Web Q&A: Interior Department answers your questions on rivers

Office of the Secretary
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Interviewer: We'll get started here in just a second, but we've got some really great questions that we're already going to ask. If you have any that you would like to ask, please feel free to add them into the chat, and we'll get to them as soon as possible.

Mr. Secretary, would you like to open us up?

Secretary Salazar: Thank you very much Tim, and thank you to all who have joined us on this web chat today, with me and Rebecca Waters, here at the Department of the Interior.

We're focused here at the Department on starting a new chapter with respect to how we take care of our rivers.

I want to say first of all, thank you to all of you who are listening, for your participation in the America's Great Outdoors Listening Session. We heard from thousands and thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of comments, on what we ought to prioritize for the 21st century conservation agenda.

The President has said to us that he wanted to develop a conservation agenda that was worthy of our times. As we listened to people and took the expertise of people throughout the Department of the Interior, one of the cornerstones of what we're doing with the America's Great Outdoors is a renewed focus on rivers.

Today, I'm proud to announce on this web-chat, that we're moving forward with a new National Water Trails Initiative. As the Secretary of the Interior, I have the responsibility under the National Trails System Act to designate national trails.

We've never had a National Water Trail designation, and so we have issued a Secretarial Order that will allow us to go ahead and designate National Water Trails around the country. These are the best of our rivers, which have been restored, which have showed great collaboration and best management practices, and which are bringing a lot of people and connecting them to our rivers.

The first river that we are designating as a National Water Trail today is the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. That is a 48-mile stretch of river which now is used by 3.2 million people in a variety of different ways. It's a wonderful example of what we can do with our rivers when a community embraces them, and looks to them for all of the benefits that brings to conservation, as well as the economics of the local community and the health of the community.

Let me finally, before I turn it to Rebecca for an opening comment, say that, when one looks at the rivers of the United States over the last four centuries, we often turned our backs to our rivers. It's only been really in the last several decades that communities around the country have been turning our faces to the rivers, and embracing our rivers.

So, we have great examples of river restoration projects that we're working on now throughout the United States of America. San Joaquin River in California, which is now finally flowing with water after 50 years of being dry; the Elwha River, which is a major restoration project in Olympic National Park in Washington State; the Penobscot River in Maine, and so many other rivers around our country.

We will move forward with a celebration of a new era of rivers, knowing that they really are the lifeblood of our communities, both for the traditional uses that water is used for from those rivers. But also for the ever-growing outdoor recreation and enthusiasm that we see for our rivers.

With that, what I'd like to do is turn over to Rebecca Waters, who has a tremendous amount of experience working on the rivers of America, and who I am very proud of, because she's going to be one of the keystone people, and engines, behind our efforts here on American rivers.

So with that, Rebecca Wodder.

Rebecca: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, it's great to be with all of you here in this web-chat, and I just want to add a few more words and say that one of the reasons the work at the Department of the Interior, and all of the Federal agencies, is so important, is that healthy rivers are one of the most valuable assets that a community can have, whether that is a human community or a natural community.

It's through the partnerships that we have with our sister agencies across the Federal Government, as well as in local communities, the conservation organizations, and the angling and sports organizations that we work with, that we're able to restore these rivers, that we're able to reconnect the waterways, and make them those valuable assets that we can all benefit from.

The work that we do here with our partners is part of showing how this restoration work can happen, showing the way for other communities to do the work. It's also about making it easier for communities, giving them the tools, and the services that they need to do the protection and the restoration work. Finally, it's about inspiring all of us with good examples of what healthy rivers can mean.

It's a great time to be at the Department. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today and look forward to a good engagement with the conservation community, the angling community, the trails community, and everyone else who cares about healthy rivers.

Interviewer: Great. Thanks Rebecca, and thank you Mr. Secretary. We're going to jump right into the questions now, and this one is about the National Water Trails announcement that we just made, and this is from Peggy in West Virginia.

She asks, "What criteria are being used to designate rivers as National Water Trails?"

Secretary Salazar: Peggy, that's a very good question, and thank you, Tim, for doing such a great job here in the Department.

The criteria are set forth in the Secretarial Order. They describe what the best management practices are, and what we are trying to do here is create a set of water trails around the country which are great examples.

The Chattahoochee River in Georgia, as I said, is one of those examples with 48 miles of rivers, with 3.2m people who use it-canoeists, boaters, rafters, anglers, and a whole host of other people who find the Chattahoochee River just a wonderful place to enjoy the great outdoors of America.

I'll have Rebecca speak to what this Secretarial Order does, and how we intend to move forward. We, of course, have made the first designation of a river, in Georgia, today. We will have other designations that we will be working on in the weeks and months ahead. Rebecca?

Rebecca: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. There will be, on the web very soon, instructions and descriptions of what it means to be a National Water Trail. As the Secretary has said, it's a designation. It's a recognition of excellence.

The best management practices come in a few different categories, including recreation opportunities, education provided to the community, restoration of the water trail, the river itself, community support showing that there's broad engagement across the community, public information being provided through the water trail, maintaining the trail and making sure that it can stand up and be available to future generations of Americans, and finally, having a good comprehensive plan that the community has been involved in producing, and is supporting and can go forward.

Interviewer: Great. Thank you both. If you're looking for a little more information on the announcement that we just made, the release is up on doi.gov so there's more information there right now.

We'll move on to another question about water trails now, and this one's from Kate, who represents the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Her question is, "Will there be an opportunity and resources to create mechanisms for water trails to share information like best practices, other questions, et cetera, across the country?"

Secretary Salazar: Yes, Kate, it's a good question. What we will do is, within the Department of the Interior, pool our resources from the different agencies. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service has a fish passage program which we have strongly supported in our funding. We'll work with other agencies to try identify money to be able to provide, not only technical assistance, but also some financial assistance to some of these projects

There's a lot of competition for conservation dollars, but I want to say it's very important that all of you who've been a part of the conservation movement, let your voices be heard in the halls of power across Washington and across the country in your congressional districts.

We came close last year to losing most of the conservation dollars. We were able to fight to get some of it back, but we really need to make sure that people understand that when we restore a river in America, when we invest in conservation, that it's also good for the economy.

We know that there's over eight million jobs that come from all of the conservation activities that bring in tourists, and outdoor recreation. That's from an independent report outside of the Department, so it's a cornerstone of our economy as well.

We'll find ways of helping put the spotlight on these great partnerships. They are a collaboration. Much of the money, for example, in the Chattahoochee River, is really money that has come from the local community, from non-profits, as well as from the private sector, and local governments.

We are looking at these collaborative efforts to make this conservation era on rivers a reality, recognizing that at the Government level, at the federal, state and local levels, there are significant financial constraints.

But this should not stop us. We can figure out ways of putting these efforts together, and in fact have hundreds of examples of how this has happened around the country.

Rebecca: Tim, could I just add a point to that?

Interviewer: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the ideas that is embedded in this new National Water Trail System is that we want to create a way for individuals and organizations on the ground who are doing a great job with their own water trail, to serve as mentors, and to be able to put up the solutions that they've developed for the problems they've faced, and be able to share that with other communities that may just be starting their own efforts to do a water trail.

This would be another benefit of having established this system, having issued the Secretarial Order today, is a community of practice that really can share and cross-pollinate with good ideas.

Interviewer: Great. Thank you.

This one is going to be a hybrid of two questions that have come in and this is just talking about some of the different programs within the Federal Government on rivers.

There are two questions here. One is, "What is the difference between the National Water Trails that we're talking about today, compared to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program?", and then also, "How is it different from the National Blueways System?"

Secretary Salazar: First, with respect to the Wild and Scenic Rivers. That's a designation by Congress and the essence of it is that we're talking about free-flowing rivers. We're proud of the fact that, during the time that I have been Secretary under the President's leadership, we've moved forward to make sure that we are doing what we can with the production of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (2009) in the Public Lands Bill passed by the Congress and signed by the President of the United States.

We added 1,100 miles of river to the Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Not all rivers are wild and scenic, and so, there's a whole other set of rivers which ought to receive recognition and a designation, and that's what the National Water Trails System will allow to happen.

What Rebecca was reading from, frankly, is something that we're rolling out as we speak, and that's a description, called the National Water Trails System, put together by the National Parks Service, which describes the collaboration that we have under way.

In terms of the difference between the National Blueways System and this system, we are in the process of working on a National Blueway program as well, and the designation of additional rivers under the umbrella of America's Great Outdoors.

Stay tuned, because there is a lot more to be told on this story, including a conference with the White House, here at the Department of the Interior, with the President, and with me and a whole host of other people this Friday. We hope to be able to talk some more there with many of our community partners on the future of rivers in America.

Rebecca, do you have something to add on both of these points?

Rebecca: I think you have covered the scenic comparison very, very well. I would only add on the National Blueways, as you say. It's a concept that we're still working on. I think one thing is clear. The National Water Trail System is really about providing recreational resources to our communities and access to the rivers as a recreational asset.

The Blueway concept will encompass that, but it will go on beyond that to provide a sustainable future for our communities. Again, human communities, natural communities that depend on healthy rivers for so many different benefits.

Interviewer: Great, thank you to you both. Here's another question on the chat from Lighterside. The question is, "Can you speak to some specific restoration efforts and are these models for future restoration efforts, as regard to rivers are concerned?"

Secretary Salazar: We can, and we have. Out of the America's Great Outdoors Project priorities, we've identified 101 projects around the country which are the best conservation examples, where we want to put a highlight on those. They include some land conservation programs, like the Dakota grasslands and those of Kansas and so on. But probably 30 percent of those projects are projects around river restoration.

I could cite all of them, because they're all great projects. But here in the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area, the Anacostia River, we have moved forward in a major river restoration program on the Anacostia and, frankly, made more progress in the last year, including getting close to completion of some of the tributaries, the Watts Branch, in terms of the river restoration effort, which has been led by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Anacostia, which is in the middle of a population of over five million people, will essentially become a waterway that we can be very proud of. Just a few years ago, it was very polluted. It still has some very significant problems there, but we're going to make the Anacostia a new kind of river that will be very open and very accessible to the public from several state area around here.

Interviewer: Great, thank you Mr. Secretary. For those of you who are just joining us, we want to thank you again for being with us today. We're taking your questions on America's rivers and, if you haven't asked a question yet, you can still do so on the chat. We're going to be here for a few more minutes and we're going to get to as many questions as possible. For those of you, again, just joining us, if you didn't see the beginning, we will have this full chat up on doi.gov early next week.

With that, we're going to move on to another question, which is actually appropriate for right now because we're in the middle of Invasive Species Week here at Interior. This question is, "How will invasive species management fit into this initiative?" They're asking specifically about Asian carp.

Secretary Salazar: I think a healthy river or water body is also addressing the issue of invasive species and trying to restore the native vegetation, the native habitat, the native wildlife. It's part of what we are doing across America as we restore rivers. It will be one of those things we will look at as one of the parameters for what is a great river under the National Water Trails system.

With respect to the Asian carp, specifically, it is a menace and a potential threat to the Great Lakes. We are investing huge amounts of money from this department, as well as other departments, to try to get a handle on the Asian carp. We want to stop its spread from the Mississippi into the Great Lakes.

It's a high priority for President Obama and we are making sure that we are doing everything possible that we can to stop the Asian carp from spreading.

Interviewer: Great, thank you Mr. Secretary. This next question is from Todd, who is the President of the River Network. His question is, "The healthy watersheds of this district of the USDA"--he mentions some other projects at USGS and at the EPA--"are all dealing with rivers on a variety of levels. His question is how do we work better at coordinating each of these efforts to maximize the impact of federal initiatives, funding and guidance?"

Secretary Salazar: Under the America's Great Outdoors program, the President has put together a steering committee that includes the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, the administrator of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, who try to integrate all of these programs so that they're not operating in the silos of the particular government agency.

The collaboration that we're seeing, for example, in the Los Angeles River in California where you have a huge role by the Environmental Protection Agency but also by the Army Corp of Engineers, the City of Los Angeles, many stakeholders, the Friends of the Los Angeles River, and we at the Department of the Interior are working together to make sure that we are restoring the Los Angeles River with a plan that is being developed and progress is actually being made.

I think the worst thing we can do, frankly, is to end up having a bunch of silo efforts through each agency, so that everybody ends up tripping over each other. What we hope for is the opposite of that and that is we can harness the collective energies of all of the agencies and all the resources and be able to get a greater bang for the buck.

Interviewer: Great, thank you Mr. Secretary. Another question coming in from the chat and this is from River Keeper. The question is, "Will competitive grants be available at the local level for organizations to conduct restoration and education programs, as part of this rivers initiative?"

Secretary Salazar: We have been looking at the question of fiscal resources, and obviously, there's a challenge. But we hope that we will be able to identify some money to be able to help with some of these initiatives that fall under the umbrella of America's Great Outdoors. I'm going to have Rebecca speak to that for just a little bit.

Rebecca: We are looking hard. We're looking across, not only all of the programs within the Department of the Interior, but also reaching out to the other agencies. I think one of the questions that we are asking is, "Can we leverage? Can we leverage our federal dollars along with private dollars and local dollars to get a better result than any of us could get working alone?"

That goes back to the idea that the Secretary was just speaking of, in terms of breaking down the silos and having better communication and coordination on our work. It is an effort that is very important, and it will help us work smarter and get the most out of every dollar that we are able to bring to bear on this work.

Interviewer: Great, thank you to you both. We've just got a couple of minutes left so, if you have some burning questions, now would be the time to get them in. I will probably try to get to two or three more, before we'll unfortunately have to wrap up for the day.

The next one is coming from someone called the Alabama Scenic River Trail, and they asked, "So far, I've heard a lot of discussion about restoration. How essential is the restoration component to the National Water Trails recognition?"

Secretary Salazar: The criteria are set out within the Secretarial order, which I signed and which is out on the Web. The restoration efforts are important because, at the end of the day, most of our rivers in America have been impacted by the hand of human activity over centuries.

It's important for us to make sure that we're doing the restoration with fish passageways, public access and other kinds of features that will make these rivers the kind of rivers that we celebrate in Alabama, Georgia and every one of the states around the country. I think what is so important about today and the announcement that we're making is that, in the history of this department, most of the focus of what this department has been known for is the Bureau of Reclamation and the water storage facilities which we run, that provide water to over 30 million people in the United States.

Those are certainly part of our responsibility but, in addition to that, other departments--Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, USGS and the Bureau of Reclamation itself--are involved in river restoration efforts all over the country: the San Joaquin River in California.

We just started an effort in New Mexico on the Rio Grande River. We hope to be able to create a 100-mile stretch of restored river that will bring together multiple jurisdictions, the cities, the counties and, frankly, they have put significant amounts of money into that river restoration project already. We have already identified money that will be put into that project also from the Department of the Interior. Restoration is a key component of what we're looking at.

Interviewer: Great, thank you Mr. Secretary. We have time for one more question, which is actually a great one to end on because tomorrow, we will be hosting a conservation conference here at the Department of the Interior. It will be an afternoon conference that will cover a variety of issues around conservation and you'll be able to watch the whole event, live-streamed, on the same channel at doi.gov/live.

This question is from Jim, in Iowa, and he wants to know, "How will the rivers initiative support and provide for better hunting and fishing and what infrastructure is built into this initiative to accept and consider public input into the development of this initiative?"

Secretary Salazar: Let me have Rebecca make a comment to that question, and then I'll go ahead and we'll close it up.

Rebecca: Hunting and fishing are both very important benefits that we get from healthy rivers. Despite the fact that riparian areas alongside rivers are only two percent of the land mass, they are home to 75 percent of the wildlife. That's not just wildlife in the river, but birds and other forms of wildlife that depend on healthy rivers for their habitat, for raising their young, for everything that they need to live. Healthy rivers are key to hunting and fishing.

As the Secretary mentioned at the outset, it was thrilling to see how many people came out during the listening sessions for AGO in the summer of 2010 with really good ideas about how to protect and restore our nation's waterways. We want to continue that process, continue to get good ideas, and we will be doing that through any number of means, websites and chats of this sort where we ask for your questions and hear your ideas. We appreciate all of the input that we have received and will continue to receive into the future.

Secretary Salazar: Let me say that the White House conference on conservation will be held here at the Department of the Interior this Friday, March 2nd, and we hope as many of you are able to join us.

Via this live video presentation, you will be hearing from a number of different people, several panels that have been set up and breakout groups. One of the most important panels that you'll hear from will be a panel that will be focused on rivers and river restoration and what has been happening around the country. We know that we have been working hard on river restoration projects around the country.

Today, with the signing of the Secretarial order on the National Water Trails, it's a significant milestone forward as we attempt to put into place an institution that will work over a long period of time to make sure that the rivers of America receive the recognition that they so deserve. We look forward to working with all of you. We hope that as many of you as possible tune in to hear what everyone has to say on Friday, March 2nd.

Interviewer: Great. Thank you, Mr. Secretary and thank you, Rebecca. Thanks to everybody for watching today. The full video from this chat will be up on the website in the next couple of days and, as always, if you have further questions, please send them in to newmedia@ios.doi.gov.

You can follow us on Twitter @interior and follow us on Facebook at US Interior. Until next time, thanks again for participating and hopefully, you'll be able to tune in on Friday afternoon for our conservation conference. Thank you very much.

Last edited 4/26/2016