Obscure commission produces big results protecting Utah fish, wildlife
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.
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
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
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