Guest commentary: Bipartisan bill would expand Upper Colorado, San Juan River conservation programs

Brittany Parker
Guest commentary
Native fish species, such as humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, as well as cutthroat trout (above), could benefit greatly from the passing of the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basin Recovery Act.
Kate Isaacson/Courtesy photo
Brittany Parker

On Feb. 17, Sens. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, introduced the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basin Recovery Act. The bill would strengthen the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basin Endangered Fish Recovery Program through a one-year extension and give Upper Basin communities time to develop a long-term management plan in the face of drought and a changing climate.

The Program was established in 1988 as a multi-agency partnership between conservation groups, tribes and irrigation districts, as well as local, state and federal government agencies. These groups came together and devised strategies to recover the four federally listed endangered fish species endemic to the Colorado and San Juan basins: humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

Dam construction in the early to mid-1900s severely fragmented and disrupted native fish habitat and the introduction of non-native predatory aquatic species pushed these native fish to the brink of extinction. The humpback chub was the first to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967, and the other three soon followed, spurring a widespread conservation movement.

All four native fish species are long-lived, aging anywhere from 30 to 50 years. Their relatively long lifespan often means populations are slow to respond to conservation and recovery efforts. After 33 years of restoration work, the federal government down-listed the humpback chub from endangered to threatened after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined it was no longer at risk of extinction.

This status change does not remove most protections under the Endangered Species Act – for example, the killing of the fish is still barred — but more flexibility is given to the state and conservation groups in moving and managing populations. Delisting the razorback sucker is up for consideration. The ecological effectiveness of these programs is indisputable, and the further investment in restoration efforts will not only benefit the four native fish species but will help all native species currently under increased stress due to climate change and human development.

Rep. Joe Neguse, chair of the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, expressed his concern over climate change impacts in a statement of support, “In the West, unprecedented drought and climate-induced wildfires have drawn great urgency to the way we steward and protect our water resource.s …That’s why we introduced the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basins Recovery Act to ensure that critical water infrastructure projects in Colorado can continue operating while we protect and safeguard endangered species in these River Basins. We were grateful to see this legislation pass out of the House Natural Resources Committee late last year and are thrilled to now have the partnership of Senators Hickenlooper and Romney leading the way in the Senate.”

The funding behind monitoring, stocking, combating invasive species, habitat management and managing river flows is originally set to expire on Sept. 30, 2023. This bill will extend funding for the basin programs and their active partners, such as the Colorado River District. It will also allow for the transfer of funds from the San Juan Basin Program to the Upper Colorado River Basin Program by shifting capital cost ceilings.

The legislation will allot a one-year reporting deadline, allowing the Department of the Interior more time to assess any changes to populations due to intense drought conditions. Not only will this bill continue to support the restoration of our local watershed, but it will also ensure our rivers maintain healthy water levels, further supporting our vibrant fishing community and economy.

If the bill passes it will be a crucial step in the recovery of the native fish species as well as a bipartisan achievement worth celebrating.