Sponsored by:

Highlights from the Week's News

This Week in Water™ airs on community and public radio stations nationwide and is available on podcast networks. Want environmental news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.

Sacking Sackett? Biden Moves to Protect Wetlands

May 05, 2024

Colorado River Outlook May Be More Optimistic Than Thought

The outlook for the Colorado River could be better than previously thought—even as the region becomes warmer. Researchers Martin Hoerling and Balaji Rajagopalan, from the University of Colorado Boulder, say that there will likely be more abundant precipitation in the next 25 years than there was in the last two decades.

Canyon walls and riparian vegetation are reflected in the water of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, upstream of Lees Ferry.  |  Credit: Mariah Giardina, SBSC, USGS

Climate models are forecasting a 70 percent chance of increased precipitation, which they found could partially offset further declines to flows from rising temperatures. The team added that the current megadrought, which began 23 years ago, resulted from low precipitation.

The river is fed mostly by snowfall in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, and that precipitation is critical to the entire seven-state system. According to the study, precipitation has explained most ups and downs of flows in the Colorado River. The study concluded that there was a low probability that precipitation could decline, but if it did, the continuing warming would lead to lower flows than today’s.

The study was published in the Journal of Climate.

In other developments, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) signed an agreement with the federal government and the state of Arizona allowing the tribe to lease portions of its water to users off its lands and to store water off the reservation. Although the tribe holds the most senior right to Colorado River water in Arizona, until now it has not been permitted by the federal government to generate revenue from leasing its water off tribal land. This new agreement supports the sovereignty of the tribe. According to Inside Climate News, the financial benefit to the tribe will mean investment in updating agricultural systems, the building of infrastructure, and services provided to tribal members.

The chairperson of the CRIT, Amelia Flores, said at the signing that the agreement clears the path for the tribe to finally be recognized as an essential party in all future decisions regarding the Colorado River.

Biden Administration Moves to Protect Wetlands

The federal government is moving from regulation to restoration to protect wetlands, since the Supreme Court issued a ruling last year in the Sackett case, whch shattered federal programs aimed at keeping marshes thriving under the Clean Water Act. 

An open-canopied ephemeral wetland occupied by gopher frogs in the northern Florida Peninsula. Wetlands like these surrounded by sandy upland habitat, such as longleaf pine systems, support gopher frog populations.  |  Credit: USGS

Now, the Biden administration has announced its goal to protect and restore eight million acres of wetlands over the next six years. The administration also seeks to protect 100,000 miles of rivers and streams by removing dams and restoring stream banks. Biden is asking that states, tribes, and cities develop conservation and restoration policies. Eight tribes, 20 local governments, and ten states, including Colorado, California, and Oregon, have already agreed. The goals can be achieved by incentives paid to farmers, ranchers, and other landowners to restore and conserve wetlands.

Wetlands are vital to guard against flooding and to keep pollutants out of rivers and streams, yet, after the Sackett decision, over 60 percent of wetlands are unprotected under the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released its Wetlands Status and Trends Report, which shows that the lower 48 states have lost more than half their wetlands since about 1870 and that the rate of loss increased by 50 percent in the ten years ending 2019.

The Army Corps of Engineers is also acting in the wake of the Sackett decision by overhauling its programs to restore aquatic ecosystems. After the Supreme Court action, the Corps now will prioritize projects that reconnect wetlands in floodplains and strengthen short-lived streams that are at risk. However, legal experts told E&E News that the Corps’ actions are unlikely to protect wetlands as well as they were for decades before the decision.

Conservation Works—and We’re Getting Better at It

Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on Earth from fungi and bacteria to entire ecosystems like forests or coral reefs. This web of life supports us all with clean water, food, and livelihoods. As you’ve no doubt heard, biodiversity is in crisis from human activities, but according to a new study, when efforts are made to protect nature, they work not just well but very well.

Lahemaa National Park in Estonia is a conservation area for woodland, wetland, and coastal ecosystems.  |  Credit: Margus Opp/Creative Commons

A team of international scientists led by the conservation organization Re:wild, the universities of Oxford and Kent, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature analyzed hundreds of different conservation interventions globally over the last century and found that actions such as establishing protected areas, eradicating invasive species, reducing habitat loss, and restoring ecosystems, improved biodiversity or halted its decline two-thirds of the time compared with doing nothing at all.

Writing in The Conversation, Joseph Bull, from the University of Oxford, said that in cases where conservation was not successful, it provided an opportunity to refine an approach. To that end, they found recent efforts tended to have better outcomes, implying that interventions are getting more effective over time. They add that where conservation may not have helped a target species, it inadvertently benefited others. For example, seahorses were less numerous in marine protected areas in Australia because efforts there boosted the number of octopus, their natural predators.

More than half of the world’s economies depend on nature, which countries are acknowledging. At the recent UN Convention on Biological Diversity, governments adopted new targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. This study shows that conservation efforts are indeed working and that investments in the natural world will pay off.

The study was published in the journal Science.

An Orangutan Reaches for a Natural First Aid Kit After a Brawl

There are several vines that grow in tropical forests of Southeast Asia that are used in traditional medicine to heal wounds, because of their antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antioxidant properties. Those benefits are no secret to orangutans, according to a new study.

Facial wound of adult flanged male Rakus (photo taken two days before applying the plant mesh to the wound). |  Credit: Armas / Suaq Project

Recently, biologists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Konstanz, Germany, and Universitas Nasional, Indonesia, observed a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) named Rakus applying leaves to a facial wound he sustained in a brawl with another male. Three days after his injury, Rakus selectively tore leaves from a woody vine called akar kuning or yellow root (Fibraurea tinctoria), chewed on them, and then applied the resulting juice onto the wound for several minutes. After that, he covered his injury with the chewed leaves like a bandage.

The researchers say the wound not only avoided getting infected but was also gone within five days. They add that Rakus knew to rest to allow the healing properties of the plant to act and help him recuperate. The behavior did not seem random. Rakus treated only his face with the plant juice and no other body part and repeated the procedure several times. Also, orangutans don’t typically eat that type of vine.

Ingesting plants to treat an infection or disease is not unheard of in the animal kingdom. For example, chimpanzees have been seen self-medicating by chewing a plant Vernonia amygdalina to treat worm infection, but this is the first time a great ape species has been seen using a plant as first aid.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.