PHOENIX – Interior Secretary Gale Norton (search) has signed an agreement with representatives of Arizona, Nevada and California to protect wildlife habitat on the Colorado River (search) and aid native species.
The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (search) will create 8,100 acres of riparian, marsh and backwater habitat for about 27 species, six of which are endangered.
"As we look at water issues across the West, we see that endangered species are often a key factor in determining how water is managed," Norton said Tuesday. "This proactive planning is a great break with the past."
The program is designed to protect habitat between Lake Mead and the U.S.-Mexico border while ensuring enough water is available and power operations using Colorado River water can continue. The river supplies water and power to 20 million people in Arizona, Nevada and California.
"It allows both plants, animals and people to all better coexist," Norton said.
The program was developed after concerns arose about the reliability of power and water resources following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 1994 designation of critical habitat for four endangered fish species. Critical habitat designations mean federal agencies must seek permission before doing work in a designated area.
Although the program was formally developed in 1997, officials are still working out details. They plan to examine the levels and temperatures of reservoirs to make sure fish are not harmed. They also plan to build more hatcheries and examine irrigation methods to see how they are affecting the temperature and quality of the water.
Trees and plants will be planted along the river to restore the diversity of habitat, which has been harmed by low water levels, said Chuck Paradzick, aquatic habitat specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has yet to be determined where the water will come from to sustain the restored habitats, Paradzick said.
Not everyone is convinced the plan will work.
Rather than creating a viable habitat for these species, it will just add more animals and plants to a damaged environment, said Jennifer Pitt, a scientist with Environmental Defense, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
"It is sort of like a zoo approach rather than a river-based approach," Pitt said Tuesday.
The federal government will pay for half of the 50-year program's estimated $620 million cost. California will cover about $155 million, with Arizona and Nevada paying roughly $77.5 million each, said Bob Walsh of the Bureau of Reclamation.