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Local News

Fed cash for Yuma East Wetlands preservation applauded by Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe

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by Shondiin Silversmith, Arizona Mirror
April 16, 2024

In the 20 years since rehabilitation efforts began in the Yuma East Wetlands, the riparian habitat has gone from a dangerous illegal dumping site overrun with invasive plants to a place where people can safely access the Colorado River as native plants, birds, bugs and wildlife thrive. 

And at the beginning of April, the Department of the Interior announced it was awarding $5 million to protect and maintain Yuma East Wetlands. And another Arizona project, Topock Marsh, is receiving $20 million for restoration. 

“Protecting these wetlands is important to the local communities as well as to the greater health of the lower basin of the Colorado River,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said in a press release.

According to the department, funding comes from the Biden administration’s Investing in America Agenda, which includes efforts to address the ongoing drought and strengthen water security across the Southwest. 

“Building on our significant milestones this year to protect the Colorado River System, we are continuing to bring every tool and resource to bear to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System and increase water efficiency across the West,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Michael Brian said in a press release.

Through Investing in America, Brain said that the Department of the Interior has historic new resources that can help Western communities withstand severe drought conditions, restore ecosystems, and build a sustainable future.

“The Yuma East Wetlands is a model for wetlands restoration and conservation,” said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva in a written statement. “This investment by the Biden administration is critical for maintaining this vital ecosystem and its abundance of biodiversity.”

The Yuma East Wetlands is 380 acres of restored riparian habitat, two-thirds of which are on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation. 

Brian Golding, director of economic development for the Fort Yuma Quechen Tribe, said the partnership started in 2004 to rehabilitate the Yuma East Wetlands. The tribe joined with the City of Yuma, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the National Yuma Heritage Crossing Area to restore the land.

Golding said the tribe commits some of its allocation of the Arizona Colorado River water to irrigation of the restored area. 

He said the tribe entered the partnership for many reasons, but the main objective was to reestablish the tribes and surrounding community’s physical connection to the river.

Golding said that re-establishing that physical connection helps the tribe reconnect to its spiritual, cultural and recreational practices on the river.

Before the partners stepped in, Golding said the area was unmanaged and dangerous because of the illegal dumping site. Invasive plant species were overrunning the natural habitat.

He said the overall condition of the area was unsafe, which prevented everyone from accessing and enjoying the river. However, that all changed once the partnership was established. Goldings said they were able to clear the area and turn it into what it is today.

People can now walk through the restored areas and visit the river access points to enter the river channel on their boats, kayaks, tubes or boards.

Golding said that since they’ve restored the area, they have seen an influx of birds, bugs, wildlife and native plant life.

The return of native plant life has been beneficial to the tribe, he said, because it has helped with their cultural production by allowing them to harvest mesquite beans, willow poles, cattails and cottonwood roots. 

“All these different things are important to our cultural practice (and) the production of cultural items important to the tribe,” Golding said. 

The infrastructure established for the area has helped recreate the marshland-like conditions around the river channel that existed before dams were built along the Colorado River. 

The infrastructure allows them to raise the elevation of the surface water to as much as 12 feet, he said, and that helps maintain the marsh-like condition of the area. 

However, all the infrastructure was developed about 20 years ago, and the $5 million slated for the project from the Department of Interior will help update the old infrastructure.

The National Yuma Crossing Heritage Center manages the Yuma East Wetlands. Executive Director Cathy Douglas said the funding will help replace much of the infrastructure that has reached its life expectancy.

Improvements will include designing and installing a new system to move water around the wetlands, replacing diesel-fueled pumps with electrical pumps, extending concrete canals and bringing electrical power to the conservation area to allow for technology updates.

“Through historic resources provided through President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda, we have the opportunity to invest in projects like these to combat the impacts of long-term drought for current and future generations,” Touton said.

Douglas said the center has known that improvements needed to be made to the infrastructure, but it was always a question of where they would get the funding. 

When the Department of Interior announced the funding, Douglas said it was a significant amount that would help them make the improvements.

“It was very appreciated and a big weight off our shoulders,” she added. 

The other Arizona wetland site to receive funding from the Department of Interior this month is the Toprock Marsh in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. 

According to the Department of Interior, the 4,000-acre Topock Marsh will receive $20 million. The funding will be used to install two new screw pumps, replace a failing concrete canal with three miles of pipeline, design and build a new water control structure, and bring in electrical power for the pumps to increase the efficiency of the marsh’s water delivery system. 

The Topock Marsh provides habitat to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, the department stated and is home to the only Northern Mexican Garter Snake population identified on the lower Colorado River. 

This story is republished from AZ Mirror under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.