Environmental Protection

Slow But Steady

After five years, watershed grant program makes waves in waterway preservation – or maybe ripples

A federal grant program designed to protect and restore U.S. watersheds has doled out $50.7 million over the past five years to projects that range from cleanup of acidic streams polluted by abandoned mine waste to wetlands treatment of a watershed to preserve a fisheries habitat.

But as with any complex project involving federal funding, progress at times seems exceedingly slow – as is the case with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Targeted Watersheds Implementation Grant program.

Several recipients of 2005 watershed grants are just now beginning their projects, while 16 grantees for the 2006/2007 awards were still awaiting EPA funding in December. One-time funding covers projects that generally vary in length from three to five years.

As opposed to one-year grant cycles in 2003, 2004 and 2005, EPA combined 2006 with 2007 mainly because Congress passed its budget later in fiscal 2007 than expected, explained Enesta Jones, an EPA spokeswoman. A secondary factor was to accommodate the lengthy Request for Proposals process.

On an annual basis, funding has declined, making this grant process even more competitive. Including its first year, congressional appropriations for the Targeted Watershed program have been: 2003, $14.15 million; 2004, $14.03 million; 2005, $9.12 million; and 2006/2007, $13.33 million.

“It is highly competitive,” said Keith Pitzer, executive director of Friends of the Cheat, a group that received a grant to restore stream quality near the lower Cheat River in West Virginia. “I wish we could see more funding devoted to restoring our natural resources, especially water.”

The Cheat River project, awarded $835,000, was one of 12 selected in 2005 from a pool of 100 nominations nationwide. This three-year project entails restoring through three different treatment technologies 28 stream miles in the Muddy Creek sub-watershed, monitoring water quality, and plotting cumulative downstream loadings. While monitoring has been done, treatment may not begin until later in 2008, pending the group’s ability to secure $300,000 in matching funds as specified in its EPA grant proposal.

“The big lesson we have learned in those two years is that unless you have a comprehensive data set over a period of time, you probably don’t know enough about the area you’re working with,” Pitzer said.

Pitzer anticipated that his group would seek an extension for a fourth year of funding, and that the project would need to be adjusted based on new data. That information relates to the fact that three streams originally thought to be major sources of acid mine drainage to the Cheat actually contribute less pollution. Additional testing will pinpoint priority stream locations for passive and active treatment of water polluted by abandoned mine waste.

Part of the project will implement an active treatment system that introduces a highly alkaline chemical to mine drainage, raising the stream’s pH level and causing metals that pollute the stream water to drop out. In the passive treatment system, the grant will pay for natural treatment based on high-alkaline limestone that produces the same result as the active test. Pitzer explained that an active system requires ongoing operation and maintenance costs, while a passive system can be left alone once constructed.

“At the very least, this should benefit approximately 10 miles of the Cheat River main stream,” Pitzer added. “We’re trying to restore miles of fishery and improve property values and quality of life.”

EPA Targeted Watershed Grant Funding

Year
Funding
2003
$14,150,000
2004
$14,025,206
2005
$9,197,410
2006/2007
$13,326,750

Funding Innovative Approaches
Another 2005 grant recipient, The Nature Conservancy of Washington, recently completed a feasibility study and preliminary design for a project to restore 50 acres of tidal wetlands and rehabilitate agricultural drainage systems in the Skagit River watershed, located in northwestern Washington.

The group received $774,000 in targeted watershed funding. But the major part of the project, restoring wetlands at Fisher Slough, will cost about $5 million.

“The grant provided us with startup or seed money," explained Kevin Morse, Skagit Delta project manager. The money is for testing innovative approaches to wetlands restoration, he added.

Morse expected the Nature Conservancy to begin final design and seek permits for the project in winter or spring. Watershed grant funding covers the project through 2009.

The Skagit River watershed supplies about one-third of the fresh water that flows into Puget Sound. To date, at least 70 percent of historic wetlands in this watershed have been lost due to diking, draining, and development. Salmon and shorebird populations in this area are endangered or in decline.

One restoration activity will develop a program in which farmers are paid to grow crops that provide foraging habitat for shorebirds and reduce sediment and chemical runoff. This activity already has begun, involving three farmers flooding parts of their fields with two to three inches of water part of the year to create new or improved habitat for shorebirds. The three-year experiment will study compatibility between shorebird habitat rotation and crop rotation.

“Saturating soils for a period of time also kills harmful pests and reduces the farmer’s need to use soil fumigants,” added Morse.

More Precious Than Gold
Similar to the Cheat River, the Huff Run watershed in eastern Ohio is affected by a pollution legacy from mining. About 30 percent of land in the watershed has been impacted by mining operations and acid mine drainage.

This spring, the Huff Run Watershed Restoration Partnership will begin construction on a treatment project intended to eliminate or minimize acid main drainage. Open limestone channels will be used to reduce acidity, a leftover mining high wall will be sealed to prevent further leakage of mine waste, and a vertical flow wetland will be built to improve water quality – all backed by $711,301 in 2005 targeted watershed grant funding.

“We hope to finish by October,” said Maureen Wise, project coordinator. “The design part of the project took a year-and-a-half.”

Educational components of the project include an Environmental Explorer program and a riparian renewal program in which landowners receive trees to plant.

Watersheds for the Future
When sections of the Santa Cruz River run dry in the summer from intense usage by farmers in the United States and Mexico, Amy McCoy closes her eyes and envisions a brighter future for this parched region. By 2010, McCoy expects that a targeted watershed grant will transform the river as residents become educated about practicing water conservation.

“Our goal is to increase infiltration from rain events to increase the ability of land to recharge the water table,” said McCoy, manager for the Santa Cruz River project that expects to receive funding from a 2006/2007 targeted watershed grant. The Sonoran Institute applied for the grant to restore this river that begins in Arizona and crosses the border twice, ending in Sonora, Mexico.

“It’s one of the most robust riparian corridors on the U.S./Mexico border,” she added. “Some areas of the river flow perennially, others don’t.”

Project funding didn’t come easy for the institute, which was denied its initial grant application in 2004. Many other grantees also are repeat applicants. After receiving feedback from EPA on its denied application, the institute succeeded the second time.

The project entails establishing an ecosystem monitoring program, conducting workshops to encourage water conservation and erosion control, and encouraging policy to preserve the watershed.

“We worked very hard to come up with three very integrated components that could be measured, and we know that EPA really likes that,” McCoy said.

For the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of Montana, EPA’s grant money for 2006/2007 will help restore a fishery in the Mission Creek watershed. And for people living within the Clear Creek Watershed in Colorado, a 2006/2007 watershed grant will improve drinking water quality through projects to reduce abandoned mine waste now polluting Clear Creek.

“We expect this will get the watershed delisted,” said Ed Rapp, chairman and president of the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation, which applied for the grant. “We have a watershed that is heavy in nonpoint source metals pollution.”

Rapp said he was confident this goal could be achieved within two years, the time frame for the grant, converting the region’s legacy of gold metal mining to “gold metal fishing.”

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