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Western states take another important step toward stabilizing the Colorado River
The Colorado River Basin produces most of the nation’s winter vegetables, is home to ten national parks, and boasts millions of acres of wildlife habitat, where deer and antelope play, ducks fly, and fish rise. But years of drought have drained Lakes Mead and Powell—the big reservoirs in the basin—to less than half full.
A single wet year is not a long-term solution for a river system that is already way over-subscribed. Scientists predict the basin’s future will likely be hotter and, therefore, drier than its past.
The basin states just signed a drought contingency plan for the next seven years that will almost certainly require real reductions in water use, and this could be painful for those who will have to turn off their spigots.
But, first, here’s how we got to this momentous deal.
Exactly how to share limited water resources in the Colorado River Basin has been a debate for decades, almost since the states signed their original compact in 1922. (Many court cases followed.) In the 1930s, Arizona actually formed its own navy to defend its share of the river from California. In the ‘60s, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. Meanwhile, as cities and farms in the basin grew and prospered, parts of the natural landscape suffered. By the 1990s the Colorado had stopped flowing all the way to the sea most years.
That same decade, most parties laid down their arms (and their lawyers) and decided to try working together. They extended the table to make room for outdoor recreationists and others, from high country skiers and Grand Canyon rafters to hunters and anglers. This group of diverse stakeholders started to negotiate agreements on how the Colorado’s waters would be used.
Three years in the making, the drought contingency plan signed last week is the most recent of these agreements. Now, Congress will have to pass legislation to implement it.
As big a deal as the plan is, it is not without controversy, and it is not the final chapter. It does not solve all the river’s problems, but it is a bridge to get all parties safely to the year 2026, by which point the basin states must negotiate another round of water-use reductions. The good news is that almost everyone is still sitting at the table, proving wrong (for now) Mark Twain’s old adage that whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.
As just one small party in these negotiations, the TRCP is working hard to ensure that one of the benefits is better fishing opportunities.
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Mining the base of the food chain is neither sustainable nor economically justifiable
Today, three recreational fishing groups filed a formal objection against the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, and Coastal Conservation Association signed onto the objection, filed with MSC’s leaders in the United Kingdom.
The industrial harvest of this important forage fish by a single foreign-owned company, Cooke Inc.’s Omega Protein, has a negative impact on striped bass and other sportfish that rely on menhaden for food. Earlier this month, MSC—a private international organization, not a government entity—signaled that it would likely put its stamp of approval on Omega’s menhaden reduction fishing operation, in which the oily baitfish is harvested and reduced into meal, pet food, and other products.
MSC reached this conclusion in spite of the fact that menhaden stocks are less than half of what they would be without industrial harvest, which currently suppresses the striped bass stocks on the East Coast by about 30 percent. Striped bass are the single most valuable marine recreational fishery in the country.
“This certification would put a blue ribbon on the practice of robbing sportfish of their forage base, even as striped bass numbers decline in the Atlantic,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. His organization collaborated with a legal team to object to MSC’s findings and rallied individual anglers to sign an open letter opposing the certification. “We felt it was important to put pressure on MSC, in every venue possible, not to do this. It is irresponsible to call Omega’s operation sustainable when it affects striped bass numbers and the recreational fishing economy.”
MSC’s published assessment indicates that the certification of sustainability would be granted on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years—not because the operation can be considered sustainable now. Sportfishing groups objected to the rationale behind two of these conditions and the MSC’s overall method of assessing the stock’s status.
“The MSC certification undermines ten years of work by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish ecosystem reference points for Atlantic menhaden, a process expected to be concluded in the next year,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “For sportfishing businesses on the East Coast, the stakes are very high going into the striped bass season. Menhaden are an important food source for striped bass, and the latest striped bass stock assessment shows a continued decline in spawning stock biomass. This is the worst possible time for MSC to make a misstep like this.”
“In Maryland, anglers are concerned with the health and future outlook for many different recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast, and menhaden are a major piece of the ecological foundation and balance in the region,” says David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. “This is why we anxiously await management options to be unveiled after nearly 20 years of conversation on how to manage these important fish for their role in the ecosystem. It would be negligent for MSC to hand out its certification just as the game is about to change.”
Top photo by Stephan Lowy
When there’s not enough bunker left in the water to support striped bass, can you really call commercial harvest of these forage fish sustainable?
Given the gravity of the EPA’s proposal on clean water protections, sportsmen and women need to speak up now
Often, we get to celebrate and take full advantage of the public’s significant role in shaping conservation policy. It’s something that makes our country, its one-of-a-kind natural resources, and the American system of public lands and waters very special.
When we ask you to take action for public lands, better water quality, or more investments in fish and wildlife habitat, it’s rare that we believe the odds are already stacked against conservation. Because when sportsmen and women unite, we tend to win.
But the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers are not doing hunters and anglers any favors in the public process of vetting their new rule for what waters deserve Clean Water Act protections. In just the latest chapter of the debate over what constitutes “Waters of the U.S.,” the agencies have given the public just 60 days to comment on a proposal that would eliminate protections for 50 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of stream miles across the country.
Before finalizing the 2015 version of the rule, the EPA held a 120-day comment period and ultimately allowed the public a total of 207 days to respond to the proposal. That was for a rule that made it clear that the Clean Water Act should apply to headwater streams and wetlands, because what happens upstream affects habitat downstream.
Additionally, the last administration held multiple listening sessions across the U.S. for the public to learn more about the 2015 rule. By contrast, only two in-person listening sessions were held on this new proposal—both in Kansas City. Elsewhere, sportsmen and women were not given this opportunity to hear from EPA staff or speak out in person about their concerns.
We think it should take more than two months of passively collecting comments to reverse course on decades of efforts to make America’s rivers, lakes, and streams fishable and swimmable. We think the EPA and Army Corps should have to face American sportsmen and women before stripping fish and wildlife habitat of Clean Water Act protection.
Sportsmen’s groups—along with elected officials, state agencies, and other organizations—requested an extension to the current comment period, but it was denied this week.
Since the EPA and Army Corps don’t want to give us more time, we need you to take action now. Our simple tool makes it easy to send a message to the EPA and your elected officials that hunters and anglers oppose this huge step backward for our wetlands and streams.
Top photo by USFWS/Katrina Mueller
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More