Senate Asks: What Should We Do on Water? Here’s One Answer

Earlier I wrote about a Senate hearing on the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. In case you missed it, the complete hearing is archived and worth watching.

Members of the committee had a recurring question about the projected 3.2 million acre-foot* shortfall between supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin: What – if anything – should the federal government do about it?

In his opening remarks, Sen. Lee (R-UT) approvingly read from the study’s disclaimer that said the study is not to be used as a foundation for any legislative or regulatory action by the federal government. Sen. Udall (D-CO) directly asked the first panel of witnesses what the federal government’s role should be. Sen. Flake (R-AZ) reiterated this question to the second panel of witnesses, saying it was his preference that the federal government be the “last resort” when it comes to solving water problems in the basin.

These statements reflect an appropriate hesitance in Congress to tell Western states what to do with their water.

Management of water resources has always been the province of the states, a responsibility they vigorously defend. But it is wrong to think the federal government doesn’t have a role to play or Congress a responsibility to act.

Mike Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, called Reclamation a valued partner to the states in water management. Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, was more explicit. He said Reclamation provides essential technical support, guidance and research to the states. He also testified that funding for programs such as WaterSMART makes the Colorado River Basin Study possible. Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, asked for support for WaterSMART in her testimony.

The federal role in responding to our water resources management challenges is broader than what these witnesses testified, however. Leaving aside the fact that issues between states that also impact other countries (e.g., Mexico in the case of the Colorado River) have a necessary federal nexus, the problems in the Colorado River Basin are a bellwether for issues coming to all parts of the country.

The northwestern and southeastern United States are already facing water conflicts analogous to those in the Colorado River Basin, the U.S. energy sector is vulnerable nationwide to projected water shortages and floods, and water for fish and wildlife is too often an afterthought among other competing uses.

If you care about having water to drink in Atlanta or lights that come on in Seattle or wetlands that support wildlife in the northern Great Plains, you should be interested in lessons being learned right now in the Colorado River Basin.

There is one action sportsmen and Congress can take in the short term to address these disparate challenges: support WaterSMART. This program and similar federal efforts are competitive cost share programs that develop local solutions to national problems. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, WaterSMART grants have already led to 616,000 acre-feet of water saved through conservation.

In 2013 alone, WaterSMART gave the following:

  • $1 million to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California to install over 20,000 linear feet of new pipeline to address inefficiencies in the existing delivery system of open ditches and pipes. The project will save 379 acre-feet of water annually, which will be left in Soctish and Captain John Creeks, eventually feeding into the Trinity and lower Klamath Rivers where it will benefit threatened coho salmon and green sturgeon.
  • $200,000 to the Fort Shaw Irrigation District in Montana to upgrade 10,800 feet of open ditch canal to pipe and install six new center pivots, allowing growers to switch from flood irrigation and increase efficiency.  The project will save 2,628 acre-feet annually, which will be left in the Sun River to help maintain and improve minimum stream flows.
  • $1.5 million to the Central Oregon Irrigation District to upgrade 4,500 linear feet of canal to pipe, an improvement that will save 2,552 acre-feet each year.  The conserved water will become permanent instream flows in the middle Deschutes River and in a reach of the Crooked River that is critical for the endangered Middle Columbia River steelhead.
  • $1.5 million to the Cub River Irrigation Company in northern Utah to upgrade 6.5 miles of open ditch canal to pipe. The project will save 2,800 acre-feet of water each year, which will be left in the Bear River and benefit the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge downstream.

In fiscal year 2013, the federal government spent a little over $52 million on the WaterSMART program. For 2014, President Obama has asked Congress for $35 million for the program, a 32 percent cut from last year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would fund WaterSMART at $16.6 million, a 68 percent cut from last year. As part of that cut, the House bill would completely eliminate funding for the competitive grants, like those listed above, that have led to significant on-the-ground water conservation in partnership with local communities.

The bright spot is the Senate, which has legislation funding WaterSMART at $51 million. This is essentially the same level as last year, 45 percent above President Obama’s request and three times the House level. When the House and Senate meet to resolve their differences and fund the government for 2014, they can demonstrate to sportsmen how important water conservation is by the level of investment they make in WaterSMART.

Congress can also show its support for sportsmen by extending the successful WaterSMART partnerships with state and local entities. The authorization for water conservation grants is about to run out, which is part of the reason funding is in jeopardy. At a minimum, Congress needs to reauthorize these grants and renew its commitment to water conservation.

The TRCP Center for Water Resources will be taking this message to Congress. Stay tuned for ways you can get involved to let your representatives in Congress know that investments that conserve water for fish and wildlife are important to hunters and anglers.

* An acre-foot of water is approximately as much water as a family of four will use in a year.

Congressional Bickering Leaves Sportsmen in the Lurch

We called the Sportsmen’s Act easy to love for a reason. Until yesterday it appeared that a large majority of lawmakers in Congress agreed.

The bill recognizes the broad economic and social impacts of conservation, improves access for sportsmen and supports habitat conservation. It integrates 17 separate bills, including the Making Public Lands Public Access Act, the Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act and the Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act. It also would reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Yet the Sportsmen’s Act failed to garner enough support from Senators last night to pass a procedural vote, and thus its prospects of success remain uncertain at best.

The Sportsmen’s Act failed to garner enough support to pass a procedural vote and thus its prospects of success remain uncertain at best. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Until yesterday’s Senate vote, the Sportsmen’s Act had passed all legislative hurdles with widespread support from both political parties – a rarity in such a divisive political environment. But somehow, even after Americans expressed strong distaste for partisan politics, dysfunctional gridlock returned to Congress.

With their backs up against the so-called fiscal cliff, elected officials from both sides of the aisle locked antlers again. American sportsmen are paying the price.

Hunters and anglers are experiencing the fallout from congressional inaction as access dwindles, development diminishes opportunities for sportsmen and funding for conservation disappears.

More than 91 million U.S. residents fished, hunted or wildlife watched in 2011 – that is more 25 percent of the U.S. population. From big-game hunters in Wyoming to carp fishermen in suburban lakes and everyone in between, we are a force to be reckoned with. And we vote.

A diverse alliance of powerful groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to The Nature Conservancy has joined forces in support of the Sportsmen’s Act. Together, in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, we will continue to stand up for sportsmen.

The TRCP and our partners are working with congressional leaders and members of the sporting community to form partnerships on the Hill and in the field that will benefit our sporting traditions for current and future generations.

In the coming days and weeks we will be asking for your voice in this fight. Be ready.

A Colorado Sportsman’s Perspective on the State’s New Roadless Rule

Native Trout

The Colorado roadless rule keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. Photo by Nick Payne.

Following numerous revisions and several years of debate, a management plan for Colorado’s 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest backcountry has been published in the federal register, cementing it as the law of the land until another politician or judge sweeps through with enough momentum or gusto for reform.

Considered in the context of the 10th Circuit Court’s recent decision to uphold the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the finalization of the Colorado rule – and the importance of maintaining a high standard for backcountry lands in the state – is undeniably clear.

The Colorado roadless rule maintains that standard by including roughly 30 percent, or 1.2 million acres of backcountry, under a higher level of safeguards (i.e., “upper tier” areas) from unneeded development. While the rule keeps these areas intact, it also allows some backcountry lands to be developed for coal mining and ski area expansion. It also allows tree-cutting and some road building in backcountry lands located within 1.5 miles of communities recognized as at risk for wildfires. Colorado’s remaining backcountry areas are managed in a similar fashion to the 2001 rule.

Sportsmen were a consistent, engaged and reasonable presence throughout the multi-year rule-making process. Recommendations from members of our community helped result in the final Colorado rule being a common-sense management tool able to assure conservation of some of the state’s best hunting and fishing grounds and most valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The state of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service likewise deserve recognition for their efforts to refine and improve the plan for the benefit of Colorado’s backcountry traditions.

As someone who enjoys backcountry hunting and fishing throughout the state and who is well-acquainted with both the Colorado and national rules, I can celebrate the fact that much of Colorado’s most important national forest lands will remain intact and accessible for hunters and anglers into the foreseeable future.

Data from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife demonstrates that more than 900,000 acres of lands designated as “upper tier” under the new rule provide extremely important habitat for much of Colorado’s bedrock fish and wildlife, including cutthroat and other wild trout species, elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, grouse and bighorn sheep.

Backcountry roadless areas are lands already largely devoid of roads and other development. Daily, they are becoming rarer and rarer. The Colorado roadless rule does not close any existing roads or trails. Instead, it keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands intact and accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. That equals thousands of acres that I know I can depend on for a true backcountry experience, and that’s huge in my world.