Habitat Restoration and Protection
Western Resource Advocates is working with four other conservation groups on a collaborative project highlighting Arizona's rivers. Each month during Arizona's centennial year, we will profile a different river in celebration of the state's precious natural resources. From the mighty Colorado to the smallest ephemeral streams, these waterways have supported Arizona's people and places for thousands of years. With good stewardship and thoughtful planning, they will continue to flow into Arizona's next 100 years!
Learn more about Arizona's Rivers below:
March: The Colorado River (.pdf)
April: The Salt River (.pdf)
May: The Little Colorado River (.pdf)
June: The Santa Cruz River (.pdf)
July: The Bill Williams River (.pdf)
August: The Gila River (pdf)
September: The Verde River (pdf)
October: San Pedro River (pdf)
November: San Francisco River (pdf)
December: Fossil Creek (pdf)
January: Aravaipa Creek (pdf)
February: Agua Fria (pdf)
Protecting the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness
On March 30, 2009, Congress passed legislation designating the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area. The new 66,000-acre wilderness lies in the heart of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, west of the Gunnison River and south of Grand Junction, Colorado. The wilderness designation provides a unique and important opportunity for the State of Colorado to use its instream flow program to protect federal wilderness values. As a process unfolds to determine how much water is needed to protect this new wilderness area, it's important that the water rights established be adequate, not only to keep the streams flowing, but to insure the health of the aquatic and riparian ecosystems that rely on them. Read more on issues facing Domingues Canyon here.
Congress Passes Omnibus Lands Bill That Includes Protecting Water in Dominguez Canyon
Congress passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a sweeping piece of legislation that will protect and conserve a broad array of public lands across the nation. Among the areas benefiting from the Act are the newly designated Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area.
Western Resource Advocates helped craft a unique water rights solution for the legislation that established the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area. Working closely with state agencies and Western Slope water interests in 2007 and 2008 we helped reach a compromise on federal legislation that calls upon the state’s instream flow program to secure flows in the new federal wilderness. The legislation, which passed both chambers of Congress in March 2009 provides that if the state fails to secure appropriate flows, the Secretary of the Interior can file for a federal water right to protect a wide array of wilderness values.
Water Agreement to Protect the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Decades of negotiations, legal wrangling and involvement by WRA have finally produced more water for the Gunnison River. A Water Court judge finalized the water rights decree for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park returning healthier streamflows back to a river beginning this year that has been long controlled by three upstream dams. Learn more
Carved over the millennia by the Gunnison River, the Black Canyon is recognized as a national treasure for its spectacular gorges, wildlife habitat, and unique scientific value. It is home to a world-class trout fishery and mesmerizes visitors with its wild roar of cascading water, especially when it reaches its peak flow each spring. The Black Canyon became a national monument in 1933 and was elevated to National Park status in 1999.
Western Resource Advocates has actively sought protection of the Black Canyon and Gunnison River for years, representing five conservation organizations in the Black Canyon water rights case—the largest, and one of the most important, water cases in Colorado’s history. On June 6, 2008, a proposed settlement signaled an end to more than 30 years of contentious water rights battles.
Restoring the Ecological Balance: A New Flow Regime
Interested parties in the Black Canyon water rights case presented a settlement of the federal reserved water right, which includes annual peak flows and shoulder flows—tied to natural inflow—plus a year-round base flow of 300 cubic feet per second. Collectively, these elements are critical to the health of the Park and the Gunnison River.
This flow regime will protect the water-dependant resources of the Black Canyon and help restore the ecological balance in the river system disrupted by three federal dams immediately upstream of the Park. The flows will create a healthier environment for a
world class trout fishery, cleanse sediment deposits that have caused whirling disease in trout, clear woody debris, maintain the river channel, and greatly improve the aesthetics of a flowing river for hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
Negotiating Protection for the Black Canyon
Interested parties at the negotiation table included irrigators in the Gunnison basin, hydroelectric power producers, flat water recreationists, boaters, federal agencies (including the National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Fish & Wildlife Service), the State of Colorado, towns concerned about flood control, anglers, and conservation groups.
“Considering the number of organizations and interests involved, the water settlement epitomizes the tremendous complexities of environmental negotiation,” said Andy Spielman, a partner at Hogan & Hartson, representing, on a pro bono basis, all seven conservation groups involved in the case. “What’s truly encouraging is how everyone’s needs were addressed with integrity to create a workable compromise for all.”
The protection proposed for the Black Canyon is the culmination of many years of effort by Western Resource Advocates representing five other conservation organizations and working in partnership with Trout Unlimited and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Bart Miller, WRA’s Water Program director and attorney in the Black Canyon case, played a lead role in negotiations and collaborated closely with in-basin interests and State and federal officials. He has organized research for the environmental groups’ hydrologist and sits on the committee that set the agenda for mediation. Most invaluably, Bart has been the primary author of correspondence from the conservation groups to the federal agencies, and has acted as the chief point of contact between the conservation groups and other parties. The law firm of Hogan and Hartson provided extensive pro bono assistance to us, our clients, and our partners in this litigation.
Continuing Protection for the Black Canyon National Park
The settlement proposed in June 2008 continues the success WRA has achieved in protecting the Black Canyon. In September of 2006, in an historic decision, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer issued a decision to protect the magnificent natural resources of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This decision blocked the federal government from giving away the Black Canyon’s long-standing reserved water right to those who would like to use the water for development on Colorado’s Front Range. The decision also established an important precedent about governmental responsibility for protecting water resources of National Parks across the country.
With the court’s decision, the Black Canyon was saved from a 2003 agreement between the federal government and Colorado officials that would have opened the possibility of diverting Gunnison River water a hundred miles away from the park for use fueling more Front Range sprawl.
Over the past five years, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has faced numerous threats to its ecological health, recreational use, and aesthetic quality. The series of victories to protect the Black Canyon demonstrates that with effective collaboration, unrelenting determination, and ardent supporters, WRA’s work can go far in protecting the West’s land, air, and water now and for generations to come.
All photos courtesy of National Park Service.