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January – March 2013 Update

The birds have arrived and departed the basins several times this spring.  Each time the birds head north, another late spring storm forces them back to central Nebraska.  Despite the limited habitat on the landscape, the basins have been loaded with waterfowl, this spring.  Although drought conditions have resulted in limited habitat, construction and management activities have continued well past the usual window, resulting in significant accomplishments this year.

I took my kids to several wetlands one weekend this spring.  The following Monday during his preschool show-and-tell, my five-year-old son held up a picture of snow geese at Funk Waterfowl Production Area and told his class he saw all the snow geese in the whole world on a wetland his dad worked on with his friends.  Pretty cool feeling; I cannot thank the partners enough, or express how proud I am to be able to work with such an innovative, passionate group of professionals.

 Projects

During several of this spring’s tours I went by restored wetlands that I never thought would be restored when I started working in this landscape nearly 15 years ago.  The total number and diversity of projects implemented by the RWBJV is impressive, especially considering land sales, cash rent, and commodity prices are all exponentially higher than just five years ago.  These projects exemplify the RWBJV’s commitment to finding those “win-win” opportunities that integrate conservation practices into farm and ranch operations.  Many of these projects are exceptional examples of outside-the-box thinking to find economically viable practices that make wetlands an asset for producers.  As part of this update I’d like to highlight one of these projects.  A full list of active projects is provided as an attachment to the RWBJV Update.

 Keil/Romar Wetland-- A Butler County Working Lands Project: Like most Rainwater Basin wetlands, this basin is owned by multiple individuals.  Tim Smith, RWBJV Habitat Specialist, worked with the principal landowner to develop a Working Lands Initiative project.  This included reseeding a portion of the adjacent dryland cropland back to native grasslands, developing a livestock water source, and constructing/rehabilitating the perimeter and cross fence.  While developing the project, Tim contacted each of the adjacent landowners to determine if there were additional restoration opportunities.  There were some interpersonal issues between certain neighbors, but the RWBJV Habitat Specialist was able to bring in additional RWBJV partners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program and Ducks Unlimited) to customize restoration plans for each landowner and facilitate a successful project.  Additional partners allowed each landowner to have a RWBJV partner point-of-contact, and as a result the partnership was able to develop another successful project.  This wetland footprint has had significant restoration actions completed and is perpetually protected by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wetland/grassland easement.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

 Whooping Crane Decision Support Tool:  The RWBJV GIS Shop is collaborating with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) to design and construct a Decision Support Tool to identify high-quality Whooping Crane habitat along the central Platte River.  During this process, the GIS shop has developed a series of GIS filters to “mask out” non-suitable habitat for Whooping Cranes.  Thus far, Austin Barenberg, a GIS analyst for the RWBJV, has completed the 2010 assessment for both the off-channel and in-channel filters along the central Platte.  Using remote sensing techniques, the GIS Shop has created various vegetation layers to identify potential disturbances that are predicted to negatively affect Whooping Crane roost site selection.  Currently Barenberg is utilizing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to identify potential in-channel and off-channel obstructions (e.g. woody cover > 1.5 meters in height) that reduce the available habitat for Whooping Cranes.  The final Decision Support Tool may be used to help implement future conservation efforts along the Platte River, further assisting the Whooping Crane recovery efforts already underway.

Modeling Species Occurrence and Abundance with Breeding Bird Survey Data:  In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET), Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission the RWBJV Science Office is using Breeding Bird Survey data to create spatially explicit species distribution models for 15 priority bird species identified in the RWBJV Landbird Plan.  These models are particularly useful in identifying those landscapes in Nebraska that are suitable to support populations of priority species.  While local habitat characteristics are important drivers in nest site selection, it is increasingly apparent that for many species the landscape configuration and composition strongly influence presence or absence, or even abundance.  By identifying what factors in the landscape are important in explaining species distribution, spatially explicit models not only inform the conservation community as to where to prioritize future management actions, but also are capable of predicting how species may respond to future land-use or policy changes through the use of scenario planning.  Recently, the RWBJV Science Office has finished compiling over 300 climatic, land-use and topographic GIS layers which will be used in their modeling efforts.  Currently the RWBJV Science Office is extracting values from GIS layers and compiling the Breeding Bird Survey data in preparation for their modeling efforts, which will begin in the upcoming months.  The RWBJV’s modeling efforts for Nebraska are a localized effort of a regional modeling project in partnership with HAPET.  The larger effort will produce regional species distribution models across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, significantly contributing to one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie Region’s priorities.

2013 Watershed Restoration Model 2013:  The RWBJV Science Office added 50 Wetland Reserve Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources District easement protected wetlands to an already existing watershed restoration Decision Support Tool.  This Tool now identifies the irrigation re-use pits which, if filled, would provide the greatest hydrologic return to the associated wetlands.  There are now 148 wetlands and watersheds identified by this tool, including all public and private wetlands enrolled with perpetual conservation easements.  The watersheds of these wetlands contain 929 irrigation re-use pits capable storing 2,965 acre-feet of water.  Addressing these watershed modifications could increase optimal foraging habitat for waterfowl by roughly 6,000 acres under “average climatic conditions.”  As part of the RWBJV Watershed Restoration Initiative, RWBJV partners will continue to use this tool to identify priority watershed restoration opportunities.

Common Land Unit:  With 99% of the RWB and 97% of the RWBJV Administrative Area in private ownership, communication and outreach with landowners and farm operators is critical for successful delivery of conservation programs.  In 2011, the RWBJV received USDA Farm Bill Section 1619 Conservation Cooperator Status.  This recognition allowed the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) clearance to provide the RWBJV geospatial field boundaries and the associated owner and operator information to better target landowners and farm operators eligible for different conservation programs.  The RWBJV, in coordination with FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), will be using this tool to market the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to the landowners identified in the 2013 Watershed Restoration Model.  This dataset is also being used to target mailings for the upcoming Conservation Reserve Program.  Producers with highly erodible land, prior converted wetlands, and within priority areas identified by Farm Bill Biologists will receive a mailing outlining program options and enrollment criteria.

SDM Project:  The RWBJV partners continue to make progress on the Structured Decision Making (SDM) project, with the end goal of providing land managers in the RWB with a Best Management Practices document that synthesizes the probability of a change in vegetation community depending on the different management actions implemented.  Field data collection for the 2012 season is complete, contributing to an already robust dataset, which was collected at > 9000 survey points throughout the Rainwater Basin and spans a six-year time span.  The SDM Work Group, which is composed of partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nature Conservancy, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Ducks Unlimited and the University of Nebraska –Lincoln, is in the process of error-checking the database.  Final verification of management activities conducted on public areas from 2009-2012 is currently being processed by the SDM Work Group.  Vegetation monitoring samples are also being validated for the final analysis at this time.

Integrated Monitoring for Prairie Grouse Working Group:  The Integrated Monitoring for Prairie Grouse Workgroup was recently established to help facilitate communication between agencies and personnel in Nebraska regarding prairie grouse monitoring efforts.  The workgroup’s initial objective was to create a standardized listening survey protocol for prairie grouse in Nebraska, which will enable close monitoring and collaboration among partners within the state for sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie-chicken.  These efforts will assist in establishing a long-term monitoring dataset for Nebraska, quantifying lek density trends over time, and developing statistical models that can be run in a geospatial environment to understand current habitat availability, but also available habitat under different climate and landscape/habitat scenarios.  A consistent survey approach should benefit all agencies involved.  The RWBJV will manage all prairie grouse listening survey data collected, using the standardized protocol in a geo-database.  The coordination provided by this workgroup has been a tremendous success.  Based on initial feedback, there will be approximately 85 grouse routes run this year using a consistent protocol.

Annual Habitat Survey:  The 2013 RWB Annual Habitat Survey (AHS) data have been collected.  The acquisition window was from March 15 to March 31; we had to postpone the acquisition for a week as a result of the March 11 snow storm.  It will take the RWBJV Science Office about three months to process and analyze the data.  The AHS is becoming a long-term dataset capable of providing new insight into the habitat conditions that result from the variable precipitation and temperature ranges characteristic of the Great Plains.  With the 2013 acquisition, spring habitat conditions have been documented in a geospatial format for eight of the last nine years across the entire RWB landscape.  Dan Uden (2012) just completed his master’s work, which evaluates the local, landscape, and climatic variables that influence the probability that a wetland footprint will function, and the flooded area at the landscape scale.  The long-term dataset is also being incorporated into RWBJV Decision Support Tools to prioritize marketing and outreach to landowners and producers regarding conservation programs that are available to restore wetlands on their flood-prone cropland.

RWBJV and Playa Lakes JV Collaborate to Develop a Statewide Playa Decision Support System:  RWBJV and PLJV collaborated to develop a statewide set of tools to guide playa conservation.  The deliverables from this exercise are several spatial data layers that describe playa basins prioritized for land-use activities (avoid or conserve), areas on the landscape with a high density or “cluster” of playas, and large isolated playas that provide connectivity between different playa clusters.  These tools provide a consistent framework to guide conservation actions toward and potential negative impacts away from the most ecologically important playas.  This will be a valuable tool as the RWBJV partners and the conservation community begins to work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement the 250,000 acres of playa conservation that was set as a goal for the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.  Thanks to Roger Grosse (RWBJV), Chris Jorgensen (RWBJV) and Alex Daniels (PLJV), who pulled this tool together.

 Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Workgroup and RWBJV Conduct Landscape Assessments:  The RWBJV is providing geospatial analysis and technical support to the Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Working Group Mitigation Subgroup to support their efforts to develop a mitigation strategy to offset the potential impacts of wind development on a statewide scale.  Recently several tools were developed to better describe the distribution of grasslands, as well as the intactness of grasslands, at a statewide scale.  Thanks to Caroline Jezierski (Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Workgroup Coordinator) and Chris Jorgensen (RWBJV) for continuing to move this project forward.

 American Burying Beetle Geospatial Habitat Suitability Model Completed:  The RWBJV, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and researchers with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Kearney have completed the analysis and drafted a manuscript for submission to Systematics and Biodiversity.  This model will be invaluable, and will help the RWBJV partners develop a robust Decision Support System to guide conservation actions to benefit grassland birds and the American Burying Beetle in the Northeast portion of the RWBJV Administrative Area.  Special thanks to Dr. Jessica Jurzenski (UNL), Dr. Wyatt Hoback (UNK), Bob Harms (USFWS), and Mike Fritz (NGPC).  Without their dedication the conservation community would still be struggling to understand the habitat needs of this species and to spatially identify habitat features and key landscapes necessary to support this species.  This model will provide the conservation community new tools to guide conservation actions needed to address the habitat needs of this species

ANNOUNCEMENT!!!: The Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is still looking for volunteers to assist in an amphibian study to conduct aural surveys throughout much of the Rainwater Basin.  Amphibian surveys will be conducted along roadsides 3-5 times during the spring.  All surveys will begin after sunset and end roughly 3 hours after sunset.  Volunteers must be able to drive their own vehicles and work alone in the evening.  Survey training will be provided to all volunteers.  Interested individuals should contact Nick Smeenk at nicholas.a.smeenk@huskers.unl.edu.

 Communication and Outreach

 Rainwater Basin Science Office Brown Bag Lunch:  The RWBJV, in conjunction with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, continues to host monthly informal gatherings/Webinars to discuss current research and monitoring activities, status of RWBJV projects, and opportunities to collaborate and support future research and monitoring projects.  Rachel Simpson (NGPC) presented last month and highlighted the current status of the Western Governors Association’s Critical Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT).  Rachel provided some great background about the CHAT, how the RWBJV Science Office was able to assist, and the future direction of the Western Governors and the Nebraska CHAT.  I think these forums provide a great venue and an opportunity for local and regional partners to discuss research needs and develop research/monitoring projects to address key uncertainties associated with bird conservation in the RWBJV.  The next Brown Bag Lunch will be April 23rd in Grand Island, and will feature James Broska, Science Coordinator for the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, to provide an overview of the GPLCC as well as the goals, objectives, and science priorities for the partnership.  Please contact Chris Jorgensen, RWBJV Science Coordinator, regarding other topics or desire to present:  Christopher_jorgensen@fws.gov

RWBJV Informational Seminar:  The 18th Annual Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Informational Seminar was a tremendous success.  We had over 150 participants and Michael Forsberg provided one of the most inspirational presentations about the water, wildlife, and conservation of the land and water resources found in the Great Plains.  His photography and presentation reminded me why I do what I do, and motivated me to find additional resources to support our conservation actions.  Next year we will be moving to a new venue yet to be determined.  If anyone has any ideas for a plenary speaker with Michael’s talents and motivational qualities, please let me or one of the Planning Committee know.  This will be a hard symposium to top, but we have to continue to set the bar higher.

 Article in Ducks Unlimited Magazine:  The Rainwater Basin and Central Platte River were highlighted in an article in last month’s Ducks Unlimited magazine.  This article highlighted the importance of spring migration and staging habitat to support waterfowl during this important period of the annual life cycle.  Special thanks to Ryan Heiniger, who coauthored the article.

Little Blue Natural Resources District Board of Directors Tour:  Mike Onnen, Little Blue Natural Resources District General Manager, organized a tour to highlight several RWBJV projects in the district.  Tour stops featured Working Lands Initiative projects, Watershed Restoration Initiative Projects, and restoration and management projects completed on public and private lands.  These tour stops highlighted multiple “win-win” projects that exist in the RWB on both public and private lands.

RWB Tour for the US Whooping Crane Coordinator:  Dr. Wade Harrell was able to join several RWBJV partners for a tour of western RWB wetlands.  These wetlands provide habitat for a significant proportion of the Wood Buffalo/Aransas population of whooping cranes.  Based on color leg band records it is estimated that every individual in this population will use a RWB wetland at one time in their life.  Dr. Harrell was very complimentary of our conservation actions and of the RWBJV goal of providing reliable habitat for this species during their annual migration.

Nebraska Department of Agriculture Tour:  Assistant Director Bobbie Kriz-Wickham and Policy Director Lindsey Salestrom toured RWBJV projects in Clay and Fillmore Counties.  Tour stops highlighted the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program, grazing of public wetlands by local producers to promote desired habitat conditions, use of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service easement to transition flood-prone cropland into cattle production through the Working Lands Initiative, and several roundout acquisitions to both Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properties.  I think the tour was a great success.  Several new opportunities were identified to work with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to help cattle producers and private landowners identify grazing lands.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Partners Section:  The concept of the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund was presented at the annual NGPC Partners Section meeting.  The Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund is operational, and we are working through the first project, a conservation easement to benefit the American Burying Beetle in the Loess Canyons Biologically Unique Landscape.  The RWBJV presentation to the NGPC staff and partner staff highlighted the unique opportunities these funds provide for the conservation community, as well as the administrative oversight that will be implemented to manage the fund, development of requests for proposals, and the process for project selection.

Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District Water Deliveries for RWB Wetlands:  The RWBJV partners continue to meet with Central Public Power and Irrigation District and the Platte River Recovery Program to determine the opportunities to use canal water to fill western RWB wetlands to achieve groundwater recharge, water storage, and recharge actions that may be beneficial to both the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program, Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, habitat on state and federal lands adjacent to the canal system, and private wetlands adjacent to the surface water system.  As with all conservation actions, the bottom line will be the primary driver.  Currently the USFWS and NGPC are completing a cost assessment to determine the cost to provide habitat.  This assessment will determine if surface water deliveries are an economically viable option to provide reliable habitat.

RWBJV Updates

 Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Data Steward:  The Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) awarded the RWBJV $50,000 to support a shared position between the RWBJV and GPLCC.  The position will be co-located in the RWBJV Science Office.  Having the GPLCC Data Steward located in the RWBJV Science Office will provide a direct conduit for RWBJV partners to GPLCC staff, and allow the RWBJV to be engaged nationally in Landscape Conservation Cooperative discussions.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Implementation Plan Update:  The Waterfowl Plan has been fully vetted through the workgroups and comments addressed by the RWBJV Waterfowl Plan editor Mark Vrtiska.  I would like to thank Mark for making time to address the 300+ comments that were identified through the review process.  Currently the RWBJV Shorebird Plan has been reviewed and revised by the Core Writing Team and has been forwarded to the workgroups for their review and comment.  The deadline for comments from the workgroups, to their respective chairs, is Friday April 19th.  The RWBJV Waterbird Plan is currently being reviewed by the RWBJV Core Writing Team.  My goal is to have the RWBJV Waterbird Plan to the Workgroups and associated partners by April 19th.  The RWBJV Landbird Plan is in a final draft format that will be provided to the Core Writing Team by May 1st for their initial assessment.  I expect this plan will be approved by the Core Writing Team by May 15th and then to the Workgroups for their review.  My goal is still to have the RWBJV Implementation Plan ready for approval by the September RWBJV Management Board Meeting.

Working Lands Initiative:  The RWBJV continues to find new approaches to integrate RWB wetlands into local farm operations, either as grazing lands or for forage production.  Last fall, the RWBJV entered into a partnership with Central Community College to host a set of seminars to highlight Holistic Management International’s approach to range management.  The goal of this set of classes was to provide a venue where producers and members of the conservation community could discuss integration of wetlands into farm operations in the Holistic Management context.  This four-part series had twelve participants: four landowner participants from the RWB, four participants who are conservation delivery staff with RWBJV partner agencies, and four landowners/cattle producers from neighboring states.  This series of workshops was a great success, providing producers and landowners from across the Great Plains an opportunity to interact.  Based on conversations with the participants, this was a learning experience for all involved; landowners better understand the conservation and habitat goals, while the conservation delivery staff learned about the financial and operational challenges of farm management.  I think this series of workshops will provide a springboard for the RWBJV partners as we implement the Working Lands Initiative through both short- and long-term conservation projects.

WRP Contract Specialist:  The RWBJV finalized the interagency agreement to support this position.  With the sequestration and hiring freeze, the RWBJV will not be able to hire this position as a USFWS employee.  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has tentatively agreed to hold the position.  The RWBJV will continue to pursue this option, and we hope to have the position filled in the next three months.  This position will provide critical support to ensure the backlog of Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetland Reserve Program restoration and management actions can be completed.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants:  The RWBJV was awarded our general grant to conduct communication, monitoring and evaluation, as well as public and private lands conservation projects.  Funds awarded by this Nebraska Environmental Trust grant will be leveraged with partner funds.  This grant was approved at $350,000 for the next three years.  The RWBJV also submitted a grant to continue the RWB Management Initiative to support the disking and herbicide applications that have been so successful over the last three years.  This grant was approved at $75,000/year for the next three years.

Little Blue Natural Resources District submitted a grant to continue the Watershed Restoration Initiative.  This grant was approved for $460,000 over the next three years to remove a portion of the high-priority irrigation re-use pits from the watersheds of public or perpetually protected wetlands identified in the 2013 Watershed Restoration Decision Support Tool.  Little Blue Natural Resources District was supportive of this grant, since these projects will increase groundwater recharge and provide increased habitat for the millions of waterfowl that rely on this region.

The Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts grant to support the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service was fully funded.  This grant complements the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant that was awarded to the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts last fall by Natural Resources Conservation Service.  This Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program provides program flexibility to allow local producers to enroll lands into the Wetlands Reserve Program and continue to pass a pivot irrigation system over the easement.  This grant was fully funded and will provide the non-federal match to restore 750 acres of flood-prone cropland.  Consistent with the RWBJV Working Lands Initiative, Compatible Use Agreements will be pursued to allow landowners to integrate program lands into their operations as grazing lands.  Grazing the recently restored wetlands will maintain desired habitat conditions and provide an economic benefit to producers on these lands.

 Cooperative Recovery Initiative Grant:  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife took the lead on drafting a $1 million dollar grant to complete watershed restoration activities for high-priority Waterfowl Production Areas to benefit whooping cranes.  I am very pleased to report that this grant was funded at the $1 million dollar level.  This was the only proposal funded at this level.  I have received numerous compliments about the RWBJV partnership’s ability to work together to complete this type of long-term project.  The RWBJV Whooping Crane Model was used to identify the priority wetlands, while the 2013 Watershed Restoration Decision Support Tool was used to prioritize project delivery.  In total, 140 irrigation re-use pits in the watersheds of eight public wetlands were targeted for removal.

As part of this grant, the RWBJV partners also submitted an Inventory and Monitoring Grant to evaluate the success of our conservation actions.  This $288,000 grant will allow restored and reference wetlands to be instrumented with level-logger devices to evaluate the success of our restoration actions on wetland hydrology. The grant will also provide funding to help conduct whooping crane surveys to monitor whooping crane use of Rainwater Basin Wetlands (both restored and unrestored sites), and to continue the RWBJV Annual Habitat Survey to document spring habitat conditions.

 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Threatened and Endangered Avian Species Grant:  The RWBJV submitted its first Threatened and Endangered Avian Species grant this year.  This grant, if funded, would provide $115,000 of funding to complete watershed restoration activities to benefit the Atlanta Waterfowl Production Area.  If funded, this grant along with matching funds, will remove 20 of the 31 irrigation re-use pits that most negatively impact the Atlanta WPA wetland.  Funds from the grant would be matched to the other watershed restoration grants supporting these actions.  Based on initial restoration plans, restoration of the Atlanta WPA’s watershed will cost $230,000.  This grant will provide approximately 50% of the funding.  Of the four grants submitted in USFWS Region 6, the RWBJV proposal was the second-ranked proposal; hopefully we will be successful again in our quest to fund the Watershed Restoration Initiative.

Wildlife Conservation Society Grant:  Ducks Unlimited, on behalf of the RWBJV, submitted a Climate Adaptation Fund grant to the Wildlife Conservation Society.  This grant, if funded, would provide $250,000 to support the RWBJV Watershed Restoration Initiative activities in the western RWB to provide reliable stopover habitat during the biannual migration, especially in the face of the potential impacts of climate change.  The Wildlife Conservation Society grant would be matched with a Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant, Threatened and Endangered Avian Species grant, and Nebraska Environmental Trust grant to support the RWBJV Watershed Restoration Initiative.  A consistent set of wetland and watershed restoration priorities were defined for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant.  Funding for this grant will provide a significant contribution to the matching funds necessary to complete the objectives outlined in the Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant.

Wildlife Conservation Society Grant:  The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture collaborated to submit a Climate Adaptation grant that would provide financial resources to support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.  This grant focuses on playa conservation across the six states that intersect the Ogallala Aquifer.  Primary funding for the southern states focuses on development of Playa Conservation Decision Support Tools, while funds targeted to the RWB are to be used to support the Watershed Restoration Initiative actions.  If funded, this grant could provide $80,000 for watershed restoration actions across the RWB.