#ColoradoRiver: Grand County rancher uses 2013 law to leave water in Willow Creek without penalty — Hannah Holm #COriver

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

A Grand County rancher has become the first person in Colorado to use a 2013 state law to intentionally leave water in a stream without fear of diminishing his water right. Working with the Colorado Water Trust , Witt Caruthers developed a plan to curtail diversions from Willow Creek when its flows drop to critical levels.

The additional flows will benefit half a mile of Willow Creek and then four and a half miles of the upper Colorado River before encountering the next downstream diversion, where another water user could potentially take the water. This stretch of the Colorado River has been heavily impacted for decades by upstream diversions across the Continental Divide to Front Range cities and farms.

The 2013 law, Senate Bill 13-019, allows some Western Slope water right holders to reduce their water use in up to five out of any consecutive ten years without having the use reductions count against them in water court calculations of “historic consumptive use.” This reduces the “use it or lose it” disincentive for conservation in Colorado water law.

The law applies only to water users in Colorado Division of Water Resources Divisions 4 (Gunnison River Basin), 5 (Colorado River Basin) and 6 (Yampa, White and North Platte River Basins). In order to qualify for the law’s protections, the water use reductions must be the result of enrolling land in a federal land conservation program or participating in an officially-sanctioned water conservation or banking program.

Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, which approved Caruthers’s conservation program, told the Sky Hi Daily News that “we’re glad to be in the vanguard and helping the agricultural community protect their water rights when they want to lend the water rights to environmental purposes.” The same article quotes Caruthers as saying that he and his partners sought to “one, preserve our water rights but also to contribute to the overall maintenance of the ecosystem there by leaving water in the stream when it wasn’t needed.”

The Colorado Water Trust has also pioneered the use of other voluntary and market-based tools for landowners to share water with streams without diminishing their water rights. These include a 2003 law that created a streamlined process for water users to make short-term leases of water to the state for environmental purposes. The Trust first used this tool in 2012 by brokering a deal to support flows in the Yampa River. It has since been used in several other places.

Support and funding for such innovative water conservation efforts is rising as Colorado and the other states and cities that share the Colorado River are seeking ways to prop up water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead in the face of long-term drought.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

Willow Creek via the USGS
Willow Creek via the USGS

Cheers, boos for Jewell’s sage grouse decision — WyoFile

Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council
Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council

From WyoFile (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Speaking at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado, Jewell hailed “the largest, most complex land conservation [effort] ever in the history of the United States of America, perhaps the world.” State, private and federal conservation plans ensure the imperiled bird’s survival, she said…

Love-fest at Colorado announcement
The love-fest announcement in Colorado included Gov. Matt Mead and three other western governors, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe and other officials. The decision that the greater sage grouse is no longer a candidate species for ESA protection drew criticism, too.

Federal and state plans “failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. Those failures include no protection of winter habitat and no plan to address climate change.

Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said the grouse faces threats from industrial development and livestock grazing. “And now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” he said in a statement. “Today Secretary Jewell declared victory before the battle is actually won. What came out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species.”[…]

Another critical group, Western Watersheds Project, said Jewell “seemed determined to put a happy face on the future of the American West.” She did not make hard decisions to limit energy development, prohibit transmission lines and block spring cattle grazing, said Travis Bruner, executive director. “There is no ‘win’ here for sage-grouse,” he said in a statement. “There is only a slightly slower trajectory towards extinction.”

In Commerce City, however, officials detailed myriad changes since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 determined regulations were insufficient to save the bird.

“We went to work with a lot of partners,” Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said. “The result is a remarkable turn of events.” Threats from oil and gas development are “remarkably reduced.” Most important and vulnerable habitat is not at risk from agricultural conversion…

In Sublette County, crossroads of gas development and sage grouse habitat, rancher and state Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) touted grassroots work. “It is comforting,” he said. “It’s welcome news, that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that local efforts … by ranchers, by conservationists, efforts by states, matter. They recognize there’s a way to get things done without bringing the total hammer of ESA down.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen will go back to work, doing what he’s done for years. “It’s basically a waypoint on a long journey that will never end,” he said. “It’s gratifying to hear,” he said of the announcement, “and we can take a deep breath. But we can’t stop what we’re doing in keeping moving forward.”

From the Colorado Independent (Kyle Harris):

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced today that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Once upon a time, this bird “darkened the skies,” she says in the video above. But no longer, of course. Now, the sage brush landscape where these creatures dwell is used for a thriving Western economy: ranching, recreation and energy.

When she says the word “energy,” the video cuts to windmills – notably, not fracking wells that speckle the West, spewing out flames and sometimes making tap water explode.

“This vast landscape is suffering death by a thousand cuts,” Jewell says with Shakespearean flourish. “Longer, hotter fire seasons have eliminated millions of acres. Invasive species are pushing out native vegetation. And development is fragmenting the land. By many measures, the sage grouse serves as the pulse of this imperiled ecosystem.”

The bird’s population has plummeted by 90 percent, sparking the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history. And as Jewell tells it, an unlikely cohort of ranchers, sportsmen, environmentalists and industry came together to protect the grouse — giving the bird a “bright future.”

“With climate change and an expanding population, the stresses on our land, water and wildlife aren’t going away.”

But Jewell remains optimistic. “We have shown that epic collaboration across a landscape guided by sound science is truly the future of American conservation.”

In other words, the private sector will save us – or at least these poor, besmirched birds.

The response to the announcement has been largely positive.

Celebrating the political forsight and leadership of President Barack Obama, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Jewell, Conservation Colorado’s Executive Director Pete Maysmith touted the sage-grouse plan in a release: “The scope and scale of this unprecedented effort is astounding. It highlights that through collaboration, diverse interests can achieve unbelievable results – focusing on a shared goal and not our perceived differences.”
Colorado’s U.S. senators took the news with glee.

In a statement, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet wrote:

“Today’s announcement is a testament to the tireless work of our local communities, along with the state, to enhance conservation efforts. Colorado farmers, ranchers, local governments, conservationists, and community members have worked for years to find innovative ways to protect sage grouse habitat. This decision ends the uncertainty hanging over the heads of families, farms, and businesses on the western slope. It’s also another reminder that Coloradans can work together to develop commonsense solutions to difficult problems that can serve as a model for the nation. Now it’s important that the collaboration and hard work continue to effectively and successfully implement the state, federal and voluntary plans in a way that works for everyone.”

“Today’s announcement is a testament to the tireless work of our local communities, along with the state, to enhance conservation efforts. Colorado farmers, ranchers, local governments, conservationists, and community members have worked for years to find innovative ways to protect sage grouse habitat. This decision ends the uncertainty hanging over the heads of families, farms, and businesses on the western slope. It’s also another reminder that Coloradans can work together to develop commonsense solutions to difficult problems that can serve as a model for the nation. Now it’s important that the collaboration and hard work continue to effectively and successfully implement the state, federal and voluntary plans in a way that works for everyone.”

“Keeping the greater sage-grouse from being listed as an endangered species has always been my goal, and I’m glad Secretary Jewell arrived at the same conclusion. Greater sage-grouse populations are increasing, and I commend the collaborative efforts from stakeholders to keep this bird from being listed. While land use management is best handled by local groups, landowners and state leaders, I will be closely monitoring the implementation of the federal land-use management plans on our public lands in Northwest Colorado and across the West.”

Despite this bipartisan love fest, Jeremy Nichols of Wildearth Guardians took to Twitter to condemn the decision, arguing that it would keep the feds from limiting the oil and gas industry.

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

The greater sage grouse will not be added to the endangered species list because the bird’s habitat in Nevada and 10 other western states is already being protected by “the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.”

So said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in an announcement Tuesday that was immediately cheered by some who feared red tape and economic damage from an endangered species listing for such a wide-ranging bird.

Jewell said additional federal protection is unnecessary thanks to all the work done so far: dozens of public-private partnerships among federal and state regulators, ranchers, energy developers and conservationists aimed at preserving the chicken-sized bird’s sagebrush home.

“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has determined that these collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse,” Jewell said in a video posted to YouTube.

Two hours later, she formally announced the final listing decision for the sage grouse at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just outside Denver, where she was joined by a host of federal and state officials including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and the governors of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

Sandoval said he is “cautiously optimistic that this is good news for Nevada,” but a lot more work lies ahead.

“I appreciate Secretary Jewell’s commitment to continue working with us, and I take her at her word that we will collaborate in good faith during the next two years so that we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the Nevada plan provides the best conservation for sage-grouse in Nevada,” Sandoval said in a written statement. “We will closely monitor the implementation of this decision so that every option remains available to our state.”

The greater sage grouse is native to 11 western states and Canada, but its population has declined over the past century from about 16 million to fewer than 500,000 by some estimates.

The ground-dwelling bird measures up to 30 inches long and two feet tall and weighs two to seven pounds. In the spring, the males puff themselves up and perform elaborate mating dances that attract hens and human tourists.

Experts say the bird is now threatened with extinction because its fragile, slow-healing sagebrush habitat has been splintered by wildfires, invasive plants and human development. In Nevada alone, wildfires have burned through more than 800,000 acres of sagebrush since 2000.

Jewell called it “death by a thousand cuts.”

Sage grouse are found across the northern half of Nevada, with large expanses of prime habitat in the northeastern and northwestern corners of the state. Several hundred of the birds are killed in Nevada each year in state-regulated hunts that have gone on for decades…

But not everyone is celebrating.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said the federal mitigation plans drawn up to avoid listing the sage grouse are just as damaging to Nevada and the West.

“This has been an issue of the Department of the Interior using the threat of a listing to get what it really wanted all along: limiting Nevadans’ access to millions of acres of land equal to the size of the state of West Virginia,” Heller said in a written statement. “At the end of the day, Big Government continues to tighten its grip at the expense of rural America’s future, especially in Nevada.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called Tuesday’s announcement “a cynical ploy” to distract the public from federal regulation every bit as restrictive as listing would have been.

“The new command and control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama Administration,” Bishop said in a written statement.

Technically, there are almost 100 separate plans.

The Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management gave final approval Tuesday to 98 land-use plans developed by federal, state and local stakeholders over the past five years to protect sagebrush habitat on public land in 11 states.

According to agency officials, those plans are generally designed to minimize new surface disturbances in core sage grouse areas, improve and expand existing habitat and reduce the threat of wildfires, all while respecting valid rights and rights-of-way.

But some new development will be restricted because of the bird. The Department of Interior just announced plans to temporarily prohibit new mines on about 10 million acres of federal land considered sage grouse strongholds in Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

The ban on new mining development is expected to last for up to two years while federal regulators determine whether the land should be permanently withdrawn from mineral exploration to protect sage grouse. That analysis will include input from the public.

For now, the decision not to list the bird is largely drawing praise — though some of it guarded — from ranchers, hunting organizations, energy developers and conservation groups.

Eric Holst, associate vice president of working lands for the Environmental Defense Fund, called it “one of the biggest listing decisions of our time” and proof that “wildlife conservation does not have to come at the expense of the economy.”

#SageGrouse: Historic Conservation Campaign Protects Greater Sage-Grouse

Here’s the release from Secretary Jewell:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines federal land management plans and partnerships with states, ranchers, and NGOs avert ESA listing by conserving America’s “Sagebrush Sea”

An unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort across the western United States has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat and enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to conclude that the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This collaborative, science-based greater sage-grouse strategy is the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.

Secretary Jewell made the announcement earlier today on Twitter with a video that explains why the sage grouse decision is historic and sets the groundwork for a 21st-century approach to conservation.

The FWS reached this determination after evaluating the bird’s population status, along with the collective efforts by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range. After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS has determined the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.

“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today. The epic conservation effort will benefit westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”

Jewell made the announcement at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge today alongside Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie, FWS Director Dan Ashe, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller, and U.S. Geological Survey Acting Director Suzette Kimball.

“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”

The FWS’s September 30, 2015 deadline to review the status of the species spurred numerous federal agencies, the 11 states in the range, and dozens of public and private partners to undertake an extraordinary campaign to protect, restore and enhance important sage-grouse habitat to preclude the need to list the species. This effort featured: new management direction for BLM and Forest Service land use plans that place greater emphasis on conserving sage-grouse habitat; development of state sage-grouse management plans; voluntary, multi-partner private lands effort to protect millions of acres of habitat on ranches and rangelands across the West; unprecedented collaboration with federal, state and private sector scientists; and a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fires.

“We’ve written an important chapter in sage-grouse conservation, but the story is far from over,” said Director Ashe. “By building on the partnerships we’ve forged and continuing conservation efforts under the federal and state plans, we will reap dividends for sage-grouse, big game and other wildlife while protecting a way of life in the West. That commitment will ensure that our children and grandchildren will inherit the many benefits that this rich but imperiled landscape has to offer.”

The BLM and USFS today announced that they have issued Records of Decisions finalizing the 98 land use plans that will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands in 10 states across the West. The land use plans were developed during over a multi-year process in partnership with the states and local partners, guided by the best available science and technical advice from the FWS. The BLM and USFS also initiated today the public comment process associated with their proposal to withdraw a subset of lands that are sage-grouse strongholds from future mining claims. More information on the plans is available here . More information on the proposed mineral withdrawal is available here.

The future of the sage-grouse depends on the successful implementation of the federal and state management plans and the actions of private landowners, as well as a continuing focus on reducing invasive grasses and controlling rangeland fire. The FWS has committed to monitoring all of the continuing efforts and population trends, as well as to reevaluating the status of the species in five years.

The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species, emblematic of the health of sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife, including world-class populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and golden eagles. In 2010, the Service determined that the greater sage-grouse warranted ESA protection because of population declines caused by loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat, coupled with a lack of regulatory mechanisms to control habitat loss. However, the need to address higher-priority listing actions precluded the Service from taking action to list the bird. Since that time, actions from state, federal and private partners have added needed protections, increasing certainty that this important habitat will be protected.

Roughly half of the sage-grouse’s habitat is on federal lands, most of it managed by the BLM and USFS. These tend to be drier uplands where the birds mate, nest and spend fall and winter. While the federal plans differ in specifics to reflect local landscapes, threats and conservation approaches, their overall goal is to prevent further degradation of the best remaining sage-grouse habitat, minimize disturbance where possible and mitigate unavoidable impacts by protecting and improving similar habitat.

About 45 percent of the grouse’s habitat is on state and private lands, which often include the wetter meadows and riparian habitat that are essential for young chicks. Efforts by private landowners in undertaking voluntary sage-grouse conservation have been an important element in the campaign. While private lands programs differ, each works with ranchers, landowners and other partners on long-term agreements to undertake proactive conservation measures that benefit sage-grouse.

Through the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, more than 1,100 ranchers have restored or conserved approximately 4.4 million acres of key habitat. Through the recently-announced SGI 2.0 strategy, USDA expects voluntary, private land conservation efforts to reach 8 million acres by 2018. On private and federal lands, the FWS and BLM have received commitments on 5.5 million acres through Candidate Conservation Agreements. Many of these projects also improve grazing and water supplies for ranchers, benefitting cattle herds and the long-term future of ranching in the West.

States in the sage-grouse’s range have been engaged in this collaborative process. For example, Wyoming has been implementing its “core area” strategy for more than five years. Montana has committed to implement a similar plan that would set standards for managing private and state lands to meet sage-grouse conservation goals. Similarly, Oregon has adopted an “all lands” strategy for greater sage-grouse conservation. Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho have also developed strategies to improve state and private land management to benefit the sage-grouse.

Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West. Early European settlers reported seeing millions of birds take to the skies. But the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual, has lost almost half of its habitat since then.

Despite losses, sage-grouse populations are still relatively large and well-distributed across the range. The FWS anticipates that some sage-grouse populations may continue to decline in parts of the range, as conservation efforts begin to take effect. Other populations appear to be rebounding as they enter a rising period in their decadal population cycle, which can fluctuate by as much 30 to 40 percent. The FWS has found conservation measures will slow and then stabilize the loss of habitat across the range, securing the species success into the future.

For more information about the greater sage-grouse and this decision, including reports, maps, myths and facts and Secretary’s Jewell’s video announcing the USFWS decision, please see http://www.doi.gov/sagegrouse.

From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown and Mead Gruver):

Tuesday’s announcement signaled that the Obama administration believes it has struck a delicate balance to save the birds from extinction without crippling the West’s economy. It also could help defuse a potential political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election — federal protections could have brought much more sweeping restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activities from California to the Dakotas.

The government was providing some level of habitat protections on 67 million acres of federal lands, including 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas limits will be enforced, an aide to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. That’s more than a third of the animal’s total range and does not include millions of acres of private land shielded by conservation easements.

“It’s the most complex, the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history,” Jewell adviser Sarah Greenberger said. “This model of science-based, landscape-level conservation is truly the future of conservation.”

Jewell and the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Nevada were to make a formal announcement later in the day at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just north of Denver.

From Conservation Colorado (Chris Arend):

Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith released the following statement on the U.S. Department of Interior’s announcement on Greater sage grouse:

“This is an historic decision that marks a critical point in one of this nation’s most ambitious and historic planning initiatives to save the iconic Greater sage grouse and its vast and under appreciated sagebrush home. The scope and scale of this unprecedented effort is astounding. It highlights that through collaboration, diverse interests can achieve unbelievable results – focusing on a shared goal and not our perceived differences.

We believe that comprehensive development and implementation of federal and state land use and Greater sage grouse plans will provide the opportunity to go above and beyond the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

However, it is critical that we work together to implement BLM plans and ensure every state plan is striving to complement important conservation objectives on private and state lands. These plans working together can ensure that Greater sage grouse and our sagebrush landscapes remain healthy and productive for generations to enjoy.

This landmark decision would not have been possible without the foresight and leadership of President Obama, Secretary Sally Jewell and our Governor John Hickenlooper. We all understand this is not the end. We will need to continue working with our state and federal partners to ensure this plan is effectively implemented for the long term viability of this bird and our critical sagebrush seas.”

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

A chicken-size forager famed for fancy mating displays, greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions but have declined to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. Survivors are clumped around 165 million acres stretching from Colorado up to the Dakotas and out to California — also home to 300 other species including golden eagles.

“It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation — ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today,” Jewell said.

Newly launched state-led conservation projects “will ensure that abundant greater sage grouse populations will continue to be distributed across the range into the foreseeable future,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director Gary Frazer said Monday in a discussion with reporters.

“The service has concluded that the greater sage grouse does not meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species and does not warrant listing,” Frazer said. “We will continue to participate in and monitor the conservation efforts and population trends, and we will re-evaluate the status of the species in five years.”

Finally, here’s Governor Hickenlooper’s release:

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued the following statement after the announcement by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that it has issued a “non-warranted decision” in regard to a potential listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act:

“Secretary Jewell and her agencies have recognized the results of significant conservation efforts that have dramatically improved sage grouse habitat in Colorado and across 11 western states. Landowners, regional industries, and local, state and federal government have worked in close collaboration over many years. These improvements will enhance not only sage grouse, but also all manner of wildlife that are a crucial part of what makes Colorado and the American west the unique place that it is.”

Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council
Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council

CWCB hopes that its instream flow right on the Dolores River will keep fish species off the endangered list

From Western Resource Advocates (Rob Harris/Joan Clayburgh):

Yesterday afternoon the Colorado Water Conservation Board rendered a unanimous decision to seek a water right on the Dolores River to protect fish and wildlife, securing up to 900 cfs of water during spring peak flows, as well as essential winter base flows, on one reach in western Colorado’s Red Rock Country. This will help prevent three native fish in the Dolores River from becoming threatened or endangered species. The reach slated for the largest instream flow protection on the river to date is near the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway between Gateway and Uravan Colorado…

The Board heard testimony opposing this water right that asked for water for unspecified future urban or agricultural water demands. The Board determined these requests for withholding water from this instream flow water right were speculative and unfounded. Now the Board will approach the state water court to secure the water right and it appears at this time that it should be a straightforward process.

#ColoradoRiver: Colorado Water Conservation Board to Release Ruedi Reservoir Water for Endangered Fish — CWCB

Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Linda Bassi/Ted Kowalski):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) today [September 2] initiated the release of water from Ruedi Reservoir for the month of September for the benefit of the Colorado River endangered fish.

On August 31, the CWCB entered into a lease agreement with the Ute Water Conservancy District (UWCD) for water stored in Ruedi Reservoir, located on the Fryingpan River near Basalt, to supplement flows for existing instream flow water rights on the Colorado River. The CWCB approved entering into the Water Lease Agreement with the UWCD during a regular CWCB Board meeting in May 2015. This agreement allows the CWCB to lease between 6,000 acre-feet and 12,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow use on the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River, located near Palisade, Colorado. No releases will result in overall flows from Ruedi exceeding 300 cfs.

The so-called 15-Mile Reach provides critical spawning habitat for the following endangered fish: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub, and bonytail. It was determined that the water would be best utilized to preserve the natural environment at rates up to and exceeding the current instream flow rights to meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) flow targets for the four endangered fish species in the reach. “These types of ‘win-win’ agreements are needed to assure that Colorado can beneficially use water within Colorado and help recover endangered fish that use the Colorado River for habitat,” said James Eklund, the Director of the CWCB.

The UWCD was established in 1965 for the purpose of supplying domestic water service to the rural areas of the Grand Valley, encompassing roughly 260 square miles and servicing over 80,000 people. The UWCD originally entered into a Repayment Contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in September 2013, through which it purchased 12,000 acre-feet of water annually from Ruedi Reservoir. By entering into this lease, the CWCB has access to this water on a short-term basis for the benefit of four endangered fish species. Water released from Ruedi Reservoir under this lease will also be available for non-consumptive power generation immediately above the reach, providing additional late summer benefits to the local area.

“This is the first time that the Species Conservation Trust Fund has been used to purchase stored water to supplement flows to critical habitat for endangered fish. We are excited that we have been able to use this particular funding source and our instream flow program for this purpose,” said Linda Bassi, Chief of the Stream and Lake Protection Section of the CWCB. Currently, the CWCB holds two instream flow water rights on the reach. Jana Mohrman, Hydrologist for the USFWS for the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program, added that “it’s outstanding to see the initiative and cooperation on behalf of the endangered fish by Ute Water and CWCB.”

“Colorado has always been on the leading edge of balancing the development of water resources with recovery of endangered species, and this lease is another example of how Colorado has been able to creatively balance those competing interests,” said Ted Kowalski, Chief of the Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section,

The CWCB has already coordinated with a variety of stakeholders within the affected reaches to implement the releases of this water from Ruedi Reservoir. This coordination will continue throughout the month of September.

Water Lines: May rains & cooperation benefit endangered fish — Hannah Holm #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

May rains not only greened up lawns and gardens across western Colorado, but also significantly increased runoff forecasts from Upper Colorado River Basin rivers and streams. The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center increased projections of inflows to Lake Powell from 3 million acre-feet forecast on May 1 to 5 million acre-feet forecast on June 1, up to about 70 percent of average. In the Colorado River’s headwaters, moisture accumulations for the year rose to “normal” and even above average in some locations.

That was good news on two fronts for the four species of endangered fish that dwell in the 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Palisade and the mouth of the Gunnison River: the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, boneytail and razorback sucker. In the short term, the fish are benefiting from coordinated releases from reservoirs upstream to maximize peak flows in this critical habitat area. In the longer term, the increased flows help keep Lake Powell above the level needed to keep generating hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, which in turn generates revenue for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

High peak flows improve habitat by cleaning sediment out of gravels and connecting the river to its floodplain. As reported in the Summit Daily News on June 4, this was the first time in five years that reservoir releases were coordinated to benefit the fish. In the dry years of 2012 and 2013, not enough water was available to release extra water for the fish without compromising storage needed by water users. In 2011 and 2014, conditions were so wet that enhancing peak flows could have caused flooding.

Coordinated reservoir operations are just part of the Recovery Program, which also includes screens to keep the fish from getting stranded in irrigation canals; fish ladders to reconnect stretches of habitat; technological improvements to keep more water in the river while still maintaining deliveries to water users; raising fish in hatcheries; and managing populations of non-native fish that prey on the endangered species.

The recovery program, initiated in 1988, has a lot moving parts and a lot of partners. As stated on its website (http://www.coloradoriverrecovery.org), the program is “a unique partnership of local, state, and federal agencies, water and power interests, and environmental groups working to recover endangered fish in the Upper Colorado River Basin while water development proceeds in accordance with federal and state laws and interstate compacts.”

The recovery program provides Endangered Species Act compliance for over 2,000 diverters, meaning that they don’t independently have to take action to protect & recover the fish.

In the Grand Valley, the recovery program has funded fish screens, which keep debris as well as fish out of irrigation canals, fish ladders, and a series of check structures in the Grand Valley Water Users Association canal. This enables full service to water users without having to divert as much “carry water” from the river to keep water levels high enough to reach headgates. Similar improvements are underway on the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District system.

According to Mark Harris and Kevin Conrad of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the technology installed through the recovery program has generally been a benefit to their system, and they would keep most of the upgrades even if the program ended — provided that the maintenance costs were not prohibitive.

The efforts to provide adequate base and peak flows for the fish also involve significant coordination and communication among the entities that divert water above the 15 Mile Reach and other stakeholders. Throughout the irrigation season, weekly conference calls are held to share information on the latest weather forecasts, reservoir levels, and irrigation needs. These calls aid in optimizing river flows to meet multiple needs, not only those of the endangered fish.

So how are the fish doing? According to the program’s 2015 Briefing Book, progress is being made with flow and habitat restoration measures, as well as stocking from hatcheries, but predation by nonnative fish is a growing problem. This has led to setbacks for the Colorado pikeminnow and Humpback chub in recent years, after having previously neared recovery goals. Northern pike, walleye and smallmouth bass are among the non-natives impeding recovery.

The boneytail was essentially absent from the wild when the recovery program was established. Survival rates for stocked boneytail are low, but appear to have improved since 2009. Razorback sucker stocking efforts appear to be more successful.

The goal of the program is to recover all four species to the point where they can be removed from the Endangered Species List by 2023.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center at http://www.Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or http://www.Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

More endangered/threatened species coverage here.

Future Lower Dolores management topic of meeting

David Robbins photo via Hill and Robbins P.C.
David Robbins photo via Hill and Robbins P.C.

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Forty agriculture and political leaders and Robbins met Tuesday about issues on the Lower Dolores River that have made for rough water lately.

Forest Service and mostly BLM land below the dam are being considered for additional federal protection, including designating separate areas as the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area and Dolores River National Conservation Area. The proposal in the form of a draft bill was released last month.

Feds control river

Other preservation measures are also on the horizon.

Struggling native fish in the shallows of the Lower Dolores could be listed under the Endangered Species list, which would trigger federal action. Sections of the river are poised to become a National Wild and Scenic River if Congress so desires. Or the area could be named a National Monument by President Barack Obama.

Local ag officials and water managers want to know how each of these scenarios could impact rights to water stored in McPhee Reservoir.

“A legal review can tell us what we are doing wrong, what we’re doing right, or if we should even do anything,” said Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams. “I believe some kind of action is needed to protect Dolores and Montezuma County water.”

Agriculture and water interests in Dolores and Montezuma County are negotiating with Robbins to conduct a legal analysis.

One key message is that agencies including the BLM, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Reclamation are mandated by Congress on how to manage lands.

Agencies have discretionary power on how to carry out Congressional direction. But limiting that power is possible through the carefully crafted laws drafted at the local level.

“We get mad at local fed officials for implementing laws we don’t agree with, but after all it is Congress who told them what the standards are they need to follow,” Robbins said. “I encourage all of you to find ways to pass a law that constrains the otherwise open discretion of federal officials to manage the federal lands and water running through them.”

Implied water rights

There has been much speculation on which special federal designation — a monument, an NCA, a Wilderness Area, a Wild and Scenic River, or an ESA listing for native fish, could force more water out of McPhee Reservoir.

According to Robbins, they all could, unless federal legislation passes that prohibits it for an area.

“Whenever the government reserves land for a purpose, there is potential for reserving sufficient water to fulfill that purpose whether or not water is mentioned in the withdrawal,” he said.

A Wild and Scenic River designation typically comes with a federally reserved water right.

A 108-mile section of the Dolores from McPhee Dam to Bedrock is considered “suitable” for Wild and Scenic. A draft NCA bill proposes to drop the suitability status as a compromise for prohibiting new dams or mining.

If one of the struggling native fish on the Dolores River is listed under the Endangered Species list, it triggers a recovery plan that could force more water downstream.

Another perplexing issue: Sections of the Dolores below a proposed NCA from the Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock are also eligible for Wild and Scenic. If they became designated, would McPhee Reservoir continue to a target for additional water?

Robbins has been successful drafting legislation on Sand Dunes National Park and the Rio Grande River that protects agricultural water rights along with native fish.

He said he’s willing to research the issues regarding the Lower Dolores River, and is expected to submit a bid for a review. A public meeting is planned once it is completed.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here and here.