HFF Influences Water-Management Discussions at State and International Levels

It has been an exciting week in the water-management world, starting with last week’s episode of 60 minutes, in which Lesley Stahl presented the global problem of groundwater decline, using California’s Central Valley as a particular example.  There, where the State has only recently taken the first small steps toward regulating groundwater pumping, the amount of water removed from the aquifer is so great that the land surface has sunk over 10 feet in many areas. Groundwater is being used much faster than it is being recharged, a situation we refer to as groundwater “mining.”  Stahl accurately characterized groundwater as a “savings account” to be used only when needed, and California’s savings account is well in the hole at this point.  Fortunately for us, the State of Idaho had the foresight to begin regulating groundwater 40 years ago, and we are on the path toward stabilizing our aquifers.  This is critical to fisheries in the Henry’s Fork and other Idaho streams, not just because the aquifer feeds many reaches of these streams but also because the more water we store in the aquifer, the less we need to depend on surface water stored in reservoirs such as Island Park.

Yesterday, I represented HFF at a water-strategy “summit” of Idaho’s leading conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Snake River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Teton River, Idaho Conservation League, Wood River Land Trust, and the Idaho Coalition of Land Trusts.  Although all of these groups are active in issues other than water, all of us work toward clean water and healthy rivers to accomplish our respective missions.  Peter van der Meulen, a member of the Idaho Water Resource Board, was a guest speaker and engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session with the group.  Although the day’s discussion ranged widely from broad topics such as the prior appropriation doctrine (“first in time is first in right”) to the technical details of protesting water-rights applications, several important themes had emerged by the end of the day.  All of these themes reflected and confirmed HFF’s approach to maintaining streamflows for wild trout.

First and foremost, collaboration with water users and other stakeholders is essential to success in maintaining streamflows for fish, wildlife, and other aquatic life.  Given political and legal realities in Idaho, legislative and litigious approaches are unlikely to yield positive results.  Even when groups like ours participate in legal proceedings such as review of water-rights applications, the outcome is usually a negotiated settlement that allows all stakeholders to contribute to a solution that works for everyone.  A good example of this type of process is negotiation of conditions on water rights for aquifer recharge.  HFF is involved in several of these processes, which will result in conditions such as environmental review committees that will provide guidance to the State on how to accomplish recharge objectives without harming fish and wildlife resources.  Several people used HFF’s involvement in the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council and the Island Park drought management planning committee as examples of local collaboration that have resulted in tangible improvements in water management.

Second, although individuals had widely differing opinions of the effectiveness of Idaho law in protecting streamflows for fisheries, everyone agreed that at the present time, we have to work within the existing legal framework to accomplish streamflow objectives.  This generally requires a great deal of creativity, as reflected by innovative approaches to water transactions being pursued by Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Teton River.  Sarah Lien, who is currently splitting time between TU and FTR, was acknowledged by many members of the group as being particularly creative and effective at developing innovative ways to keep water in streams for fish.  Although HFF has not had occasion to pursue the kinds of transactions that Sarah and her colleagues are using, our work with the drought management planning committee uses flexibility in the water-rights accounting system to fill Island Park Reservoir while optimizing winter flows to benefit the fishery.  As I have mentioned in previous blogs, HFF is also working to develop creative ways in which aquifer recharge could benefit streamflows, and the potential for this concept to produce positive results was confirmed by Mr. van der Meulen.  He pointed out that aquifer recharge is such a high priority for the State that any conservation objectives that can be tied to aquifer recharge have a good chance of being met.

Lastly, there is a need to engage new stakeholders beyond the group of agencies, water users, and conservation groups with which we have become comfortable.  In particular, agribusiness corporations have the potential to bring a great deal of resources and political influence to the table.  Although such corporations may currently lie just outside of the comfort zone of most conservation organizations, The Nature Conservancy and others have started to develop partnerships with corporations, which are increasingly interested in participating in on-the-ground efforts to use water in more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.  HFF has recently joined one of these TNC-led partnerships, which leads me to my last topic of this blog.

This morning, I participated in a webinar on a watershed-approach to corporate watershed stewardship, featuring an international-level partnership between General Mills and TNC (http://www.blog.generalmills.com/2014/04/watershed-stewardship-is-in-our-sweet-spot/).  This partnership grew out of TNC’s corporate engagement program—and a desire on the part of General Mills to use water more efficiently throughout its operations worldwide and contribute to long-term conservation of aquatic resources.  About 300 people participated in the webinar.  Although HFF was not identified by name, our work had an obvious and direct influence over the material presented in the webinar.

So, how did HFF end up influencing the global work presented by General Mills and TNC in today’s webinar?

General Mills has taken a science-based approach to its water stewardship program and enlisted TNC’s global freshwater science team to identify priority watersheds and water-conservation needs over the entire geographic scope of General Mills’ operations.  Out of over 50 production regions and processing facilities worldwide, TNC’s risk assessment identified eight priority watersheds in which water-related risks threaten supply of agricultural products to General Mills.  The upper Snake River basin was one of these eight high-priority watersheds.  While preparing a detailed watershed assessment of the upper Snake River basin, Nathan Karres, one of TNC’s scientists, ran across some of my reports and papers on water management and contacted me with some technical questions.  I ended up providing quite a bit of information to Nathan and reviewed a draft of the document he prepared for General Mills.

So, when General Mills and TNC organized an initial meeting of stakeholders in Idaho Falls in July, HFF was invited.  In turn, we extended an invitation for a tour of the Henry’s Fork to Nathan and to Ellen Silva, Senior Manager of Global Sustainability at General Mills.  Dale Swensen, Director of Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, and Bryce Contor, hydrologist with Rocky Mountain Environmental Associates in Idaho Falls, joined us on the tour.  We started with a half-day float down Box Canyon, including some fishing.  Even though all of our guests were novice anglers, everyone caught fish.  We then visited Mesa Falls, toured farm and irrigation operations, and visited the Egin Lakes recharge ponds, where Bryce gave a fascinating presentation on the history and hydrology of aquifer recharge.

The stakeholder meeting the following day included many of HFF’s familiar agency and NGO partners—TNC, Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho Department of Water Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service—and some Idaho-based companies such as Simplot and Idaho Power.  But that familiar group was joined by high-level managers from General Mills, InBev-Anheuser Busch, MillerCoors, and Syngenta.  At first, I was amazed that people from these major international corporations came all the way from their corporate headquarters to Idaho Falls to talk about challenges and opportunities for improving water management in the upper Snake River Basin.  But as the meeting progressed, I realized just how important agricultural production in our region is to these international companies.  It was truly an honor for me to give a 30-minute presentation to this group on hydrology and water management in the basin.

Today, four months after that initial stakeholder meeting, I was able to see just how important the Snake River basin is to General Mills and its partners.  The Snake River basin was one of only three watersheds from around the world presented in today’s webinar as examples of where General Mills and TNC are putting their stewardship program to work on the ground.  Two photos of the Henry’s Fork appeared in the slide presentation, and Nathan used the complex interactions of surface water and groundwater on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer as an example of how solutions to water management problems are site-specific and dependent on the particular geographic characteristics of each watershed.  The photos of the Henry’s Fork and the site-specific examples from our region reflected the impression HFF made on Nathan and Ellen when they visited our watershed.

For HFF, this means that our science and our collaborative approach to water management are now influencing water management at the international scale.  For the river, this new partnership will eventually bring additional resources that we will need to improve water management, particularly on the lower Henry’s Fork, where we face some of the most challenging flow issues (see my previous blog about the “working river”). 

I’ve previously mentioned that HFF’s involvement in water management gives wild trout a seat at the table.  This week made it clear that those trout are now seated at multiple tables, and some of those tables are pretty big.