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Presidential Transition: Wetlands Water Supply

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Wetlands require a reliable, adequate water supply to function and provide the multitude of benefits they produce for our nation and its wildlife. Most often that water supply comes directly from natural precipitation and runoff. In much of the eastern United States, water supply for wetlands poses little problem, except during periods of drought. However, throughout the arid West, wetlands must compete with other demands – particularly urban uses and agriculture - for a highly variable, unpredictable, and limited water resource. Ducks Unlimited (DU) is committed to work with the Obama Administration to resolve and mitigate these water issues and proactively work to avoid the growing potential for problems in the East.

The West was settled largely on the back of diversion irrigation. While this water diversion facilitated the establishment of several large metropolitan areas and the development of millions of acres of productive farmlands, the environmental impact was the eradication of most of the West’s natural wetlands. Tulare Lake in California, which used to be the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, no longer exists. In the Klamath Basin between Oregon and Northern California, farmers, salmon and wetlands compete for limited river flows, resulting in the endangerment of several fish species, livelihoods of commercial fishermen and farmers, and one of the world’s most important wetland complexes. The lower Colorado River has so much water diverted that it becomes a trickle by the time it reaches the Mexican border and wintering habitat for millions of migratory birds has been reduced to a small fraction of the historic acreage.

The U.S. Department of the Interior identified areas of the West where water supply crises are expected by 2025, and most of these areas are also recognized by DU and other leading wetland conservation organizations as critical to sustaining the continent’s migratory bird populations. Yet, policies, programs and even entire bureaucracies, created at a time when wetlands and wildlife habitat were abundant and undervalued, have systematically created and perpetuated the declining condition of these wetlands. It is vital that wetlands and associated wildlife habitat are considered as public policy is developed, modified, and implemented to ensure that the dire situation in the West not only abates, but also improves.

There are two particular areas of water supply policy development and implementation that DU believes must be addressed.

Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA)

Background: The CVPIA, enacted in 1992, mandated the delivery of water supplies to critical Pacific Flyway wetlands. Specifically, it required the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to provide full base-level supplies of water to key wetland areas, provide water needed to mitigate for the impacts of agriculturally contaminated water on the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, and ramp-up to optimal base levels of water by 2002. If this promise of water supply had been realized, the result would have been ecologically appropriate water conditions on water-poor federal refuges, state wildlife areas and some private wetlands. Even so, these improved wetlands would represent only a small percentage of historic Central Valley wetlands lost to agriculture and urbanization.

Need: Some progress has been made in complying with these mandates. As a result of the efforts of the BOR and other conservation partners, more reliable water supplies have provided some habitat for migratory birds during the winter months. However, full refuge water supplies – winter and summer water – have never been achieved, and compliance with the promises of the Act is still far from reality. As a drought in the West and population growth continues, the prospects for significant progress are dwindling.

Passage of CVPIA was considered to be the turning point for reliable water supplies at key Central Valley wetlands and mitigation for the years of damage to fish and wildlife through government-sponsored drainage programs. The Bureau has been unable, however, to develop creative means to increase water supplies in many instances. A number of actions could improve the status of wetlands in the region. A little-used CVPIA program could retire less productive farmland and reduce the demand for scarce water. Increases in staffing devoted to this work and upgraded facilities to convey the water supplies to refuges could result from budgets appropriated for wetland improvement. Short-term water contracts and ground water pumping have not been sufficient to assure the long-term water supply needs. Permanent water rights have been available and need to be acquired to ensure wetland functions and values in the Central Valley.

Recommendations: DU urges the Obama Administration to (1) examine the staffing and organizational structure of BOR and FWS to ensure more effective implementation of the CPVIA, (2) support budget appropriations that make up for past internal shortfalls needed to accomplish the Act’s goals, and (3) support budget appropriations needed to pay for the federal share of costs associated with the purchase of permanent water rights.

Water Supply and Energy Development

Background: Water is used for the development and production of energy resources, including alternative energy sources such as oil shale, oil sands, and ethanol. Some of these processes use very large amounts of water. Moreover, some components of the production process are transferable, yet continue to be promoted and subsidized in locations where water is in short supply and its use by the energy industry competes directly with water supplies for wetlands and other important water needs.

Need: Federal subsidies and other means of promoting and encouraging energy production operations in water-short areas of the country should be discontinued and energy development redirected to locations where water is in greater supply.

Recommendations: To the extent that ethanol production plants continue to be promoted as the means to provide alternative energy sources, DU encourages the Obama Administration to support incentives to locate new plants in areas outside of the Prairie Pothole Region of the Great Plains. In addition, the consumptive use of water in other forms of energy development and production should be examined carefully to minimize use of water and to relocate away from critical wetlands necessary to support the Nation’s breeding and wintering migratory birds.

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Related:  public policy

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