An Underrated Bass Fishery United This Town on the Colorado River
Restoration work on waterfront habitat did almost as much to revive the community as it did to improve conditions for fishing
It was 107 degrees in the September sun in Yuma, Arizona, and yet people were out bass fishing.
Twenty years ago, this would not have been the case. But Yuma’s renewed focus on its river, the mighty Colorado, is an extraordinary story of diplomacy and determination that has resulted in benefits for the local economy, outdoor recreation, and Yuma’s people. I was able to witness this firsthand on a recent canoe trip through the Yuma Heritage Area’s wetlands restoration sites, through the downtown park—now vibrant after struggling in the late 20th century —to below the Ocean to Ocean (“peace”) bridge—rebuilt quite literally to bring together residents of Yuma on the river’s east bank with members of the Quechan Reservation on its west bank, with whom relations had been poor.
Yuma is best known as the nation’s winter lettuce capital. But an almost impassable thicket of non-native vegetation, including salt cedar (also known as tamarisk), had been growing along the Colorado River, masking temporary shelters for the homeless and entry points for drug smugglers coming from Mexico, less than ten miles south. Recognizing the potential for a vibrant waterfront, the city hired a community developer who started meeting with the Quechan tribe, and soon after the two governments enlisted the National Park Service and other federal and state agencies to help tackle community and river restoration.
By 2014, the communities had cleared and revegetated more than 400 acres of riverfront , built parks on both banks, and established a network of hiking and biking trails for enthusiastic use by visitors (including many snowbirds) and locals. The restoration effort has improved riparian and river habitat, including flows, and has made the river a safer destination for people, too. As a result, both fish (bass and flatheads) and anglers now thrive.
As a bass boat passed us, both motoring up and floating back down river, I paddled through many of the restoration sites with Ken Conway, the recreation coordinator for Yuma’s Parks and Wildlife Department and a former Trout Unlimited chapter chair back East. Each year, he and his crew take 40 school and civic groups down the river to see how the habitat has changed and to continue testing the water quality as restoration continues and the vegetation matures. The department also offers fishing classes and holds an annual children’s fishing tournament.
The takeaway is simple: River restoration takes time, money, and lots of negotiation, but it has the potential to refresh the surrounding community as well as the habitat. At Yuma’s Gateway Park, where half a dozen anglers had lines in the water on a weekday morning, long after the thermometer had passed 100 degrees, it would have been hard to feel anything but positive about the transformation.
Why the West Should Care as Much as Corn Country About Farm Bill Conservation Programs
You might be surprised just how much impact private land conservation programs and incentives have in a state like New Mexico
We already know that hunters and anglers, regardless of political party, support conservation on private lands: 75 percent agree we should provide financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement habitat conservation, and 87 percent do not want to see cuts to conservation programs, in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill or anywhere else. But it may be surprising to sportsmen and women, even those who support private land conservation generally, just how much of an impact these programs have outside the Corn Belt.
New Mexico, for example, isn’t a state that comes to mind as much as Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, or even the Dakotas, when it comes to on-farm conservation needs. You might picture my home state, instead, as a mosaic of different kinds of public lands, but I’m learning that we have plenty at stake in the 2018 Farm Bill debate.
I recently attended a listening session on Farm Bill topics with staffers from the office of New Mexico Representative Lujan Grisham, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee. In that meeting, on behalf of TRCP and the partners in our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group, I shared some of the recommendations we’ve arrived at as a community and highlighted three ways the next Farm Bill can be beneficial to New Mexico’s agricultural producers, sportsmen, and economy.
Access and Habitat
Nothing will serve sportsmen’s access needs better than boosting the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides competitive block grants to state agencies and tribal governments to fund recreational access and habitat improvement programs on private lands. State and tribal agencies then use this funding to compensate and provide technical and conservation services to landowners who voluntarily open their land to the public for hunting and fishing.
By offering grants to states to create or improve walk-in access programs, VPA-HIP is the only federal program that incentivizes public hunting and fishing access on—or right-of-way access through—private lands. The program has been reauthorized twice now, yet New Mexico—despite having an excellent Open Gate Program—has never received a grant. VPA first needs to be reauthorized and then we’d like to see $150 million allocated to conservation and access programs over the next five years of the Farm Bill, compared to just $40 million in the current Farm Bill.
CRP Works Here, Too
The Conservation Reserve Program has helped restore wildlife habitat and improve thousands of waterways nationwide since the program’s inception. CRP acres in the Northern Plains make up a vital share of nesting habitat for more than half of North America’s waterfowl, and CRP is helping landowners to voluntarily restore and supplement sage-grouse habitat across the West, providing much needed aid to a species in decline. Whitetail deer, black bears, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, and countless other game species have also rebounded thanks to the conservation of millions of acres of grasslands and buffers through CRP.
The impact CRP has on water is especially notable, particularly in parched states like New Mexico. Through smart land-management decisions—like the installation of waterway buffers in riparian areas—CRP protects more than 170,000 stream miles with naturally filtering trees and grasses. These improvements mean cleaner drinking water, more effective groundwater recharge, and better fish habitat in areas where a little water has to go a long way.
In addition, many farmers, ranchers, and forest owners also open CRP acres to hunters and anglers in their communities. There are nearly 450,000 acres of CRP currently enrolled across 1,300 individual New Mexico farms and ranches. CRP enrollment is a win-win for farmers, ranchers, wildlife, clean water, and sportsmen—that’s why we are committed to telling lawmakers that CRP works. However, there is a nationwide cap of 24 million acres for CRP, which is far below the demand and the need, and we’d like to see that increased to 35 million acres enrolled nationwide.
An increase across the country can only help our numbers here in New Mexico.
New Mexico’s Favorite
Used for everything from livestock fencing and better irrigation systems to upland bird habitat restoration and invasive species removal, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is the Farm Bill tool that gets New Mexicans most excited. While at least five percent of overall EQIP spending has to be used on wildlife practices, we’d like to see that requirement doubled to ten percent. Based on current spending, that modification would boost annual nationwide spending for wildlife practices on private lands from around $70 million to $140 million.
And here’s the kicker: New Mexico received $33 million in EQIP funds in fiscal year 2016, which was almost half of the total funds allocated through the Farm Bill. EQIP encourages farmers and ranchers to promote agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals, and it helps landowners meet state and federal environmental regulations.
EQIP’s high funding levels have made the program one of the most important tools for wildlife habitat and water quality, and through special initiatives it has helped keep wildlife—such as the iconic greater sage grouse—from being listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Farm Bill at Home on the Range
As you can see, even in a state not known for its agricultural dominance, strong conservation funding in the Farm Bill is vital for the future of New Mexico’s sporting access and wildlife habitat. To see the conservation impact of the Farm Bill where you live, check out these ten maps that show these programs at work across the country.
How to Help the Mississippi River Build Land in Louisiana
What started as a washed out gravel road has become a naturally occurring sediment diversion that is helping to balance salinity levels and improve fish habitat south of New Orleans—to keep wetlands from disappearing, experts should keep Mardi Gras Pass and take control of its freshwater flows
The primary reason that nearly 2,000 square miles of prime fish and wildlife habitat have vanished along Louisiana’s coast is not erosion or development. It’s just that the land is constantly sinking, a phenomenon known as subsidence. While gradual, sea-level rise is already affecting coastal areas all over the world, and Louisiana is contending with rising water and sinking land.
Sediment delivered by annual flooding on the Mississippi River used to be the key to keeping coastal wetlands above the water line. But, when that sediment flow was cut off by flood-protection and navigation levees a century ago, wetlands started disappearing.
That’s why Louisiana’s coastal master plan calls for the construction of two major diversions, one east and one west of the river below New Orleans. Two control structures and canals will be built through the levees to deliver the sediment needed to help wetlands stay above the water line, serving as critical fish and wildlife habitat and better protecting coastal communities from storm surges.
Sediment delivery brings with it freshwater inundation, which will certainly change the makeup of the fisheries in the outfall areas. To minimize impacts to fisheries, the plan is to move water and sediment only when sediment loads are at their peak and cut back, or shut off, the diversions when river flows aren’t carrying as much sediment.
Extensive modeling has been conducted to try and predict the effects of the freshwater, but biologists have been careful to point out that there’s a degree of uncertainty considering river conditions, including sediment loads, water temperatures, and weather, in any given year.
However, east of the river, near the small fishing community of Point a la Hache, hypotheticals can be replaced by a discussion of what is currently happening in the marshes, canals, bays, and lakes being inundated with freshwater and sediment from a break in the Mississippi River bank that has become known as Mardi Gras Pass.
Mardi Gras Pass earned its name because the first time it was observed flowing freely from the river and down an existing canal was on Mardi Gras in 2012, a year after record flooding reshaped many areas along the east side of the Mississippi below New Orleans. The force of the flood washed away a gravel road and cut the bank around an old control structure that once allowed a limited amount of river water to spill into the area, controlling salinity and improving oyster habitat. What started as a tree-snagged trickle of less than 5,000 cubic feet per second has turned into an uncontrolled diversion that is estimated to be moving about 35,000 cubic feet per second—coincidentally, the same rate of water flow is prescribed for the diversion Louisiana has planned.
John Lopez, director of the Coastal Sustainability Program at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, is the one who gave the new cut its name and has been studying the impacts of the natural diversion very closely. Early on, he saw schools of shad bunched up in the flowing water and has since documented a drastic increase in sediment pouring into adjacent marshes and bays. Submerged vegetation aided by the fresh water now fills ponds and bays from near the mouth of the pass out to the edges of Black Bay.
Waterfowl habitat has also improved. Bass populations have exploded in the area, and it has also become popular among tournament anglers who are finding redfish feasting on bluegills, crabs, shrimp, mullet, and crawfish. White shrimp are also more plentiful. Speckled trout, Louisiana’s most popular saltwater sportfish, have reacted to the seasonal changes in salinity by moving away from Mardi Gras Pass when the Mississippi River is high, but returning to the area when the river drops.
As is the case with any discussion of diversions, either existing or planned, not everyone is happy with the changes in the area. Oyster harvests on public oyster beds near Mardi Gras pass are down about 85 percent over the last decade, though it has been noted by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists that this decline began before the cut opened. The state’s Oyster Task Force recently voted to commit $200,000 to examine closing Mardi Gras Pass.
While the indication of negative impacts to oysters in public harvest areas and shifts in fisheries to more freshwater and freshwater-tolerant species is undeniable, closing Mardi Gras Pass would be a mistake. Controlling it with gates to maximize sediment delivery and force freshwater into adjacent marshes would be an optimal solution, especially since that’s what is recommended by those examining diversions in the Master Plan.
Coastal estuaries should be managed for a diverse array of fish and wildlife, not just oysters and popular sportfish species like speckled trout. If one of the primary solutions for trying to fix Louisiana’s ailing coastal wetlands is to reconnect them to the river that once built them it sure doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to completely sever one of the few existing connections between river and marsh.
What Hurricanes Can Teach Us About Building Better Coastlines with Benefits for Fish and Wildlife
While the focus should absolutely be on helping victims of recent storms, there will come a time for reflecting on how to improve coastal resilience—these lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have changed the way that Louisiana views wetlands
My lifelong home in South Louisiana has borne the brunt of more than a dozen hurricanes over the last 40 years. Each of them brought flooding rains, heavy winds, and storm surges that inundated coastal communities. Some of them, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, reshaped cities and lives forever.
This is why it’s especially tough to see the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma affect friends, colleagues, and the places they call home. I’ve been there before—so have my friends and neighbors. We know it could just as easily be us gutting our homes, wondering when our roads will be passable, and struggling with seemingly endless power outages.
We understand the weeks, months, and maybe years of struggle ahead. The incredibly generous outpouring of support from fellow Americans, in the form of financial donations, volunteer hours, food, and water is critical to stabilizing the situation and beginning to rebuild. But anybody who has lived through such devastation knows only time, determination, and hard work will truly bring back a sense of normalcy for those in the paths of Harvey and Irma.
The focus for those directly affected—and for all Americans—should continue to be on aid for those who have lost their homes, vehicles, and schools or are struggling to find comfort without electricity, food, or water.
There will come a time, however, after this hurricane season is over and recovery is underway, when coastal residents, community leaders, and officials will begin to assess why the damage was so extensive.
A Louisiana Case Study
That reckoning occurred in Louisiana in late 2005, after Katrina and Rita brought absolute devastation from one end of the state to the other. Building codes were analyzed. Flood plain maps were examined and updated. Evacuation plans were closely critiqued. And, perhaps most critically, scientists and engineers began examining why flood protection systems failed so miserably.
Louisiana’s elected leaders had to deal with the fact that the incredible loss of wetland habitat along the state’s coast had likely exacerbated flood damages. Combined with the poorly conceived and maintained navigation channels through wetlands, the result was a woefully inadequate flood protection system.
Louisiana acted by creating a single agency responsible for both flood protection and wetlands restoration, rather than two agencies that might need to compete for the same funds.
In 2007, less than two years after Katrina and Rita, Louisiana’s newly created Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority released the state’s first comprehensive master plan addressing coastal restoration and hurricane protection. The plan laid out a 50-year effort to create a system with multiple lines of defense, using healthier wetlands and rebuilt barrier islands as a buffer to slow wave action and storm surge before it can reach flood protection levees and flood gates. Additionally, an examination of building practices in the most frequently flooded areas, some that had experienced severe flooding seven times in ten years, led to a concerted effort to elevate homes and make businesses more resilient.
An understanding spread among lawmakers and residents that marshes and swamps are not solely places to hunt and fish. This natural infrastructure is an absolute necessity for protecting Louisiana’s largest cities as well as the smaller communities that benefit from being hunting and fishing destinations.
Recognizing the Worth of Wetlands
For more than a century, many state and federal agencies and municipalities focused on conquering wetlands by draining them, then pumping in soils to create space for development. Wetland buffers along rivers, bayous, and creeks that once absorbed and held floodwaters were replaced by levees that force floodwaters up, instead of out. The ability of wetlands to help protect existing infrastructure was largely ignored.
It cannot be ignored any longer.
It’s true that no two storms are exactly alike: Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rain that inundated a huge swath of southeast Texas, and Irma’s enormous size and unprecedented wind ferocity set it apart. Even the healthiest coastal wetlands and the best flood protection systems would not have staved off all the destruction caused by those two storms.
However, there are parts of the Houston area that have now experienced record-setting “100-year flooding” four times in the last 20 years. In Florida, communities now devastated by storm surge and river flooding could have been spared some damage if once-present mangrove flats were there to dampen wave action, or if rivers could still flush out into the wetland floodplains that no longer exist or have been cut off.
Acknowledging these facts is not an attempt to assign blame. It’s not an attempt to use unprecedented disasters to advance a political ideology, either. I understand the crassness of using these disasters as fodder for advancing an agenda while those affected try to save what few possessions remain.
I have neighbors in Baton Rouge who still have not been able to move back into their homes after record flooding in August 2016. The house that my grandfather built, where my dad grew up just two miles from Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, still sits empty and in disrepair more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina.
What I hope is that this will be read as a plea to those who make the decisions in coastal communities that have and have yet to be impacted by a disaster. We must grasp how important it is that we live with and utilize the natural protections for our man-made infrastructure—and perhaps think of wetlands, marshes, and mangrove flats as something just as critical to the way we live on the coast.
With personal experience as our guide, I hope we rebuild smarter in flood-prone areas, so recovery isn’t quite as difficult the next time. The side benefit just might be that we support or improve habitat that makes it possible for us to hunt, fish, and live well.
A Confirmed Decline in Hunter Participation Should Be a Call to Action for Sportsmen
It’s time for our community and decision makers to get serious about R3 efforts, adequate conservation funding, and smart policies that enhance hunters’ opportunities afield
A new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that 101.6 million Americans participated in wildlife-related outdoor recreation last year. Unfortunately, while the number of people participating in fishing and wildlife-watching is up, participation in hunting dropped by about 2 million people to a total of 11.5 million hunters. Total expenditures by hunters also declined 29 percent from 2011 to 2016, from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion.
This has significant ripple effects on not only the key federal funding models that support conservation of fish and wildlife, but also the base of support for our public lands and thoughtful natural resources policy.
“It is time for our community and our decision makers to get serious about R3, or recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters, because the implications for conservation are dire if this trend continues,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The report indicates that participation in fishing increased 8 percent since 2011, from 33.1 million anglers to 35.8 million in 2016, and total nationwide spending by anglers was up 2 percent. R3 efforts geared toward fishing and boating have been successful thanks to a funding provision in the Dingell-Johnson Act, also called the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, that allows a small percentage of these excise tax revenues to be used for recruitment and retention programs.
The Pittman-Robertson Act, which created the excise tax on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment, does not permit using the funds for R3 activities.
“We must modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act so we can promote hunting the same way we promote fishing and boating, bring the hunter education and licensing systems into the 21st century, and immediately address serious threats to hunting, like chronic wasting disease in deer,” says Fosburgh. “We must also focus on expanding access and improving the quality of the hunting experience—better habitat means more animals and more opportunities for success.”
Decision makers should further support the future of America’s hunting traditions by passing a fiscal year 2018 budget deal with robust funding for conservation and crafting a 2018 Farm Bill that not only enhances conservation tools for private lands but also incentivizes private landowners to enroll acres in voluntary public access programs. It is more critical than ever that sportsmen and women continue to be engaged in the public process of planning for management on America’s multiple-use public lands, as well.
It appears the USFWS will update this page with preliminary findings on the latest five-year report.
Top photo by Tim Donovan at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission via Flickr
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