Email Updates
Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.


Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.
Email Updates
Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.
U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Policy, Management and Budget
twitter facebook youtube tumblr instagram Google+ flickr

Click to toggle text size.

Chapter 12: Western Riparian Wetlands


Physical Description: Western, riparian areas are linear, ribbon-like strips of vegetation along rivers, streams, or lakes that are dependent upon perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral surface or subsurface water. Habitats in these areas are often divided into two zones: riparian (which includes the often narrow, aquatic portion of the stream or river) and upland. In the southwestern United States, the non-aquatic portion of the riparian zone may consist of emergent marsh directly adjacent to the stream or river, low terrace forest (cottonwood and willow), and upper terrace forest or scrub shrub. Riparian wetlands function as the transition zone between the drier uplands and the water. (See Figure XII-1.) Two types of riparian areas are commonly distinguished:

Source: Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition.
  • relatively narrow headwater wetlands in steep valleys with fast-flowing rivers, and
  • broader floodplain wetlands in broad valleys with meandering rivers.
This chapter focuses on the riparian areas of the Great Basin, the Southwest, the south central prairie, and the intermontane west which are vegetated by trees, shrubs, grasses, forbs, and sedges. (See Figure XII-2.) Here upland areas are more arid and water sources more intermittent than those in the eastern United States or the coastal western areas. Although the areal extent is proportionately less than in other parts of the country, western riparian areas and other wetlands have a proportionately greater significance for some functional values (such as fish and wildlife habitat, flood control, aquifer recharge, and water quality functions) because of the arid climates in which they occur.


The Corps of Engineers, EPA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service are discussing whether some riparian areas in the West should be considered wetlands for section 404 jurisdictional purposes. In this region riparian areas vegetated with wetland plants (hydrophytes) often are not identified as wetlands under the current wetland identification procedures, because they do not satisfy the established criteria for hydric soils and wetland hydrology. Nevertheless, western riparian habitats clearly serve the objective of the Clean Water Act to restore and maintain the integrity of the Nation's waters by providing for groundwater recharge and discharge, flood storage, sediment retention, and fish and wildlife habitat. Thus, while these riparian areas perform the functions of wetlands, there is some disagreement as to whether they qualify as wetlands for 404 regulatory purposes. The National Academy of Sciences is currently conducting a technical review of wetland delineation issues. It would be useful if the Academy included riparian areas among the issues it examines.

Characteristics and Functions: Western riparian areas including the wetlands comprising them provide several important functions, including:

  • Slowing flood waters and helping to recharge groundwater;
  • Aiding in erosion control through shoreline protection, dissipating the energy force of currents and trapping sediments;
  • Improving water quality by filtering pollutants from upland sources and by regulating water temperature through vegetation shading; (Both functions protect trout and salmon fisheries.)
  • Providing crucial habitat for 50 to 75 percent of vertebrate species found in the western intermontane region, including many designated as endangered or threatened; (This is especially important for neotropical migratory birds where riparian areas are scattered amidst great expanses of arid land.)
  • Serving as important recreational areas.

Original Acreage: Unknown for western riparian areas or riparian wetlands.

Current Acreage: Unknown for western riparian areas or wetlands as a whole, because data are fragmented, localized, or nonexistent. Of the 250 million acres of federally owned rangeland, only one percent is classified as riparian areas. Neither the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) nor the Forest Service, the agencies responsible for administering public rangelands, have complete inventories of the amount and condition of riparian habitat on their lands yet (GAO 1988).

Trends: Nationwide riparian wetlands have declined by 60 to 75 percent, whereas in the West estimates are that some riparian areas (e.g., Rocky Mountain Region and Arizona) have declined by as much as 90 to 95 percent (Swift 1984; Johnson and Carothers 1982). Surveys that have been conducted of the quality of selected riparian areas within public rangelands seem to indicate that the overwhelming majority are in poor to fair condition. Tens of thousands of stream miles are in need of restoration (GAO 1988). 

Factors Adversely Affecting Wetlands 

Due to the intensity of land use and the wide expanse of territory subject to grazing, livestock grazing has been an important factor in the loss and deterioration of riparian wetlands in the West. Water projects (multipurpose reservoirs, small hydroelectric projects, and small diversions for irrigation) also contribute to wetland loss in the region. "Vegetation management" is a third factor discussed. Additionally, timber harvesting and associated road building as well as mining and sand and gravel extraction affect wetland acreage and water quality in the region.

Livestock were introduced into the West in the 1500s when the Spanish established missions. Livestock numbers increased dramatically in the late 1800s, peaking in 1886. Since 1941, the BLM has reduced livestock grazing on public rangelands by 50 percent. In 1983, western lands supported 17 million cattle. Today, federally permitted livestock grazing occurs on 36 percent of the land in 11 western States.1

Livestock often favor riparian areas because of the availability and abundance of shade, lush vegetation, and water.2 Overgrazing can inflict severe and long lasting damage. Under heavy grazing pressure much of the riparian vegetation is removed and regeneration impaired. Loss of stabilizing riparian vegetation increases erosion, widens channels, reduces channel depth, and causes siltation of spawning grounds and invertebrate food producing areas. In addition, without vegetative cover the shorelines along waterways no longer provide food and cover for fish and wildlife, shade to help regulate water temperature, or the capacity to filter runoff pollution or dissipate flood waters. In disturbed areas, invasive and nuisance plant species often take root.

Federal multipurpose water projects in the West support irrigation, flood control, hydroelectric power, navigation, and recreation. These projects are sponsored, constructed, and/or managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the International Boundary and Water Commission, and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). They often inundate riparian areas to form reservoirs. Riparian vegetation does not readily establish itself along reservoir shorelines because of water level fluctuations associated with project operations or poor soils surrounding the reservoirs. Reservoirs also trap instream sediments that would otherwise nourish downstream riparian areas. Dredging of sediment to deepen or straighten channels for flood protection, navigation or water management disturbs bottom-dwelling organisms, changes the channel and flow conditions, and produces spoil that has often been deposited in riparian areas. The construction, operation, and maintenance of multipurpose water projects introduces physical barriers in streams and alters the timing and level of water flows. As a result, these activities change water velocity, depth, and temperature, and affect the biota sensitive to these conditions, including anadromous fish. Water withdrawal for irrigation, highly saline irrigation return flows, and groundwater pumping (particularly in California and the High Plains of western Oklahoma) also are factors contributing to a change in the quality, extent, and composition of riparian vegetation. Indirectly, multipurpose water projects have led to agricultural encroachment, urban development, and navigational and recreational facilities in areas which historically were riparian wetlands.3

Small hydroelectric projects threaten riparian areas in mountainous States and other areas. Around 1980 the number of license applications increased. The number of applications are decreasing again due to energy economics and the reduction and elimination of Federal benefits. In Idaho, for example, prior to 1981 the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had never reviewed any such projects, but from 1981 to 1986, 350 license applications were on file. The sudden increase followed the energy crisis of the 1970s and Federal legislation that encouraged the development of alternative energy sources.

Small hydroelectric projects divert water from a stream for short distances,4 and reduce instream flow in the diverted reach. The dams can interfere with the migration of fish, including important anadromous species. In addition, significant mortality occurs as fish, especially fry, are drawn into power plant turbines. This has become a significant concern to fish and wildlife resource agencies. Riparian vegetation is lost during construction and also as a result of the reduced water levels in the diverted reach. Even periodic flushing requirements fail to fully compensate for the loss of moisture and sediment movement. With the loss or reduced vigor of the vegetation comes the same kind of problems mentioned above with grazing and multipurpose projects, although to a lesser degree.

A full accounting of the wetland effects of small hydroelectric projects in the West is unavailable. However, a review of 17 projects in Idaho by the FWS found that seven had removed over 50 percent of surrounding riparian vegetation during construction, two had a somewhat lesser effect, and eight had a minimal effect. Three projects in Idaho resulted in major violations of section 404 of the Clean Water Act, because large quantities of fill material were dumped into riparian wetlands and aquatic environs to construct road access.

Many small diversion or dam structures adversely affect downstream wetlands by diverting the entire flow of streams for irrigation during the growing season. Moisture needed to maintain riparian wetland vegetation is removed from the stream during the critical spring and summer months. In Nevada, small diversions are thought to cause as much riparian wetland loss as large multipurpose projects.

"Vegetation management" in connection with water projects refers to the mowing, burning, clearing, or spraying of plants in riparian and upland areas.5 Historically, the practice was much more prevalent than it is now.6 Nevertheless, it ranks only behind grazing and water projects as a factor in western riparian wetland decline, especially in the Great Basin and the southwest. Riparian and other wetland vegetation in this region is managed for four major objectives:

  • To maintain the water-transport capacity of floodways.
  • To expand agricultural land. Critics of the practice suggest that the small gain in cropland is not worth the in-stream problems caused by sedimentation.
  • To help maintain a constant border between the United States and Mexico. Detractors of the policy suggest that the investment of energy in trying to hold a river steady as a means of marking a political border is futile, because it works against the natural forces that cause rivers to meander.7
  • To increase downstream water yields for irrigation or municipal use. Vegetation management often accompanied the construction and operation of major multipurpose water projects. The view that removing the adjacent vegetation can increase streamflow by reducing water uptake is no longer widely accepted, and is not currently being practiced by Federal agencies.8

Although the practice is now largely curbed and some areas are regenerating, the damage to wetlands has been extensive. In New Mexico alone over 3000 miles of streamside vegetation was lost by 1985. Lands next to the streams can suffer severe erosion during wet periods, and vegetation removal prevents riparian wetlands from carrying out valuable hydrologic, water quality, food chain, habitat, and recreational functions.

An additional problem, due in part to vegetation management, has been the displacement of native riparian wetland plants, such as cottonwood and willow, with exotic saltcedar vegetation. Saltcedar was first introduced into the U.S. from Eurasia during the late eighteenth century as an ornamental plant. By the early 1900s, it had escaped from cultivation and become naturalized in several stream valleys in the southwestern U.S. Since then saltcedar has spread rapidly, probably due to reservoir construction and the alteration of natural river flows and due to the establishment of suitable seed beds. Also, some State agencies used this plant for stream bank stabilization purposes. Saltcedar, however, introduces a host of new problems. It has little habitat value because of its tendencies to form monocultures, produce tiny seeds of little food value, and dry up water holes.9

The net effect of saltcedar invasion is the reduction in biological diversity of riparian ecosystems. Indeed, a number of Federal agencies are now engaged in concerted but often frustrating efforts to control saltcedar. As mitigation for structural activities undertaken in operating its water projects, the Bureau of Reclamation removes saltcedar and attempts to reestablish native riparian vegetation of higher value to wildlife. SCS and the FWS have instituted similar programs.10 These programs are still in their nascent stage and it is too early to determine their success, but there is guarded optimism that native riparian species can be reintroduced and replace saltcedar in less saline areas.

Road construction and clearcutting for timber harvesting can also adversely affect riparian wetlands. In rugged, mountainous terrain, roads are often located along streams. Riparian wetlands are adversely affected during construction and later when high stream flows erode exposed soil. Federal land management agencies issue permits and set construction standards for roads on public lands. Future management plans for much of the Federal land base in the West call for the construction of thousands of miles of roads for timber harvesting. Clearcutting similarly strips the soil of the vegetation that holds it in place and, unless the proper methods are utilized, may lead to erosion. Unless best management practices are applied, these activities have the potential to reduce topsoil and the regenerative potential of the land and silt up streams, many of which support valuable commercial and sport fish. Mining for various minerals is also common throughout the West and, depending on the method, can have an impact on the land and lead to sedimentation and pollution of riparian waters.

As noted earlier, western riparian wetlands have not received adequate protection from Federal regulatory programs, in part because of jurisdictional limitations in the statutes and in part because Federal agencies disagreed on the definition and delineation of wetlands. In January, 1989, the FWS, EPA, the Corps, and the SCS agreed to accept a uniform method of identifying and delineating jurisdictional wetlands. The change proved controversial, however, as did proposed revisions. The controversy has not been resolved,11 but its resolution probably will not bring regulatory relief to western riparian wetlands. To qualify as a wetland under the procedures adopted by the four agencies, three basic elements must be evident: wetland hydrology, hydrophytic vegetation, and hydric soils. Many western riparian areas which function similarly to wetlands do not meet this standard.

The Clean Water Act also limits riparian wetland protection due to the absence of a requirement for a 404 permit for removal of vegetation by individuals, even though the activity may result in erosion of streambanks and hence, indirect discharge of "fill" material into wetlands. This statutory limitation has proved a significant factor in facilitating riparian habitat destruction on private lands in rural and urban areas in some parts of the West. Such vegetation removal is often associated with conversion of wetlands for agricultural purposes and, in urban areas, for reasons such as clearing for development projects, weed control, and intentional elimination of potential habitat for rare and endangered species.

Federal Programs and Projects 

Federal involvement accompanies each of the activities discussed above: livestock grazing, water projects such as multipurpose dams built primarily for irrigating the arid West, agricultural programs that subsidize certain crops, small hydroelectric facilities, small diversion projects, as well as vegetation management, logging, and mining.

Livestock Grazing 

In the 11 western States (excluding the western North Dakota - Texas tier), 48 percent of the land is federally owned and about 75 percent of that is grazed by domestic livestock. Thus, federally permitted grazing occurs on 36 percent of the land; this percentage is much higher, however, if coastal areas and the Central Valley, where Federal rangeland is scarce, are excluded. In 1990, there were approximately 17 million beef cattle and 102,800 beef producers in the 11 western States. About 18 percent of the producers had Federal grazing permits. In some States the percentage is much higher. In Idaho, for example, 88 percent of the cattle graze for at least part of the year on Federal lands.

Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administer livestock grazing programs on the lands that they manage. Together they administer 87 percent of the Government's rangeland. Figures for Idaho, New Mexico, and Nevada, show that 80 percent of the permitted cattle graze on BLM lands and 20 percent on Forest Service lands. The following discussion focuses on BLM policy and illustrates some of the problems faced in protecting riparian areas. The Forest Service's program is quite similar, however. As one of its principal resource management initiatives, the Administration intends to make major revisions to regulations and policies governing rangeland management.

Currently, the BLM regulates grazing on its lands by granting 10-year permits that specify the number of animal unit months of grazing (AUMs) allowed each season on a particular tract (called an allotment).12 The program has been criticized for exceeding the carrying capacity on some parts of the range, especially in riparian lands. The GAO reported in 1988 that 20 percent of BLM and Forest Service allotments were being overgrazed and that for 75 percent of these areas, the rangeland managers had scheduled no change in grazing practices (GAO 1988a). Although the GAO found that only a relative small proportion of public rangeland was currently being overgrazed, it reported that the damage to riparian areas was extensive, running into tens of thousands of miles on BLM and Forest Service lands (GAO 1988b). There are several possible reasons why overgrazing and excessive pressure on riparian areas can occur.

Grazing fees on public land are less than those for comparable private land.13 Ranching is a business, and ranchers would prefer to graze their animals as cheaply as possible. Thus, ranchers sometimes exert pressure on BLM and Forest Service field personnel to set AUMs higher or liberalize grazing constraints on their allotments. The BLM and the Forest Service maintain that stocking levels are determined entirely by resource conditions.

BLM permittees are allowed to graze cattle that do not belong to them on their allotments, provided they control the cattle directly and continue to abide by any grazing prescriptions (e.g., number of cattle and seasonal use levels). Critics of public rangeland policy have argued that the grazing fee differential encourages permittees to graze cattle owned by others and creates an incentive to engage in overgrazing. BLM responds that if overgrazing occurs, it is unrelated to the grazing fee subsidy, that it is a staffing problem. With the limited personnel available to inspect allotments, BLM cannot always ensure that abuses do not occur and that permit conditions are being observed. The critics acknowledge that BLM's enforcement resources are strained, but point out that there is a standard strategy for such situations: impose strict sanctions on a few known violators. BLM contends that it maintains a stern penalty structure,14 and given its limited resources, enforces diligently, processing approximately 500 trespassing cases per year and levying about $150,000 in fines.

Under the current permit system, land tracts are allotted to ranchers for 10-year periods. Agency critics have contended that such long-term leasing arrangements afford BLM little management flexibility and that if overuse of a riparian area were to be discovered, very little could be done until the permit period had expired. The contention is puzzling. BLM has ample authority at any time to modify permit terms and conditions or delay or discontinue grazing in order to protect the range. In order to exercise these authorities, however, field personnel have to monitor an allotment and build an evidentiary case. BLM has insufficient staff to exhaustively monitor the public range.

Even when the number of animals permitted for an allotment is reduced, pressure on riparian wetlands can continue unabated. This is because riparian wetlands are not managed separately by BLM and cattle continue to use them heavily for shade, access to water, and foraging. BLM acknowledges this deficiency, and is developing grazing management systems to correct it. In some areas fences are constructed to exclude livestock from riparian wetland areas.

Until recently, BLM did not classify riparian wetlands as distinct units for the purpose of evaluating allotments, so generally it did not conduct riparian-specific monitoring and management. Thus, the number of cows permitted for an allotment was based on upland forage, even if the allotment included riparian wetlands. Riparian areas serve as a biological magnet for livestock and other native wildlife.15 Good management requires that riparian areas be classified as distinct range sites whose rate of use is based only on the availability and condition of the riparian plants. As part of its recently adopted riparian management policy, BLM has initiated an inventory effort to classify riparian areas as distinct ecological sites and to establish riparian-area grazing prescriptions and practices, including season of use, duration of grazing, and utilization levels. BLM has established certain areas as Riparian National Conservation Areas, such as the very valuable cottonwood bosque along the upper San Pedro River in Arizona.

In a study conducted in 1988, the GAO concluded that the principal technique for restoring riparian areas was a change in the management of livestock to give native vegetation a chance to grow. This means requiring ranchers who hold permits to improve livestock control. Yet, GAO noted that many of these ranchers "question the value of riparian area improvement efforts and effectively oppose any restrictions on their livestock's access to riparian areas" (GAO 1988). Further, ranchers exert considerable influence on public rangeland management decisions. Although BLM district managers make the final decisions, they receive advice from District Grazing Advisory Boards. The Boards are composed exclusively of stockmen, and offer advice about allotment management plans and the use of range improvement funds. Each BLM district also has a Multiple Use Advisory Council whose members represent various public land interests. The Councils generally are not asked for advice about the use of range improvement funds.

GAO also noted a bias towards ranching interests and against riparian area protection at the management level:

Many staff (BLM and Forest Service)...believe that agency management does not support them when actions to improve management of riparian areas are opposed by permittees. The perception that top agency management is not serious about implementing riparian improvement policies is a barrier that can inhibit or discourage field staff from taking the actions essential to restoring riparian areas. (GAO 1988)

To discourage this perception and to induce action, GAO recommended that the following specific measures be taken:

(1) The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should direct the Director of BLM and the Chief, U.S. Forest Service, respectively, to review the staffing support provided to riparian improvement efforts in the context of all program activities, and determine whether appropriate staffing levels are being provided.

(2) The Secretaries should, as part of their annual budget submissions, report on the extent of riparian improvement that can be expected with the level of staffing they recommend.

(3) The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should direct the Director of BLM and the Chief, U.S. Forest Service, respectively, to reemphasize and reiterate the agencies' commitment. As part of this effort, the Director and Chief should:

  • establish finite, measurable goals in terms of miles of riparian areas to be targeted for restoration;
  • annually measure and document the specific progress being made to achieve those goals; and
  • document and justify instances where restoration steps needed to achieve established goals are seriously thwarted or rejected.

In response to the problems identified by the GAO, BLM adopted a formal riparian policy to "maintain, restore, or improve" riparian areas and to mitigate adverse impacts to these areas. Further, BLM requested a 5-year "needs analysis" from its field offices. That analysis is complete, and provides a blueprint for future riparian wetland management, outlining goals, strategies, and funding requirements (BLM 1990). Each BLM State office has instituted a riparian strategy plan that includes establishing a showcase demonstration project. Fencing riparian areas, limiting grazing to winter use when cottonwoods are leafless and do not tempt cows, placing water and salt away from riparian areas, assigning a ranger to key riparian areas, and promoting a riparian wetland information brochure are all strategies that BLM is exploring. Much of this is still at the policy, planning, and guidance stages, but the change in emphasis and direction is promising, and BLM has set a goal of restoring at least 75 percent of the riparian wetland areas under its jurisdiction to proper functioning condition by 1997.

None of these changes will come cheaply. BLM estimates that it will take $60.8 million and 300 new positions to implement the riparian wetland management strategies. Initial funding has been requested by BLM and has been appropriated by Congress. Although much of the land in question is public grazing land, and lessees of public rangeland have stewardship requirements in their leases, the restoration and maintenance strategy relies largely on cooperative efforts and Federal funding.

As indicated above, the Administration intends to make major revisions to BLM regulations and policies governing rangeland management. The Department anticipates publishing proposed rules in 1994. Principal items addressed in the proposed rule are:

  • Grazing Fee: The proposed rule would increase the grazing fee in order to correct the wide disparity between rates charged for livestock forage on private land and that charged on Federal land. The grazing fee would be raised from its current level of $1.86 per AUM to a base value of $3.96 (1991 dollars) multiplied by a "forage index." The forage index is designed to reflect changes in lease rates (market conditions) for private land in the 17 western States. The fee increase would be phased in over three years, and the grazing fee would be adjusted annually by the forage index. Further, a provision would be made for a 30 percent discount in the base value for lessees who fulfill rangeland management standards.16
  • Stewardship Responsibilities of Permittees and Granting of Leases/Permits: BLM will develop standards and guidelines for livestock grazing in rangeland ecosystems, and incorporate them in management plans and as terms and conditions of all permits and leases. The proposed rule specifies that an applicant's history of compliance with rules governing grazing, the terms and conditions of Federal or certain State grazing permits, and Federal and State laws governing grazing would be a paramount consideration for renewal of permits or granting of new leases.
  • Expeditious Enforcement: The proposed rule would allow field manager decisions to take effect during the appeals process. Current regulations provide for the suspension of decisions that are appealed, pending final action.17
  • Subleasing: The proposed rule would provide for levying a surcharge of 20 percent on revenues from BLM approved subleasing and 50 percent from approved pasturing of livestock not owned by the permittee.
  • Grazing Advisory Boards and District Advisory Councils: BLM intends to establish new committees known as "multiple resource advisory councils" to replace the Grazing Advisory Boards and District Advisory Councils. The resource councils will have a more diverse membership and broader geographic scope than the advisory boards, reflecting BLM's increased emphasis on restoring and maintaining healthy, sustainable ecosystems.

The Administration also intends to adopt other changes necessary to make BLM and Forest Service rangeland management regulations and policies more comparable.

Multipurpose Water Projects

The Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the International Boundary and Water Commission, and the Soil Conservation Service all construct multipurpose water projects that alter water regimes and produce major changes in water flows that affect riparian areas and the species that depend upon them. Under the authority of the Reclamation Acts of 1902 and 1939, the Bureau constructs, operates, and maintains projects for the storage, diversion, and development of waters for the reclamation of arid and semi-arid lands in the western States. The Corps participates in those reclamation projects where flood control is identified as a project purpose. Under the authority of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1945 the Corps constructs navigation projects whose benefits may also include flood control, power, and recreation. Under treaty authority, the International Boundary and Water Commission assumes joint responsibility with its Mexican counterpart for regulating waters that border both nations. Under the authority of the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act (P.L. 566), the Soil Conservation Service constructs small projects for watershed protection, flood prevention, agricultural water management, and non-agricultural water management, such as recreation.

Bureau multipurpose projects provide water for about three percent of the nation's harvested cropland and about six percent of the 1982 gross crop value. These modest percentages disguise the impact which Bureau projects have had on the West. Since its inception, the Bureau has built $7-8 billion worth of projects,18 affecting 11 million acres and including 327 storage reservoirs, 345 diversion dams, 15,300 miles of canals and 51 hydroelectric projects.

The Federal subsidies involved for Bureau projects differ depending on purposes, scope, and size. The most significant subsidy (the irrigation subsidy) is the difference between the cost of water from the reclamation projects and the amount repaid by irrigators. The main elements of the irrigation subsidy are (1) providing interest-free, long-term loans, (2) reducing the irrigators' liability by assigning to other project features (usually power) the difference between what the irrigators owe and what the Bureau concludes they are able to pay, (3) allocation of joint project costs to non-irrigation features such as flood control which the Federal Government assumes in full, (4) moratoria on repayment of capital, and (5) forgiving portions of loans and charges altogether. In a 1981 study examining 18 irrigation districts, the Department found that the irrigation subsidy ranged from 56.9 to 96.7 percent, up from 14 percent in 1902 (Department of the Interior 1981).19

The Corps participates in Bureau projects that include flood control as a purpose. It also constructs multipurpose projects on its own for flood control and navigation, many of which have irrigation and recreational benefits associated with them. Before passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (WRDA), the Federal Government assumed the full costs of flood control. It also paid for constructing and maintaining navigational waterways for commercial use except for land, rights-of-way, dredge disposal areas, and the maintenance of port facilities which were supplied by non-Federal interests. Under the WRDA, however, cost sharing by beneficiaries was increased significantly.20 Because the WRDA applies only to Corps and not to Bureau projects, however, an inequity arises: beneficiaries of Bureau projects have a lower cost-sharing rate (higher subsidy) for the same type of project.

The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in the Department of State was created to regulate boundary waters and plan projects cooperatively with Mexico. It controls the Rio Grande from Caballo Reservoir, New Mexico to the river's mouth, assuming administrative responsibility for flood control, irrigation, salinity management, and sewage disposal projects, all of which can affect the water quantity and quality in riparian areas. To enter into an agreement with the Mexican Commissioner, the U.S. Commissioner must have specific authorization in an existing treaty or an act of Congress. The current treaty authorizes three multipurpose dams, but only two have been built, each country paying for half the construction and maintenance costs.21 Subsidies arise because the Federal Government recoups none of its costs from local beneficiaries for flood control and irrigation services. The principles of the Water Resources Development Act have not been applied to water projects constructed and managed by the IBWC. As with Bureau of Reclamation projects, beneficiaries of IBWC projects pay less for the same project output than if it were provided by the Corps. Additionally, the IBWC does not believe that it has the same obligations as other development agencies to consult with the FWS about the consequences of its activities to fish and wildlife or other environmental values. It does confer with the FWS on occasion, but regards the FWS's recommendations as advisory, not mandatory.

SCS small watershed protection projects have had considerable impact on riparian wetlands in portions of the West. In Oklahoma, for example, about 2000 SCS watershed lakes have been constructed since passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act. The mostly complete Washita River Watershed Project in western Oklahoma (a 7,800-square-mile watershed containing 64 subwatersheds) caused considerable riparian wetland losses from about 1250 detention dams, 180 land stabilization structures, and 90 miles of channelization. The Washita Project does have some features which benefit fish and wildlife, however: the sediment pools of the floodwater retarding structures perform some of the same functions as wetlands.

SCS projects are heavily subsidized, being developed largely with Federal funds and limited local financial contributions. The SCS issued a Watershed Planning Guidance Letter on June 18, 1987 halting new starts for PL-566 drainage projects designed to increase crop production. SCS construction activities have declined since the letter. Congress continues to fund new projects, however. For example, in 1989, Section 622 of the House Appropriation Bill (H.R. 2882) stated that in fiscal year 1990, the Secretary of Agriculture "shall initiate construction of not less than 20 new projects" under PL-566.

In addition to the subsidies related to the development of water, many individual agricultural producers receive price and income supports for growing certain crops, such as wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, rice, and cotton. Recent data showing the acreage of crops produced with subsidized irrigation water that are also eligible for agricultural price and income supports are not available, but in 1969, 37 percent of the acreage irrigated with Bureau of Reclamation water was devoted to such crops. In a 1988 study, USDA found that 38 percent of the land receiving federally subsidized irrigation water is devoted to crops that are in oversupply (Moore and McGuckin 1988). Subsidized irrigation water is thus used to grow crops that are eligible for a host of USDA subsidizes. One way of dealing with this problem is through an extension of Swampbuster: make crops irrigated from a water project that affects riparian wetlands ineligible for Federal agricultural programs, e.g., price and income supports, crop insurance, and low interest loans.

Hydroelectric Projects 

Some Government programs promote the development of small hydroelectric projects. These programs grew out of the Public Utilities Regulation Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA), a statute designed to increase national energy self-sufficiency. PURPA required energy companies to purchase energy from small hydroelectric operators at prevailing energy rates. It also offered these projects a 21 percent investment tax credit, a 5-year depreciation schedule for the cost of capital investments, and loans of up to 90 percent for feasibility studies and up to 75 percent for project costs. Requiring large energy companies to purchase power generated by small hydroelectric projects guaranteed a market, reducing the uncertainty and risk associated with such ventures. It therefore increased expected net returns beyond those expected in the absence of the program, stimulating project construction and wetland loss. With the exception of the buy-back requirement, these incentives have recently been eliminated, however.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses all non-Federal hydroelectric projects. It has been criticized for authorizing development without giving adequate consideration to comprehensive plans, non-development uses, and waterway values. Section 10(a) of the Federal Power Act (FPA) allows adoption of projects only when all beneficial uses of water (including fish and wildlife uses) have been fully considered. Further, the FPA requires acceptance of the FWS's terms and conditions for exemptions from licensing (Section 30(c))and the Secretary's terms for protecting Federal reservations (Section 4(e)) and fishway prescriptions (Section 18).22 Recent court decisions have required changes in FERC licensing procedures that would protect water uses other than hydropower. Despite these provisions in the FPA and the court directives, the FWS contends that the Commission continues to be a proponent of hydroelectric power development. Prior to 1991, the Commission had never denied a hydroelectric project in Idaho for environmental or other beneficial use reasons, and nationwide, few projects have been denied for environmental reasons.

Promoting hydroelectric power without fully considering other beneficial uses of the water results in an inefficient use of resources. Several Federal agencies including the Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the FWS spend millions of dollars each year to ensure the survival of anadromous fish stocks and to restore these stocks. Despite this Federal priority (sanctioned in the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980 and other legislation) the Commission continues to issue licenses for harmful hydroelectric power development. The FWS contends that FERC does this without adequate mitigation. Consideration of comprehensive plans in accordance with Section 10(a) of the Federal Power Act could avert some of the current, case-by-case, resource conflicts and reconcile expensive and contradictory Federal programs. Instead of accepting all applications, the Commission could save money, effort, and riparian resources by developing comprehensive basin plans and excluding hydroelectric development in basins or portions of basins where it is not compatible with other water uses and requiring appropriate mitigation in basins or portions of basin where it is compatible. Promoting improvements such as cogeneration and conservation at existing dams and canals could also relieve pressure on riparian wetlands from small hydroelectric projects.23

The Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986 alleviated some of the problems associated with inequitable consideration of fish and wildlife and non-power values.

  • First, it requires the Commission not only to consider fish and wildlife values, recreational opportunities, and energy conservation equally with hydroelectric power development when new licenses are granted, but to incorporate resource agency recommendations received pursuant to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act into its licensing conditions. To reject the recommendations, the Commission must publish findings that (1) the recommendations are inconsistent with the purposes of the Federal Power Act and other applicable law and (2) the conditions it sets do comply with the Act and serve to "equitably protect, mitigate damages to, and enhance fish and wildlife."
  • Second, the Act requires the Commission to assess fees to cover the cost of fish and wildlife studies and reviews and to transfer the revenue to the resource agency conducting the studies and reviews.24 The law disallows PURPA benefits at new dams and diversions unless: the project complies with specific fish and wildlife recommendations; FERC finds that the project will not have substantial, adverse effects on the environment; and the project is not located on a State or national wild and scenic river system or a river designated by a State as having important attributes which may be affected. Few proposed projects meet these criteria.
  • Finally, it requires the Commission to examine whether PURPA benefits should be extended to new small hydroelectric projects and establishes a moratorium on PURPA benefits during the study period.
Small Diversion Projects

Small diversion projects have a considerable impact on western riparian wetlands. In Nevada they destroy as many riparian wetlands as large water projects. The BLM and Forest Service provide easements or special use permits for small diversion projects. The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) contributes funds. Building and maintaining small diversion structures that capture the flow of a stream for crop irrigation costs at least $1500. The percentage paid by the Federal Government varies by county and depends on how much water a project is expected to "conserve." The subsidy can reach 70 percent, subject to an annual maximum of $3500 for a landowner. The FWS contends that the Federal financial incentive has significantly influenced the number of small diversions constructed. Congress should consider eliminating this subsidy because:

  • Irrigation is a private activity, and there are no public benefits for which taxpayers in general should be billed.
  • The subsidy conflicts with other conservation goals, including protection of riparian wetlands.
Vegetation Management

Vegetation removal from riparian areas has been a standard practice by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps, and the IBWC in conjunction with the construction and management of their facilities. For several reasons the practice is not nearly as prevalent as it was in the past. There is little new construction of water projects. What construction there is entails mitigation. And recent studies have cast doubt on the extent of the water conservation benefits associated with vegetation removal. As a result, the Bureau is not currently using vegetation management to salvage water.25

Although the Bureau is not currently engage in vegetation removal for water conservation, it has not entirely abandoned the idea, either. The Bureau is still giving some consideration to its application in the lower Colorado River region, and is planning on doing more research before deciding on a management strategy.

Federal agencies continue to engage in vegetation management in order to:

  • Remove woody vegetation that is unsuitable for cattle forage and interferes with crop cultivation, and thus expand pasture or agricultural land. Through the ASCS the Federal Government subsidizes this practice on private lands, covering 50 percent of the cost on an annual basis and 55 percent on a multi-year basis.
  • Maintain the waterway between Mexico and the United States in a constant position so as to mark the border between the countries. Under contract to the IBWC, the Bureau destroyed at least 50,000 acres of riparian habitat within a 70 mile reach of the Rio Grande between Hatch, New Mexico and the American Dam near El Paso, Texas. The IBWC now maintains the area devoid of native vegetation.26 The IBWC destroys vegetation on other portions of the Rio Grande as well to keep the boundary clear.27 The FWS contends that border maintenance can be accomplished without eradicating all vegetation. It seems quite likely that there are less costly and less environmentally disruptive methods of marking the border.
  • Maintain the water-transport capacity of floodways. Federal agencies engaged in vegetation removal for maintaining floodways are not required to obtain dredge and fill permits under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Thus, the manner in which they control the vegetation escapes regulatory scrutiny. This is particularly unfortunate, because the spoil is often dumped in riparian wetlands.
Forest Products and Mining Industries

There are several Federal subsidies to the forest products and mining industries. The timber on Federal lands is often sold at below-cost prices, and special tax provisions are available to private landowners for forestry activities. There are a number of tax subsidies available to the mining industry, as well.

Below-cost timber sales differ fundamentally from the other subsidies examined in this report. The subsidy aspect of timber sales has no explicit basis in law. It is not an entitlement, a block grant, a tax expenditure, a risk-reducing guarantee, or a cost-sharing benefit. There is no statutory language directing that these sales be conducted at less than cost, and indeed, many are not. The BLM and the Forest Service propose timber harvesting programs as part of their decadal management plans. Congress either endorses these proposals in appropriations language or substitutes its own, preferred volumes, also in appropriations. Once the volume of the harvest is specified, the timber is auctioned off, and the above- or below-cost nature of the sales is a consequence of market conditions. It would be disingenuous, however, to imply that the income redistributive aspect of the timber harvesting program is unintentional. The program's history has been well-publicized, and is a matter of public record.28

Private landowners may claim special expensing, rapid amortization, and investment credits for forestry activities. For example, expenditures for site preparation, seedlings, tools, and labor up to $10,000 are eligible for a 10 percent tax credit and may be amortized over 7 years.

While the increased timber harvesting induced by tax concessions and below-cost timber sales may have only a limited direct effect on riparian wetlands, by making timber harvesting more lucrative, these programs result in increased construction of logging roads which often have a significant effect on these wetlands. It is likely that some adverse wetland impacts associated with below-cost timber sales in these areas would have been avoided if Congress required uneconomic sales to be canceled.

Federal timber sales29 have been curtailed in recent years, largely because of judicial rulings addressing environmental and multiple-use responsibilities. Although potential impacts from new sales have been curtailed, existing roads have not been reclaimed, and the runoff from them continues to affect wetlands.

The mining industry also receives a number of income tax advantages that increase after-tax income. Examples include the depletion allowance, expensing of exploration and development costs, and preferential treatment when mines close and land is reclaimed. Geologic, statistical, and survey information compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Mines is also available free of charge.

Status and Prospects 

Western riparian areas are under intense pressure. Small in comparative area, they are disproportionately important environmentally and economically. The Federal land management and water resources development agencies have not adequately protected riparian areas because of conflicting developmental responsibilities, e.g., grazing, agricultural irrigation, electric power development, and resource extraction. These activities play a major role in wetland loss and degradation.

The activity and program with the most extensive impact is livestock grazing. Grazing occurs on 36 percent of the land area in 11 western States. Overgrazing in allotments that include riparian areas severely degrades riparian ecosystems. According to the GAO, riparian decline results from a program with disproportionate concern for livestock production relative to conservation and environmental impacts. Program features that evoke this concern include:

  • A grazing fee which may create an incentive for abuse, making the already difficult task of enforcing grazing restrictions more onerous;
  • Allotment evaluations that fail to consider the impact on riparian vegetation when determining allowable use; and
  • Statutory restrictions limiting representation on the District Advisory Boards exclusively to stockmen, so that recommendations on grazing allotments and range improvements give scant attention to safeguarding wetlands.

BLM and the Forest Service have made strides in developing a wetlands protection policy. As part of recently adopted riparian management policy, these agencies have initiated an effort to classify riparian areas as distinct ecological sites and to determine the current ecological status and condition of these areas. BLM and the Forest Service will use the information gathered to establish riparian-area grazing prescriptions and practices, including seasons of use, duration of grazing, and utilization levels. If this new policy is vigorously endorsed by top management and Congress, there should be marked improvement in the rate of restoration of riparian areas.

Water development projects sponsored by the Federal Government have also had an impact on riparian wetlands in the West. Adjudicating water claims will be one of the great challenges in the future of the West. Competition among alternative uses is intense, and Indian claims to water must be addressed. Ensuring that riparian areas receive adequate water supplies will present major policy dilemmas. Calls for additional multipurpose water projects are expected to increase with population growth, and the Federal Government is exploring sites for new storage reservoirs. Although the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 represents a groundbreaking effort to pass on to beneficiaries a greater share of the costs of projects constructed by the Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and the IBWC have no firm cost-sharing policy that would serve to limit economically inefficient multipurpose projects. The Bureau and IBWC negotiate cost-sharing rates on a project by project basis, but historically projects have been heavily subsidized, especially irrigation projects.

While small-scale hydroelectric development depends largely on the prices of oil, the problems of the nuclear power industry have also prompted investigations into potential sites for hydro projects by private and State organizations. Currently, we have the specter of some Federal agencies spending large sums to protect fisheries, while private sector entities seek to divert water for hydroelectric power production. This is wasteful. By developing basin-wide plans, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could reduce the costs of both conservation and hydro development.

The Electric Consumers Protection Act (ECPA) attempts to make sure that fish and wildlife values are not ignored in favor of hydroelectric development. The ECPA sets a precedent by requiring that the recommendations of resource management agencies must be included as licensing conditions unless it is inconsistent with the purposes of the Federal Power Act or certain exceptions apply. Thus, the FWS's recommendations are often still advisory under ECPA, and riparian areas may still suffer adverse impacts should FERC decide that a conservation recommendation is inconsistent with the purposes of the Federal Power Act. Generally, if the water is needed for hydropower generation and use of that water to protect wetlands would financially preclude development of a site, the Commission favors development and wetlands are lost.

Small diversion projects for irrigation receive substantial Federal funding. These projects have a significant impact on western wetlands. Since the irrigation benefits are entirely private, public funding for the diversion projects seems questionable. Half the cost of destroying woody vegetation on private lands to increase pasture and cropland is paid by the Federal Government. There is no economic justification for such a subsidy. Eliminating vegetation along floodways as a means of increasing water supplies is financed entirely with Federal funds. The water conservation benefits of this practice have been challenged; the program conflicts with efforts to conserve riparian wetlands; and again, Federal financing of an activity which generates purely private benefits seems inappropriate. re


  1. Interagency land and resource management processes:
    a. As part of its technical review of wetland delineation issues, ask the National Academy of Sciences to examine the feasibility of developing delineation procedures for western riparian areas.
    Western riparian areas frequently have a proportionately greater significance than wetlands and riparian areas elsewhere in the United States because of the arid climates in which they are located. Yet riparian areas in the West often do not qualify as wetlands for purposes of regulation under 404. To qualify as a wetland under the procedures adopted by the Corps, EPA, FWS, and SCS, three basic elements must be evident: wetland hydrology, hydrophytic vegetation, and hydric soils. Many western riparian areas which function similarly to wetlands do not meet this standard because of the absence of hydric soils or hydrologic conditions. The Academy should consider whether it is appropriate to modify the Federal procedures for identifying wetlands to encompass all areas which function as wetlands and contribute to maintaining the integrity of the Nation's waters.
    b. Consider requiring that all Federal assistance programs comply with the conservation, mitigation, and reporting requirements contained in the Electric Consumers Protection Act.
    The ECPA requires that the following conditions must be met before a new construction project is entitled to PURPA tax benefits: (1) the project must not have significant adverse effects on the environment, including recreation and water quality; (2) the project cannot be located on a State or national wild or scenic river system which would be adversely affected; and (3) the project must comply with recommendations made by the resource protection agencies or explain why this is not possible in terms of primary agency mission. These conditions should apply not just to hydroelectric power development but to Federal projects across the board. Most, but not all, agencies consult with the FWS if a project will have a major impact on wetlands. However, they are not required to implement those recommendations or even to explain why the recommendations should not be implemented. This allows agencies a great deal of discretion in disregarding advice that would improve wetland quality. Requiring consultation and an explanation when the results of the consultation are not heeded could promote greater reflection and more thorough consideration of alternatives to projects with wetland impacts.
  2. Water resource development:
    a. Require that Federal water projects affecting wetlands be financed in accordance with the benefit principle of public finance, i.e., each beneficiary should bear the cost (including interest costs and any wetland opportunity costs) of generating his benefits.30
    The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (WRDA) constitutes an important step toward equitably allocating responsibility for financing water projects. The WRDA establishes a minimum cost-sharing contribution of 25 percent for non-Federal sponsors of flood control and drainage projects and 35 percent for irrigation projects constructed by the Corps of Engineers. It initiates cash contributions by non-Federal sponsors, and requires that this contribution be at least equal to five percent of the construction cost. Although many of the benefits of past projects have accrued locally, historically there have been no cash [only in-kind] contributions by the non-Federal sponsors. The Act makes the non-Federal sponsors responsible for all operating and maintenance costs and half the cost of development and design studies. Further, by prohibiting the use of certain calculation techniques which have been used previously to artificially inflate benefit-cost ratios, the WRDA lends support to the efforts for standardized, objective evaluation criteria for public projects.
    With passage of the WRDA, Congress made substantial progress toward eliminating the subsidization of flood control, drainage, irrigation, and navigation projects as well as reducing the construction of inefficient projects. However, the WRDA applies only to projects constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The concepts of efficiency and equitable cost sharing based on allocation of benefits are well-established. They should be extended to all water projects affecting wetlands. Both equity and efficiency will be served better if only those activities which reflect legitimate national objectives receive Federal financing, and non-Federal benefits are paid for by non-Federal sponsors.
    b. Eliminate Federal financial incentives for the construction of small water diversion projects.
    Small diversion projects have a considerable impact on western riparian wetlands. The BLM and the Forest Service provide easements or special use permits for small diversion projects, and Federal funds are contributed through the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. Building and maintaining small diversion structures that capture the flow of a stream for crop irrigation costs at least $1500. The percentage paid by the Federal Government varies by county and depends on how much water a project is expected to "conserve." The subsidy can reach 70 percent, subject to an annual maximum of $3500 for a landowner. The Federal financial incentive has significantly influenced the number of small diversions constructed. The subsidy should be eliminated, because irrigation is a private activity, there are no public benefits for which taxpayers in general should be billed, and the subsidy conflicts with other conservation goals, including protection of riparian wetlands.
    c. Include mitigation costs and funds for periodic evaluation of mitigation activities among project costs reimbursable to the Federal Government.
    Mitigation aims to reduce the negative environmental effects associated with a project. Those who benefit from a project should pay all costs, including environmental costs that have often in the past been ignored. If a public benefit arises from the project, the Federal Government should bear its share of mitigation expenses. The Federal agency sponsoring the project should be assigned the responsibility for seeing that mitigation is appropriately financed, evaluated, and enforced, and agency budgeting should reflect this responsibility.
  3. Agriculture:
    Charge producers receiving agricultural price support benefits the full cost of water from Federal water projects.
    Many individual agricultural producers receive price and income supports for growing certain crops, such as wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, rice, and cotton. In 1988, a USDA study found that 38 percent of the land receiving federally subsidized irrigation water is devoted to crops that are in oversupply. Thus, subsidized irrigation water is used to grow crops that are eligible for a host of Federal agricultural subsidizes. The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that the Bureau of Reclamation should charge the full cost of Federal water used to grow crops subject to agricultural price support programs.
  4. Vegetation protection and management:
    a. Prohibit Federal cost sharing for "vegetation management" conducted to expand pasture and agricultural lands.
    Through the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, the Federal Government sponsors a cost-sharing program of vegetation management to increase pasture and agricultural lands. The program funds half the cost of this practice on an annual basis and 55 percent on a multi-year basis. The problems that result from stream bank erosion alone may not be worth the minimal pasture expansion. Environmental consequences aside, using Federal funds for vegetation removal to benefit livestock owners is difficult to justify.
    b. Expand Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to require permits for "vegetation management" that affects water quality.
    Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a permit is not required for vegetation removal alone if it does not involve discharge of dredged or fill material into U.S. waters, even though the activity may result in erosion of streambanks (and hence, indirect discharge of "fill" material into such waters). This statutory limitation has been a significant factor in facilitating riparian habitat destruction on private lands in rural and urban areas in some parts of the West. Such vegetation removal is often associated with conversion of wetlands for agricultural purposes. In urban areas, it is done in order to clear for development projects, for weed control, and sometimes maliciously in order to eliminate potential habitat for rare and endangered species.
    Federal agencies engaged in vegetation removal for maintaining floodways are exempt from 404. Thus, the manner in which they control vegetation escapes scrutiny by regulatory authorities. This is particularly unfortunate, because the spoil is often dumped in riparian wetlands. Removing the exemption from 404 for these Federal agencies may require more than amending 404, since their authority to engage in vegetation management emanates either from specific statutory language or general organic legislation.
    c. Explore alternative ways of maintaining the border between Mexico and the United States.
    For ease in marking the Mexican/United States border, the International Boundary and Water Commission had at least 50,000 acres of riparian habitat within a 70 mile reach of the Rio Grande cleared and now maintains it devoid of native vegetation. It seems quite likely that there are less costly and less environmentally disruptive methods of marking the border.


Ault, C. 1986. The Effects of Federal Programs on Wetlands Resources in the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Draft Background Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 7 pp.

Brabander, J. 1985. Bottomland Hardwood Wetlands of Eastern Oklahoma. Draft Background Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 147 pp.

Danielson, L., C. Ault, D. Sada, and S. Sather-Blair. 1987. Impacts of Federal Programs on the Degradation of Western Riparian Wetlands. Background Report synthesized from draft documents. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 61 pp.

Johnson, R. and S. Carothers. 1982. "Riparian Habitats and Recreation: Interrelationships and Impacts in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Region," Eisenhower Consortium Bulletin 12. Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, USFS/USDA, Fort Collins, 31 pp.

Moore, M. and C. McGuckin. 1988. Program Crop Production and Federal Irrigation Water in Agricultural Resources: Cropland, Water, and Conservation Situation and Outlook Report, publication no. AR-12. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, pp. 39-46.

Rodman, J. 1989. Reflections on Tamarisk Bashing. Paper presented at the Society for Ecological Restoration and Management Annual Meeting, Oakland, CA, January 16-20.

Sada, D. 1986. The Effects of Federal Programs on Wetlands in Nevada. Draft Background Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 46 pp.

Sather-Blair, S. 1986. Western Riparian Wetland Losses and Degradation: Status and Trends of the Influence of Federal Water and Private Hydroelectric Projects. Draft Background Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 56 pp.

Schanz, J., A. Backiel, E. Buck, R. Gorte, K. Hendrixson, L. Kumins, M. Martel, J. Moore, M. Segal, D. Thompson and J. Zinn. 1986. The Subsidization of Natural Resources in the United States. Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Stinnett, D. 1988. Riparian Areas of Western Oklahoma. Draft Background Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 15 pp.

Swift, B.L. 1984. "Status Riparian Ecosystems in the United States," Water Res. Bull. 20(2): 223-228.

U.S. Congressional Budget Office. 1989. Reducing the Federal Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options, A report to the Senate and House Committees on the Budget--Part II, as required by P.L. 93-344, 1989 Annual Rept. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, February.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. 1986. Grazing Fee Review and Evaluation: Final Report, 1979-1985, Report of The Secretaries of Agriculture and The Interior, Washington, DC, February, 99 pp.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. 1981. Acreage Limitation EIS, Westwide Report, Appendix.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 1990. Riparian-Wetland Initiative for the 1990's. Washington, DC, 60 pp.

U.S. General Accounting Office. 1988b. Public Rangelands: Some Riparian Areas Restored but Widespread Improvement Will Be Slow, GAO/RCED-88-105, Washington, DC, June 30, 85 pp.

U.S. General Accounting Office. 1988a. Public Rangelands: More Emphasis Needed on Declining and Overstocked Grazing Allotments, GAO/RCED-88-80, Washington, DC

U.S. General Accounting Office. 1990. Process for Appraising Timber Offered for Sale Needs to Be Improved, GAO/RCED-90-135, Washington, DC, May 2, 50 pp.

U.S. Water Resources Council. 1975. Options for Cost-Sharing, Part 5a: Implementation and OM&R Cost-Sharing for Federal and Federally Assisted Water and Related Land Programs. Washington, DC

Welder, G. E. 1988. Hydrological Effects of Phreatophyte Control, Acme-Artesia Reach of the Pecos River, New Mexico, 1967-82. U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Investigations Report 87-4148. Prepared in cooperation with the Pecos River Commission, Albuquerque, New Mexico, December.

Weeks, E.P., H. L. Weaver, G. S. Campbell, and D. D. Tanner. 1987. Water Use by Saltcedar and by Replacement Vegetation in the Pecos River Floodplain between Acme and Artesia, New Mexico. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 491G, 33 pp.


1 Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

2 In northern California mountain meadows, riparian vegetation, which comprises only 5 to 10 percent of the meadowlands, provides about 90 percent of the usable livestock forage.

3 On the Humboldt River in northwest Nevada, 75 percent of riparian wetlands have been lost as a direct result of multipurpose water projects. On the Snake River in Idaho, 50 percent (508 miles and over 50,000 acres) of the riparian communities have been inundated due to such projects. The changes are similar along other western rivers. The Columbia and Rio Grande have been developed to a greater extent than the Snake, while others such as the Payette, Boise, and Missouri (in Montana) are also heavily developed. Over 500,000 acres of riparian wetlands were inundated by Corps and Bureau reservoir projects in eastern Oklahoma between 1940 and 1982. Additional, unquantified wetland losses also occurred from over 140 miles of Corps and SCS stream channelization projects. Construction of some multipurpose dams in western Oklahoma has had a profound effect on downstream wetlands through reduced instream flows. For example, average annual flows were reduced 83 percent by construction of the Sanford Dam on the Canadian River in the Texas panhandle portion of Oklahoma.

4 On average about a mile and a half, although the distance varies.

5 The BLM uses the term "vegetation management" to mean something different. BLM uses it to refer to efforts to achieve or maintain a plant community that most nearly meets the multiple use objectives identified in land use plans. Burning, plowing, chaining, and spraying are termed "land treatment" by the BLM, and BLM sometimes uses these practices to improve riparian areas.

6 See the discussion of vegetation management in the next section or in chapter IV.

7 Trees and shrubs armor river banks and reduce erosion, while unvegetated banks erode and begin to meander. The International Boundary and Water Commission is committed to eradicating vegetation along the border with Mexico in hopes of preventing any alteration in course. Rivers, however, naturally shift courses over time and are not likely to be held fast even with major human intervention.

8 Recent studies along the Pecos River found that water salvage either does not occur at all or is significantly less than predicted (e.g., Welder 1988). Critics have suggested that ground water pumping in the area may have confounded the results, however, and made it impossible to determine whether water conservation occurs (Weeks 1987).

9 The exception to this is in the border area of the far southwest where birds tend to utilize saltcedar habitat.

10 The Fish and Wildlife Service has instituted a program of saltcedar removal and native riparian habitat replacement at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Saltcedar shrubs have been removed and cottonwood trees planted on 150 acres, as the first increment of a several thousand-acre riparian habitat replacement project.

11 See Appendix VI-1.

12 The Forest Service uses the same procedure.

13 Ranchers argue that it is misleading to interpret the grazing fee differential between public and private land as a subsidy, because the lands are not equivalent. They cite numerous differences between public and private land that could legitimately lead to differential charges for grazing. The way in which the west was divided between public and private lands resulted in public lands being the less productive areas. Permittees face restrictions on predator control not encountered by private leaseholders. Public lands are more remote and less accessible, making livestock management more expensive. Environmental considerations and multiple-use management requirements constrain livestock-related decisions. Public rangeland improvement costs are shared by permittees, generally on a fifty-fifty basis. On private land, the landowner would bear these expenses, and the cost would be reflected in a higher rental fee. All these arguments have merit. Nonetheless, as designed, the grazing fee formula suffers from a downward bias and consistently results in a fee less than market value (USDA and DOI 1986).

14 The penalty for nonwillful, unauthorized use in 1993 is $9.41 per AUM; willful trespassing, $17.50 per AUM plus administrative costs; and repeated willful trespassing, $26.25 per AUM plus administrative costs. BLM has the authority to suspend, modify, or cancel a permit.

15 For example, riparian vegetation from low elevations (cottonwood/willow) to upper elevations (alder/willow) provide habitats of high value to neotropical migratory birds, including flycatchers, vireos, warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

16 A separate rulemaking is planned in order to develop criteria for qualifying for this discount. In the absence of such a rule, the base value will be $3.50 rather than $3.96.

17 There is an exception for emergencies.

18 This is the sum of expenditures, and is not in constant dollars.

19 Estimates of the magnitude of the irrigation subsidy differ, but all agree that it is substantial. The U.S. Water Resources Council estimated (1975) that the Bureau provided irrigation water at 18 cents on the dollar. Shanz et. al (1986) conclude that in 1982, Bureau of Reclamation water subsidies totaled about $1 billion, 14 percent of the gross value of crops irrigated with Bureau water, averaging about a $30 subsidy per acre foot.

20 Non-Federal sponsors of flood control must contribute at least 25 percent of the project costs with a minimum of 5 percent in cash. The sponsor of every future harbor project must make a cash contribution of 10 percent for projects with depths of less than 20 feet, 25 percent between 20 and 45 feet, and 50 percent for projects over 45 feet. Sponsors must pay an additional 10 percent over a 30-year period with interest. And sponsors of irrigation projects built by the Corps must pay 35 percent of the construction costs.

21 The two projects that have been constructed are the Falcon Reservoir and the Amistad Reservoir. Discussions about building the third dam authorized by the treaty continue, but have not proceeded to a formal planning stage.

22 FERC generally includes the Service's fishway prescriptions either as mandatory Section 18 prescriptions or as conditions under Section 10(j) of the FPA. FERC and the Service have had some disagreements regarding what measures fall under Section 18 (and therefore are mandatory) and what measures fall under Section 10(j) (and therefore are discretionary).

23 Cogeneration can cause environmental problems if not designed carefully.

24 This requirement is endorsed and clarified in the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

25 Past damages were extensive, however. For example, in 1964, Congress gave the Bureau responsibility for maintaining a continuing program to decrease water losses along the Pecos River, from its headwaters near Las Vegas, New Mexico to Girvin, Texas (PL 88-594). The Bureau's program was devoted to clearing and controlling saltcedars on an area of about 21,000 acres. Some of this area has revegetated, but much of it is still degraded.

26 The Bureau is responsible for vegetation management on 600 acres. The IBWC manages the rest.

27 By destroying habitat, the IBWC may be affecting the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi. The Audubon Society and the Sportsman's Club of Texas recently filed suit against the IBWC for brush clearing.

28 Recently, the General Accounting Office analyzed 3316 Forest Service and 221 BLM timber sales from FY88 (GAO 1990). Forty percent of Forest Service sales were advertised with a minimum acceptable bid less than the costs of preparing and administering the sales. The GAO found only one percent of BLM sales with minimum bids less than the costs of preparing and administering the sales. If all costs had been considered -- growing the timber, preparing the sales, and overhead, these percentages would have been much higher.

29 All sales, not just below-cost sales.

30 The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $85 million would be saved from 1990-1994 if only two reforms were made: enforcing requirements that farms of more than 960 acres be charged the full cost for Federal irrigation water and charging full costs to those using Federal water to grow surplus crops (CBO 1989).

Return to Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands Title Page
Return to Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands Table of Contents
Return to United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Return to Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance
For more information on the impact of Federal programs on wetlands,
contact Jon H. Goldstein by email at or
by telephone at 202-208-4077