Lower Colorado River 50 Year Conservation Plan Activated

HOOVER DAM, Nevada-Arizona Border, April 5, 2005 (ENS) - At the foot of the Hoover Dam, Interior Department and Lower Colorado Basin leaders Monday launched a 50 year conservation initiative to protect fish and wildlife along 450 miles of the lower Colorado River. After nearly 10 years of negotiations among state, city and tribal authorities and the federal government, the ceremony marked the start of concrete conservation efforts.

"The agreement ensures that Arizona, California, Nevada, and the federal government will cooperate over the next 50 years to restore and protect habitat along the Colorado River," said Craig Manson, Department of Interior assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.

Known as the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, the plan will initially be financed by more than $626 million in federal and local funding.

The program covers the mainstem of the Lower Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona to the southerly International Boundary, near San Luis, Rio Colorado, Mexico, including the 100 year flood plain.

John Keys, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said the program will benefit "the many important species, including humans, that rely on the Colorado River."


U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys addresses the crowd at the ceremony launching the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program. (Photo courtesy USBR)
It is designed to ensure the survival of 27 species by restoration of wildlife habitat along the lower Colorado River, including 8,132 acres of riparian, marsh and backwater habitat for six federally protected species and at least 20 other species that are native to the river system.

The agreement includes six state agencies, six tribes, 36 cities and water and power authorities, and six federal agencies serving more than 20 million residents and irrigating two million acres of farmland. Public interest groups also participate, but several environmental groups have withdrawn from the negotiations leading up to Monday's agreement, saying their concerns were not being addressed.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) has committed $88.5 million over the 50 year life of the program, becoming the first entity to authorize the program on February 8.

“Instead of a piecemeal, species-by-species approach, this multispecies program proactively addresses endangered species issues that threaten water supplies throughout the West,” said Metropolitan board Chairman Wes Bannister.


Just 76 feet across, the narrowest point on the Colorado River is located upstream of Granite Narrows. (Photo courtesy Conor Watkins and Dr. J. David Rogers)
“We cannot afford to wait for the kind of supply shortages experienced along the Klamath and Rio Grande rivers as a result of endangered species complications before acting,” Bannister said. “We’re partnering with federal and state agencies, as well as other water and power users on a program that helps listed species recover and takes action to prevent other species from becoming threatened or endangered.”

“For urban Southern California, the program addresses the environmental impacts of Metropolitan’s diversion of Colorado River water through ongoing and future operations of the district’s intake pumping plant at the river’s bank at Lake Havasu,” said Gilbert Ivey, MWD’s interim chief executive officer.

“Along with protecting the district’s exchange agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority facilitating SDCWA’s water transfer with the Imperial Irrigation District, the program also identifies Metropolitan as the only California entity with environmental coverage for future water transfers,” Ivey said.

Funding agreements for the $626 million program call for Arizona, California and Nevada to split their share of the costs, with California paying 50 percent, and Arizona and Nevada each contributing 25 percent.

Of California’s $157 million share, Metropolitan will contribute $88.5 million or 14 percent of the total program costs over its 50 year term.

The goal of the conservation program is to restore biological functions in four habitat types along the river - aquatic, emergent marshes, lower terrace cottonwood and willow riparian woodlands, and upper terrace native mesquite bosques.


The Yuma clapper rail is a federally listed endangered bird. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
These habitats are needed to help recover federally protected species, including the endangered bonytail, razorback sucker, humpback chub, Yuma clapper rail, and southwestern willow flycatcher.

Restoring wetlands and riparian forests will benefit bird species from hummingbirds to ducks that annually traverse the desert when migrating between their northern U.S. and Canadian breeding grounds to Mexican and other southern wintering areas.

The restoration effort is intended to offset the effects of water delivery and hydroelectric power production by the Bureau of Reclamation and other water and power users.

The need for the Multi-Species Conservation Program became apparent in the 1990s as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation - both federal agencies - struggled with their responsibility to designating critical habitat for two of the species of lower Colorado River fish now listed as endangered.

"The problem is," said Dr. Mike White, aquatic ecologist with Ogden Environmental and Energy Services Co., who helped develop the program, "the states own the water appropriated to them under the Colorado River Compact, or Law of the River. But these two federal agencies are in charge of managing the same water resources under federal laws like the Endangered Species Act. It has become increasingly clear that these separate mandates are often in conflict with each other."

The Multi-Species Conservation Program is intended to minimize and mitigate harm to federally protected species and provide Endangered Species Act clearance for other tribal, federal and state land and water management actions.

This year water levels in the Colorado River are low, and drought is a problem all along the river's length, affecting the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

All seven states were supposed to have a drought management proposal completed by an April 1 deadline set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, but they have missed the deadline, and no such proposal has been developed as yet.

Federal officials have not officially declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, and there are no regulations in place to allocate the water if such a shortage were to be declared.

On August 2, 1995, the United States and the states of Nevada, Arizona and California entered into a historic agreement to develop a Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program.

"Our goal is to make this river system biologically better than it is today," said White, "while still allowing use of the river for human purposes. We think we can do this through a combination of restoration and better management practices. Hopefully, we can avoid the conflicts which have given rise to court cases in the past."