Rivers and RIPs: Recovery? Really?

If you give a rip about western rivers and their native fish and wildlife, you should know the term RIP.  By that I do not mean Rest In Peace–although that too has relevance, given how many of the West’s native fish species have been extirpated from all or many of the streams they once inhabited.  Instead I mean Recovery Implementation Programs, which have a stated goal of recovering species protected by the Endangered Species Act.  These RIPs have become a preferred approach to ESA compliance for river-dependent species, at least in the Interior West.

So you know a little about the ESA but don’t know what a RIP is?  No surprise, given that you won’t find any mention of RIPs in the ESA itself or even its implementing regulations.  The only place you will find RIPs, in fact, is in western river systems where water management and use cause problems for threatened or endangered species (mostly fish and birds).  The oldest of the established programs, on the Upper Colorado, dates back to the 1980s; later ones appeared on the San Juan (1990s) and the Platte (2000s).  The newest RIP, on the Middle Rio Grande, is still on the launch pad and faces some potentially crucial uncertainties.

In very general terms, all of these RIPs provide for ongoing water management, use, and development, but also for certain benefits for the target species and their habitat.  They all involve shared governance involving federal agency representatives, state officials, and certain stakeholders.  Essentially, the participating entities agree on a plan of action that includes a variety of measures relating to the species (often relying on adaptive management);  if that plan continues to be implemented, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will deem that water use and development activities under the RIP are complying with the ESA.   (This is an oversimplification of a somewhat diverse group of complicated programs; for more information see a long article I published last year called  Avoiding Jeopardy, Without the Questions,  RIPpiece .)

Why have RIPs become such a popular form of ESA compliance on (interior) western rivers?  I would offer three primary reasons.  First, they provide a much greater role for states and stakeholders than the usual approach to ESA compliance for actions involving federal agencies.  Second, they are not terribly expensive, and the federal government supplies most of the money.  Third, and most importantly, they have kept the ESA from seriously disrupting water management, use, and development in the river basins where they have become established–partly by keeping ESA issues out of court.  These are the major reasons why the Upper Colorado and San Juan programs attracted bipartisan (!) support in the last Congress; even ESA-bashers supported them.

So what’s not to like?  My overarching concern about these programs is that their success is demonstrated primarily in legal and political terms, not biological terms.  In other words, as I see it, RIPs have become popular because they give western states, water users, and management agencies greater control and certainty in implementing the ESA, with modest impacts on water management.  They have not become popular by being wildly successful in recovering species or restoring their habitats.  The Upper Colorado program, for example, started working a quarter century ago to bring back three endangered fish species; today all three remain endangered, and a fourth has been listed.  This is not to say that the RIPs have not delivered real benefits for the species, or that they are bad policy.  But remember, these programs are also set up to protect the water resources status quo, which may be highly detrimental to river-dependent species.  Without meaningful changes in water allocation, infrastructure, or management, recovery seems a lofty goal indeed.


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