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U.S. Water News, August 1998, Vol. 15, No. 8

[For good source of current information on water issues, see the website of this publication at U.S. Water News Home Page]

Diverse Interests to Create Landmark Colorado River Plan

By Mary DeSena

Glen Canyon Dam, Ariz. - It's now common knowledge that the Colorado River is over-appropriated, with almost every drop accounted for by an impressive list of human users.

It's also no secret that wildlife habitat in and around the river is no longer able to support many species that once thrived here. At the moment, approximately 100 of these species are in need of protection- and the list is growing.

To head off the conflict inherent in these diverse and often competing demands on an increasingly limited water supply, an unprecedented collaborative effort is now under way in the lower Colorado River watershed.

The recently formed Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (LCRMSCP) is a regional cooperative effort to develop a 50-year conservation plan for the mainstem of the Lower Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, south to the southerly International Boundary, near San Luis, Rio Colorado, Mexico.

"That area covers over 700 river-miles - a pretty big chunk of river," said Dr. Mike White, principal aquatic ecologist with Ogden Environmental and Energy Services Co., which has been retained by the MSCP steering committee to assist in developing the Multi-Species Conservation Plan.

White said the program's current goal is to develop a plan that will encompass the 100-year flood plain of the Colorado - an ambitious goal, he added, because the exact extent of this flood plain can't be easily determined.

White is one of several consultants at Ogden who has been developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) database which includes such components as vegetation communities, land use, digital elevation models, land ownership, roads, cities, streams and reservoirs - all of which will interact with baseline biological information on the original list of approximately 100 species in need of protection.

"This project is unprecedented," White said, "not only in terms of sheer size, but in the complexity of the task, and the number of state and federal agencies, as well as other regional interests involved."

A 35- member steering committee, made up of regional stockholders, has been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an Ecosystem Conservation and Recovery Implementation Team under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), he said. In addition, a number of subcommittees have been formed, which will work cooperatively on various facets of the plan - technical, legal, and political.

"It's ambitious," said White, but the process is being driven by a realization of the necessity of finding cooperative solutions to water supply problems, as well as the various threats to endangered species."

White said the impetus for the MSCP emerged over the past few years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation - both federal agencies - have struggled with their responsibility to address the problem of designating critical habitat for two of the species of lower Colorado River fish now listed as endangered.

"The problem is," said White, "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."

Unless such conflicts are resolved - on a much bigger scale than ever attempted before - the potential for conflict and costly litigation looms large over the region, he said, adding that more and more environmental groups are appealing to such federal agencies as the Bureau of Reclamation to manage some Colorado River water for species.

According to Jerry Zimmerman, of the Colorado River Board of California, who is chairman of the MSCP Steering Committee, the process, which began almost two years ago, has been going well, in spite of the competing interests involved.

"The MSCP provides an excellent opportunity to address the needs of both species and users along the main stem of the Colorado," he said. "By its very nature it's a demanding process, but all the participants are devoting a lot of time to developing this plan. There is a strong interest in making it work."

Zimmerman said an MSCP work group, made up of chairpeople from each of the subcommittees, is meeting monthly. He said the group has outlined five "deliverables" they expect to complete during the first year: final habitat classification systems, a recommendation list of priority and planning species, a database design and data dictionary, data gaps and recommendations on how to address those gaps, and an analysis of conservation opportunities and constraints.

Several documents have already been prepared, including one which summarizes baseline biological information for the 100 endangered species, another which outlines the GIS database design, and a third which offers a proposed vegetation classification system. These documents were presented to the biology subcommittee for review and comment.

"We've agreed that the species proposed for evaluation by the LCRMSCP would be placed into one of six groups," said White.

These groups include priority species that will drive the planning process, endemic species or species with geographically distinct microhabitat requirements, species that are considered to benefit from general habitat-based management actions, species which do not occur in the planning area but which could be affected by operations and maintenance of the lower Colorado River, and species that do not currently exist in the study area but could be reintroduced in the future, as well as species which would not be evaluated at this time.

The team is now in search of additional data that will fill in the gaps in both the GIS and biological databases, as well as developing species-specific measurable standards for the LCRMSCP.

Meanwhile, the steering committee has authorized expenditures over a three-year period to fund interim conservation measures to provide critical habitat for certain endangered, threatened, and sensitive species. This year, the steering committee will also develop several pilot projects for endangered species habitat restoration along the Lower Colorado River.

In addition, a funding subcommittee is identifying and evaluating various funding approaches for interim measures, and has begun to develop a funding package to support the implementation of the long-term MSCP over the 50-year life of the 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."