Here’s a report Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith). Click through for the photos and the graphics:
Could something as simple and natural as a ragged corridor of expansive, towering shade trees help a river arm itself against a world in which temperatures are rising?
In northwestern Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, a 300-person-strong army of volunteers is banking on it.
The Yampa River historically has produced so much abundant, clear, cool water that its fish, kayakers, and the farmers along its banks were rarely left wanting.
But climate change is altering that dynamic. Last summer the river’s flows shrank sharply, and its formerly cool waters became dangerously warm, threatening the fish. Its high fever prompted the City of Steamboat Springs to close the popular stretch through town to fisherman and boaters on multiple occasions to avoid further stressing the mountain white fish, which is found in few other Colorado regions.
The shut-down was a huge blow to the city and to local rafting and tubing companies who rely on the river for their livelihoods.
The disturbing heat added urgency to a small program that has been gaining supporters and clout in the Yampa River Basin. The Yampa Sustainability Council (YSC), aided by $175,000 from local donors and some state grants, has ramped up a broad-based tree planting program along the river’s banks known as ReTree. Additional funding from a new $1.7 million Nature Conservancy water fund will add even more muscle to the effort.
On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Sarah Jones, executive director of the YSC, parks at a trailhead just east of town, slathers herself in sunscreen, and loads a white plastic bucket with small calipers, a measuring stick, a GPS device and wooden stakes to take down to the river’s edge. These are the tools she and others will use to carefully locate and measure the progress of trees planted in recent years.
The reforesting work is conducted with a careful, slow precision. Each tree that is planted along the banks, and there are hundreds, is assessed, measured and located each season, even as more are placed in the ground.
The trend of warming rivers is creating a need for new science and reams of field data. “This is a new, not well-understood problem,” Jones said.
She and her partners, including the Colorado State Forest Service and the City of Steamboat, are taking the long view, carefully evaluating each year what has worked, discarding practices that have failed, and boosting those that have succeeded.
They once used elaborate planting protocols for placing the young saplings in the ground, but the trees respond much better when their small root balls are poked into the side of the bank, almost casually, supported by simple twigs. The starter trees also like being planted in the fall, they’ve learned, not the spring.
The Yampa River, in some ways, is a blessed stream, with more water than most Western rivers, and a community of hard-working, often wealthy, advocates.
This year The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $1.7 million in a long-term water fund to restore and protect the Yampa River. The goal is to raise another $4.3 million to protect the watershed.
It is an unheard-of sum in this remote, northwestern corner of the state.
But those who know the Yampa understand the significance of protecting it, not just for the sake of this region, but for the state of Colorado and even for the greater American Southwest.
The river sits near the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River system and is one of its last, mostly free-flowing tributaries. Because it is relatively unhindered, with only a few small reservoirs high on its mainstem, it serves as a kind of benchmark for scientists seeking to understand natural river dynamics and mimic them elsewhere.
Keeping the Yampa healthy also helps a much broader effort in the West to bring the Colorado River system back from the edge of a crisis precipitated by population growth, a nearly 20-year drought, and rising temperatures.
Jones and her colleague Caroline Manriquez, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, walk slowly along a public stretch of the river. Each of them notes the young trees planted two or three years ago that are outgrowing the metal cages put in place to protect them from beavers, who are both a curse and a blessing on the river.
“On the one hand we want them,” said Manriquez, because their work on the river creates natural dams and habitats. “But on the other hand, they’re cutting the trees we want to preserve.”
Each tree that outgrows its anti-beaver cage will need to be visited, its protective metal enclosure cut off and a bigger one put in place.
The re-treeing effort anticipates a Johnny-Appleseed kind of longevity, with some 200 shade trees planted annually over the next 20 years.
“This is a huge project, and we are planting very small trees,” Manriquez said. “But given the water issues climate change is creating, we decided we had better start now.”
Like other river basins around the state, the Yampa Basin has developed a state-funded management plan for the river. Some of that funding went toward several years of studies and planning to develop the science to support the reforestation effort, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount of modeling to look at what this river will look like in the future,” Romero-Heaney said.
Just downstream of the work zone, on the opposite bank from the workers, is a nursery which houses hundreds of delicate, young willow, cottonwood, and box elder trees. These varieties are known for growing tall and spreading a generous shade canopy.
The young seedlings have been sprouted in a nursery in Fort Collins, then transferred up to the Steamboat nursery early in the summer, all in preparation for the fall planting season.
These seedlings will be planted in the public stretches of the river, but reforesting there alone won’t be enough.
Jones and Manriquez know that the key to success for the project will be to bring the private landowners who control most of the land on the river’s banks into the program.
And that’s not easy. Western ranchers are notoriously government-averse, skittish about letting federal and state environmental officials onto their property, they said.
Rancher Steve Williams is an exception. He owns 200 acres of land along a critical reach of the Yampa east of Steamboat Springs, one that has been degraded by heavy cattle grazing, its cottonwood canopy gone, its streambed wide and much shallower than it once was.
As a result the water temperature here each summer threatens to exceed the state’s standard for the stream. If Williams can cool down his reach of the river, it will help everyone farther down and closer to Steamboat Springs.
To achieve this, he has partnered with federal agencies to shore up the river’s banks, deepening it as it curves, snakelike, through the wetlands and pastures above Lake Catamount.
This land hasn’t been grazed in 10 years, Williams said, and he’s hopeful the bank restoration work, as well as the re-treeing effort, will give this stretch of the river the assistance it needs to heal.
Williams understands the magnitude of the work that lies ahead and the challenges, the discrepancy in scale between young trees and a sprawling Western river, and the global dilemma of warming. “We will see how this goes,” Williams said. “It is a Band-aid, but it’s one I think will last at least through my lifetime.”
Romero-Heaney and other river advocates know that they will likely never see the final results of this reforestation effort, but based on the preliminary studies, they see it as an important tool for helping this playful, powerhouse of a river flourish in a very different world than it has inhabited up until now.
“I have to believe that if any river can persist through climate change, it will be the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said.
This story is made possible, in part, by The Water Desk, an initiative of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
A project to restore native Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has been postponed and will not occur this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced.
Due to the long winter and cool temperatures, biological conditions in the creek and lakes were not suitable to conduct the chemical treatment operation that was planned for the week of Aug. 26. The project will be rescheduled for next summer.
The project was planned for Upper Sand Creek Lake, Lower Sand Creek Lake and Sand Creek.
All regular fishing regulations for that area will resume again on Aug. 26. In preparation for the project, CPW had removed all bag and possession limits in late July.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the National Park Service and Trout Unlimited are working cooperatively on the plan to bring the native Rio Grande cutthroat back to its original habitat.
Here’s an in-depth look at governance in the Colorado River Basin in the coming years from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The grand bargain concept arose from increasing anxiety in booming Colorado and the other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — about their plight of being legally roped into sending more water downriver, even if dry winters, new population growth and development made that impossible without shutting faucets…
Total water is decreasing in the 1,450-mile river, which trickles from high mountain snow northwest of Denver and carves canyons up to a mile deep. Over the last 15 years, amid a climate shift toward aridity, warming has reduced the river’s flows by at least 6%, according to research based on federal hydrology and temperature data.
Yet the Colorado River remains the primary water source for an expanding population of 40 million people and 90% of the nation’s winter vegetable production — one of the most over-allocated rivers in the world, with water taken out each year exceeding natural flows from rain and snow.
The grand bargain would remove the legal right to “call,” or demand, more water during dry times that was established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Colorado farmers and Front Range cities no longer would face the threat of downriver states legally mandating that more water be left in the river, forcing shut-offs. In return, lower-basin states would be guaranteed a set amount, possibly less than what they’re currently using, and gain time to stop their steady draw-down of the Lake Mead reservoir, which remains less than half full even after a wet winter. The upriver Lake Powell reservoir, also less than half full, would serve as storage to help lower states adjust to living on less water…
California officials this week indicated an interest in exploring new ways to address climate warming impacts. But Chris Harris, director of the Colorado River Board of California, told The Denver Post his state is not ready to discuss any specific bargain that would require giving up a legal right to “call” for more water. And John Entsminger, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority manager and his state’s chief negotiator, questioned how the bargain would help the lower states.
The serious behind-the-scenes contemplation of this bargain “reflects the current conditions on the river — the extended drought we’ve been through, the speed at which the system has gone down, the reality of a warming climate and what that is going to mean for flows,” said Jim Lochhead, the manager of Denver Water who previously served as Colorado’s director of natural resources and represented the state in river negotiations with other western states.
While Lochhead discussed the bargain in an interview with the Post, he said he hasn’t taken a formal position supporting any specific proposal.
“What we need is some kind of arrangement that gives the lower basin time to manage demands and solve their structural deficit problems” — overuse — “and also provide some assurance, in exchange for that time, to the upper basin that we are not going to be facing a legal crisis in the form of a compact ‘call’ or some type of curtailment,” Lochhead said.
“From a Colorado perspective, my interest would be that Western Slope irrigated agriculture and the economy on the Western Slope be protected, and, obviously, that Front Range municipalities that rely on the Colorado River be protected in our water supplies. … That would be our starting point,” he said.
“Given the status of the reservoirs. … the speed at which Powell and Mead have dropped, we don’t have the luxury to take a lot of time and deal around the edges of the problems. We need to think about some bigger, and different, solution to resolve the deficit that is staring us all in the face.”
From Colorado Springs Utilities:
Project Overview / Background
The Homestake Project is a trans-mountain raw water collection, storage, and delivery system co-owned and operated by the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, Colo.
The Homestake Arkansas River Diversion (ARD), between Granite and Buena Vista, Colo., was constructed in 1964 as the original intake for the Otero Pump Station. Water is now primarily withdrawn from Twin Lakes, however the ARD remains an alternate point of diversion. The ARD has deteriorated and requires repair. The ARD was not originally designed as a navigable facility.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) which includes the site of the ARD. CPW expressed interest in partnering with Springs Utilities on a rehabilitation project to include a boat chute for downstream navigation as this location is currently considered the only non-navigable reach of the Arkansas River between Leadville and Canon City, Colo.
The Upper Arkansas River is both one of the most heavily used rivers in the United States for whitewater recreation and is a Gold Medal Trout Fishery. The river is managed to support multiple objectives including water supply and delivery and outdoor recreation.
The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are constructing a rehabilitation project that will replace the intake and diversion, provide a boat chute for downstream navigation, and provide upstream fish passage for spawning of brown and rainbow trout. The project also included improving river safety for recreational users and providing whitewater boat portage. User safety was an extremely important design consideration.
A physical model was constructed to test and refine hydraulic elements to optimize performance, maximize user safety and meet design guidelines for recreational whitewater for all three components: boat chute, fish passage and the new intake structure.
The $9 million construction cost of the project is being jointly funded by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. $1.2 million in grants is coming from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board through grant funding to support the Colorado Water Plan (Water Supply and Demand Gap and Environmental and Recreation Grant Programs). The Pueblo Board of Waterworks is donating the easements necessary to construct and maintain the diversion.
Here’s a report from Jason Blevins writing for The Colorado Sun:
But just below the former riverside mining camp of Granite, where a dilapidated dam built in 1964 has long blemished the Arkansas River’s beauty, rebar jutted from concrete blocks, preventing raft passage and spawning trout battled the steep wall of blasted rocks to reach upstream pools.
“Not a lot of thought went into recreation or fish when this dam was built,” said Ronald Sanchez, an engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities.
A lot of thought is going into fish and recreation now, as water managers in Colorado Springs and Aurora join the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in rebuilding the diversion that directs water to the Front Range.
The $9.1 million project will make the entire river from Leadville to Cañon City navigable for rafts for the first time in at least 55 years.
It’s part of the vast Colorado Springs- and Aurora-owned Homestake Project that brings Eagle River Basin water from the Holy Cross Wilderness to the Arkansas River Basin, through the Homestake, Turquoise and Twin Lakes reservoirs for delivery to the Front Range cities.
The cities started construction of the Arkansas River diversion in July 2018, creating three distinct channels below a rebuilt intake that serves as a backup water diversion to the Otero Pump station downstream of Twin Lakes Dam. Before the Twin Lakes Dam was built in the late 1970s, the diversion was the original intake that collected and directed water to the Otero Pump station for delivery to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
One channel is a fish ladder for spawning brown and rainbow trout. Another channel is a spillway to accommodate flood-level flows like the ones that swelled the Arkansas River this spring. And a third is a series of six drops allowing rafts safe passage.
The project marks a new era of collaboration between the diverse interests on the Arkansas River between Leadville and Cañon City, one of the most recreated stretches of river in the U.S.
“For me the coolest thing about it is that you have these large water utilities in Colorado going above and beyond to do the right thing for the next 50 years,” said Salida-based whitewater park engineer Mike Harvey.
Ten years ago, Harvey helped the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area craft a report urging Aurora and Colorado Springs to consider recreation and fish when it came time to rebuild the Granite Dam diversion…
The Arkansas River accounts for more than $74 million of the $177 million in economic impact created by commercial rafting in Colorado. The 102 miles of river in the Upper Arkansas River Valley also ranks among the 322 miles of Colorado waterways that qualify as Gold Medal Fisheries that can yield a dozen large trout per acre. It also supplies a large percentage of water to Colorado Springs and Aurora via the 66-inch pipeline that runs from the Otero Pump Station.
Rebecca Mitchell, the executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the project exemplifies the collaboration of the Colorado Water Plan, which gathered perspectives from all types of water users in the state to create a policy roadmap for future water planning across the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the conservation board provided $1.2 million in funding through Colorado Water Plan grant programs.
From The Denver Post (Saja Hindi):
Volunteers gathered at Confluence Park to remove pounds of trash as part of a monthly cleanup of the river, hosted by Environment Colorado, Colorado Public Interest Group and Patagonia. The groups host the cleanups in the warmer months and focus on advocacy indoors during winter. of trash from the river.”]
Kristine Oblock, of Environment America, said the groups collected about 460 pounds of trash Sunday. Last month, 30 volunteers collected more than 180 pounds of trash from the river.
Environment Colorado organizers also encouraged attendees to participate in a social media campaign where they take pictures of themselves holding up signs about why water matters to post online. Participants were encouraged to tag Denver Councilwoman Kendra Black who is working with other council members on a proposal to ban plastic bags in Denver.