The Bureau of Reclamation, in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Utah, is conducting a wetlands functional assessment of properties acquired along the Green and San Rafael Rivers in Emery County. The purpose of the assessments is to obtain wetland mitigation credit to offset wetland impacts due to salinity control projects in the Price/San Rafael drainage basin. That's official language for saying when the currently, leaking canals are put into pipes to reduce salt leaching, the water that created the artificial wetlands will dry up, endangering the species that have come to live in them. So what those agencies are doing is acquiring land with the plan to use excess water saved from piping canals to create new wetlands. Simple, yes. Easy, no.
When salinity control projects are constructed (to reduce amount of salt that can leach out of soil and eventually find it's way into aquifers and rivers), they often result in the loss of the wetlands and riparian habitat which have formed along leaky canals. And at first glance, it might seem that fixing the salt problem creates a wetlands problem. "It costs a lot less to replace an irrigation canal with a pipe than it does to build a chemical treatment plant to remove salts from the water," says Lee Baxter, overseer of the Salinity Projects at Reclamation's Provo Area Office. Salt loading is bad for farmers, and international neighbors like Mexico who are guaranteed by treaty to have no more than a certain amount of salt in the Colorado River every year. So, it makes perfect sense that stopping that leakage is Lee's primary concern.
But stopping the leakage would probably dry up the wetlands, and that's bad for the newly formed habitat. "A lot of wetlands have developed as a result of leakage of some of those irrigation canals," says Kathy Trott, a Wetlands Biologist at the same office. "And, while we want to reduce salt loading in the river, we want to keep that water and use it more efficiently." Kathy's idea of efficient use is recharging those seasonal wetlands and maintaining existing habitat with the water that's saved from piping over open canals. The loss of this type of habitat, a habitat which is rare in the desert southwest, is extremely important to many wildlife species. So, the assessment is to determine if the acquired lands for new habitat make up for the wetlands lost when the leaky canals are piped; a compromise that both Lee and Kathy, as well as the residents of Emery County, are working on.
But, in the end, it's the residents who have to see the benefits, and they are taking a close look at the issue. Yes, they know salt in the river is bad, but if you're a farmer, the best place for the salt is downstream. So salinity programs elicit tepid interest among them. But, when the talk shifts to more efficient irrigation, and therefore increased crop production because pipes can provide pressure to federally subsidized irrigation systems, then you're speaking a language the practical businessman who runs a farm can relate to. Although it's the federal objective, to the farmer, it's only a matter of consequence that efficient irrigation also reduces salt.
Meanwhile, the acquiring of land to "let go to seed" as some residents see it, seems wasteful. But, according to Baxter, "Reclamation, generally has a wetlands mitigation obligation associated with all of our projects." "Frequently," he says, "the way that we meet that obligation is acquiring property or developing ponds and then turning them over to the local entity to manage, such as the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources." Besides, he says that when the area was originally settled, the natural stream was diverted to supply the canals. "We're not taking water that the farmers are currently using to irrigate," he says. "The lands that we acquired for mitigation have water associated with them, ... which was converted to an in-stream flow."
If a farmer flood irrigates, only about 30% of the water he puts on the land is actually consumed, while 70% finds it's way back to the stream channel. The farmer downstream of him depends on that return flow. But, when sprinklers are installed, control of water increases, and irrigation efficiency usually doubles. Since sprinklers let farmers increase production, they'll try to grow more since they have more water. But since only so much can be used, much more water ends up in return flows than has in the past. "It's really a win - win - win situation for everyone," says Baxter. The farmer wins because they make more money by saving water and growing more crops. The salinity program wins because reduced salt in return flows helps the federal government meet it's salinity obligations. And finally, the habitat wins because new wetlands are created through this mitigation."