Recently I found myself traveling through an end-of-year winter storm, wondering about my sanity for attempting yet another trip when WYDOT was telling me to stay home. In the middle of a whiteout on I-80 near Elk Mountain, it’s hard to imagine the hot dry months when water runs scarce. But the hazards of winter provide hope for another year of good water, whether you irrigate, fish or just hope to have water in your tap. In fact, without the snowpack from winter’s storms, we’d be hard pressed to live here at all.
In his inaugural address, Gov. Matt Mead pledged to bring us together to plan for our future water security. The governor is right -- we need to protect our water resources at all costs. Luckily, he has strong shoulders to stand upon.
Wyomingites have always been good stewards of our land and that includes caring for our rivers, streams and wetlands. Motivation for these efforts is easy to see by looking at the importance of water to Wyoming communities, agriculture, our diverse economies and our wildlife.
In 2010, investments from our Legislature, state agencies, conservation groups and landowners made great progress toward protecting our most valuable resource.
In Hot Springs County, near Thermopolis, a landowner-driven effort is advancing the protection of water resources on ranchlands. The project has focused on creating off-creek water sources for livestock and removing invasive plants to restore stream-bank habitat and improve water quality. This effort has also helped restore critical habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout -- an important draw for wildlife tourism. In addition, by providing water sources away from streams, ranchers can open up new grazing locations, and facilitate the movement of cattle. It’s also good business to voluntarily improve water quality to avoid costly regulatory requirements.
What really makes this project a success is that it benefits both nature and people. Working family ranches, water and wildlife all see a return.
Public and private funders are beginning to notice this collaborative approach to water conservation, and we hope they will continue to see these as healthy investments for our future. While the landowners deserve the credit, the state also made important investments -- including grants from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
The year 2010 also provided a better understanding of Wyoming’s water. A report funded by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality resulted in a first-of-its-kind analysis of an often-overlooked freshwater resource -- wetlands.
The report, a joint effort of 11 federal, state and private conservation organizations, indicates that there are over 280,000 wetlands in Wyoming. Wetlands help with flood control and provide critical wildlife habitat. They also play an important role in our economy by providing clean drinking water, fisheries and many recreational opportunities.
With so many vital wetlands in the state, this report prioritizes where to put our limited financial resources to get the biggest return on water protection. It will take continued investment from the state to support the landowners who are integral to safeguarding these unique places, but the good news is that we now have an investment road map.
At The Nature Conservancy, we protect land and water for the benefit of animals, plants and whole communities of life, including our own. We respect working landscapes that support agriculture, energy development and our economic life in this state as part of the conservation equation. We work like many other conservation organizations to support landowners and decision makers to meet their goals, like the landowners in Hot Springs County.
Ultimately we are here to serve the state of Wyoming in its pursuit to create a future that encompasses all that we value: working family farms and ranches, vibrant safe communities, jobs, open space, recreation opportunities and clean water. We can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. This year, we urge the new Legislature to continue to invest in Wyoming’s water through the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust and the state agencies that work with landowners to protect our valuable resources.
The past year showed that remarkable work is already being done across Wyoming. Our past efforts leave me optimistic about future investment opportunities and the future of our water, a thought I’ll keep in mind next time I face another road trip in a Wyoming whiteout.
Andrea Erickson Quiroz is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming.