Irrigation district asks Interior to create wildlife area for endangered species

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YUMA, AZ – An irrigation district in southeastern California has asked the federal government to create a wildlife area along a stretch of the lower Colorado River to restore habitat for several threatened and endangered species.

Spurred by rumors that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people, was considering purchasing the lands, the Bard Water District near Yuma, Ariz., asked the Bureau of Reclamation to bring the area under the protective wing of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan. The plan, adopted in 2005 and administered by Reclamation, identifies and protects lands with high restoration potential to offset the environmental impacts associated with the elaborate plumbing system that siphons water to irrigators and cities in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

The water district operates and maintains part of the Yuma Project, which delivers Colorado River water to 14,676 acres of irrigated farmland in the Bard Valley.

The proposed wildlife area, which lies in an old oxbow of the Colorado River — a reminder of the river’s former course before it shifted in the early 20th century — includes three lakes and an island. Riparian and wetland vegetation such as honey mesquite, cottonwood and willow trees and cattail marshes once dominated the area, but has largely been replaced by tamarisk and other non-native species. Under the proposal, the non-native vegetation would be removed and native species would be replanted.

The restored 1,000- to 2,000-acre wildlife area would once again provide habitat for migratory birds, district officials say. And while federal biological surveys of the site have not yet been conducted, the district believes the area could support several threatened and endangered species, including the Yuma clapper rail, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo. All of those species are identified as priorities under the multi-species conservation plan.

The project, if approved by Reclamation, would be restored by the agency’s multi-species conservation program using about 600 acre-feet of water from the district. Water users would not be harmed because the hydrology of the area is such that water would return to the system, district officials said.

“We deliver water right next to it,” said Ron Derma, the Bard Water District’s general manager. “So if they needed to add a drainage to add some fresh water, we could do that.”

And influx of water would be needed to help establish cottonwood and willow trees, which provide habitat for the flycatcher and other species.

The project would count toward the goals of the multi-species conservation plan, which aims to restore 8,132 acres over 50 years.

Various people have proposed the idea of a wildlife area at the site over the years, including former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in the 1960s, to no avail. In recent years, water users and Reclamation quashed a previous proposal from the Bard Water District out of concern that it could affect other users. But after tweaking the boundaries of the proposed area to avoid private lands, district officials believe they finally have a winning plan.

“It’s what they call a no-man’s land, and people have been fighting over it for 50 years,” Richard Johnson, president of the Bard Water District board of directors, said during a meeting of the Colorado River Citizens Forum on Tuesday night in El Centro, Calif.

Johnson said he hopes the area can be restored to resemble the thriving wetland he remembers growing up in the Yuma area.

“When I was a young man, this used to be a stopover for migratory birds,” he recalled.

But there are still questions to be answered before Reclamation can approve the project, said John Swett, program manager of the Lower Colorado Multi-Species Conservation Program.

“In many places on Colorado River, there may be multiple land claims; then we have to determine if there’s a water right,” he said.

Derma said he believes all of the land identified in the revised version of the proposal is under either Bureau of Reclamation or Bureau of Land Management ownership, and that the district owns the water rights. (Greenwire, 12-7-2012)