In Planning for Future Droughts, There’s Compromise in the Water
Western states take another important step toward stabilizing the Colorado River
The snow is deep this year along the Rocky Mountains, the spine of the American West. Today’s fresh powder will melt in the spring, feeding the headwaters and large desert rivers of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—the states that comprise the Colorado River Basin.
This region 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. Healthy snowpack brings relief to the region after 19 years of drought, which drained Lakes Mead and Powell—the big reservoirs in the basin—to less than half full.
So, this wet year is welcome. But it’s 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 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.
There’s More Conservation to Come
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.
Time is Running Out to Stand Up for Headwaters and Wetlands
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.
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.
Sportsmen and District Court Judge Challenge Final Sage Grouse Conservation Plans
The BLM’s final revised sage grouse conservation plans will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species
UPDATE: On October 16, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to fully analyze how sage grouse would be affected by changes in the land-use plan amendments finalized in March 2019. The TRCP and several partner organizations supported some targeted changes when the administration announced re-opening the plans, but cautioned against a major overhaul.
The preliminary injunction blocks the BLM from implementing the 2019 amended plans and reverts management actions back to the 2015 conservation plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protections. Activities like oil and gas development can proceed while this injunction is in place, but projects must comply with all directives of the 2015 BLM plans, including prioritizing areas outside sage-grouse habitat for development.
Since the Trump Administration decided to revamp conservation plans in 2016, leasing in sage grouse priority habitat has increased tenfold. Although the injunction does not invalidate lease sales made during this period, it certainly opens them to legal challenges.
Read on for the original post on the revised BLM plans.
The Bureau of Land Management has finalized its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across millions of acres of public land in several Western states. The administration’s approach replaces previous BLM plans, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered in 2015.
While the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior’s policy shift on mitigation, this could be cause for concern.
“The finalized plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans and never wavering from an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. We will continue working with the BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”
The final plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive these protections in certain cases.
The previous plans also more clearly steered oil and gas leasing away from the best sage grouse habitat, but now the BLM is offering extensive tracts of priority habitat to willing buyers at a rapid pace rather than favoring non-habitat areas.
“We’ve seen a dramatic shift away from prioritizing energy leasing away from the best habitat and are now witnessing leasing of some of the very best remaining tracks of unfragmented land,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We realize that leasing does not equate to development, and operators still must abide by stipulations for priority habitat, but it just makes good sense to steer disturbance toward non-habitat or stagger the timing of development in and around grouse habitat.”
Mitigation also remains a sticking point, now that the Department of the Interior maintains that it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. (Quick tip: Here’s a metaphor that helps explain mitigation using beer!) This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.
“Mitigation was a fundamental component of the 2015 plans that helped reach the not warranted decision,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Without offsetting unforeseen or unavoidable impacts – it’s loss of habitat over time, plain and simple.”
It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.
“Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible,” says Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Instituteand former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”
The U.S. Forest Service continues to finalize its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for proposed amendments closed on January 3, 2019, and the final revisions will be out in the coming months.
Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2019, and was updated on October 23, 2019.
Forest Service Rejects Oil and Gas Lease Proposal for the Ruby Mountains
Sportsmen and women applaud agency’s decision to conserve wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities
The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has determined that 54,000 acres in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains will not be made available for oil and gas exploration.
The Forest Service released its Decision Notice and final Environmental Assessment today.
Forest Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger noted there was limited geologic potential for drilling in the area under consideration and there are concerns regarding potential harm to wildlife and scenic values.
The Ruby Mountains are home to Nevada’s largest mule deer herd, critical populations of the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and numerous other fish and wildlife species. In addition, they are a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all types.
“The Rubies offer some of Nevada’s finest hunting and fishing opportunities, and we’re glad that the agency has listened to the overwhelming public opposition to their development,” said Carl Erquiaga, the Nevada Field Representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While today’s announcement is very encouraging for those of us who care about these mountains, a permanent solution is needed to conserve this world-class hunting destination, and we encourage Congress to move without delay to pass the Ruby Mountain Protection Act.”
Without a doubt, the Conservation Reserve Program is a favorite for sportsmen and farmers—here’s a look at the sweeping changes the 2018 Farm Bill made to this important program
The Conservation Reserve Program helps America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land. Thanks to the wildlife habitat benefits of the program, CRP is a household name with landowners and sportsmen in some parts of the country. (At least as much as any of the Farm Bill conservation program acronyms can be.)
Introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP once supported 37 million acres devoted to conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitat. But Congress reduced the size of the program to just 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill, which forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn down thousands of CRP applications with millions of potential acres for conservation.
The hunting and fishing community pushed long and hard for a major increase to CRP acres in the new Farm Bill. Here’s what happened.
Some Good News, Some Bad News
Fortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill added 3 million acres back into the program, increasing the size to 27 million acres and helping meet landowner demand. But the additional cost of growing the program was paid for by placing a cap on rental rate payments. For general CRP, which typically includes larger tracts of acreage, lawmakers capped rental rates at 85 percent of the county average, while rental rates for continuous CRP on environmentally sensitive lands were capped at 90 percent.
This means CRP will be less likely to outbid beginning farmers who often lease their land from landowners. The downside being that the lower rental rates could lead to a decrease in landowner demand for the program. We remain optimistic that these changes will help keep CRP viable, and the TRCP is working to ensure the program continues to benefit water quality, wildlife, and landowners as the 2018 Farm Bill is implemented.
Other Wins for CRP
The new Farm Bill also calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to target the CRP toward a handful of priorities. This includes enrollment of 30 percent of all CRP acres within continuous CRP, which promotes practices that benefit water and wildlife, such as riparian buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, and more.
Additionally, the bill directs the Secretary to enroll up to 2 million acres into CRP grasslands, making the program a little more flexible for livestock and grazing operations. The 2018 bill also authorizes the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative and directs the Secretary to maintain at least 40 percent of continuous acres in CLEAR practices focused on improving water quality by reducing farm runoff.
For general CRP, the bill now mandates that the USDA hold annual sign-ups. Considering the last general sign-up was held more than three years ago and had the lowest acceptance rate—about 20 percent—in the program’s history, a mandated sign-up is a critical step toward meeting landowner demand. The legislation also directs the agency to meet acreage quotas based upon historical state enrollments. This mandate will lead to the annual addition of larger tracts of land that are a favorite of upland bird hunters.
Combined, we achieved some meaningful legislative changes in the 2018 Farm Bill that help connect landowners with CRP’s conservation tools and extend the program’s benefits to water and wildlife. But future Farm Bills could do even more for CRP—the demand is there.
For a look at the other improvements the 2018 Farm Bill made for conservation, click here.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.