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Habitat replacement funded by salinity projects

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Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Agriculture U.S. Bureau of Reclamation biologists Lesley McWhirter and Jennifer Ward, along with Barb Osmundson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, monitor a wildlife habitat replacement project created with fu

Major improvements to local irrigation ditches began in 1998 with the piping of laterals off the South Canal in the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users delivery system and now include over 100 miles of pipeline.

The Grandview Canal outside Crawford received Bureau of Reclamation funds in 2008 to install a section of pressurized pipeline, the first such project in the North Fork area. Federal funds from the Bureau of Reclamation are available for ditch lining and piping projects as part of the Colorado River Salinity Control program.

Controlling high salt levels in the lower Colorado River is expensive, costing water users in Nevada, Arizona and California in the range of $250 to remove each ton of salt from the river. Irrigation improvements to prevent water from percolating through the high salt shale in the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are a relative bargain, typically costing $50 to $100 per ton of salt kept out of the Colorado River.

The Colorado River provides municipal water supply to over 40 million people, and irrigation water to support production of much of the county's winter vegetables. Population growth and drought create an increasing demand for a supply of clean water in the Southwest. This water demand, along with a record of meeting water quality goals, means the Salinity Control Program is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

To date, this program has funded over $55 million in improvements to irrigation delivery systems in the Lower Gunnison Basin. While these projects are funded with the goal of reducing salt in the Colorado River, these pipelines and lined canals also reduce the annual maintenance work needed compared to earthen canals, and allow irrigation delivery systems to function in a more efficient manner. Using our water supplies more efficiently supports local agriculture to continue thriving into the future, and helps avoid the devastation of "buy and dry" water rights transfers that have occurred in other parts of the state.

The Bureau of Reclamation's Basinwide Salinity Control Program recognizes that wildlife habitat created by willows and cottonwoods along open canals is lost when ditches are put into pipelines. A portion of the funds for each pipeline project are dedicated to wildlife habitat restoration nearby. Since 1998, the UVWUA has spent nearly $2 million for invasive weed control and other improvements to over 190 acres in the Escalante State Wildlife Refuge along the Gunnison River just north of Delta.

In the North Fork and Crawford areas, besides converting 57 miles of open ditches into more water-efficient piped delivery systems, the Salinity Control Program has funded $1.4 million of habitat improvements on over 140 acres, including invasive weed control, construction of wetlands, and planting of native trees and shrubs.

These wildlife habitat replacement projects must be on public lands, or private property protected by a conservation easement. All habitat restoration areas are required to be maintained for 50 years.

"The original habitat impact was when these ditches began diverting water out of the streams, so I really like to see the habitat replacement work occur along riparian areas," states Barb Osmundson, the salinity program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who is part of a team of biologists responsible for approving these wildlife habitat projects.

Studies currently underway along Surface Creek and the Smith Fork may provide an opportunity for more wildlife habitat restoration to happen along the original water sources. The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia is currently overseeing assessment of these riparian areas. A report listing priority areas for wildlife habitat improvement is expected to be completed in December.

With over $1 million committed to additional habitat restoration projects in the Lower Gunnison Basin over the next years, we will have the opportunity to make additional improvements benefiting local wildlife along local streams and rivers in the near future.

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Agriculture, Salinity, Water
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