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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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The trouble(s) with water and the Endangered Species Act

One of the most important “river law” topics is the application of the Endangered Species Act to water management and use.  The ESA is a crucial law for western rivers because it has been far more influential than anything else in making the environment a relevant factor in water management, especially in the operation of federal water projects.  And federal river restoration efforts are overwhelmingly driven by ESA considerations.

The ESA is vital in this context, but the absence of other environmental laws with a similar impact on water management presents certain problems.  For one thing, in places where there is no river-dependent species listed as threatened or endangered, environmental factors often carry little weight in water management.  Without a listed species, water allocation and management often ignore the health of the river.  And even where listed species do exist, focusing on the needs of a single species (as the ESA does) may do little or nothing for other wildlife, or for river recreation.  In short, the ESA protects only one of the important values that rivers provide.

A more technical problem with the ESA is that certain key duties of federal agencies–to “consult” with expert agencies on the impacts of their proposed actions, and to avoid taking actions that would “jeopardize” protected species–do not apply if an agency action is not “discretionary.”  This exception does not appear in the ESA itself, but in implementing regulations which the Supreme Court upheld in 2007.  Thus, if a federal agency can show that it has no legal discretion in how it operates a water project, it can avoid some of its most important ESA duties.  (I wrote about this issue in an article called “Dams, Duties and Discretion,” found at Vol. 33, p. 1 of the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law (2008).)

This issue reappeared last month on the Middle Rio Grande in my state of New Mexico.  A decade ago, this basin saw years of bitter litigation that focused largely on whether the Bureau of Reclamation had discretion in operating its water projects.  Ultimately all the court decisions were “vacated,” basically wiped off the books, including one that held that the Corps of Engineers had no discretion in operating its dams in the basin.  So the Corps took a risk when it announced, in a Nov. 26 letter to the Fish & Wildlife Service, that it was withdrawing from ESA consultation over its Middle Rio Grande project operations while it determined whether its ongoing actions were “wholly non-discretionary and/or part of the environmental baseline.”  (This letter pointed to a June 11, 2013 guidance document from Corps HQ, which stressed the need to protect the Corps’ budget from being “inappropriately diverted to pay for large-scale environmental restoration projects … in the guise of alleged ESA responsibilities that are not legitimately the Corps’ ….”)

The Corps could greatly help the cause of restoring the badly impaired Middle Rio Grande–and the endangered silvery minnow–by being flexible in its approach to river operations.  But the legal incentives are perverse, because if the Corps can show that it has no discretion in project operations, it basically eliminates its ESA compliance burdens.  If the Corps’ review of its actions on the Middle Rio Grande claims that the agency has no operating discretion, that would be good news for the Corps … but bad news for those who care about the river.

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Introducing westernriverlaw

I have always been fascinated with water, especially flowing water.  As a young kid my favorite pastime was messing around on a nearby stream; truth be told it was actually a drainage ditch, but it teemed with life year around.  I was a nerdy kid, too, and wrote my first school paper on water policy when I was maybe fourteen.  In the course of my life  I have spent years as an angler, an aquarist, a water lawyer, a kayaker, and a water law professor (although I am currently on inactive status with the first three).

And now, it appears I am a water blogger.

I did not see this coming, although perhaps I should have.  I have always loved writing, almost as much as water, so maybe this was bound to happen. And in fact I have written a lot about water–water law, mostly–over the past 20+ years.  In that time I have published about two dozen articles in law journals, analyzing various aspects of water law and policy in the western US.  (If you are curious, you can find several of them on my SSRN page, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1313680 .)

It has come to my attention, however, that a lot of people do not read law review articles.  This shocked me, of course, because who wouldn’t like reading an in-depth, 60-page analysis of water law, fortified by about 300 footnotes?  I am told, however, that there are millions of otherwise decent and reasonable people who forego that pleasure. 

If you are one of the few who actually does read law review articles, especially mine, I must sincerely say thank you; you are one of my people.   For my part, I will certainly continue writing those articles, and I hope they can make a meaningful contribution to law and policy.  But I decided to start a water blog, too, in hopes of sharing my ideas about water in the West with a broader audience.

So why call the blog westernriverlaw, not something more familiar like westernwaterlaw?  Partly because traditional “western water law” has an old-school connotation, emphasizing property rights and maximum extractive development of water resources, and this blog will take a broader view of water in the West.  (Besides, westernwaterlaw.com was already taken, by a prominent regional law firm.)

I also chose to call it westernriverlaw because rivers matter for their own sake, not simply as conduits for water supplies.  In the West, flowing rivers are important ecologically, economically, and recreationally.  Those values have always gotten short shrift in western water law, but today they can no longer be ignored or neglected.  The name westernriverlaw suggests that any discussion of water policy needs to have a focus on what it means for the river.

And, despite its name, this blog will not be all about law.  I expect a major focus on the law–I am what I am–but there are other important matters to discuss.  Policy.  Management.  Institutions.  And we can’t forget about attitudes, politics, and values.  And I am sure to post the occasional tangential thought or random idea about water, especially if I’ve just returned from a river trip.

Issues of water and rivers are important to the West today, and they have been important to me for decades.  So I started a blog to write about them, and get input from others who think and care about them.  If you are one of those people, I hope you will come along with me.

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