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Obscure commission produces big results protecting Utah fish, wildlife

Published February 27, 2012 3:14 pm

Conservation • Federal commission helps protect fish and wildlife from the impacts of major water projects in Utah.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ask outdoor enthusiasts what they know about the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission and chances are you will get blank stares in return.

Yet, this obscure Salt Lake City-based federal agency established in 1992 as part of the Central Utah Project Completion Act provided much of the funding and planning that helped complete popular projects such as the Middle Fork of the Provo River, the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve and the Utah State Botanical Garden in Kaysville.

The commission has spent more than $205 million on 71 major wildlife projects in northern and eastern Utah since 1996.

Though an occasional controversy — such as the proposed Provo River Delta restoration project on Utah Lake or rumors that the agency would use condemnation powers in the Heber Valley to obtain property along the Provo River — might garner some attention, it's a good bet that most of the thousands who benefit from the commission's projects don't know it even exists.

"The commission has done an excellent job of spending a couple of hundred million dollars without ruffling the state's feathers," said Paul Dremann, chairman of the Utah Anglers' Coalition who has been involved with the commission since its founding. "That's more money than the DWR [Utah Division of Wildlife Resources] has had to spend. The job gets done properly with a minimum amount of problems."

Mike Styler, the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said he has heard few complaints and more praise for the commission's work, which has included rebuilding several state fish hatcheries, financing some important wildlife land purchases and helping restore the endangered June sucker on Utah Lake to the point where it is being considered for delisting.

Commission executive director Mike Weland helped write the law that created it, a measure that passed in 1992. He has headed the organization and its relatively small staff of fewer than a dozen since the five-member commission that oversees the projects was established in 1994.

The commission that approves and oversees projects and planning includes attorneys Jody Williams and Dallin Jensen, planner Brad Barber, DWR director Jim Karpowitz and Central Utah Conservancy District general manager Don Christiansen.

Weland explained that the commission, which is unique to the federal government, utilizes about 10 percent of the funding for the massive Central Utah Project. The CUP is designed to bring water from eastern Utah into the Wasatch Front through a series of pipelines and reservoirs.

According to the commission's website, the mitigation commission "is responsible for designing, funding and implementing projects to offset the impacts to fish, wildlife and related recreation resources caused by the CUP and other federal reclamation projects in Utah."

The idea, according to Weland, is that providing funding to preserve ecological systems, water quality, wildlife habitat and human recreation is as necessary to a big water project as the dams, roads, pipelines and power lines.

"It's funny how people see us," said Weland, a quiet, friendly man who seems to prefer consensus over contentiousness. "In the north part of the Wasatch Front, we're a wetlands agency. In the middle of the Salt Lake Valley, we are known for our Jordan River effort. In Utah County, we are known for the big Utah Lake wetland reserves. In the Heber Valley, we have done the Provo River restoration and angler access program. We have purchased wildlife land in the Strawberry and Duchesne areas."

As federal budgets have tightened, so has the commission's budget. Where it spent $10 million to $15 million annually — only 10 percent can be used for administrative costs — in the early years, it is now down to about $5 million.

Weland said President Barack Obama's recent budget proposal to have the Bureau of Reclamation complete the CUP, thus eliminating the Central Utah Conservancy District in the construction process, isn't expected to affect the commission.

The commission has teamed with a variety of public and private partners that have included The Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, Davis, Salt Lake and Wasatch Counties, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, the Ute Indian Tribe and the Trust for Public Land.

One of its best-known projects has been the restoration of the Middle Provo River between the Jordanelle Dam and Deer Creek Reservoir. The area has become not only one of the state's most important fly fishing rivers, but has preserved habitat for songbirds, an endangered frog, otters and many other types of wildlife.

Steve Schmidt of Salt Lake City-based Western River Fly Fishers said there was some early controversy with the Middle Provo, largely because 10 years of drought made it impossible for the river to flush out some of the silt associated with the river. Fishing crashed for a while. The end of the drought about six years ago changed all that.

"As we all know now, that river is incredible," said Schmidt. "It's an amazing resource."

Schmidt, an entomologist, said that the river contains an unbelievable biomass of insects as well as a healthy and vibrant trout population. There is angler access to most of the river, something that was not available before. Willow and cottonwood growth is returning to the river corridor.

"In its short life, it's doing really well," said Schmidt of the Middle Provo project. "It's hard to get people to fish the Lower Provo anymore because the Middle has been such a big success."

Dremann said anglers and all those who love different types of wildlife owe the commission a big thanks for completing high-quality projects.

"They have acquired access on the main stem of the Duchesne River above Hanna, Currant Creek and put a whole lot of money into studies on Strawberry Reservoir. Enough can't be said about that project. And the Provo River was good for fish and wildlife, not just fishermen. It's good for the birds, bees and frogs. The state is fortunate to have that funding available not just for fish but for all wildlife."

Styler said that when whirling disease hit Utah's state fish hatcheries, major renovations were required.

"We didn't have the money," said the DNR director. "Their assistance helped us to get that done. They have been quiet, steady partners with a nice source of funding that the state didn't have."

Indeed, the commission is quiet and, in most cases, not controversial. But since its inception, the projects it has funded have proved important to wildlife and popular with humans.

wharton@sltrib.comTwitter @tribtomwharton —

What is the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission?

The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission is an executive branch agency of the federal government with five commissioners appointed by the president. It is responsible for designing, funding and implementing projects to offset the impacts to fish, wildlife and related recreation resources caused by the Central Utah Project and other federal reclamation projects in Utah. —

Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission Project List

Great Salt Lake

Bureau of Land Management Salt Wells wetland restoration

Division of Wildlife Resources Locomotive Springs and Timpie Springs wetland restoration

Bear River Refuge wetland development

The Nature Conservancy Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve land acquisition

Utah State University Botanical Center wetland restoration and education

DWR Farmington Bay land acquisition

National Audubon Society South Shore Ecological Reserve land acquisition

Utah Wetlands Interpretive Network education planning

Box Elder County Great Salt Lake wetlands conservation planning

Davis County Great Salt Lake wetlands conservation planning

Salt Lake County Great Salt Lake wetlands conservation planning

Tooele County Great Salt Lake wetlands conservation planning

Jordan River

West Jordan wetland acquisition and restoration

South Jordan wetland acquisition and Willow Creek restoration

Draper wetland acquisition and restoration

Development of Jordan River Natural Areas Conservation Plan

Albion Basin wetland acquisition

Utah Lake/Lower Provo River

Utah Lake fish management plan

Utah Lake Wetland Preserve land acquisition in Goshen Bay and Benjamin Slough

Mona Springs wetland acquisition

Provo River in-stream and high-flow studies

Lower Provo River water rights acquisition for stream-flow restoration

Fort Field diversion dam modification for improved fish passageways

Hobble Creek restoration in Provo Bay

Provo River Delta restoration planning

June sucker recovery implementation program participation

June sucker conservation in Red Butte Reservoir

June sucker selenium uptake studies at Goshen Warm Springs

June sucker thermal criteria and diet studies

Southern leatherside chub conservation

Middle Provo River (Jordanelle Dam to Deer Creek Reservoir)

Wasatch County Water Efficiency Project — Daniels Replacement Pipeline

Provo River restoration project land acquisition and ecosystem restoration

Heber City to Midway Trail easement contribution

Upper Provo River

Upper Provo River Reservoir stabilization of 12 lakes

Washington Lake Campground construction

Diamond Fork (Spanish Fork Drainage)

Forest Service area assessment

Construction of two campgrounds

Mitigation land acquisition

Stream and wetland restoration

Water quality monitoring in Diamond Fork and Sixth Water Creek

Installation of stream gages

Biological and monitoring surveys of plants and aquatic organisms

Strawberry-Duchesne River Basins

Completion of reclamation angler access along the Strawberry and Duchesne rivers

Wildlife habitat land acquisition for the CUP Bonneville Unit

Small dam removal assistance

Strawberry Valley area assessment

Currant Creek canal erosion mitigation

Strawberry Valley fisheries post-treatment studies

Upper Strawberry River restoration studies

Sage grouse conservation and recovery in Strawberry Valley

Strawberry and Duchesne River reduced flow studies

Stream gaging on streams impacted by the Strawberry Aqueduct and Collection System

Lower Duchesne River Wetland Mitigation Project with the Ute Tribe

Stabilization of 13 high mountain lakes in the High Uintas Wilderness Area

Modification of Moon Lake Dam outlet works to provide year-round minimum flows

Big Sand Wash Reservoir enlargement wetland mitigation at DWR Montes Creek WMA

Rehabilitation and replacement of irrigation diversion structures

Fish Hatchery Projects

Development of fish hatchery production plan with DWR and U.S. Forest Service

Kamas state fish hatchery construction

Fountain Green state fish hatchery construction

Whiterocks state fish hatchery construction

Big Springs tribal fish hatchery construction

Least and leatherside chub culture research

Springville state fish hatchery warm water fish culture planning

DWR Fisheries Experiment Station Logan improvements

Statewide Projects

DWR sensitive species inventory and database of wildlife and plants

Native cutthroat trout restoration and conservation

Native cutthroat trout habitat improvement in Deep Creek drainage

Beaver Dam and Fish Creek lake reconstruction

USFWS Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act compliance