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Restoration ideas flow from Southwest river experts

125 gather to exchange river restoration info

A meeting of minds in Tucson this week will eventually lead to a river restoration guidebook that could help on-the-ground environmentalists across the nation protect our most rare and endangered wildlife habitats.

The bi-national conference - sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, University of Arizona, National Park Service and Mexico's environmental group Pronatura Noroeste and federal National Institute of Ecology – brought together about 125 scientists, managers, administrators and others interested in protecting the rivers of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

The "Bringing Back Our Rivers and Their Riparian Ecosystems – Learning from the Past for the Benefit of the Future" conference was held Tuesday through Thursday.

One key issue facing environmentalists along some of the most highly altered rivers in the world is deciding what a restored river looks like. Using the lower Colorado River as an example, Jack Schmidt, a Utah State University researcher who has long studied the West's rivers, pointed out that given enough money and political will, the sky is the limit. But the focus should remain on the biology of threatened species.

"We have the ability to recreate any kind of river we want. Ultimately we have to go back to what these species need," Schmidt said.

As the scientific knowledge of the river advances and needs become more clear, questions have arisen about where restoration money has been spent - about $600 million so far, according to Schmidt.

Because river health is linked not only to water but also to sediment, there is a proposal on the table to spend $220 million on a pipeline to carry sediment around Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell. The effort would help control flooding and erosion.

The river might have been better served by building the sluice pipeline and giving $200 million to upper Colorado basin managers – leaving $200 million in tax money saved, Schmidt said.

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"And maybe you would have protected the big fishes better," he said.

Border parts Colorado water

Problems along the Colorado are compounded by the U.S. Mexico border, which transects the river near Yuma. The border brings into play an array of issues and organizations that aren't in play on other rivers.

Although almost four times the annual flow is stored in U.S. reservoirs along the Colorado, much of that water is gone by the time the river enters Mexico near Yuma. That situation makes it difficult for environmentalists south of the border to work and brings into play international organizations, such as the International Boundary and Water Commission, which helps manage the flow of water to and from Mexico.

The river used to end in the northern Sea of Cortez, said Jennifer Pitt of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund.

"Since about 1998, the river has not flowed down to the sea," Pitt said.

The Cienega de Santa Clara, a wetland created in Sonora by cross-border releases of water, has become an important area for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, some of them endangered. But because environmental flow – the amount needed to support the environment – was never considered in the restarting of a desalination plant in Yuma, the cienega is at risk of water depletion and salty waste runoff from the plant, Pitt said.

She has worked to determine an estimate for the needed environmental flow for the river delta – about 50,000 acre-feet per year, or the amount used by about 150,000 southern Arizona families each year.

Recently, an agreement was reached to secure some of that water. Although the exact amounts have not yet been determined, a change in a 1944 treaty with Mexico will eventually guarantee significant flow for the delta, said Osvel Hinojosa of the Mexican environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

The agreements for the water – 3,600 acre-feet so far with another 2,400 acre-feet of flow planned – will help save the remaining 4,000-5,000 acres of cottonwood-willow forest in the delta, Hinjosa said.

"It's the first time the environment is at the table," he said.

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One underlying purpose of the three-day Tucson gathering was to generate and exchange ideas for a river restoration guidebook. For decades, ecologists of every stripe have been sloshing around in rivers across the Southwest, testing various ways to encourage or sometimes force habitat regeneration in the wake of man's impact.

"The majority of these projects are not well documented," said conference organizer Mark Briggs of the World Wildlife Fund.

On Tuesday, breakout groups brainstormed on lessons learned from working in the trenches. Far from an ivory tower huddle of scientists discussing arcane theory, the conference was designed to tap the knowledge of the scores of preservation managers in attendance, many of whom have spent decades working in the trenches.

Kathleen Blair, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist at the Lake Havasu National Refuge Complex, called the effort "extremely valuable."

Blair has long shied away from such conferences, because they often lack concrete results. This meeting was a worthy investment of time and money, since it will yield a usable end result, she said.

She noted that the scientific, administrative and managerial aspects of river restoration have often operated in "three vacuums" that don't communicate as well as they could.

"There needs to be a better link between those, and I hope this guidebook will be that," Blair said.

Shannon Hatch, of the Tamarisk Coalition, isn't directly involved in river restoration, but she sees potential in the planned guidebook.

"I think it will be a good resource to direct the people we work with to," Hatch said.

In the end the problem is one of supply and demand. For years, demand for water from the West's rivers has been rising and the supply declining, largely because of drought and increased population and per-capita water use. In a sentiment echoed by Robert Glennon, a UA law professor, water author and keynote speaker at the conference, Briggs highlighted the need for change in our thinking.

"It's all about the water and protecting the water that's in the river, and the practices that are in use right now are completely unsustainable," Briggs said.

The draft of the guidebook should be completed in about eight months.

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B. Poole/TucsonSentinel.com

About 125 river restoration scientists, managers and others interested in river restoration gathered in Tucson this week to hash out ideas for a river restoration guidebook.

Bringing Back Our Rivers and Their Riparian Ecosystems – Learning from the Past for the Benefit of the Future

Keynote Speakers

  • Dr. Robert Glennon, University of Arizona
  • Dr. Eduardo Peters, Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, Mexico
  • Dr. Jack Schmidt, Utah State University
  • Dr. Juliet Stromberg, Arizona State University
  • Dr. Linday White, Senior Manager, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Australia


  • National Park Service
  • Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, SEMARNAT
  • National Oceanic Atmospheric Adminstration Sector Applied Research Program
  • Research Coordinating Network
  • Colorado River Delta
  • University of Arizona
  • World Wildlife Fund