“When I started more than 30 years ago, I had never seen a bladesucker. It took four years before I saw one in the wild. That’s how rare these are,” said Dale Ryden, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grand Junction office. “Fish.” “Now I can go out, and on a typical sampling day, we might get anywhere from 20 to a few hundred suckers inside the valley here.”

Raiden helps run a hatchery outside Grand Junction that raises horsetails and suckers — about 20,000 at any given time. It’s a small part of a program that covers many states, tribes and water users.

In addition to hatcheries, the Upper Colorado River Program builds fish passages that allow species to circumvent irrigation infrastructure, help boost river flows during times of low water, and remove large numbers of non-native fish. All this without resorting to the courts to protect these species.

Tom Hess/CPR News
Horsetail grown at the Ouray National Fish Hatchery-Grand Valley Unit in Grand Junction.
Tom Hess/CPR News
A razorback sucker grown at the Ouray National Fish Hatchery-Grand Valley unit in Grand Junction.

Thirty years later, the program has become very popular among interested parties. But it took a while to get here, Ryden said, adding that when the program was growing, relationships between users were “less fun than they are now.”

“The lucky thing for me was in those early days, I was a biological technician, so I was out catching fish. I didn’t have to sit through meetings and contentious things, but again.” “I don’t think anyone was cheating. They were all trying to do their jobs and get the water they needed. But over time, there’s been a lot of really good partnerships — just a lot of give and take — and all the people have been really willing to work together and that’s what makes it all work.”

Although the program has already achieved results — particularly for the humpback and suckerback — participants said it needs more time if the four species are to thrive again. This is partly because these fish can live for decades and therefore need a long runway to re-establish themselves in their native habitat.

“The thing people forget is that these are really long-lived fish,” Ryden said. “We’ve probably only had three or four generations of these fish in my entire career. Building hatcheries and going out and doing the right management. It all takes time.”

Stakeholders have reached an agreement, and now Congress must act

But time is the issue now. Strong support on the ground has not paved the way for continued support in Washington, D.C., where Congress needs to reauthorize and fund programs if these efforts are to continue.

It’s an issue Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper has been pressing on Capitol Hill this year.

“If you look at the cost/benefit, I think we can show significant benefits relative to the cost,” said Hickenlooper, a Democrat.

He and Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah are carrying a bill to reauthorize the program. Their plan calls for $92 million for the Bureau of Reclamation for its share of program costs and $50 million for capital projects over the next seven years.

“I really want to get this done,” Hickenlooper said.

However, on the House side, two members of the Colorado delegation introduced competing bills, raising the question of which version might move forward.

210723-Haaland-Grand-Junction-3Stina Sage/CPR News
Rep. Lauren Boebert speaks with reporters during a press conference with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in Grand Junction on Friday, July 23, 2021. Behind her are Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse.

Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse is the sole sponsor of a bill with the same funding levels and time frame as the Senate bill.

Across the aisle, Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert has a bill with only Republican co-sponsors that contains the same $50 million for capital projects as the Senate version but holds the cost share fixed at $80 million.

At a hearing on the bill, Boebert called it a clean reauthorization, “by extending conservation programs at current funding levels for an additional seven fiscal years.”

“Additional funding will not be approved by the House of Representatives and our Republican Party majority,” she said.

In an interview with CPR News, Boebert would not commit to supporting the Senate’s higher price tag if the matter reached the House, stressing again that it would not pass her Republican colleagues.

“I want this to pass the House and be signed into law. So, I’m doing what I can to ensure that this reauthorization actually happens, and these are the funding levels that the House will approve,” she said.

She added that a number of stakeholders on the ground in the West support her bill.

Neguse is pushing for a hearing on his bill with the higher funding number. He said the message he has received from local participants in the river program is that “more funding is needed to ensure this program runs successfully.”

He’s concerned not only about the lower number in Boebert’s bill, but also about how the Republican majority handles spending more broadly.

“It is ironic, and in my opinion hypocritical, to seek to reauthorize a program — because of course that is what we are talking about in this case — while at the same time seeking to defund it with appropriations,” Neguse added.

Lawmakers can pass a bill to reauthorize a program with a certain amount of funding, but what really matters is how much money Congress allocates overall each year. The Republican-controlled House’s proposed budget for the Interior Department is about $13 billion less than the last fiscal year, which could force the department to make sharp cuts to fish recovery programs and many other programs.

“My fingers are always crossed.”

Back in Colorado, Doug Kemper of the Colorado Water Caucus is all too familiar with the reauthorization and the fight for funding.

“Anytime you deal with Congress, my fingers are always crossed when I ask them to do anything,” he joked.

He said he could live with current funding levels. But he worries about what will happen if the number drops. “Certainly, that’s what we need for the program, and if that money turns out to be unavailable, that’s a whole other set of negotiations,” he said.

Stakeholders on the ground are already looking at less funding for their efforts, due to declining revenues from hydropower along the Colorado River. The shake-up led to an additional year of negotiations on reauthorization and a bill to close the one-year funding gap, which Hickenlooper and Neguse spearheaded in the last Congress (Boebert also supported). In addition, like everyone else, stakeholders have also been affected by rising inflation and want to ensure that the next round of financing takes this into account.

Tom Hess/CPR News
Fish tanks at Ouray National Fish Hatchery Unit-Grand Valley in Grand Junction.

Joe Trongali of the Nature Conservancy added that progress is still progress when it comes to saving these fish, even if it has to go more slowly due to lack of funds. But he also noted that although money may be up in the air, the pressures on these rivers are great and growing.

“The threats we face from climate change and increased demand will continue to accelerate,” he said. “So it’s still going to be harder. It’s not like we can take our foot off the gas now.”

When pressed, none of the people working on the floor said which bill they favored, instead insisting they were happy to have bipartisan support for the programs in both chambers. When it comes to funding levels, they hope for the best, but are also resigned to the worst.

Hickenlooper, a self-described optimist, sees a path to passing the reauthorization language this year, most likely by slipping into one of several must-pass pieces of legislation awaiting Congress when it returns this week, whether that legislation is a bill or a budget bill.

But the funding number he ultimately wins will be a test of lawmakers’ ability — and to some extent their influence — to influence a divided Congress that has taken starkly different positions when it comes to government spending.

(tags for translation) Congress

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