Sep 24 2014
Washington, D.C. – As drought conditions continue to take a toll on Arizona’s water system, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging them to increase the use of the saltcedar beetle in the eradication of invasive saltcedar tamarisk trees under the Saltcedar Biocontrol Program. Saltcedar is an invasive tree species along the Colorado River Basin that is reportedly capable of consuming up to 200 gallons of water a day while depositing salt onto the surrounding top soil. According to one assessment, the Colorado River Basin could recover over 840,000 acre-feet of water per year after saltcedar eradication and re-vegetation.
“The State of Arizona – in its fourteenth consecutive year of drought – is bracing for the likelihood that Colorado River water deliveries could be curtailed by 2016,” writes Senator McCain. “I believe that aggressively eradicating saltcedar and subsequently replanting native vegetation is one water strategy we should accelerate now… One of the more successful and cost-effective means for eradicating saltcedar has been the release of the ‘saltcedar beetle’ under the [Saltcedar Biocontrol] Program. These beetles are known to weaken and destroy saltcedar trees over time and could lessen the reliance on chemicals and supplement costly labor-intensive removal.”
“As the drought in the West continues, we must look at every option to reduce water consumption,” said Joe Sigg, Government Relations Director of the Arizona Farm Bureau. “The saltcedar has been stealing water from the watershed for years and the beetle program has the potential to release nearly one million acre-feet of water per year for the good of the west. The Arizona Farm Bureau applauds the program and thanks Senator McCain for his help. This has been an issue for years and is one step toward helping our watershed.”
“Central Arizona Project (CAP) is the steward of central Arizona's Colorado River supplies,” said Pam Pickard, President of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) Board. “The health and sustainability of the Colorado River is of critical importance to CAP, as well as the more than five million Arizonans who depend on CAP's delivery of reliable river supplies. In pursuit of this mission, CAP sponsors efforts that conserve and improve environmental conditions and streamflow along the Colorado River. Among these efforts, CAP supports the removal and control of invasive tamarisk trees through expanded use of the Tamarisk Leaf Beetle in a manner sensitive to the needs of endangered species that depend on tamarisk such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.”
The signed letter is here and the text of the letter is below.
Dear Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Jewell:
I’m writing regarding the federal government’s use of the saltcedar beetle in the eradication of invasive saltcedar tamarisk trees under the Saltcedar Biocontrol Program (“Program”). I respectfully request that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) consider easing the moratorium and other limitations on the Program; expand releases into Arizona, particularly along the Lower Colorado River and its tributaries; and develop a proactive plan for re-vegetating lands that are being cleared of saltcedar trees.
Drought conditions across the western United States have disrupted agriculture production, impacted wildlife, exacerbated wildfires, and led to compulsory water-use restrictions for industry and private homeowners. The State of Arizona—in its fourteenth consecutive year of drought—is bracing for the likelihood that Colorado River water deliveries could be curtailed by 2016. Fortunately, my home state is prepared for this eventuality with its innovative system of groundwater banking. Nevertheless, the possibility of the West entering a prolonged period of mega-drought could eventually overwhelm today’s more forward-looking drought management plans.
I believe that aggressively eradicating saltcedar and subsequently replanting native vegetation is one water strategy we should accelerate now. Saltcedar is an invasive species that some claim is capable of consuming 200 gallons of water a day while depositing salt onto the surrounding top soil. Federal, state, and tribal governments have worked for decades to control saltcedar as it’s known to dominate riparian habitats and force-out native plants and wildlife. According to one assessment, the Colorado River Basin could recover over 840,000 acre-feet of water per year after saltcedar eradication and re-vegetation (see: Colorado River Basin Tamarisk & Russian Olive Assessment, December 2009).
One of the more successful and cost-effective means for eradicating saltcedar has been the release of the “saltcedar beetle” under the Program. These beetles are known to weaken and destroy saltcedar trees over time and could lessen the reliance on chemicals and supplement costly labor-intensive removal. Unfortunately, beetle releases were restricted to Upper Basin states and halted after a lawsuit raised questions about potential negative impacts on the habitat of the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered species. As you know, the willow flycatcher is often left with little choice but to nest in saltcedar stands where native plants, like willow trees, have been killed off by saltcedar. However, some information now suggests that the willow flycatcher and other endangered species will thrive in areas where the saltcedar was removed and native trees were actively replanted—like the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area’s wetlands restoration project or the Bureau of Reclamation’s Laguna Restoration Project.
As you know, the saltcedar beetle has migrated into Arizona and some experts predict the beetle could reach the Yuma area within the decade. So, whether you expand the Saltcedar Biocontrol Program or not, it’s incumbent upon your agencies to have a plan that maximizes the benefits of the beetle’s presence. Therefore, I respectfully request the following information:
- Please provide me with an explanation for why the current restrictions on beetle releases exist, and identify what would be required to expand releases into Arizona and other areas of the Lower Colorado River Basin either administratively or through legislation.
- Please provide a description of all federal, state, tribal and local projects that are working to eradicate salt cedar, and include their estimated costs to the federal treasury, the method of removal, their location, and estimated time to complete.
- Please provide a cost estimate for a large-scale re-vegetation plan across the Lower Colorado River Basin that assumes the anticipated migration of the beetle as well as a reinstated beetle release program.
Thank you for your attention to this request.