The importance of riparian habitat

Here’s a guest column from Pete Wadden that’s running in The Vail Daily:

One of the few things that almost all people can agree on is the calming effect of flowing water. Waterfront property is highly sought after and, as a result, is typically sold at a premium. People often landscape their waterfront property to create an unobstructed view of the river or creek in their backyard.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

In many places in Colorado, our desire for easy access to the water is having unintended consequences. It may not be surprising to most readers that there is a web of interaction between waterways and the ecosystems that surround them. Riparian corridors, the swaths of water-loving plants that grow along creeks or rivers, protect those waterways from pollution and erosion and provide shade, nutrients and habitat for aquatic animals. When riparian buffers disappear, rivers and creeks suffer.

In the town of Vail, the loss of riparian habitat has had a measurable impact on Gore Creek and several of its tributaries. In 2012, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment listed Gore Creek for failing to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for aquatic life. Other rivers and creeks in Eagle County and across Colorado are beginning to show a similar pattern of decline.

NATURAL FILTRATION SYSTEM

As wetlands and forests are replaced with pavement and turf lawns, services provided by those natural ecosystems are lost. Pavement directs rain and snowmelt into storm drains that flow directly into the creek. The shallow roots of turf lawns do not filter pollution from groundwater the way the roots of willows and other native shrubs do.

The town of Vail sees the impaired health of Gore Creek as a serious issue and has undertaken several programs to try to reverse the creek’s declining water quality. In 2017, the town completed several major riparian restoration projects along Gore Creek. The goal of those projects was to restore native vegetation along creek banks in order to better filter runoff and prevent erosion while maintaining access to the creek for anglers and other users.

PROJECT RE-WILD

The causes of Gore Creek’s recent decline are diverse and widespread. As such, this is not a problem that the town can solve on its own. In order to encourage private property owners to restore riparian habitat on their land, the town of Vail has unveiled Project Re-Wild, a public-private cost-share to assist private property owners with the design of riparian restoration projects. Interested property owners along Gore Creek or its tributaries can learn more about this exciting opportunity under “Programs” at lovevail.org or by calling me at 970-479-2144.

Aquatic health is an issue that impacts the whole community, and the responsibility for maintaining our rivers and creek lies with all of us. Please consider joining the town of Vail in its efforts to Restore the Gore.

Pete Wadden is the town of Vail watershed education coordinator. Contact him at pwadden@vailgov.com, or visit lovevail.org to read more about the town of Vail’s environmental and sustainability efforts.

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