By Published On: August 16, 2016

Large Grant Spurs New Regional Working Lands Conservation Initiative

By Jim Stutzman, Habitat Delivery Specialist

Water is for fighting, not drinking. That proclamation has echoed through the West and only increases in its certainty. As we learn more about the wildlife values associated with flood irrigated hay and pasturelands, the IWJV and our partners have begun to find win-win cooperative solutions with livestock producers to maintain flood irrigation in key places such as Southern Oregon – Northeastern California (SONEC). This place is one of the most important areas for migratory waterbirds in North America. SONEC supports approximately 70% of the Pacific Flyway’s wetland dependent migratory bird population. That’s over six million birds. SONEC also supports over 2,000 individual ranch operations. For these reasons, we strongly believe SONEC is a place worth fighting for.

Traditional flood-irrigation is generally described as the surface dispersal of water across floodplain habitats. The practice closely mimics the hydrologic patterns of spring snowmelt. Many flood-irrigated habitats occur in historic wet meadow and wetland footprints of intermountain valleys and basins. These places, particularly perennial pasture and haylands in the historic floodplain, serve as surrogate wetlands that provide a broad range of ecological goods and services.

For example, many wetland birds such as Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibis, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Northern Pintails use these flood-irrigated habitats as foraging habitat during migration and breeding seasons. Waterbirds are attracted to SONEC because of the food resources provided by privately owned, flood-irrigated wet meadow habitats on working ranchlands. Unfortunately, these habitats are increasingly threatened by changing irrigation practices, aging water conveyance infrastructure, and fragmentation.

Increased awareness about the importance of flood-irrigated habitats to continental waterbird populations and extensive partner collaboration are paying impressive dividends. The IWJV recently learned that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) approved the SONEC Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) proposal. The SONEC RCPP Project leverages $2.6 million in Farm Bill program funding with $7.44 million in partner contributions to conserve over 20,000 acres of privately owned wet meadow habitats and improve resiliency of working ranchlands with respect to drought. Using a platform of NRCS Conservation Implementation Strategies and other conservation planning efforts, this RCPP grant will help ranchers replace antiquated flood irrigation infrastructure, improve flood irrigation efficiency, and enhance flood irrigated working wetlands.

Partners across SONEC are working to conserve privately owned wet meadow habitats to improve resiliency of working ranchlands to address drought. Photos courtesy of Josh Vest.

This project embodies four principles:

1) Solutions: Strategically applies conservation programs to produce measurable outcomes for migratory birds through sustainable ranching;

2) Contributions: Marshalls $7.44 million in diverse partner contributions;

3) Innovation: Delivers science-based and spatially targeted conservation through the creative melding of NRCS and partner conservation financial assistance programs followed by robust outcome-based evaluations; and,  

4) Participation: Using existing field capacity and a proven track record, brings specially crafted applications of major NRCS and partner funding to ranchers that flood-irrigate wet meadows in SONEC.

The SONEC partnership has a long history of working cooperatively with NRCS, livestock producers, and rural communities to implement cooperative conservation projects. This broad partner coalition includes Soil and Water Conservation Districts, private landowners, agencies, and conservation organizations. Over the past decade, partners have enhanced 42,000 acres of flood-irrigated wet meadow habitat in SONEC. This track record demonstrates that landowners are actively engaged in finding “win-win” solutions to complex natural resource concerns including challenges related to At-Risk Species Habitat and Water Conservation.

Increased pressure on finite water resources will present daunting challenges for livestock producers, conservation organizations, and decision-makers in the future. Josh Vest, IWJV Science Coordinator, states: “Water issues will dictate our wetlands conservation strategy in the Intermountain West.” The IWJV is well positioned to address complex issues because the organization is built upon collaboration and community-based, landscape-level conservation principles. The alignment of ranching and bird conservation interests is fertile ground for robust partnerships. The approval of this $10 million SONEC RCPP grant demonstrates the power of diverse partnerships. In the coming years, the IWJV will work with long-standing and new partners to forge relationships and find win-win solutions to working wetlands and water in the West.