The federal action we are consulting on is the NRCS’ Farm Bill funding assistance to private land owners and managers to implement projects that aim to result in habitat improvements, vegetation management, erosion and/ or drainage control, and improve water quality and conservation in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Marin Counties.
Planned conservation practices will include general and species-specific avoidance measures, to minimize potential effects to federally listed species and designated Critical Habitat.
The NRCS is involved in many collaborative partnerships with private and public landowners and land managers, other government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to achieve conservation of natural resources. These conservation practices are planned, designed and implemented on working farms, ranches and non-industrial forestlands and properties with NRCS controlled easements. The NRCS works with land managers to develop a plan that is designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals (SWAP A) on their property. The land manager can then apply for financial assistance to implement the plan through a variety of NRCS programs. Projects funded by the NRCS are often neutral in terms of potential impacts to federally-listed species, with neither a positive or negative effect, but they do always have a benefit to natural resource conservation which is always positive for habitat. In some cases the NRCS works with the land manager to plan projects that will specifically benefit federally listed species.
Activities covered under this Programmatic Biological Opinion are not restricted to any specific Farm Bill program. Farm Bill programs remain consistent in general, but are adapted to address needs depending on the status of the SWAP A resources from year to year. These Farm Bill programs are used to implement conservation practices that include results in habitat improvements, vegetation management, erosion and/ or drainage control, and water quality/ conservation.
- California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and Critical Habitat
- California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) Central California distinct population segment (Central California tiger salamander) and Critical Habitat
- California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) Sonoma County Distinct Population Segment (Sonoma California tiger salamander) and Critical Habitat
- Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) and Critical Habitat
- California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica)
- Vernal pool fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi)
- Vernal pool tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus packard)
- Conservancy fairy shrimp (Branchinecta conservation)
- Giant garter snake (Thamnophis gigas)
NRCS supported activities covered under this programmatic biological opinion fall into four general categories: Habitat improvements, erosion and/ or drainage control, water quality and conservation, and general vegetation management. All technical and design requirements used by NRCS are hosted at https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/#/state/CA/documents
The list of Minimization Measures begins at the bottom of page 8 of the PBO. Conservation Measures for species begin on page 11 of the PBO.
Streams/Riparian: Stream restoration activities would involve the repair, maintenance and restoration of aquatic and riparian corridor habitat. These activities are designed to provide erosion control measures, reduce sedimentation, improve water quality and restore and improve the overall quality of riparian habitat. Stream restoration activities include one or more of the following:
- Native Riparian Habitat Restoration – These activities involve planting, maintenance and establishment of native vegetation along riparian corridors to enhance and improve habitat. Invasive and nonnative plant are/will be removed in riparian areas, including but not limited to Arundo donax, Himalayan blackberry, English ivy and other non-native, invasive plant species.
- In-Stream Structures – These activities involve installation of suitable structures to stabilize stream channels that are undergoing damaging aggradation (filling in of) or degradation that cannot be controlled by upstream practices, and installation of suitable structures to stabilize and protect streambanks from erosion such as rock, concrete, vegetative or large woody structures. This activity may also include the removal of accumulated sand or sediment.
- Instream barrier modification – The objective of these projects is to improve fish passage and increase access to currently inaccessible or less accessible habitat.
- Vegetation removal/planting – These projects will establish and maintain permanent vegetative cover to provide food and shelter for desired species. This may include brush removal or planting of vegetation such as trees, shrubs, vines, grasses or legumes. In heavily wooded areas, tree and shrub removal may be required to promote a healthy stand.
- Supporting activities – These activities include the removal of concrete rubble, rip-rap, rock, wood, cars, old tires, refuse (such as household trash) and other debris from the stream or stream crossings constructed across a stream to provide a travel way for people, livestock, equipment, or vehicles.
Wetlands: NRCS promotes protection, restoration, and enhancement of wetlands to benefit migratory birds and other wetland dependent species. NRCS targets agricultural land that is subject to flooding, saturation and inundation, and that has a high likelihood of restoring wetland functions and values. Wetland restoration activities may include one or more of the following:
- Restoration – Some wetland projects will require very minimal ground disturbance, while others may involve substantial recontouring of the land to reintroduce swales, microtopography, slopes, islands, and/ or channels. Most often restoration requires small dikes and berms to impound or slow water to restore wetland hydrology. Implementation of these types of projects may require the use of heavy equipment (e.g., excavators, backhoes, graders).
- Habitat structures – These projects involve creating, restoring, maintaining or enhancing areas for food, cover, and water for wildlife species which use wetland habitat for a portion of their life cycle. A variety of habitat structures such as nest boxes, rock or wood brush piles, and basking structures are added to the landscape to address any limiting habitat elements.
- Vegetation removal/ planting – These projects will establish and maintain permanent vegetative cover to provide food and shelter for desired species. This may include brush removal and planting of vegetation such as trees, shmbs, grasses, and aquatic vegetation.
- Supporting structures – These water control structures as part of a water management system that conveys water, controls the direction or rate of flow, or maintains a desired water surface elevation. This could include water catchment and storage structures as well as pumping units. Creation of temporary travel-ways may be necessary for equipment and vehicle access.
Uplands: Upland habitat improvements include a number of practices that enhance or restore conditions for pollinators, wildlife, grazing operations and forestland. Upland habitat activities may include one or more of the following:
- Restoration – Upland restoration of cropland, rangeland, or forestland primarily consists of vegetation planting or removal, but may require some ground disturbance. In some cases the restoration effort may be applied to the soil via mulch or other plant residues that are not produced on site in order to enhance vegetative growth.
- Structures – A variety of habitat structures such as nest boxes, owl burrows, rock or bmsh piles, large wood snags, are added to the landscape in such a way that they enhance wildlife habitat or corridors.
- Vegetation – Most habitat enhancement projects include removal of invasive species and planting native vegetation to improve vegetation resilience and provide necessary habitat for targeted species. Planting is typically used to stabilize highly eroding areas, manage early plant succession to benefit desired wildlife or natural communities, provide a windbreak or pollinator hedgerow, or establishing permanent vegetation to improve soil and water resources. In some cases this will be a stripe of permanent vegetation established at the edge or around the perimeter of a field or area of herbaceous vegetation situated between cropland, grazing land, forestland, and environmentally sensitive areas.
- Supporting Structures – Trails, walkways, and access roads may be rerouted or designed to reduce human and livestock accessibility to sensitive areas, or act as fuel brakes for wildfire. Improvements may include installation of pumps, pipelines, water tanks/troughs, and wildlife friendly spring developments that help evenly distribute livestock around the area for the least amount of impact or improvement to wildlife habitat elements such as food, water and shelter. These structures are relatively flexible with regard to location and can be placed in areas that avoid habitat of listed species.
Erosion and/or Drainage Control
The objective of erosion or drainage control projects is to enhance or restore channel stability and upland runoff to minimize flood damage, erosion, or sedimentation. These projects include revegetating banks or berms, removing obstructions from channels to facilitate floodwater conveyance, installation of structures or bioengineering to address head cutting, or in some cases where appropriate, installation of dams to retard floodwater. Aside from revegetation activities, the use of heavy equipment is likely to be involved in many of these projects. Erosion and drainage control activities may include one or more of the following:
- Structures – Includes treatment(s) using concrete, sand, gravel, and/ or vegetation to stabilize and protect bed or bottom of channels, banks of streams, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries, and meadows against scour and erosion as well as improvement of stream crossings to prevent channel or bank erosion. Measures are intended influence scour and deposition patterns, working with stream power in order to influence stream planform and grade. Instream obstructions may be removed and artificial barriers created. Upland activities may require land shaping or grading or constructing terraces, basins and grassed diversions to trap sediment. Roads and trails may be modified to reduce sediment runoff or prevent erosion.
- Vegetation – Planting for erosion control is designed to manage the distribution of flows and sediment on sloping lands or sensitive areas to minimize erosion or sedimentation in downslope drainages. Some activities may involve only revegetation while other areas may require barriers or basins to address the erosion cause. On croplands activities include vegetative borders, crop rotation, and cover cropping.
Water Quality and Conservation
These projects include replacing or retrofitting irrigation systems, providing clean water for livestock and wildlife, and improving the quality of water runoff from agricultural operations. Water quality and conservation activities may include one or more of the following:
- Structures – Constructing shallow water basins designed to simulate natural wetlands as a form of water treatment or tail water recovery for recycling or treatment. Water impoundments or pits/ponds may be needed to serve as a cleaner source of livestock water or draw livestock from sensitive habitat areas (riparian, stream). Improvements to irrigation systems may include altering water control structures such as furrows, corrugations, graded and level borders and basins, contour levees, or contour ditches to facilitate proper volume, frequency, and application rate efficiently. Waste storage, separation, transfer, and treatment requires constructing earthen or concrete impoundments or pad to temporarily store manure and other agricultural bi-products before proper disposal or utilization. Modification or removal of instream water diversions may be done to improve water conservation.
- Vegetation – A strip of permanent vegetation established at the edge or around the perimeter of an agricultural area to trap pathogens, nutrients, and sediment from runoff waters. Planting cover crops in orchards, vineyards, or cropland may be done to improve soil infiltration and health and increase water conservation.
- Supporting Activities – Nutrient management plans may assist in managing the amount, source, placement, form and timing of the application of plant nutrients and soil minimize amendments to properly utilize manure or organic by-products as a plant nutrient source, to agricultural nonpoint source pollution of surface and groundwater resources, and/ or to protect air quality by reducing particle and nitrogen emissions. Water impoundments may require constructing a collection apron to collect rainwater to divert by gravity to an impervious storage container, or a pipeline to take water to a suitable outlet. Ponds holding agricultural waste products may require sealing or lining to prevent seepage into nearby waterways, and pumps may be installed to transfer water for the conservation need.
Vegetation management may be accomplished using mechanical means, hand clearing, managed animal grazing, or application of herbicides. Some projects may include combinations of these methods. Vegetation management is used to renovate existing stands of vegetation, reduce fuels for wildfire, improve human health and safety, control growth of undesirable species, or enhance the conditions of an area for specific wildlife or vegetative communities. This may include broadcast seeding, plug or container planting, or removal/ reduction of undesirable species. Mechanical removal would use heavy equipment that can uproot, crush, pulverize, or cut the trees and brush to be removed. Hand removal would involve the use of chainsaws, axes, and hoes to cut and uproot vegetation. Vegetation downed as a result of mechanical or hand removal would be used as habitat structures whenever possible. Excess vegetation will be piled and burned on site, chipped and spread on site, or loaded and hauled from the site.
Enhancement of forest stands involves removing crooked, dead or dying, diseased and injured trees in the landscape. Healthy, full crowned, well-formed trees are generally left. Slash ,vill be properly disposed, either by lopping and scattering, chipping, piling and burning, or by controlled burns. Some hollow trees and snags will be retained for wildlife dens or nests, unless they are a hazard to either animals or people or a severe fire hazard. Fuels reduction may involve the construction, expansion, and/ or maintenance of fuel breaks or the removing of excess fuel loads in the landscape. Fuel breaks can be compacted or graded for use as fire access roads.
If chemical treatment is necessary, only registered chemicals will be used to control the growth of undesired vegetation and only chemicals approved for aquatic use will be used near aquatic environments. A registered applicator will apply all such chemicals that require an applicator’s license. After treatment, some areas may be re-vegetated with locally occurring, native vegetation. Herbicidal treatment of vegetation may follow the removal of targeted exotic invasive species within specific areas (e.g. toe, bank, overbank) by mechanical removal, hand removal, herbivory, and/ or prescribed fires. Herbicides are then used for prevention of growth and re-sprouting of undesirable vegetation (e.g. Arundo donax, Himalayan blackberry, etc.) once an area has been cleared of undesirable vegetation.
Application Tips and Resources
The following process will be used when reviewing proposed projects for inclusion in this consultation:
- The NRCS will submit a letter to the Service requesting that a project is eligible for this programmatic consultation. This verification is to ensure that indirect effects are not greater than may be anticipated and/ or to ensure that minimization measures included are feasible and allow alternative measures. The measures set forth are not exhaustive, and in cases may be counterproductive.
- This letter will include a location map, project plan map showing location and extent of NRCS conservation practices, project description, species and Critical Habitat in project area, California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) map, and a statement why the project is appropriate to be appended to the programmatic biological opinion. If dewatering or similar activities are planned, the letter will also include locations for potential relocation of listed species. All relocations sites must be as close to the project location as possible. Projects will be submitted in batches to the extent possible.
- The Service will review the proposed project to determine if the proposed project is eligible to be included in this programmatic biological opinion or if the proposed project should undergo a separate section 7 consultation and provide the rationale within 30 days. These projects are those that are determined to have take that would exceed the amount allowed, or that may affect species not covered under this Programmatic Biological Opinion.
- For projects that NRCS determines are emergency actions, the Service should be notified and any take of federally endangered and threatened species \vill be reported to the Service within 14 days.
- NRCS will submit an annual report to the Service by January 31st each year. This report vill detail (i) dates that construction occurred; (ii) pertinent information concerning the success of the project in meeting Conservation Measures; (iii) an explanation of failure to meet such measures, if any; (iv) quantified actual ground disturbance with photographs; (v) known project effects on listed species, if any; (vi) occurrences of incidental take of listed species, if any; (vii) documentation of employee environmental education; and (viii) other pertinent information.