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Public-private collaboration working to enhance and restore the Pecos River watershed

Public-private collaboration working to enhance and restore the Pecos River watershed

Protecting and conserving the environment is central to Priscilla Yelvington’s career.

As the environment process advisor for Chevron’s Mid-Continent Business Unit, Yelvington is tasked with ensuring her company protects the natural resources and biodiversity of the Permian Basin in compliance with regulatory standards, voluntary conservation agreements, and Chevron’s core values.

To Yelvington, an environmental geologist who joined Chevron after 16 years as an environmental consultant, that means supporting efforts in the Permian that don’t always have a direct connection to Chevron’s operations. What impacts the environment, even in remote areas far from city centers, impacts us all, she notes.

And so Yelvington speaks with particular pride about her involvement with the Pecos Watershed Conservation Initiative (PWCI), an innovative collaboration of public agencies and energy companies with operations in the region, that is supporting projects to improve habitat, address water scarcity, improve water quality, and engage local communities.

“The ongoing commitment of our industry, federal and state partners in the Trans-Pecos region will promote healthier grasslands, springs and rivers, and directly benefit the fish and wildlife that depend on these habitats.”

Formed in 2017, the PWCI is a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and six energy companies – Apache, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Occidental, Shell and XTO Energy. The collaboration leverages their collective resources with the goals of restoring and sustaining healthy rivers, streams, and grasslands that provide important wildlife habitat in the Pecos River watershed.

The partnership has boasted significant gains in a relatively brief timespan. As of May last year, the PWCI had invested $8 million into 43 projects. Recently funded projects include the Carlsbad Soil and Water Conservation District’s removal of invasive salt cedar and Russian olive trees in the riparian area of Blue Springs, and mesquite in adjacent upland areas, an effort to enhance soil, water, vegetation, and wildlife habitat, according to the PWCI.

Other projects funded last year involve supporting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s restoration of 6,000-9,000 acres of brush-invaded dry mixed prairie in northern Hudspeth County, Texas; Chaves Soil and Water Conservation District’s efforts to restore nearly 5,000 acres of grassland habitat in Chaves County, New Mexico; and Eastern New Mexico University’s plans to survey areas along the Delaware River to get a better sense of how to protect the Rio Grande Cooter, a local fish species.

As part of the PWCI, oil companies like Chevron partner to provide funding, expertise, and other support. Every year, the PWCI puts out a request for proposals on projects within the watershed. PWCI staff works with funding partners to evaluate the proposals before voting on which projects to fund.

Yelvington, along with Kegan Boyer, fellow geologist and regulatory advisor, and Jonathan Harshman, public and government affairs advisor, make up the Chevron team that supports the PWCI. Chevron, like all public or private partners, gets a vote on which projects to pursue.

According to Boyer, the PCWI doesn’t just fund projects, but also monitors and tracks their progress.

“They focus on and fund a lot of really good projects in the area,” he said, from rangeland improvements to removing invasive species or repairing fences.

Harshman, who serves in a public-facing role for Chevron, says the strength of the PWCI has been bringing veteran environmental experts like Yelvington and Boyer into the conversation.

As part of their engagement with PWCI, Yelvington and Boyer seek opportunities to be more personally involved in conservation efforts.

“It’s not just that we want to put money toward things, we want to actively participate in them. It matters to us. We want to make sure we’re leaving a positive impact.”

“It’s not just that we want to put money toward things, we want to actively participate in them,” Yelvington said. “It matters to us. We want to make sure we’re leaving a positive impact.”

The Pecos River spans 900 miles from northern New Mexico through the Chihuahuan Dessert grasslands of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Development, invasive species, and water scarcity have impacted habitats, reducing native grasslands to a fraction of what they once were, putting pressure on remaining wildlife.

To help reverse that trend, the PWCI aims to support efforts that strengthen existing habitats, protect remaining populations of native fish and other aquatic species unique to the Chihuahuan Desert, improve the management and function of native grasslands, address water quality and scarcity concerns for wildlife and agricultural uses, and identify opportunities to expand species where they have been lost.

While the PWCI is in its early stages, the initiative “continues to demonstrate the multiplying effects of public-private partnerships in conservation,” according to Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“The ongoing commitment of our industry, federal and state partners in the Trans-Pecos region will promote healthier grasslands, springs and rivers, and directly benefit the fish and wildlife that depend on these habitats,” Trandahl said in a statement last year.

According to Harshman, the next round of PWCI grant awards will be announced in April.

“This time it’s going to be mostly focused on upland grasslands,” Harshman said.

The Chevron team hopes the PWCI will obtain more energy businesses operating in the Permian as funding partners as well as entities beyond the industry, which would enable more expansive restoration efforts.

To learn more about the PWCI and receive updates on the Initiative’s progress, go here.