading Effects

Ponds don’t only exist in rural areas.

Zsófia Horváth, a community ecologist at the Institute of Aquatic Ecology in Budapest, runs a citizen science campaign for ponds in urban areas across Hungary. Her research team has collected biodiversity data from 386 ponds and surveyed more than 800 pond owners to find out which interventions people can take to make their ponds more biodiverse.

During a previous research project in Austria, she found that if one pond disappears, others suffer.

She tells me that ponds function for the species they host the same way islands might for humans at sea. The more islands are lost, the more precarious it becomes for a seafarer to access the resources they need to survive.

“You’re taking out these important members of the network,” she says. Their research looked into zooplankton populations — crustaceans and rotifers — since the 1950s and found that species loss correlated with a reduction in the number of ponds in the area.

The idea that it’s important to create networks of ponds is also shared by Sayer, and it’s a long-term goal of the Norfolk Pond Project.

“I’d love to see whole areas joined, where we restore ponds in one landscape and another, and then we link it all up,” he says.

Ensuring such networks become a reality, however, requires more data, Horváth says.

“It’s so easy to ignore a habitat if you don’t know what kind of service it can offer humanity,” she says. “It’s kind of a very profane, human-oriented point of view — but this is how policymakers and the general public work.”


Get more from The RevelatorSubscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Romancing the River: Quo vadimus? — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Belleview Mountain East River Headwaters. Photo credit: Ray Schoch via Sibley’s Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.

Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:

1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.

The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river  – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.  

2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River.  The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled. 

The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.

The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?

On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.

But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.

So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…

4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin). 

But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.

So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….

First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins. 

This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land. 

This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.

The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.

‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first. 

Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.

Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation. 

To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.

And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’ 

There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Historic Investment in Partnerships for 70 #Climate-Smart Commodities and Rural Projects — USDA

In areas that experience low-severity burns, fire events can serve to eliminate vegetative competition, rejuvenate its growth and improve watershed conditions. But, in landscapes subjected to high or even moderate burn severity, the post-fire threats to public safety and natural resources can be extreme. Photo credit: Colorado State Forest Service

Click the link to read the release on the USDA website:

USDA to Triple Commitment with Initial $2.8 Billion Investment Piloting New Revenue Streams for America’s Climate-Smart Farmers, Ranchers and Forest Landowners, with Additional Projects to Come

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that the Biden-Harris Administration through the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing up to $2.8 billion in 70 selected projects under the first pool of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding opportunity, with projects from the second funding pool to be announced later this year. Ultimately, USDA’s anticipated investment will triple to more than $3 billion in pilots that will create market opportunities for American commodities produced using climate-smart production practices. These initial projects will expand markets for climate-smart commodities, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodity production and provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture, including for small and underserved producers. Applicants submitted more than 450 project proposals in this first funding pool, and the strength of the projects identified led USDA to increase its investment in this opportunity from the initial $1 billion Vilsack announced earlier this year.

“There is strong and growing interest in the private sector and among consumers for food that is grown in a climate-friendly way,” said Vilsack. “Through today’s announcement of initial selections for the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, USDA is delivering on our promise to build and expand these market opportunities for American agriculture and be global leaders in climate-smart agricultural production. This effort will increase the competitive advantage of U.S. agriculture both domestically and internationally, build wealth that stays in rural communities and support a diverse range of producers and operation types.”

Earlier this year, Vilsack announced that USDA had allocated $1 billion for the program, divided into two funding pools. Because of the unprecedented demand and interest in the program, and potential for meaningful opportunities to benefit producers through the proposals, the Biden-Harris administration increased the total funding allocation to more than $3 billion, with projects from the second funding pool to be announced later this year. Vilsack made the announcement from the campus of Penn State University, which is the lead partner on one of the selected pilot projects to implement climate-smart practices, quantify and track the greenhouse gas benefits and develop markets for the resulting climate-smart commodities.

Funding for Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities will be delivered through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation in two pools. Projects announced today are from the first funding pool, which included proposals seeking funds ranging from $5 million to $100 million. USDA received over 450 proposals from more than 350 entities for this funding pool, including nonprofit organizations; for-profits and government entities; farmer cooperatives; conservation, energy and environmental groups; state, tribal and local governments; universities (including minority serving institutions); small businesses; and large corporations. Applications covered every state in the nation as well as tribal lands, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The tentative selections announced today reflect this broad set of applicants and geographic scope, and the proposals include plans to match on average over 50% of the federal investment with nonfederal funds.

USDA will work with the applicants for the 70 identified projects to finalize the scope and funding levels in the coming months. A complete list of projects identified for this first round of funding is available at usda.gov/climate-smart-commodities. These include:

  • Climate-Smart Agriculture Innovative Finance Initiative: This project, which will cover more than 30 states, will use innovative finance mechanisms to accelerate climate-smart practice uptake by farmers, leveraging private sector demand to strengthen markets for climate-smart commodities. A broad array of partners will provide technical assistance and additional financial incentives to a diverse array of producers across a broad range of commodities, tying climate-smart practice to commodity purchases and creating a scalable model for private sector investment. Lead partner: Field to Market
  • Scaling Methane Emissions Reductions and Soil Carbon Sequestration: Through this project, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) climate-smart pilots will directly connect the on-farm greenhouse gas reductions with the low-carbon dairy market opportunity. DFA will use its cooperative business model to ensure that the collective financial benefits are captured at the farm, creating a compelling opportunity to establish a powerful self-sustaining circular economy model benefiting U.S. agriculture, including underserved producers. Lead partner: Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.
  • The Soil Inventory Project Partnership for Impact and Demand: This project will build climate-smart markets, streamline field data collection and combine sample results with modeling to make impact quantifications accurate and locally specific but also scalable. Targeted farms produce value-added and direct-to-consumer specialty crops as well as the 19 most common row crops in the United States. Lead partner: The Meridian Institute
  • The Grass is Greener on the Other Side: Developing Climate-Smart Beef and Bison Commodities: This project will create market opportunities for beef and bison producers who utilize climate-smart agriculture grazing and land management practices. The project will guide and educate producers on climate-smart practices most suited for their operations, manage large-scale climate-smart data that will be used by producers to improve decision-making, and directly impact market demand for climate-smart beef/bison commodity markets. Lead university: South Dakota State University
  • Traceable Reforestation for America’s Carbon and Timber: This project builds climate-smart markets for timber and forest products and addresses the need to expand and recover the nation’s forest estate to balance the demand for wood products with the increasing need for forests to serve as carbon reservoirs. The project will deploy funding, planning, and implementation of reforestation and afforestation activities in lands deforested by wildfire in the Western U.S. and degraded agricultural lands in the Southern U.S. Every acre planted and the volume of forest products generated will have a quantified and verified climate benefit in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Lead partner: Oregon Climate Trust

Spanning up to five years, these 70 projects will:

  • Provide technical and financial assistance to producers to implement climate-smart production practices on a voluntary basis on working lands;
  • Pilot innovative and cost-effective methods for quantification, monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas benefits; and
  • Develop markets and promote the resulting climate-smart commodities.

The projects announced today will deliver significant impacts for producers and communities nationwide. USDA anticipates that these projects will result in:

  • Hundreds of expanded markets and revenue streams for producers and commodities across agriculture ranging from traditional corn to specialty crops.
  • More than 50,000 farms reached, encompassing more than 20-25 million acres of working land engaged in climate-smart production practices such as cover crops, no-till and nutrient management.
  • More than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent sequestered over the lives of the projects. This is equivalent to removing more than 10 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles from the road for one year.
  • More than 50 universities, including multiple minority-serving institutions, engaged and helping advance projects, especially with outreach and monitoring, measurement, reporting and verification.
  • Proposals for the 70 selected projects include plans to match on average over 50% of the federal investment with nonfederal funds.

Projects were selected based on a range of criteria, with emphasis placed on greenhouse gas and/or carbon sequestration benefits and equity. The Notice of Funding Opportunity included a complete set of project proposal requirements and evaluation criteria.

USDA is currently evaluating project proposals from the second Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding pool, which includes funding requests from $250,000 to $4,999,999. Projects from this second funding pool will emphasize the enrollment of small and/or underserved producers, and/or monitoring, reporting and verification activities developed at minority-serving institutions. USDA expects to announce these selections later this Fall.

More Information

Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities is part of USDA’s broader strategy to position agriculture and forestry as leaders in climate change mitigation through voluntary, incentive-based, market-driven approaches. Visit usda.gov/climate-smart-commodities to learn more about this effort, and usda.gov/climate-solutions for climate-related updates, resources and tools across the Department.

Under the Biden-Harris administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our Nation’s lands, biodiversity and natural resources including our soil, air and water. Through conservation practices and partnerships, USDA aims to enhance economic growth and create new streams of income for farmers, ranchers, producers and private foresters. Successfully meeting these challenges will require USDA and our agencies to pursue a coordinated approach alongside USDA stakeholders, including State, local and Tribal governments.

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.

GOCO awards $34K for wetland, river restoration in Upper #GunnisonRiver Basin — The Gunnison Country Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on The Gunnison Country Times website. Here’s an excerpt:

This month, the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) board awarded a $34,700 grant to the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District to address the urgent need to adapting the basin to ongoing drought conditions. This grant is part of GOCO’s Conservation Service Corps program. GOCO partners with Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA) to employ conservation crews across the state on outdoor recreation and stewardship projects. The youth corps represents a statewide coalition that train youth, young adults and veterans to complete land and water conservation work and gain professional skills.  This funding will support the Upper Gunnison through a partnership with Western Colorado Conservation Corps crews for four weeks of stewardship work. Crews will construct beaver dam analogs — man-made structures designed to mimic the form and function of natural beaver dams — and implement other low-tech processes to speed channel recovery and support wetland and river vegetation.  This project is part of the greater Upper Gunnison Basin Wet Meadow and Riparian Restoration Project, which has conducted restoration work in the area for the past decade. 

Research Article: Indigenous fire management and cross-scale fire-climate relationships in the Southwest United States from 1500 to 1900 CE — Science Advances #ActOnClimate #CRWUA2022

Click the link to access the article on the Science Advances website (CHRISTOPHER I. ROOS, Et. al). Here’s the abstract:

Prior research suggests that Indigenous fire management buffers climate influences on wildfires, but it is unclear whether these benefits accrue across geographic scales. We use a network of 4824 fire-scarred trees in Southwest United States dry forests to analyze up to 400 years of fire-climate relationships at local, landscape, and regional scales for traditional territories of three different Indigenous cultures. Comparison of fire-year and prior climate conditions for periods of intensive cultural use and less-intensive use indicates that Indigenous fire management weakened fire-climate relationships at local and landscape scales. This effect did not scale up across the entire region because land use was spatially and temporally heterogeneous at that scale. Restoring or emulating Indigenous fire practices could buffer climate impacts at local scales but would need to be repeatedly implemented at broad scales for broader regional benefits.

Fig. 1. Maps of the distribution of dry pine forests across western North America and the Southwest United States with regional fire-climate analyses. The distribution of dry pine and mixed conifer forests across western North America and the Southwest are indicated in (A) and (B). The location of tree-ring sites (dots; i.e., the local scale sites) and cultural areas (orange outlines; i.e., cultural landscapes) are indicated in (B). Superposed epoch analysis plots at the regional-scale for Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) (C) (77), winter precipitation (D) (78), summer precipitation (E) (78), El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (F) (79), and temperature (G) (80) indicate the “canonical pattern” of prior wet and fire-year dry (and warm) conditions using the combined regional dataset for the entire record (1500-1900 CE). Solid line indicates significance at the p < 0.05 level, dotted line at the p < 0.01 level. Red/orange bars indicate dry/warm years. Blue bars indicate wet/cool years. Dark red/blue indicate years significant at the p < 0.05 level. Orange and light blue bars are not statistically significant. Photo of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest in the Chuska Mountains by C. Guiterman.

Cocopah Tribe working to restore native plants, landscape on #ColoradoRiver — KJZZ #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The Cocopah Environmental Protection Office finished planting more than 1,000 trees along a seven acre stretch of land along the Colorado River near the Arizona-California border. Cocopah EPO Director Jen Alspach. Cocopah Elder Neil White and Restoration Ecologist Fred Phillips talk about what this project means for the environment and Cocopah culture. This project is being sponsored by the Catena Foundation.

Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ webiste (Al Macias). Here’s an excerpt:

This small stretch of the river winds through part of the Cocopah Reservation near Yuma. It’s the last tribal land the river touches before it flows into Mexico. For hundreds of years, the river provided food and other resources to the Cocopah and other river tribes. In the 19th century, the river was hundreds of yards across and steamboats ran up and down the river ferrying supplies. Now the river is a few feet across.

View showing steamboat Cochan on the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona in 1900. A photograph of the Cochan, last stern-wheel steamboat running on the Colorado River for the Colorado Steam Navigation Company between 1899 and 1909. This photo was taken in 1900. Cochan was sold to the U.S Reclamation Service in 1909. Not required by the Service, Cochan was dismantled in 1910. By Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16588505

But major change began to take shape in the early 1900s, when the first dam was added. More than a century later, development and an extensive system of 15 dams has changed the river and the people who depended on it. Here on the Cocopah reservation, the landscape changed as well with invasive plant species choking out native cottonwoods, mesquites and other trees. Back in June as this, heavy equipment began ripping out seven acres of invasive plants called phragmites.

Tamarisk

Jen Alspach is the director of the Cocopah Environmental Protection Office.

“The goal of this project was to bring back those native plants and create a very special place where they can gather and you know reconnect with the river,” Alspach said. 

After the seven acres were cleared, a thousand cottonwoods, willows and mesquites were planted.

During Visit to #KlamathRiver, Interior Secretary Haaland Announces Four Tribal #Water Projects

Click the link to read the release on the Interior website:

The Department of the Interior announced today that four Tribal water projects in Oregon and California’s Klamath River Basin will receive $5.8 million through the Bureau of Reclamation to restore aquatic ecosystems, improve the resilience of habitats, and mitigate the effects of the ongoing drought crisis. The funding is made available through Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program.

Secretary Deb Haaland made the announcement while touring the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery with Governors Gavin Newsom and Kate Brown, Congressman Jared Huffman, representatives from the Klamath Basin Tribes and other officials and stakeholders to celebrate the imminent surrender and decommissioning of the Lower Klamath Project, a four-dam hydropower project on the Klamath River. On November 17, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order approving the surrender and decommissioning of the Project, the culmination of nearly two decades of effort to find a path to remove the dams, open up hundreds of miles of historic salmon habitat, improve water quality, and restore the River and the fishery the Basin Tribes have relied upon since time immemorial. Dam removal activities will begin next spring, with full removal completed in 2024.

“Clean water, healthy forests and fertile land made the Klamath Basin and its surrounding watershed home to Tribal communities, productive agriculture, and abundant populations of migratory birds, suckers, salmon and other fish. But over the past 20 years, the Basin has been met with unprecedented challenges due to ongoing drought conditions and limited water supply,” said Secretary Haaland. “The projects we are funding today – combined with millions of dollars in water and habitat resilience investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – will help restore this once abundant ecosystem for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

“Reclamation is committed to working with Tribes in the Klamath River Basin on important water resource issues,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “This funding will help facilitate collaboration with Tribes as they address the severe and continuing drought impacting their lands.”

Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance Program provides technical assistance to Tribes to develop, manage and protect their water and related resources. The funding announced today is provided to Tribes as a grant or cooperative agreement. The projects are:

Hoopa Valley Tribe, Karuk Tribe and Yurok Tribe, in collaboration with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Juvenile Salmonid Survival and Migration Rate Study: The project will receive $3.9 million to study juvenile salmon. The Yurok Tribe will estimate specific survival through time of wild and hatchery Chinook Salmon as they migrate through the Klamath Basin under various environmental conditions. The Hoopa Valley and Karuk Tribes will use acoustic tags to monitor juvenile salmonid survival and migration rates from the Scott, Salmon and Trinity rivers and locations on the middle Klamath to Klamath River estuary. The USGS will provide support to the Tribes for this research study. 

Hoopa Valley Tribe, Ecological Flow Assessment on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation: The Hoopa Valley Tribe will receive $554,325 to complete an ecological flow assessment on the Trinity River. The project includes site selection, field data collection, stream gaging and water temperature monitoring.  

Klamath Tribes, Upper Williamson River Restoration: The Klamath Tribes will receive $500,000 to assess and plan river system restoration activities on the Upper Williamson River in southern Oregon. The Tribe will assess the existing condition of approximately five miles of the river, develop plans for restoration activities, and install restoration infrastructures. This project advances goals and objectives established in both the Klamath Basin Integrated Fisheries Restoration and Monitoring Plan and the Upper Klamath Basin Watershed Action Plan. 

Yurok Tribe, Oregon Gulch Project, Mainstem Trinity River: The Yurok Tribe will receive $864,533 to remove tailing piles, increase floodplain inundation, promote fluvial processes, and reduce the wood storage deficit. The project will also double rearing habitat, improve the aquatic ecosystem, create seasonal surface water connections, increase vegetation biomass and increase the number of trees along the riverbanks.  

This funding supplements nearly $26 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated this year for Klamath Basin restoration projects, including nearly $16 million for ecosystem restoration projects in the Basin and $10 million to expand the Klamath Falls National Fish Hatchery.

As part of the Interior Department’s ongoing commitment to partnership and collaboration, senior Department leaders have held several in-person and virtual engagement sessions with Tribes, state and county officials, interagency partners, and water users to discuss near- and long-term solutions related to drought impacts in the Basin.

Klamath River Basin. Map credit: American Rivers

Studies tackle #water-replacement options for shortages on #CrystalRiver: #Drought conditions stress water supplies for #Marble, Crystal valley residents — @AspenJournlism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The Crystal River runs low outside of Carbondale on September 1, 2020. With average temperatures warming in summer months by as much as 3.5 degrees since the 1950s in Garfield County, streamflows are trending down as peak runoff comes earlier and more water is sucked up by evaporation and dry soils, stressing available water supplies in late summer and fall. Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A study of a water replacement plan on the Crystal River is looking at nature-based solutions, but experts say some type of storage will also probably need to be built to solve shortages in dry years.

Wendy Ryan, an engineer with Colorado River Engineering who is heading up an analysis of a basin-wide backup water-supply plan, gave a progress update at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting this week. The study was funded largely by a state grant and undertaken by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District.

“We have a couple landowners near Marble we are working with to see if we can put storage supplies on their properties,” Ryan said in response to a question asking her what solutions she had found. “We don’t have any shovel-ready projects. We did a lot of work upfront, and now it’s simply trying to find what we can build.”

During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount.

The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were technically supposed to be shut off under a strict administration of the river by the state Division of Water Resources. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several of these residential subdivisions don’t have an augmentation plan.

Engineers from Division 5 of the Colorado Division of Water Resources have said that if water users work together to find solutions and come up with an augmentation plan, they won’t shut off indoor residential water use if the call happens again. Outdoor watering could still be shut off.

The first phase of the study, which River District representatives presented to Pitkin County commissioners in June 2021, was a demand quantification, which put numbers on the amount of water needed at different times of year.

Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These structures deliver water to 197 homes; 80 service connections in Marble; about 23 irrigated acres; Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble; 16,925 square-feet of commercial space; and livestock.

In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet in the Crystal River per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can typically meet the annual needs of one or two families.) The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.

The Ella Ditch, in the Crystal River Valley, placed a call for the first time ever during the drought-stricken summer of 2018. That meant the Town of Carbondale had to borrow water from the East Mesa Ditch under an emergency water supply plan. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Wild & Scenic jeopardized?

Ryan and staff from the River District have said they are not considering storage on the mainstem of the Crystal River, which could jeopardize a federal Wild & Scenic designation, a long-sought-after goal of Pitkin County, local environmental groups and some residents. A Wild & Scenic standing would mean no dams or out-of-basin diversions.

“We were never going to consider any mainstem storage on the Crystal River,” Ryan said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that potential designation on the Crystal, and what we are looking at shouldn’t.”

But Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said it’s hard to see how upstream storage and a Wild & Scenic designation won’t conflict.

“It troubles me to hear the engineers say it’s hard to envision a solution that doesn’t involve storage,” she said. “So that’s just a red flag. It’s always been a red flag for Pitkin County.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted in 2019 against funding the study unless storage was off the table.

The Crystal River at the fish hatchery just south of Carbondale was running at about 10 cubic feet per second on Oct. 13, 2020, much lower than the state’s instream flow standard of 60 cfs. Rivers in the Roaring Fork watershed have seen below-average streamflows in water year 2020, which ended Oct. 1, despite a slightly above-average snowpack. Dry soil conditions threaten to bring a similar scenario in water year 2021. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Nature-based solutions

A parallel study, undertaken by the River District and environmental-and-recreation advocacy group American Rivers, is looking at nature-based solutions. The idea is that by keeping water on the landscape higher in the basin, it could recharge aquifers and boost river flows in late summer.

“We have been analyzing whether the reconnection of floodplains can assist with aquifer recharge and natural water storage while also improving the resilience of watersheds and potentially contributing to later-season flows,” said Fay Hartman, American Rivers conservation director for the Southwest region.

According to Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations, there are four potential areas for nature-based projects: the Coal Basin area; Avalanche Creek upstream of its confluence with the Crystal; the Janeway area, downstream of the confluence of Avalanche Creek and the Crystal; and the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal. But none of the sites are perfect, Kessler said.

“The River District and American Rivers are partners in this effort investigating whether turning back the clock on past alterations that have degraded the Crystal River can help recapture some of the climate resilience we have lost,” he said. “Improving the storage in floodplains and wetlands I think we see as an innovative and lower-impact approach to meeting late-season water needs than dams or storage in the headwaters.”

Findings and recommendations from the nature-based solutions analysis are expected by the end of the month. But Ryan said some kind of storage is still needed because nature-based solutions will still not be enough to meet the supply-demand gap in dry years, according to her analysis.

“It might meet a portion of our demands, but it’s not going to meet all our demands,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Dec. 5 edition of The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

#NewMexico: #GoldKingMine spill settlement fund draws 17 proposals totaling $28 million — The Farmington Daily Times #AnimasRiver #SanJuanRiver

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

Click the link to read the article on The Farmington Daily Times website (Mike Easterling). Here’s an excerpt:

New Mexico officials received 17 proposals totaling more than $28 million for the $10 million in Gold King Mine spill settlement money between the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has been set aside for restoration projects. The deadline for submitting proposals for the settlement money was Oct. 28, a date that was extended from its original deadline of Sept. 30 by the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee, the state agency that is coordinating the process. Maggie Hart Stebbins, the New Mexico natural resources trustee, said her agency has begun the process of vetting the proposals and will be analyzing them to determine if additional information is needed from any of the entities seeking the funding…

The $10 million is part of a $32 million settlement the state reached with the EPA earlier this year to compensate New Mexico for damages related to the August 2015 incident, during which millions of gallons of toxic waste were released from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, eventually winding up in the Animas and San Juan rivers. A total of $18.1 million from that settlement was designated for response costs, while $3.5 million was set aside for water quality and cleanup activities through Clean Water Act and Superfund grants. The remaining $10 million has been earmarked for restoration of injured natural resources, much of which state officials said would be used to fund outdoor recreation opportunities in northwest New Mexico…

The list of proposals includes several projects submitted by government entities in San Juan County, as well as those associated with the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico. San Juan County submitted three proposals, while the City of Aztec submitted two, and the cities of Bloomfield and Farmington submitted one each. New Mexico State Parks led the way with four proposals, while the New Mexico Tourism Department submitted one.

New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources via Geology.com.

Imperial Irrigation District approves possible $250 million #SaltonSea deal with feds, state — The Palm Springs Desert Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The New River, a contaminated waterway that flows north from Mexico, spills into the Salton Sea in southwestern California’s Imperial Valley. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Palm Springs Desert Sun website (Janet Wilson). Here’s an excerpt:

Southern California’s powerful Imperial Irrigation District voted late Tuesday [November 22, 2022] 3-2 to ink an agreement with federal and state officials that could yield as much as $250 million for Salton Sea restoration projects in exchange for not using another 250,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. An acre-foot is enough to supply about two households. The vote came despite livid objections from Imperial County farmers and environmental groups, who questioned why such a major agreement was being voted on just 24 hours after it was made public, and four days before two newly elected board members are slated to be sworn in to the five-member panel, replacing outgoing president Jim Hanks and outgoing director Norma Galindo, two of the three backers of the agreement on Tuesday…

“Most of us heard about this four-way deal for the first time through the news media Monday afternoon …. The omission of public input borders on a violation of human rights when dealing with something essential to living like water,” said Jose Flores, research and advocacy specialist at Comite Civico del Valle, a nonprofit community advocacy group, who denounced it as a “half-baked deal.”

[…]

But director JB Hamby, agreeing with a majority of the board and the district’s general manager and water director said, “there is no down side” to the agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior, the California Natural Resources Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District because while it does not bind the district to cuts, it guarantees critical federal support if cuts are implemented. The agreement also would release IID from liability for wind-borne pesticides and other toxics contained in exposed lake bed, and loss of habitat for endangered birds and other species. Instead the state of California would absorb that risk. In exchange, IID agreed to guarantee state contractors long-sought access to its lands to construct restoration projects, and to provide up to 100,000 acre-feet from New River supply, not Colorado River supply. Outgoing president Hanks said the agreement guarantees up-front for the first time in decades of cuts that federal and state officials will pay for impacts to the Salton Sea from reduced Colorado River supply. The sea is dependent on runoff from Colorado River water provided to farms along its shores for its continued existence. Since 2003, a series of agreements have diverted large amounts from the farms and the lake to urban areas.

Inflation Reduction Act Funds Landmark Agreements to Accelerate #SaltonSea Restoration — The U.S. Department of Interior #ColoradoRiver #COriver #CRWUA2022

Birds gather at the Salton Sea and important stop on the Pacific Flyway. Photo credit: The Revelator

Click the link to read the release on the DOI website:

The Department of the Interior today announced a historic agreement funded by the Inflation Reduction Act that will mitigate impacts from the worsening drought crisis impacting the Salton Sea in Southern California.

Established by Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and leaders from the California Natural Resources Agency, Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), the agreement will accelerate implementation of dust suppression and aquatic restoration efforts at the Salton Sea in Southern California. The agreement, which is set for consideration by the IID board of directors at its meeting tomorrow, will expedite implementation of the state’s 10-year plan and enable urgent water conservation needed to protect Colorado River reservoir storage volumes amid persistent climate change-driven drought conditions.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems. This landmark agreement represents a key step in our collective efforts to address the challenges the Colorado River Basin is facing due to worsening drought and climate change impacts,” said Deputy Secretary Beaudreau. “Historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act will help to support the Imperial and Coachella Valley and the environment around the Salton Sea, as well as support California’s efforts to voluntarily save 400,000 acre-feet a year to protect critical elevations at Lake Mead.”

The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is receding due to the drought crisis gripping the West and resulting necessary conservation actions in the Imperial Valley that have reduced inflows to the Sea. Exposed lakebed is contributing to harmful dust emissions to the surrounding environment and reducing important environmental habitat for wildlife.

Under the agreement, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation will provide $22 million in new funding through the Inflation Reduction Act in fiscal year 2023 to implement projects at the Sea, support staffing at the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe, and conduct scientific research and management that contributes to project implementation.

Subject to the implementation of voluntary conservation actions proposed by IID and CVWD, Reclamation will also provide an additional $228 million over the next four years to expedite existing projects and bolster staffing capacity at the water agencies to help deliver new projects. This is in support of California’s commitment to voluntarily conserve 400,000 acre-feet annually, starting in 2023. This $250 million investment from the Inflation Reduction Act will complement the $583 million in state funding committed to date.

“This agreement is a huge step forward,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “It builds our momentum delivering projects at the Sea to protect communities and the environment and ensures that California’s leadership conserving Colorado River water supplies doesn’t come at the expense of local residents.”

Under the agreement, the California Natural Resources Agency commits to accelerating project delivery through permit streamlining and use of its full contracting authority. It also commits to continue pursuing additional funding for projects to build on state funding already committed to Salton Sea Management Program implementation.

The Interior Department, IID and CVWD have agreed to establish programmatic land access agreements to enable state agencies to implement projects. In addition, the two water agencies will provide available future water supplies for new projects. This will enable California water agencies to commit to voluntarily reduce their water usage each year beginning in 2023 through 2026 to protect critical elevations in Lake Mead.

The Colorado River provides water to two countries, seven western states, 30 Tribal Nations and 40 million residents. It is currently experiencing the longest and worst drought on record, driven by hotter temperatures under climate change. Efforts continue in California and across the Colorado River Basin to find ways to stabilize water storage volumes in Lakes Powell and Mead. Reclamation and water agencies are working closely to take extraordinary actions to protect the Colorado River System.

Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read “Drying California lake to get $250M in US drought funding” on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:

The future of the Salton Sea, and who is financially responsible for it, has been a key issue in discussions over how to prevent a crisis in the Colorado River. The lake was formed in 1905 when the river overflowed, creating a resort destination that slowly morphed into an environmental disaster as water levels receded, exposing residents to harmful dust and reducing wildlife habitat. The lake is largely fed by runoff from farms in California’s Imperial Valley, who use Colorado River water to grow many of the nation’s winter vegetables as well as feed crops like alfalfa. As the farmers reduce their water use, less flows into the lake. California said it would only reduce its reliance on the over-tapped river if the federal government put up money to mitigate the effects of less water flowing into the sea. The deal announced Monday needs approval from the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of Colorado River water. The water entity’s board will take it up on Tuesday. Both the district’s general manager and board member JB Hamby applauded the deal Monday.

“The collaboration happening at the Salton Sea between water agencies and state, federal, and tribal governments is a blueprint for effective cooperation that the Colorado River Basin sorely needs,” Hamby said in a statement.

The $250 million will come out of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which set aside $4 billion to stave off the worst effects of drought across the U.S. West. Most of the money is contingent on the Imperial Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Water District making good on their commitments to reduce their own use of river water. Both submitted proposals to cut back their usage for payment as part of a new federal program.

The Salton Sea is a major nesting, wintering and stopover site for about 400 bird species (Source: California Department of Water Resources)

Click the link to read “U.S. government pledges $250 million to help ailing Salton Sea” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

This year, federal officials demanded large-scale water cutbacks throughout the Southwest to try to prevent the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to dangerously-low levels. Four major California water districts have proposed to reduce water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year for the next four years, about 9% of the state’s total water allotment.

The Imperial Irrigation District has pledged to take on the largest share of California’s reductions, up to 250,000 acre-feet of water per year.

“From the outset, IID made it clear that taking action to protect the Colorado River system would have significant impacts on the Salton Sea, and that IID’s participation was conditioned on real efforts and dollars to protect public health and wildlife around the sea,” Hamby said.

He said the federal government’s new commitment “makes it much easier and simpler for us to make large contributions toward the Colorado River system.”

The infusion of federal money is the central feature of an agreement among the federal government, the Imperial Irrigation District, the California Natural Resources Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District. The Interior Department announced the plan on Monday, and the Imperial Irrigation District’s board narrowly endorsed the agreement in a 3-2 vote at a meeting Tuesday. The debate was contentious, with some farmers, community advocates and local officials saying they didn’t think the agreement was a good deal for the Imperial Valley, or that the community should have more time to weigh in.

Luis Olmedo, executive director of the nonprofit group Comite Civico del Valle, said his organization opposed what he called a “hastily announced, half-baked deal.” He said in a statement, which a colleague read at the meeting in El Centro, that the board was deciding with little public scrutiny.

Saving the #RioGrande Cutthroat Trout: Beavers show the way — @AlmosaCitizen

Construction of Beaver Dam analogue Photo courtesy of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Owen Woods):


THE Rio Grande cutthroat trout is the Rio Grande National Forest’s only native trout. It needs help. Biologists from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Rio Grande National Forest are trying to bring the cutthroat back to its full glory, but they need help, too. So who do the humans look to for help?

Easy answer: Beavers. 

Jason Remshardt, wildlife and fisheries program manager for the Rio Grande National Forest, recently gave a presentation on the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. He is the only fish biologist in the RGNF. He talked about the effort to create and conserve habitat for the cutthroat, and how the answer might just come from nature’s finest engineers. 

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout used to exist in just about every part of the Rio Grande basin, but due to a wide range of circumstances, these fish only occupy a fraction of the area they used to. Part of conservation and successful reintroduction is habitat restoration. Right now, the experts are looking at nature’s experts. These projects are imitating “what the beaver dams are doing,” said Remshardt. 

These “Beaver Dam Analogues” or “Temporary Wood Grade Structures,” or TWGS, (pronounced like twigs), are designed to help back up water and create a lively wetland habitat that encourages healthy biodiversity not just for the cutthroat, but the entire ecosystem. 

“Beaver Dam Analogues” or “Temporary Wood Grade Structures,” or TWGS, (pronounced like twigs), are designed to help back up water and create a lively wetland habitat that encourages healthy biodiversity not just for the cutthroat, but the entire ecosystem. They are being employed in what’s called “Process-Based Restoration.” These man-made structures are relatively easy and straightforward to make. They are built with natural resources such as wooden posts, willow branches, aspen branches, and rocks. Though they are simple to create, Remshardt said “we’re not as good at building them” as the beavers. Photo courtesy Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project

“It’s a technique that’s become increasingly popular across the western U.S. within the last few years,” said Connor Born, project manager for the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. 

The man-made structures can help to create a more complex habitat that encourages a healthier fish population. Born says that this can mean “deeper pools that serve as low-flow refuge and slower moving water for younger fish. The structures can also benefit surrounding vegetation, provide fire breaks, increase stream shading, and grazing forage.” 

Cutthroat trout populations often live in smaller streams that don’t have much water. According to Born, “The structures can help attenuate water in these smaller streams to provide more consistent flow and temperature during periods of drought.”

Cat Creek near La Jara Reservoir once had populations of the cutthroat and beavers. For unclear reasons, the beavers left that area. Their departure, Born says, “paired with prolonged drought conditions, caused flows to become much more intermittent, eventually leading to the suspected die-off” of the cutthroat trout population there. 

So far, the groups undertaking this project have implemented 10 of these structures in the Rio Grande National Forest. Remshardt noted that “if they last for a few years, that’s great. If the beavers take them over, that’s great. If they disappear, then you haven’t lost that much. You’ve just lost like half a day’s work.” 

According to Born, the first 10 structures are in the headwaters of Saguache Creek in Saguache Park. There are 12 more ready for construction in the coming year that will be built along Big Springs Creek, a cutthroat stream near Saguache.

Born said that the restoration structures can function without beavers, but the organizations are hoping to find places where the two can combine forces. 

Beavers in the national forest are alive and thriving. Remshardt says that the RGNF is happy with current populations, but there is room for expansion and improvement. With that, the benefits of beaver dams create healthy, expansive wetlands. Beaver dams and habitats also make great fire breaks

These animals, however, are considered a nuisance species to certain areas of the Valley. Beavers can be troublesome to infrastructure like irrigation canals and roads. 

“There’s this stark contrast of existing as a pest species on the Valley floor while being highly beneficial up in the headwaters. The logical solution,” Born said, “is an efficient, legal, and humane way to translocate them to areas where their engineering is more appreciated and doesn’t impact infrastructure.”

Relocating the beavers pairs well with the restoration efforts. Born said that the structures may encourage beavers to stay in areas that “have habitat that would otherwise be too degraded.”

Remshardt says there’s plenty of space to relocate any problematic, or displaced wood-chopping rodents. 

“We’re ready to take them and we have places all over the forest to take them. Plenty of places we can put them,” Remshardt said. 

Identifying where beavers are and where beavers aren’t is a part of the job that requires a lot of work from a lot of people. Software like iNaturalist allows anyone to report animal sightings and tracks to help in identification. These reports can help biologists like Remshardt identify populations and locations to help further studies and surveys. 

Helping the beavers help us really boils down to, Remshardt said, the fact that “beavers are the best at doing their own work.”

Photo courtesy of Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project

Surveys and History

The largest effort for studying these fish are surveys. Remshardt said they conduct surveys on every population of RGCT about every five years. These surveys cover at least 40 streams in the national forest and take a large number of people to conduct. The surveys gather the number of fish and their sizes, take genetic samples, and conduct health surveys. 

Most of the streams and lakes are easy to access, but the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout lives in the alpine, too. Remshardt said almost every drainage and lake in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range has cutthroat populations. So, in order to keep these high mountain lakes stocked and healthy, they conduct High Mountain Lake Airplane Stocking. A video from CPW shows just how these operations are done. 

Conservation of the cutthroat, Remshardt said, remains the most intensive and expensive project. Ongoing research for more cutthroat introductions to expand them into their historic ranges is an ongoing and expansive effort. Currently, an effort to successfully reintroduce the cutthroat to the Sand Creek drainages at the Great Sand Dunes National Park is taking place. The project first started in 2005. 

The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago. Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

blog post by Trout Unlimited’s Rio Grande Basin project manager Kevin Terry breaks down the history of this project. You can also read the USGS’s in-depth report on this effort here.

CPW estimates that the RGCT occupies just 12 percent of its native habitat. Biologists estimate that 127 “conservation populations” exist in Colorado and New Mexico. The cutthroats’ range has seen a dramatic decrease over the last 150 years. Some of the factors that have led to this decline are habitat changes, climate change, drought, water quality, hybridization with non-native Rainbow Trout and other cutthroat trout species, as well as aggressive competition from Brown and Brook trout. 

Evidence suggests that the cutthroat trout thrived in healthy populations in Lake Alamosa, a lake that existed for over three million years. 

The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, US Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited “are hoping to identify both at-risk RGCT populations and future locations for reintroduction and enhance the habitat using these restoration techniques,” Born said.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

The Karuk’s Innate Relationship with Fire: Adapting to #ClimateChange on the #KlamathRiver — NOAA

Controlled burn in the Klamath River watershed. A 2011 controlled burn in a tan oak gathering area creates defensible space below a nearby home while increasing the quality of the acorns by interrupting the life cycle of the acorn weevil. Image: Mid Klamath Watershed Council.

Click the link to read the article on the NOAA webiste:

Members of the Karuk Tribe in northern California maintain that the age-old tradition of prescribed burning holds the answer to climate adaptation planning in the Klamath River range.

Fire is foundational to the Karuk Tribe, who live and manage 1.048 million acres of their aboriginal lands along the Klamath and Salmon Rivers in northern California. By removing accumlated fuels, fire makes room for new growth and change. This renewal helps ensure the quality of traditional foods and cultural materials and serves as a medium of cultural education. Ceremonies surrounding fire strengthen the Tribe’s social networks and enhance its members’ physical and mental health.

The Tribe’s proactive cultural use of fire also protects the Klamath River basin by reducing the availability of forest fuels—and thus reducing the risk of high-severity wildfire that can threaten people, their homes and businesses, and natural systems such as forests and wetlands near rivers and streams.

Wildland systems in the Klamath River range have evolved alongside Karuk management practices for thousands of years. Tribal families continue to use traditional forest management techniques—including low-intensity prescribed burns—to cultivate the forest to become a more productive resource for food and cultural materials and to reduce the availability of forest fuels. Tribal programs support and expand upon their work.

The map shows the Karuk Tribe aboriginal land base in northern California. Credit: NOAA

Traditional Karuk fire use

“Fire is a cultural resource.”—Leaf Hillman, Karuk Director of Natural Resources

Beargrass—or panyúrar in Karuk—is an important species for basket weavers and regalia makers. The blades that grow the first year after a fire are considered best for basket weaving. Panyúrar can be stimulated by fire, and is fire-adapted in that it can sprout from rhizomes following fire or re-establish by seed. At the same time, panyúrar can be damaged by fires that burn too hot. Photo credit: NOAA

Indigenous burning is increasingly recognized as a component of the ecosystem and a restoration technique. Fire is important for restoring grasslands for elk, managing for food sources such as tan and black oak acorns, maintaining quality basketry materials, and producing smoke that can shade the river for fish. Karuk fire regimes generate what is known as “pyrodiversity”—the biodiversity consequences of fire management—on the landscape by extending the burning season and shortening the intervals of fire return.

The multitude of foods, materials, and other products that come from Karuk lands are evidence of the profound diversity of fire regimes that are required to maintain relationships with hundreds of animal, plant, and mushroom species.

Tanoak acorns (xuntápan) are a staple Native food for many indigenous people and are also vital for numerous wildlife species. Additionally, the roots of tanoak trees support the growth of another important food, tanoak mushrooms. Tanoak (xunyêep) is very susceptible to high-intensity fire, but benefits from cultural burning that decreases tree and acorn pests and reduces competitive vegetation. Photo credit: NOAA

Since European contact, non-native use and management of the region has severely impacted the Karuk people’s access to cultural, ceremonial, and food resources. The region’s changing climate has exacerbated these effects, and the Karuk are now experiencing a decline in the abundance of key species, including salmon, acorns, huckleberries, hazel, and willow. Natural disasters and hazards ranging from increasing frequency of high-severity wildfire to flooding and mudslides are on the rise—generating a range of negative human health outcomes for the Karuk people.

Revitalizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In order to adapt to these and other ongoing challenges, the Karuk people are working to revitalize the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) inextricably tied to their ability to physically apply resource management practices. Fire has been a primary tool in Karuk wildland management systems, and the Tribe maintains that the age-old tradition of prescribed burning holds the answer to climate adaptation planning in the Klamath River range.

The Tribe has researched and published two reports concerning social and environmental climate changes and the long-term effects the Karuk people are facing with regard to knowledge sovereignty and the vulnerability of their TEK, supported by the 2015 Tribal Cooperative Landscape Conservation Program administered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Climate Resilience Program.

One report—Karuk Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Need for Knowledge Sovereignty—emphasizes two key concepts:

  • First, that TEK is not an isolated application, but a living system that requires ongoing practice in the landscape for survival. Preserving knowledge sovereignty is fundamentally about Karuk cultural management because this knowledge is embedded in, and emerges from, the practices of traditional management.
  • Second, it is impossible—as well as unethical—to attempt to remove TEK from its original context. Efforts to extract knowledge are a form of cultural appropriation that erodes the very foundations of tribal life. Knowledge and management techniques are at the core of tribal identity, culture, spiritual practice, and subsistence economies. Karuk people need fire in order to restore the land, strengthen cultural relationships, revitalize ceremonial education, and protect all who inhabit the Klamath River region from the adverse effects of high-severity wildfire.
Traditional Karuk acorn basket. Photo credit: NOAA

A follow-up report, entitled Retaining Knowledge Sovereignty, stresses the federal obligation to maintain Karuk knowledge sovereignty due to the likelihood of cultural appropriation and misuse of Karuk TEK. For example, the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency, makes decisions about prescribed burning within the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests. The report provides strategies to promote traditional knowledge sovereignty, including reference to the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives. Tribal leaders believe that it is possible to create a meaningful collaboration with the Forest Service, the Klamath National Forest, and the Six Rivers National Forest that upholds and strengthens tribal sovereignty and recognizes the legitimacy of the Karuk’s practical ability to carry out traditional management to restore the Klamath to a safe and productive state of health.

Climate Vulnerability Assessment

In addition to the reports mentioned above, the Tribe has also undertaken and published the Karuk Climate Vulnerability Assessment (CVA), which addresses vulnerabilities to Karuk traditional foods and cultural use species, tribal program infrastructure, and management authority and political status that result from the increasing frequency of high-severity fire. The CVA makes the case that Karuk tribal knowledge and management principles regarding the use of fire can be utilized to reduce the likelihood of high-severity fires and thereby protect public, as well as tribal, trust resources.

References: 

Story Credit: 

Aja Conrad, Miakah Nix, and Kathy Lynn, Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project/University of Oregon Environmental Studies Program

Banner Image Credit: 

A 2011 controlled burn in a tan oak gathering area creates defensible space below a nearby home while increasing the quality of the acorns by interrupting the life cycle of the acorn weevil. Image: Mid Klamath Watershed Council. Used with permission

New report, Nature-Based Solutions, published for the National #Climate Task Force — NOAA #ActOnClimate

Cover of the NBS report, released at COP27. Credit: White House

Click the link to read the article on the NOAA website (Genie Bey):

At COP27 in Egypt, the Biden-Harris Administration released the Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, an outline of strategic recommendations to put America on a path that will unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions to address climate change, nature loss, and inequity. This marks the first time the U.S. has developed a strategy to scale up nature-based solutions. The report was developed in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14072, which recognizes the importance of forests and other nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen communities and local economies. Led by the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Climate Advisor, the report was developed in consultation with numerous agencies, and identifies key opportunities for greater deployment of nature-based solutions across the Federal government. 

The Roadmap calls on expanding the use of nature-based solutions and outlines five strategic areas of focus for the federal government: (1) updating policies, (2) unlocking funding, (3) leading with federal facilities and assets, (4) training the nature-based solutions workforce, and (5) prioritizing research, innovation, knowledge, and adaptive learning that will advance nature-based solutions. Genie Bey, Zac Cannizzo, Chelsea Combest-Friedman, Bhaskar Submaranian, and Lisa Vaughan represented NOAA’s Climate Program Office as contributors to this report and the accompanying resource guide.

Access the White House Fact Sheet here » 

Access the NBS Roadmap Report here »

Access the NBS Resource Guide here »

Read more about nature-based solutions at COP27 here »

For more information, contact Genie Bey.

Crop residue November 4, 2021. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

Five key lessons as world’s biggest dam removal project will soon begin on the Klamath River: After more than 100 years of being dammed, the lower #KlamathRiver will flow free once again — American Rivers

Click the link to read the release on the American Rivers website (Brian Graber):

To be able to make that statement, it has taken decades of advocacy by Tribes who depend on a living Klamath River for their cultural identity and for their food security. It has also taken years of effort by the Tribes, the states of California and Oregon, the dams’ owner, federal agencies, and several nonprofits, including American Rivers, to navigate the lengthy planning, fundraising, regulatory and project design processes. But finally on November 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the hydropower License Surrender to remove four dams from the Klamath River. The License Surrender follows from earlier this year, when FERC issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement recommending that the dams be removed due to their cultural and environmental impacts. There are more steps that need to be taken, including additional regulatory steps, before deconstruction can begin in 2023, but a project that has been decades of struggle and seemed to be falling apart as recently as two years ago, now feels inevitable.

The Klamath River basin is home to the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and other Tribes. Salmon are both a food source and a focal point for their cultural identity. The Klamath was once a highly productive salmon river with one million fish returning to the river each year. Largely because of the four dams, there are no longer enough fish for the Tribes to have Klamath salmon as a primary food source.

In 1918, the Copco 1 Dam was completed, cutting Klamath salmon off from the upper part of the basin. Over the next 44 years, three more dams were built (Iron Gate, Copco 2, and J.C. Boyle dams) on the river in California and Oregon, effectively closing off 400 miles of habitat to salmon and steelhead, ultimately resulting in dramatic fish population declines.

Perhaps even more devastating to life in the river, the dams’ reservoirs became breeding grounds for cyanobacteria. It is a substance that looks like a blue-green algae and is toxic to aquatic life, to humans, to livestock, and to pets. The Karuk tribe measured a Klamath toxicity content that exceeded World Health Organization guidelines by almost 4,000 times. There are warning signs near the water. When you look at the reservoirs, they look wrong, a color that makes you instantly cringe when you see it. The phosphorescent film also traps heat and depletes the oxygen content in the water. As a result, 90% of the small number of salmon that return to the river become seriously ill. Between habitat fragmentation and terrible water quality, the fish do not stand much of a chance with the dams in place.

Removing the dams will end these problems. The fish will be able to return to habitat they have not seen for a century. Cyanobacteria will be no longer be a problem – it does not persist in flowing water. The beautiful Klamath River will be better able to sustain life.

Now that the Klamath project is closer to the end than it is to the beginning, I wanted to share a few reflections on things I have learned through the project and how the project resonates nationally:

1. We need to do better for tribes and justice and food sovereignty.

The Klamath story is one that is too common for Indigenous people. While the outcome on the Klamath will be positive, the path to get there has been a struggle. In 1864, the Klamath Tribes negotiated a treaty with the United States that affirmed their sovereignty and included rights to fish for salmon. It was signed and ratified by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Over the next century, U.S. companies built dams on the Klamath River that wiped out two species of salmon and brought the populations of the remaining salmon to 5% of what they were. The tribes had the right to fish, but the fish were nearly gone. In 2000, when the dam owner, PacifiCorp, did not include provisions for fish passage in their initial bid to relicense the dams, tribal members went all the way to Scotland to protest to PacifiCorp’s parent company. Later, when Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired PacifiCorp, tribal members went to Nebraska multiple times to protest at the company’s annual meetings. A real turning point in the project happened in 2020 when Berkshire Hathaway executives accepted the tribes’ offer to visit the dams and meet with tribal members on the river. The tribes’ advocacy made these dam removals possible, but it should not have taken this much for the tribes to retain a cultural focus that they have had since time immemorial – that the Klamath River is free to sustain life.

2. Dam removal makes economic sense.

In ultimately deciding to decommission the dams, PacifiCorp made a sound economic decision.An early draft FERC report estimated that the dams would lose $20 million per year including expenses to operate the dams and expenses to address the dams’ water quality impacts. The California and Oregon Public Utility Commissions confirmed this, determining that dam removal would result in cheaper energy costs for their ratepayers than relicensing the dams, so much so that ratepayers are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the dams. Paying to eliminate underperforming infrastructure is a sound fiscal decision. What’s more, the power from the dams can be replaced with clean renewables and efficiency, without contributing to climate change.

3. We need to make it easier to decommission hydropower dams.

PacifiCorp originally agreed in principle to remove the dams in 2010 as part of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA). In 2016 the KHSA was amended with a more defined plan to transfer the dams for removal to a new nonprofit entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC). But then, in 2020, FERC denied the initial license transfer from PacifiCorp to the KRRC. The states of Oregon and California stepped in and agreed to become co-licensees, an unprecedented step that rescued the project. With the new license transfer structure in place, FERC was able to issue the Final License Surrender Order. It took 12 years after PacifiCorp agreed to remove the dams in principle, and 22 years after they first started the relicensing process, to finally determine the fate of the hydropower license and the dams. As is usually the case with dam removals, the dams will come down faster than the process to get to removal. American Rivers will continue to advocate for improvements in the processes that allow dam owners who consent to removal to remove their dams.

4. The States of California and Oregon continue to prioritize river restoration.

Through various programs, both California and Oregon provide millions of dollars each year for river and wetland restoration projects. Along with rescuing the Klamath project during the license transfer process, both states have supported the Klamath Dam removals from the beginning. Their restoration ethic should serve as models for states throughout the country.

5. The approach to develop a new nonprofit to implement a complex project has worked (again).

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation was modeled after the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a similar structure developed to remove hydropower dams in Maine. In both cases, very complex projects were well managed by skilled staff hired for the purpose. The staff at the KRRC and their consultants (Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) and Kiewit Infrastructure West) are making the nuts and bolts of the Klamath project possible. There is no better example of that than the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by FERC. It includes hundreds of pages of challenging issues, from cultural resources to sediment management to engineering design to public safety issues, that all need to be managed in a complex project like this. Every one of them has a clear statement of how they will be managed, demonstrating the level of thought and analysis and engineering that the KRRC has put into the project. I have seen reports on similar projects stating the impossibility of managing this much complexity. KRRC is making it all possible and clarifying that while there are many issues , they can all be reasonably managed.

This effort on the Klamath River will make history: never before have four dams of this magnitude been removed at once. The Klamath dams are large structures, ranging in height from 33 feet to 172 feet. Every successfully completed project makes the next project easier. I hope that the Klamath projects will serve as models to complete more large-scale river restoration projects throughout the country.

The Klamath dam removals will begin in 2023 and will be completed in 2024.

Klamath River Basin. Map credit: American Rivers

New methodology helps predict soil recovery after wildfires — #Colorado School of Mines

Wildfire research team from Colorado School of Mines. Photo credit: Colorado School of mines

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado School of Mines website (Joanna Urban):

Soils influence water quality, and they are critical to plant growth. However, it has been difficult to predict how plant growth and water quality would change in the wake of wildfires. Now, a team of Colorado investigators has devised new methodology to enable such predictions. The research is published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

“To make practical predictions about recovery, we had to use a modern artificial intelligence tool called statistical learning,” said John Spear, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado School of Mines. “When we fed data about the microbes and nutrients into this model, we were able to predict how soil is changed by fire far more accurately.”

Spear emphasized that combining information on the types and quantities of both microbes and nutrients increased accuracy. Another intriguing discovery was that including microbiota that are uncommon in soil—those that constituted less than 1 percent of the microbiome—was critical to the predictions’ accuracy.

“This apparent contradiction is a fascinating outcome of our study and runs contrary to the common wisdom that if we measure 99 percent of what’s living in soil, we’ll have a great sense of how that soil will behave,” said first author Alexander S. Honeyman, who defended his PhD at Mines earlier this month.

The investigators were also able to predict water quality by analyzing the microbiome for species that affect both soil regeneration and downstream waters, said Spear, who added that the methodology may lead to a better understanding of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem recovery post-wildfire.

In the study, “We went out to two active wildfires in Colorado in 2018 and 2019, and collected soil shortly after the smoldering stopped,” said Spear. “This was as simple as shoveling soil into a bucket. We returned to the same sites for three summers [2018, 2019, and 2020], collecting more samples, and followed up as the landscape recovered from the black of burn to the green of new growth.”

Back in the lab, the investigators measured soil carbon, nitrogen and other important molecules. They also took the census of the microbiome—the species present, and the quantities of each in the soils.

“The trick,” said Spear, “was to do this over and over in a thorough fashion for three years, generating a dataset of more than 500 soil samples. Then, we wanted to see if the pattern of recovery of soil after fire could be predicted from this unique dataset, using statistical learning.”

The methodology worked, despite the fact that the dataset is quite diverse—representing different severities of wildfire and various soil types and seasons. “That’s good news for our approach, because [the methodology]