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Note: Dr. White is a limnologist and ecologist who has been involved with a number of water issues in southern California. Ogden Environmental and Energy Services received a contract from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in September 1997 to coordinate developmment of the LCR MSCP. Dr. White currently serves as technical director of that project. - S. Hurlbert, SDSU

The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program

By: Michael D. White, Ph.D.
Ogden Environmental and Energy Services Co., Inc.

The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (LCR MSCP) is an ambitious, regionally coordinated conservation program with an "ecosystem-based" approach to conserving species and habitats along the lower Colorado River. Through implementation of the program, federal and non-federal water and power agencies intend to achieve long-term compliance with state and federal endangered species laws. This article provides an overview of relevant background events, the LCR MSCP Plan development process, and the regulatory process associated with the development of the LCR MSCP.


In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated critical habitat for the four endangered "big river" fishes within the Colorado River Basin (bonytail chub, razorback sucker, humpback chub, and Colorado River squawfish). Section 7(a)(2) of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits federal agencies from authorizing, funding, or implementing actions that jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species or adversely affect designated critical habitat of an endangered species. Federal agencies whose discretionary actions may adversely affect designated critical habitat of endangered species are required to consult with the USFWS under section 7 of the ESA regarding these actions.

In the lower basin of the Colorado River (below Lees Ferry, Arizona), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) serves as the custodian for the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) in his role as the Watermaster of the river. Management of the Colorado River is governed by an international treaty with Mexico and several minutes to the international treaty, two interstate compacts, a Decree of the U.S. Supreme Court, various statutes, and contracts between the United States and water and power customers; all of these agreements and regulations are collectively known as the Law of the River. The Secretary, via the USBR, is required to operate the river within the framework established by the various components of the Law of the River; however, the USBR has some discretion involving certain aspects of river operations and maintenance. In addition, the Secretary is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the ESA through the USFWS, and thus is required to ensure that river operations and maintenance actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of threatened and endangered species or adversely modify designated critical habitat.

Following the 1994 designation of critical habitat for the big river fishes, the USFWS met with USBR to discuss development of a Biological Assessment (BA) under section 7 of the ESA for operations and maintenance of the lower Colorado River. The USBR initiated formal consultation with the USFWS on March 1996, the same month that the public review draft of the BA was published. The BA, which analyzes the impacts of the discretionary portion of the USBR's operations and maintenance activities on the lower Colorado River was finalized in August 1996. On April 30, 1997, the USFWS issued a Biological Opinion (BO) for the consultation, which specified a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) with 17 provisions that would minimize the impacts of take or avoid the likelihood of jeopardizing the continued existence of listed species or adverse modification of critical habitat. One of the specified provisions (RPA 12) is active USBR participation, and encouragement of other federal and non-federal agencies to participate, in the LCR MSCP.

Given their legal entitlements to Colorado River water and hydropower resources, the three lower Colorado River basin states, Indian Tribes along the river, and other non-federal interests (e.g., agricultural irrigation districts, biological resource management agencies, power providers, and water supply agencies) have a vested interest in the outcome of any consultations between USBR and USFWS that may affect the manner in which USBR operates the lower Colorado River to avoid jeopardizing endangered species or adversely modifying designated critical habitat. As a result, early in 1994 following publication of the proposal to designate critical habitat for the big river fishes, non-federal public agencies, private organizations, and Indian Tribes in the three lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) initiated a planning process that would work towards developing and implementing a multi-species management program. The objectives of the multi-species management program were to accommodate current water diversions and power production and optimize future water and power development opportunities; conserve habitat and work toward recovery of endangered species; and reduce the likelihood of additional threatened and endangered species listings.

Early in 1995, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was developed among the three lower Colorado River Basin states (including wildlife resource agencies) and the U.S. Department of Interior to establish a forum for considering "all matters related to the effects of water and power resources development, management, operations, maintenance and replacement, or activities to offset those effects, to endangered, threatened, and candidate species within the 100-year floodplain of the mainstem Colorado River and the full pool elevation of the affected reservoirs from below Glen Canyon Dam to the Southerly International Boundary." This MOU ultimately led to the development of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), signed August 2, 1995, and later clarified with a Memorandum of Clarification (MOC) in July 1996, that called for the development of a Multi-Species Conservation Program for the lower Colorado River. Signing the MOU and the MOA/MOC were representatives from the U.S. Department of Interior, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona Game and Fish Department, California Department of Fish and Game, Colorado River Board of California, Colorado River Commission of Nevada, and Nevada Division of Wildlife.

As described in the MOA/MOC, the objectives of developing the MSCP are:

  • conserve habitat and work towards the recovery of "included species" within the 100-year floodplain of the Lower Colorado River (LCR), pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and attempt to reduce the likelihood of additional species listings under the ESA; and
  • accommodate current water diversions and power production and optimize opportunities for future water and power development, to the extent consistent with law.

A list of 102 species of plants and animals was proposed for inclusion in the LCR MSCP (the "included species").

The LCR MSCP is governed by the 35-seat LCR MSCP Steering Committee. Steering Committee membership includes five members from each of the following agencies or interests:

(1) U.S. Department of Interior (Department of Interior, USBR, USFWS, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs)

(2) State of Arizona (Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, Arizona Power Authority, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District)

(3) State of California (Colorado River Board of California, California Department of Fish and Game, California agricultural interests, California urban interests, California power interests)

(4) State of Nevada (Colorado River Commission of Nevada [two seats], Nevada Division of Wildlife, Southern Nevada Water Authority, power customers of the Colorado River Commission)

(5) Indian Tribes (Colorado River Indian Tribes [also representing Chemehuevi, Ft. Yuma-Quechan, Ft. Mojave Indian Tribes, and Cocopah tribes], Hualapai Tribe)

(6) Environmental organizations (five seats to be filled)

(7) Other public or private entities (City of Yuma, City of Needles, Trout Unlimited/B.A.S.S., two seats to be filled)

The Steering Committee has appointed a Working Group (Work Group) to oversee the technical development of the MSCP with Steering Committee oversight and approval. The Work Group has also formed a number of technical subcommittees to provide guidance on specific technical or policy subjects. These include the Biology Subcommittee, Hydrologic Modeling Subcommittee, Peer Review Subcommittee, Projects List Subcommittee, Funding and Financing Subcommittee, Implementation Issues Subcommittee, Compliance Subcommittee, and Public Outreach Subcommittee.

In January 1997, the Steering Committee was designated an Ecosystem Recovery and Implementation Team (ECRIT) by the USFWS, pursuant to section 4(f)(2) of the ESA. The designation of the LCR MSCP Steering Committee as an ECRIT is somewhat unique in that it provides ECRIT status to a major group of water and power stakeholders. The designation was deemed appropriate, however, given the Steering Committee's objectives of conserving habitat and working towards recovery of declining species, while accommodating current and future water and power uses of the river. In this role, the Steering Committee will advise the USFWS on various actions to conserve native species, while taking into consideration human water and hydroelectric power needs.

A budget of $4.5 million was established for the LCR MSCP Plan development, facilitation services, contract administration by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and interim conservation measures (ICMs); and a cost-sharing agreement for the $4.5 million was negotiated among the states and the federal government. The contract to develop the LCR MSCP Plan was awarded in September 1997 and included preparation of all required environmental analyses and documentation.

The LCR MSCP is funding ICMs to provide critical short-term conservation actions for important species during the development of the long-term conservation plan. The LCR MSCP has focused these efforts on endangered fish species, the razorback sucker and bonytail chub, and on endangered riparian bird species, such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, and their habitat. The specific projects include: Native Fish Work Group efforts to augment the aging razorback sucker population in Lake Mohave; the Achii Hanyo fish rearing facility on the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) Reservation; development of leopard frog refugium by National Park Service; riparian restoration programs at the Fort Mohave Tribe's Twin Lakes project; the CRIT Deer Island riparian restoration project, riparian restoration efforts at the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), and installation of exclusion fencing to protect riparian habitat at the Bill Williams NWR.

MSCP Plan Development Process

The initial phase of MSCP Plan development involved construction of the LCR MSCP database and acquisition of relevant literature. The database has been assembled in a Geographic Information System (GIS) platform, which allows the development of various spatially explicit data layers (e.g., vegetation community distributions, species distributions, soil types, land use, ownership, etc.). The LCR MSCP GIS database has been organized at three different spatial scales: (1) watershed scale - generally at a 1:250,000 scale and covering the watershed of the lower Colorado River within the three lower basin states; (2) river scale - generally 1:24,000 scale and providing greater detail for the 100-year floodplain and reservoir full pool elevations; and (3) reach scale - to be developed for specific reaches of the river at scales necessary to support requisite analyses. Relevant literature, both peer-reviewed and gray, are being acquired and entered into a bibliographic database. We envision GIS database development and acquisition of relevant literature to proceed, as needed, throughout the plan development and implementation phases.

The next step in plan development involved refining the list of species to be included in the planning process. The Steering Committee's original list of 102 species was reevaluated, and additional species were recommended for consideration in the MSCP Plan. The augmented list of 119 species was then divided into six groups:

(1) Priority species - species that are federally or state listed, proposed for listing, candidates for listing or have a high likelihood of being listed during the planning horizon of the MSCP; that have regionally significant populations in the study area; and are likely to be affected by the LCR MSCP.

(2) Endemic planning species - species that are geographic or soil endemics in the study area or that have a wider distribution but are associated with a particular microhabitat that is limited in the study area.

(3) Habitat-based planning species - species that are considered to benefit from the habitat-based conservation actions implemented for Groups 1 and 2.

(4) Species not recommended for further evaluation at this time.

(5) Species that do not currently occur in the planning area but may be repatriated in the future (e.g., Colorado squawfish).

(6) Species that do not currently occur in the planning area but which may be affected by operation and maintenance of the lower Colorado River (e.g., totoaba, vaquita).

At this time, conservation strategies will be developed for, and ESA take authorizations will be sought for, Groups 1, 2, and 3.

To determine the conservation needs of the species and justify their placement into one of these six groups, species accounts were developed for each species, describing relevant status, life history requirements, distribution and important populations, and management needs. Using this information, the LCR MSCP Biology Subcommittee recommended LCR MSCP conservation goals for all Group 1 and 2 species (i.e., those species that require species-specific conservation actions to enhance their populations). These goals also include recommended measures to achieve the defined goals, such as achieving target population sizes, restoring acreages of habitats or establishing numbers of additional breeding locations, as well as monitoring, management and research needs. The species goals will be used as a basis for developing conservation strategies that will accomplish the overall LCR MSCP goal of working towards the recovery or preventing future listing of these species, while accommodating current and future water and power uses. A major component of the species goals is the proposed restoration of thousands of acres of riparian habitat suitable to support new breeding centers for species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo, and other riparian associated wildlife.

The species conservation goals and suggested measures described above will provide a basis for determining how much conservation will be provided to reverse the decline of the LCR MSCP priority and planning species, although costs, feasibility, and other factors will be taken into consideration during the development and adoption of a preferred conservation strategy by the Steering Committee. We have recently identified locations that are considered to provide opportunities for implementing conservation measures on a large scale (Conservation Opportunity Areas) and the physical and chemical requirements for successfully implementing the proposed habitat restoration activities in these areas (Target Restoration Parameters). The next step of the process is to utilize site-specific hydrologic/hydraulic modeling to determine the feasibility and alternative methods of creating the conditions (e.g., hydrograph, groundwater fluctuations, soil salinity, etc.) suitable for habitat restoration actions within the various Conservation Opportunity Areas.

Making use of the results of the site-specific hydrologic/hydraulic modeling, geographic locations for implementing conservation actions and technical approaches to restore suitable conditions will be combined to create conservation strategies. These conservation strategies are likely to vary in their cost and feasibility, as well as their ability to provide adequate conservation to justify the issuance of ESA take authorizations for the LCR MSCP priority and planning species. The conservation strategies, selected and approved by the Steering Committee, will be evaluated in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/ Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to satisfy the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), respectively.

Regulatory Process

The LCR MSCP involves both federal and non-federal actions and involvement. Therefore, the LCR MSCP is currently being viewed as a joint compliance process, satisfying the requirements of both section 7 (federal) and section 10 (non-federal) of the ESA. A programmatic EIS/EIR will be prepared to satisfy the requirements of NEPA and CEQA. The MSCP Plan must include a Financing Plan that demonstrates how the program will be paid for; an Implementing Agreement, which is essentially a contract between the parties implementing the plan specifying commitments and assurances; and a Monitoring and Adaptive Management Plan, which will ensure that the MSCP has the flexibility to modify the implementation of conservation actions over the life of the plan to accommodate new information on species status and new scientific developments.

The USBR's section 7 consultation with the USFWS requires the submission of a BA analyzing the USBR's actions and their affect on endangered species and designated critical habitat. The USFWS will issue a BO that authorizes incidental take of endangered species by USBR. It is a goal of the MSCP participants to prepare a sufficiently adequate and comprehensive MSCP to allow the USFWS to use it as the RPA in this and subsequent section 7 consultations. Take authorizations will be issued for federally listed species, and pre-listing agreements will be developed for unlisted species. Take authorizations under the California Endangered Species Act and Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act will also be sought from the California Department of Fish and Game for California-listed and unlisted species. The EIS will analyze the impacts of the USBR and other federal agencies implementing the MSCP and the impacts of the USFWS authorizing the incidental take of endangered species. The MSCP Plan will also serve as a Habitat Conservation Plan under section 10 of the ESA and must evaluate the alternatives associated with the incidental taking of endangered species and demonstrate minimization and mitigation of the impacts of such taking, to the degree practicable.

The LCR MSCP is expected to be completed early in the year 2001. It will provide a 50-year conservation program, and its implementation will be overseen by an entity comprised of federal and non-federal stakeholders. Implementation of conservation actions on the ground will involve federal and state resource agencies as well as other land and resource managers currently involved in plan development.

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