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Should the LCR MSCP Go South of The Border? Differing Views

Compiled from various sources by S.H. Hurlbert
San Diego State University
revised May 19, 1998


The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program is the largest and most important such program ever undertaken for this portion of the river. As such there are logical environmental grounds for arguing that its planning area should be extended at least to include the Colorado River delta region in Mexico and perhaps the upper portion of the Gulf of California as well. There are equally logical political and practical grounds, from the point of view of the responsible U.S. authorities, for not doing so.

Here is a summary of the sequence of events that started with a request to Secretary of the Interior Babbitt that the LCR MSCP planning process at least consider "restoration of ecosystems south of the border" and was followed by a resolution from the Colorado River Board of California (CRBC) formally opposing a southward extension of the planning area. The request and the resolution are given below. "The CRBC is the state agency created by the legislature in 1937 for the purpose of protecting the rights and interests of the state, its agencies, and its citizens in the water resources of the Colorado River System. The duties of the Board are set forth in Sections 12527 through 12533 of the California Water Code" (p.6, CRBC Annual Report, 1984). The CRBC does not yet have its own website.

Outline of discussions

At the initiation of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (LCR MSCP) in 1997, the Facilitation Team conducted a convening process, whereby members of the LCR MSCP Steering Committee were interviewed by the facilitators to elicit their views on various issues involved in the development of the LCR MSCP.

One issue raised by several Steering Committee members was the geographic scope of the project. The Memorandum of Understanding outlining the general scope of the LCR MSCP defined the study area as: the portion of the mainstem Colorado River from below Glen Canyon Dam to the Southerly International Boundary, including the 100-year floodplain and reservoir full-pool elevations within the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada." Several Steering Committee representatives expressed concern that this definition of the study area would exclude the Gulf of California and portions of the Colorado River delta within the Republic of Mexico, areas which are considered ecologically sensitive and directly dependent on uses and management of the Colorado River within the U.S.

When this issue was revisited during the December 1997 Steering Committee meeting a suggestion was put forward to leave the formal definition of the study area in place (i.e., Southerly International Boundary) but to consider potential conservation opportunities outside of the project area (i.e., beyond the 100-year floodplain and across the international border) that would be evaluated for feasibility based on cost-benefit analyses, political factors, and technical implementability. These ideas were also formally expressed to Secretary of the Interior Babbitt in a January 21 letter by 16 individuals from various U.S. and Mexican institutions and organizations. When the Colorado River Board of California was briefed on the study area issue by its Steering Committee representatives in March 1998, it responded to that briefing and the January letter by passing the resolution given below.

The CRBC resolution opposes expansion of the planning area mainly on the grounds that to do so would delay timely completion of the LCR MSCP. An equally strong but unstated motive for the resolution may be the desire to keep California's water supply as politically secure as possible. The waters of the Colorado River are oversubscribed and California is under orders from the federal government to reduce quickly its use of Colorado River water. And the CRBC is aware that assessment of "conservation opportunities" in the lower delta region may lead to requests by environmental organizations or the Mexican government for additional allocations of water to Mexico for the purpose of taking advantage of those opportunities.

It is noteworthy that neither set of interests has raised the issue of the Salton Sea's possible restoration in this context. Clearly everyone has limits on the geopolitical complexities they are willing to tackle as a single package. Nevertheless, the Salton Sea is part of the Colorado River delta, has the largest concentration of aquatic wildlife in the region, and, like the Cienaga de Santa Clara and Rio Hardy wetlands of the lower delta, is sustained almost solely by agricultural wastewaters. Its restoration also might benefit from or depend on new infusions of Colorado River water.

Letter to Babbitt et al. from 16 Advocates
of Expanding Colorado River Conservation Planning into Mexico

January 21, 1998

Bruce Babbitt
Department of the Interior1
8th and C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240

Nancy Kauffman
Regional Director
U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Southwest Regional Office
P.O. Box 1306
Albuquerque, NM 87103

Robert W. Johnson
Regional Director
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Lower Colorado River Multi-Species
P.O. Box 61470
Boulder City, NV 80006-1470

Gerald R. Zimmerman
Lower Colorado River Multi-Species
Conservation Program Steering Committee
c/o 770 Fairmont Avenue, Suite 100
Glendale, CA 91203-1035

Dear Mr. Babbitt, Ms. Kaufman, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Zimmerman:

We the undersigned conservationists, scientists, academics, and environmental justice advocates strongly believe that the Colorado River basin must be recognized as a single ecological system all the way to the Upper Gulf of California. Well accepted principles of conservation biology, watershed planning, sustainable development, and international cooperation demand that the River north and south of the border be managed as a whole, with environmental, economic and social impacts on both sides of the international boundary taken into account in River management decisions in the United States and Mexico. Indeed, the bi-national approach to river management that we are advocating is echoed in the recent letter of intent signed by Secretaries Carabias and Babbitt that commits our Nations to work cooperatively to solve shared environmental problems in border protected areas.

Such a whole ecosystem approach, coordinating lower and upper basin management and conservation efforts, will prove to be the most biologically and financially efficient method of restoring the ecological health of the Colorado River region, achieving justice for indigenous and local peoples living in the region, and assuring the long-term economic sustainability of its water resources for sound regional development. Recent meetings in San Luis, Mexicali, and Tucson are evidence of a rising tide of concern on both sides of the border for dealing with the Colorado in a more holistic fashion.

We are concerned by the limited geographic scope of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (MSCP) and the potential to lock in river management operations and practices over the next 50 years without sufficient consideration of the adverse impacts to the Colorado River Delta or Gulf of California. Consideration of restoration of ecosystems south of the border will yield benefits to the overall recovery of imperiled species on both sides of the border. We wish to engage in a dialogue as to how the MSCP, with Regional Director Kaufman designated as an Ecosystem Recovery Implementation Team on January 13, 1997, could comport with the watershed based ecosystem scale management principles to which the Fish and Wildlife Service is committed. We would like to meet with the MSCP Steering Committee to discuss opportunities for protection and restoration of the Colorado River basin ecosystem south of the international border that are in keeping with the conservation and management priorities of Mexico.



Elena Chavarria
Pronatura, Sonora

Ed Glenn, Ph.D.
Environmental Research Lab
University of Arizona

John Fritschie, Coordinator
Lower Colorado River Program
Defenders of Wildlife

Carlos Valdés-Casillas, Ph.D
Center for Conservation and
Use of Natural Resoruces
Instituto Technologico de Estudios
Superiores deMonterrey-Guaymas

David H. Getches
Professor, Natural Resources Law University of Colorado
School of Law

David Hogan, Coordinator
Desert Rivers Program
Southwest Center for
Biological Diversity

Peggy Turk-Boyer
Executive Director
Centro Intercultural de Estudios de
Desiertos Y Oceanos

Chelsea Congdon
Resource Analyst
Environmental Defense Fund

Jason Morrison
Senior Associate
Pacific Institute

M.C. Salvador Galindo-Bect
Instituto de Investigaciones Oceanologica
Universidad Autonoma de Baja California

Anita Alvarez Williams
University of Baja California

Steve Cornelius, Director
Borderlands Program
Sonoran Institute

M.C. Ernesto Reynoso
Centro Regional de Estudios
Ambientales y Socioeconomics

Dale Turner
University of Arizona

Tara Mueller, Director
Biodiversity Legal Program
Environmental Law Foundation

Carlos Nagel
Frienda of Pronatura, Inc.

Resolution of the Colorado River Board of California Regarding The Planning Area for the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program

Whereas, the planning area for the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (LCR MSCP) is defined in the memorandum of Understanding and Memorandum of Agreement and subsequent Memorandum of Clarification of Development of a Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program as follows:

The program planning area encompasses the portion of the mainstem of The Colorado River from below Glen Canyon Dam to the Southerly International Boundary, including the 100-year floodplain and reservoir full pool elevations within the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada; and

Whereas, the cost sharing agreement and other necessary agreements are in place to develop the LCR MSCP and facilitate and complete the planning process within five years at a cost of $4.5 million; and

Whereas, the Biological Opinion necessitates completion of the Conservation Plan and the required environmental documentation within the established time frame; and

Whereas, expansion of the scope is likely to affect the timely completion of the Conservation Plan as well as the existing commitments of funding to complete the plan and implement the Interim Conservation Measures; and

Whereas, delay of completion of the Conservation Plan will likely have significant adverse impacts on the ecosystem and the species being addressed by the Conservation Plan, and

Whereas, conservation programs and activities authorized by the LCR MSCP Steering Committee and approved and permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other applicable authorities may be considered outsides the planning area.

Now, therefore, it is resolved that the LCR MSCP planning areas remain as described in the existing agreement and that due to the limited time available, conservation programs and mitigation measures included in the Conservation Plan by the program development consultant be within the planning area or the United States and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and appropriate authorities as required, and

It is further resolved that the Colorado River Board supports efforts by Mexico to develop and implement a plan to address endangered species concerns in Mexico through the exchange of information and coordinated planning efforts.

Unanimously adopted on March 11, 1998