3 Utah projects to receive $6.4M from feds for aquatic species, habitat improvements

The Virgin River flows through Zion National Park on Oct. 14, 2020. A project to improve the river for fish in the park received more than $3.5 million from the federal government this week, more than double what has already been raised for it.

The Virgin River flows through Zion National Park on Oct. 14, 2020. A project to improve the river for fish in the park received more than $3.5 million from the federal government this week, more than double what has already been raised for it. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of projects aimed at improving fish habitats in and around Utah are slated to receive a little over $6.4 million from a round of funds aimed to protect aquatic species and habitats across the country.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced it would send about $38 million to 40 fish passage projects in 23 states and Puerto Rico as a part of the National Fish Passage Program. The program, created in 1999, helps pay for aquatic ecosystem restoration projects that can restore free-flowing waters, which "allow for enhanced fish migration and protecting communities from flooding."

The list of projects includes the Virgin River Fish Passage Initiative in Zion National Park ($3.52 million), the Gigliotti Diversion Dam Removal on the Price River ($1.5 million) and Upper Bear River Fish Passage for Native Bear River Cutthroat ($1.39 million).

"Across the country, millions of barriers block fish migration and put communities at higher risk of flooding. President (Joe) Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our nation's rivers, streams and communities and help restore habitat connectivity for aquatic species around the country," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

The Virgin River Fish Passage Initiative wasn't just received the second-most money out of all 40 plans in the nation. It's a collaboration between various local, county, state and federal entities, as well as environmental groups. The main objective is to "recover, enhance, protect and conserve native species while ensuring water development can continue," according to Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative.

According to the state, there are a few fish species that once fared well in the river now considered endangered or sensitive, such as the Virgin River chub and the flannelmouth sucker. The point of the program is to:

  • Provide and protect instream flows
  • Protect and enhance aquatic and riparian and 100-year floodplain habitat
  • Maintain genetically appropriate broodstocks
  • Determine ecological factors limiting the abundance of native fish species
  • Monitor habitat conditions and populations of native fish and avian species
  • Improve education and communication on resource issues

More than $2.6 million had already been raised for the project prior to Thursday's announcement, most coming from $1.5 million set aside by the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

The Gigliotti Diversion Dam Removal is the final part of a six-phase river corridor restoration strategy known as the Helper River Revitalization Project. It calls on the removal of "the obsolete infrastructure" so the site by Gigliotti Pond in Helper can be returned "to a more natural configuration" that allows fish to move upstream, according to Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative.

This would be done by designing and constructing a fish passage in place of an irrigation diversion with a 12-foot vertical drop that currently exists, the project description adds.

The last project involving Utah is split between the Beehive State and Wyoming. It narrows in on the stretch of the Bear River by the border of Uinta and Rich counties between the two states. It's an area where there is a lot of irrigation and agriculture, Nick Walrath, a project manager for the group Trout Unlimited explained in a 2020 video published by the Western Native Trout Initiative.

"There's not one thing that caused harm to the river. It's kind of death by 1,000 cuts, especially in this area," he said at the time. "It was just kind of written off as there are too many problems in this stretch for those Bonneville cutthroat trout."

A study that began a decade ago found the species still moved about 40 miles between Evanston, Wyoming, into Utah despite the woes of the river. Obsolete dams were previously removed to help the flow of the river, which has helped the migrating fish. The funds provided by the federal government will go toward enhancing what's already been completed.

The Numana Dam Fish Passage Project in Nevada nabbed the most money from nearly $38 million dished out Thursday, securing more than $8.2 million.

Martha Williams, the director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said she hopes all 40 projects are able to improve the country's ecosystems. In a statement, she said the National Fish Passage Program not only provides "benefits for fish and aquatic species" but it can decrease public safety hazards, improve infrastructure quality, and create jobs, which help local economies.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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