Water Resources

Resource Use and Management

Many activities on BLM land, such as outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, mineral development, and energy production, affect and are affected by water resources. Potential impacts include modification of surface and groundwater flow systems, water contamination resulting from chemical leaks or spills, and water quality degradation by runoff or excessive withdrawals. To ensure that activities do not negatively impact water resources on public lands, BLM conducts management activities to actively manage, maintain, restore and improve resources on public lands, including water.

Resource Use


Although there are various site and activity specific water issues and management strategies to protect water, the following are some general activities conducted on federal land that may impact the quality of surface water and, to a lesser extent, groundwater:

Activities that aggravate soil erosion, such as activities that disturb the ground surface, heavy equipment traffic, activities that alter surface runoff patterns, and extraction of geologic materials. The ground disturbance can increase soil erosion and affect the water quality of the surface water downstream from the disturbed areas, affecting both sediment load and dissolved salt content in the waters.

Ground surface disturbance could occur during the construction or installation of access roads and on-site structures and during the extraction of geologic materials.

Heavy vehicles can disturb or destroy originally stable soil conditions and enhance soil erosion by both wind and surface runoff.

Erosion of exposed soils can lead to increased sedimentation of nearby water bodies.

Construction activities (e.g., grading and excavation) and the implementation of on-site storm water controls (e.g., culverts and drainage ditches along roads) could alter surface runoff patterns by diverting natural drainage into new areas and locally increasing runoff volume.

The following mitigation measures and best management practices (BMPs) could be applied in the field to mitigate the impacts to water, mostly due to erosion:

Develop restoration plans to identify reclamation, soil stabilization, and erosion reduction measures that could be implemented to ensure impacted areas are restored properly.

Develop a storm water management plan for the site to ensure compliance with applicable regulations and prevent increased soil erosion and runoff.

Reclaim disturbed soils as quickly as possible or apply protective covers. Salvage and reapply topsoil from all excavations and construction activities during reclamation and leave plant debris on-site to serve as mulch.

Use existing roads when possible. Avoid excessive grades on roads, road embankments, ditches, and drainages, especially in areas with erodible soils and use special construction techniques, where applicable. Re-contour and re-vegetate abandoned roads and roads that are no longer needed.

Identify unstable slopes and local factors that can induce slope instability (such as groundwater conditions, precipitation, earthquake activities, and slope angles). Also avoid creating excessive slopes during excavation and blasting operations.

Retain stabilizing vegetation on unstable soils and avoid new roads or heavy equipment use on unstable or highly erodible soils.

Design on-site surface runoff control features to minimize the potential for increased localized soil erosion.

Minimized the size of cleared and disturbed lands as much as possible. Existing roads should be used as much as possible.

Resource Use

Recreation BLM lands offer a variety of diverse recreational opportunities, and many of those activities involve water resources, such as fishing, boating, swimming, and whitewater rafting. Countless other activities can be impacted by the water resources on public lands including camping, hunting, hiking, all types of winter sports, and visiting natural and cultural heritage sites, just to name a few. To ensure water resources are not negatively impacted by recreational activities, BLM may establish thresholds for numbers, types, and duration of visitor use, and when those thresholds are reached, develop facilities to reduce those impacts and/or possibly limit or relocate use.

Livestock Grazing BLM provides permits that allow ranchers to graze their livestock on public lands. BLM uses some of the money obtained from selling permits for rangeland improvements. BLM may also require permit holders to make improvements and/or to counter the impacts from grazing. Impacts can include erosion, which can impact streams and other water bodies and water pollution from runoff, which can include animal waste.

Mining and Mineral Development BLM leases rights to mine minerals and other materials on BLM-managed lands. Water quality and quantity can be impacted by mining and removal of minerals. Some mining operations divert water for various purposes, which could impact the quantity of use for other purposes. Additionally, mining can result in water contamination, especially heavy metals.

Energy Development Energy and mineral development can require large volumes of water for construction and operation of facilities, and pose a number of potential impacts to surface and ground-water resources. The BLM works with industry, other agencies, and stakeholders to mitigate the impacts and to reclaim disturbed lands after the activity ends.

Fisheries The more than 245 million surface acres managed by the BLM contain diverse water bodies, from isolated desert springs harboring populations of rare and unique fish to large Columbia and Yukon River tributaries that provide habitat for Pacific salmon and steelhead as they migrate long distances to breed. BLM conducts aquatic resource inventories and monitoring to help managers make informed decisions and to assist in the design of other BLM program activities to ensure the special habitat needs of aquatic species are adequately considered.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) uses a variety of programs and activities to ensure the water resources on BLM-managed lands meet state water quality standards. Additionally, some programs may necessitate specific monitoring and management actions. These programs and activities include the following:

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) The Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLPMA) defines and authorizes the BLM to designate, through the land management planning process, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs). ACECs provide special protective management attention on areas with important historic, cultural, or scenic value, or with other important natural resource values (e.g., fish and wildlife). Many ACECs have water-resource dependent values.

Cooperative Landscape Conservation This is a scientific initiative that recognizes the need to better understand the condition of BLM-managed landscapes at a broad level. A network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives focuses on impacts such as the effects of climate change on wildfire risk, drought, and invasive species where natural processes often transcend jurisdictional boundaries. Thus the BLM works across federal, state, and local agency lines through cooperative partnerships to develop landscape-level strategies for managing climate change impacts, for example the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

Rangeland Health BLM State Directors, in consultation with the Resource Advisory Councils, develop rangeland health standards for lands within their jurisdiction. The BLM is committed to expanding these rangeland health standards so that there are agreed-upon land health standards that apply to all ecosystems, not just rangelands, and that apply to all actions, not just livestock grazing. Systematic assessments and evaluations performed at the watershed, grazing allotment, and landscape level determine whether the standards and fundamentals of rangeland health are being achieved. The assessments determine what factors/uses are significant factors, if standards are not being achieved. For example, one common land health standard is that water quality complies with state water quality standards and achieves, or is making significant progress toward achieving, established BLM management objectives. See also BLM Handbook H-4180-1 Rangeland Health Standards.

Watershed Restoration Watershed restoration is usually multi-objective and is long-term. Assessments are a part of conducting watershed restoration work, and may take a variety of forms depending on the specific project and resources available, geographic area, and level of understanding of the processes. They may take the form of land health assessments using procedures of BLM Manual Section 4180 (Land Health Assessments), or hydrologic condition class, using BLM Technical Note 405 (Framework for Analyzing the Hydrologic Condition of Watersheds), or other riparian corridor assessments using riparian proper functioning condition methods being widely used by BLM field offices. Where watershed function, water quality and fishery values are heavily impacted by abandoned mine-land drainage, very sophisticated assessment techniques, and water quality and hydrology investigations are often employed, often utilizing expertise from other federal and state agencies.

Wetland/Riparian/Aquatic Restoration The water resources program partners closely with other specialists in the riparian corridors where wetlands occur, to protect water quality and quantity for the support of aquatic life. Because of the inseparable integration of the riparian areas and stream channel environments, the collaboration between riparian management specialists and the water resources/hydrology and soil science specialists is critical and is highly valued by BLM managers. Technical procedures for riparian system assessment and management are well developed by the BLM and have been reviewed and substantiated by the U.S. Forest Service, other collaborating agencies, and universities. The proper functioning condition (PFC) assessment is a qualitative method developed by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to assess the condition of riparian and wetland areas. PFC assessments are based on physical and biological characteristics rather than resource values. These attributes include hydrologic, vegetative, soil erosion and deposition factors. Also see BLM Technical Reference 1737-15 (Riparian Area Management: A User Guide to Assessing Proper Functioning Condition and the Supporting Science for Lotic Areas).

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