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Interior Department breaks ground on aquatic restoration projects in the Mountain West

 A Bear River cutthroat trout at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Wyoming.
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr Creative Commons
A Bear River cutthroat trout at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Wyoming.

News Brief: 

Just over a year after President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act into law, a flood of money is already being put to work to restore aquatic ecosystems in the Mountain West, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many projects involve removing dams and other blockages in waterways so fish can more easily move upstream to spawn.

Shannon Estenoz with the U.S. Department of the Interior said the river restoration work is part of a $200 million investment in fish passages, which she said could benefit more than just fish.

“When you restore a river, you often improve public safety. You often improve flood mitigation,” Estenoz said. “You often have economic benefits.”

Construction is already underway on a slew of projects in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Nevada, and the Fish and Wildlife service recently announced that an additional $38 million in funding is available for additional restoration proposals.

Estenoz said creating fish passages is an efficient use of funds compared to other investments from the federal government. Private-public partnerships – including an additional $40 million habitat restoration initiative with Trout Unlimited – can get these projects completed more quickly and the money goes further.

“In the upper Bear River, right between Wyoming and Utah, it's $1.3 million dollars,” Estenoz said. “Across four projects, we're going to restore almost 45 miles of river.”

Federal officials say there are more than six million barriers nationwide that can cut fish off from breeding grounds and food sources – and eventually lead to population declines. The Colorado pikeminnow, for instance, is listed as endangered due to obstructions on waterways and climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft recovery plan for the species this week.

“As climate change dishes out all kinds of unplanned-for circumstances – like drought, or flood or fire – the healthier the ecosystems are, the better they're going to do,” Estenoz said.

While many fish passage projects involve removing outdated dams, culverts and levees, others require creating alternative pathways around blockages that aquatic species can use.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey