Protecting the River’s Edge from an Invasive Threat

From The Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):

In the Colorado River Basin, RiversEdge West leads a coordinated effort to restore critical habitat

Doug King’s family has been ranching the lands around the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado since the 1930’s. “It’s beautiful−I call it John Wayne country,” Doug says, proudly. “I’m the third generation on the land, my son will be the fourth generation, and his son will be the fifth.”

Over the decades, Doug experienced firsthand the steady, relentless creep of invasive plant species like tamarisk and Russian olive and its impact on the land he has cared for his whole life. The damage has been extensive, threatening the larger riparian—or river bank—habitat that in the Colorado River Basin ultimately supports more than 40 million lives across two nations.

As the unwelcome vegetation pressed in on essential farmland and fish and wildlife habitat, Doug and many others in the region understood it was time to lock arms and push back.

Originally conceptualized in 1999 to discuss strategies for addressing invasive plant species along rivers in western Colorado, the then-named Tamarisk Coalition was fueled by a desire to shape a landscape-scale solution. The group had observed that conventional site-by-site eradication simply wasn’t able to move quickly enough.

“People were getting grants to do five acres or half a mile” of tamarisk removal, recalls Tim Carlson, the coalition’s first executive director. “That wasn’t going to solve the problem. We started with a bold approach: If we were going to solve this problem, it’s got to be a regional solution.”

The introduction of the tamarisk is a story of unintended consequences. Long thought to prevent erosion along the banks of western rivers, its presence was so valued in earlier days that Boy Scouts would receive badges for planting it. But the persistent shrub with scale-like leaves took to its adopted habitat like a parasite, displacing native vegetation.

Restoring and sustaining the overall health of the Colorado River Basin has been a primary goal of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program since its inception nearly a decade ago. And, the program’s first grant to the Tamarisk Coalition in 2009 supported its restoration efforts along the San Miguel and Dolores river systems. Gradually, the foundation expanded its support to also include work along the Escalante, Verde and Gila systems.

“We have a great relationship with the foundation where we present innovative ideas, and they help us scale up these efforts. The investment affects a vast landscape, bolsters our work and has helped us promote best practices to other organizations,” says Cara Kukuraitis, outreach and education coordinator for the organization now known as RiversEdge West.

The organization changed its name in 2018 to reflect its broader work in Western riparian areas and the surrounding communities. But it retains its unique and core operating model—to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing across diverse groups and individuals to accomplish riparian restoration at a larger scale than any one partner can attain on its own. As a result, RiversEdge West now supports 20 ambitious multi-stakeholder partnerships encompassing federal, state, and community organizations throughout the American West, teaching best practices to over 300 local public and private restoration organizations and successfully restoring some 11,500 acres—and counting—of riparian habitat.

The state of Colorado is among the group’s core partners.

“Our relationship with RiversEdge West has allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to more effectively meet our mission of improving the wildlife habitat within the state,” explains Peter Firmin, manager of the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park.

“The networking and training opportunities provided by RiversEdge West allow us to leverage intellectual and financial resources to improve habitat along the Colorado River. As a group, we are able to accomplish more than we could as individuals.”

The work of RiversEdge West and its growing network is bolstered by an array of technical tools. For example, a multi-partner geodatabase stores and shares data with land managers, so they can see how their projects connect and positively impact the landscape over time.

“The data helps us establish and measure progress against quantitative goals, so the project can jump from removing tamarisk by just cutting trees to collecting data on the extent of the problem and promoting ways to encourage the ecosystem’s overall health,” says Cara.

It is a testament to the organization’s enduring value that its annual conference attracts upwards of 200 representatives from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Mexico to connect on riparian restoration science.

The organization also is working to convey the broad importance of these efforts through its ongoing “Riverside Stories” web series, which tells the personal stories of people who call this land home and are working to restore this habitat for future generations. Among them is Doug and his family.

“I have a theory that we should leave the land better than how we got it,” Doug notes in sharing his story. “The Colorado River is soon going to be the most important resource in the West. We are just caretakers. You are only going to be here 50-60 years, and then somebody else is going to have this land.

Non-native tamarisk are demonized across the West, but are they really the enemy? — Cronkite News

From Cronkite News (Rae Ellen Bichell):

The tamarisk, which was brought to the U.S. from Eurasia in the late 1800s for erosion control, windbreaks and decoration, is much detested. Since its introduction, tamarisk – also known as salt cedar – has been blamed for choking waterways, hogging water and salting the earth as its range expands, driving out such native trees as cottonwood and willows. In Palisade, Colorado, a state lab is breeding beetles whose sole purpose is to destroy tamarisk. At one point, the University of Nevada published a poster about the plant titled WANTED – Dead, Not Alive!

“There’s been a concerted effort to demonize tamarisk,” said Matt Chew, a historian of invasion biology at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. But he thinks this war is aimed at the wrong enemy.

The tree, he said, is a scapegoat for our struggle with something much bigger and messier than weedy fields: our relationship with water in the West.

The tamarisk has a reputation for hogging water – but is it warranted?

“This is one of the constant counts against tamarisk – that it’s wasting water,” Chew said. “That particular idea got started in the late 1930s and early 1940s for a very particular reason.”

Back then, Chew says, the Phelps Dodge Corp. wanted to expand its copper mine in Arizona, but it didn’t have the water it needed for the additional mining and processing. All the water rights to a nearby creek and river had been allocated.

“What they needed was an excuse to say there was more water in the rivers so that Phelps Dodge could have more water,” Chew said. “So, where are they going to get more water?”

Phelps Dodge inspected nearby water sources and found lots of tamarisk growing along the banks, Chew said. Mine officials rationalized that if they could prove the tamarisk was draining river water, he said, the mine could potentially get the rights to the “extra” water available by killing tamarisk.

“Phelps Dodge did a bunch of experiments which were later picked up by the Agriculture Department,” Chew said, adding that Phelps Dodge ended up getting its water rights through other means, but the tamarisk’s image was destroyed.

As Chew writes in the “Journal of the History of Biology,” “with water shortages, economic development during the Depression and copper mining for national defense during World War Two, federal hydrologists moved quickly to recast tamarisks as water-wasting foreign monsters.”

Since then, researchers have shown that the tree doesn’t use more water than native riparian vegetation, including cottonwoods.

To make matters worse, big changes were occurring in the 1930s and ’40s in the way that water was being moved through the West. Dams and diversions were changing the patterns of flooding, patterns that used to be in sync with the reproductive cycle of more sensitive native plants, such as cottonwoods.

“To some extent, the way we were managing Western rivers actually created a giant tamarisk housing project,” Chew said. If the tamarisk is a monster, he said, it’s because we created it.

“If you want good, old-fashioned 17th-century riparian areas in the western U.S.,” Chew said, “you can’t take all the water out of the river. You can’t have big irrigated fields. You can’t have huge cities.”

Anna Sher, an invasive species biologist at the University of Denver and author of the book “Tamarix: A Case Study of Ecological Change in the American West,” agrees that Tamarix (the species’ genus) isn’t all bad.

Yes, Tamarix can create saltier surface soil that retards other vegetation, and its dense wood can fuel more intense fires. Sher even has heard that a boater drowned in Arizona because rescuers couldn’t get through the dense thickets of tamarisk crowding the shore in time to help him.

But, she says, “I certainly do not hate this plant.”

It provides nesting spots for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, for example, and she says it’s entirely possible for the trees to be a part of the landscape without completely taking over.

“It’s only behaving badly because of the way that we’ve managed our rivers,” Sher said.

Although the way we manage our rivers isn’t going to change anytime soon, Sher sees hope for restoring the landscape. It’s called the Field of Dreams hypothesis.

“The Field of Dreams hypothesis predicts that when you remove the invasive species, there’s an opportunity for the desirable species to come in,” she said.

Initially, Sher and other ecologists suspected the hypothesis was a pipe dream.

“But after doing surveys of hundreds of sites throughout the American Southwest, we can see that, on average, native species will come back and they’ll come back proportionally to how much tamarisk has been removed,” she said. “More tamarisk taken out, more native plants can come in.”

There are two conditions required for successful restoration. First, there has to be enough water in the rivers and streams to supply the new vegetation. Second, the public has to remain open to what native plants might come back. They might not be the cottonwoods and willows people hope for.

“It’s a new game now with Tamarix here and with the water needs that we have now,” Sher said, and humans will have to get used to plants that can handle the landscape as we’ve shaped it.

Those plants might be drought-adapted shrubs and grasses instead of picnic-worthy trees. And they will most certainly have a tamarisk or two as neighbors.

@USBR allocates more than $4 million to combat quagga and zebra mussels in the West

Quaggas on sandal at Lake Mead

Here’s the release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

The Bureau of Reclamation has allocated more than $4 million for federal, state, and tribal projects to prevent, contain, control, and monitor invasive quagga and zebra mussels in the West. This funding advances actions announced by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in June 2017 as part of the initiative called “Safeguarding the West: Actions to Strengthen Federal, State, and Tribal Coordination to Address Invasive Mussels.” This funding builds on $1 million in 2017 to support initiatives by the federal government, as well as work by the Western Governors’ Association, western states, and tribes to protect western ecosystems, water infrastructure, and hydroelectric facilities from invasive mussels.

“For more than a century, Reclamation and its partners in the West have invested in water infrastructure that is today at risk from invasive quagga and zebra mussels,” Commissioner Brenda Burman said. “The funding we are announcing today will be used on efforts to prevent their spread while improving ways to manage facilities when the first sign of these invasive mussels is detected.”

“The fight against invasive mussels in the West requires collaboration and partnership at all levels of government, including, importantly, those between Reclamation and Western states,” said the Western Governors’ Association. “With this new funding, western states will be able to enhance invasive mussel management at many levels, including research, monitoring, prevention, and enforcement.”

Highlights of the funded projects include these actions:

  • Purchasing inspection and decontamination stations to inspect and decontaminate boats leaving the lower Colorado River in California and Nevada, including supporting the National Park Service at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
  • Supporting the Salish Kootenai Tribe at Flathead Lake Aquatic Invasive Species program.
  • Developing vulnerability assessments for facilities and infrastructure at risk of mussel infestation in the Columbia River Basin.
  • Assisting the State of Arizona in providing law enforcement support at inspection stations.
  • Funding research for the State of Montana and Reclamation on viability of veligers in residual water in boats.
  • Supporting watercraft inspection stations at Reclamation reservoirs in Nebraska and Kansas.
  • Implementing the state Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan at water bodies owned by Reclamation in Utah.
  • Analyzing water quality to determine which water bodies should be prioritized for invasive mussel monitoring and prevention in California.
  • Continuing and enhancing water quality and quagga mussel monitoring program at high-priority programs in the Pacific Northwest and various reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin.
  • Conducting watercraft inspections at Navajo and Elephant Butte reservoirs in New Mexico.
  • Invasive mussels pose challenges for Reclamation and others who manage water. Invasive mussels are prolific breeders and settle on or within water facility infrastructure such as water intakes, gates, diversion screens, hydropower equipment, pumps, pipelines and boats. Infested water and hydropower infrastructure can fail or choke off water transmissions. The mussels also negatively impact the natural ecology, which can be detrimental to native and endangered species, including native fisheries. To learn more about invasive mussel management and research at Reclamation, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/mussels.

    Tamarisk Program Begins Restoration Phase — The Prowers Journal

    From The Prowers Journal (Russ Baldwin):

    A tamarisk eradication spray program begun almost ten years ago along a portion of the Arkansas River has transitioned into a restoration project this year by the Colorado Division of Natural Resources and Parks and Wildlife. Travis Black, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area manager, said a restoration program has begun which will re-seed the areas between Granada and the Kansas State Line. “The area will be re-vegetated with natural grass species along with willow shrubs and we’re planting cottonwood poles as well,” he explained, adding that the eradication program took some hops and skips between the towns along the river to the Kansas border.

    Tamarisk, similar to Russian Thistle, is an invasive plant introduced into southeast Colorado decades ago. Unfortunately, it consumes hundreds of gallons of water per plant and is very hard to kill. Its growth along the Arkansas River allowed it to spread, siphoning off thousands of gallons of water and added to the salinity of the river. Another drawback was in flood mitigation as the plant, growing along the banks of the river, restricted the water flow along the channel which created backups and flooding. The trick to effectively killing off tamarisk is patience. Even after a comprehensive spraying program, it takes a minimum of three years to be sure the limbs, seed and especially roots are dead.

    A collaboration of a number of groups including the NRCS and Prowers County sought grant funding to finance the aerial spraying of approximately 400 acres to begin with in 2009, but because of increased funding and a lower cost of service, the area was increased to 1,500 acres. Contributing groups included the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado State Land Board, Holly Flood District, Tri-State G & T and the Northeast Prowers Conservation District among others and some private landowners.

    Black said, some of the spraying was more effective than anticipated as a lot of the undergrowth was killed off along with the tamarisk and that eliminated the cover for local wildlife species. The revegetation program will help restore the riparian areas to their natural state and habitat. Not all of the funding is complete for the entire stretch of river into Kansas, but the acreage has been cleared along the Arkansas River, especially visible as you cross the bridge along Highway 50 just a few miles west of Holly. He said there’s no end date to the restoration program, but it will continue when new funding streams become available. The dead tamarisk plants were excavated and ground up on the spot, using specialized equipment that is loaned out to projects around the state.

    2018 #COleg recap

    From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

    The Mussel-free Colorado Act came from the interim water resources review committee and was signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper on April 23.

    Since they were first found in a lake outside of Detroit in 1988, zebra and quagga mussels have become a huge problem for waterways in the eastern half of the United States, particularly the Great Lakes.

    Sightings have been rare in Colorado but they have happened: at Lake Pueblo in 2008, at Green Mountain Reservoir in 2016 and in March outside of Grand Junction. In 2017, according to the state Division of Parks and Wildlife, 25 boats were found contaminated with mussels, up from 22 boats in 2016. Those boats had all come from other states, with Lake Powell in Arizona and Lake Havasu in California as the places where the mussels most likely came from…

    Fears that the nuisance could to do to Colorado’s water system what it’s done to systems back east prompted lawmakers to ramp up the state’s aquatic nuisance detection program, which has been underfunded for years.

    Under House Bill 1008 — the mussel-free law — beginning January 1, Colorado residents will pay $25 for an aquatic nuisance stamp for their boats in addition to the boat registration free. Non-residents will pay $50 to use their motorboats or sailboats in state waterways.

    The fee is expected to raise $2.2 million that will help Colorado Parks and Wildlife keep boat inspection sites open for longer hours and for a longer season. Doug Kreiger of CPW told the interim water committee last year that budget cutbacks have meant boaters could avoid inspections, such as putting their boats in reservoirs on private land or at the public ramps when inspectors aren’t available.

    The law also will allow the division to recoup the cost of decontaminating boats that show up with mussels attached to boat or boat motors, anchors, anchor ropes, fishing gear, and boat trailers.

    The water committee also carried two of the recycled water bills: to allow recycled water to be used for industrial hemp and for irrigating marijuana crops.

    Recycling water — the process for treating water and then reusing it — isn’t new in Colorado; it’s been a part of irrigation for agriculture for years. But it’s gaining new attention, thanks in part to the state water plan. It noted that 25 utilities, mostly on the Eastern Slope, are already treating and recycling non-potable water and would look for additional ways for using recycled water as a way of addressing Colorado’s looming water shortage, with a goal of finding 170,000 acre-feet through recycling.

    The water plan cites as an example the Colorado Springs utility, which uses recycled water for irrigation at golf courses, parks and other properties, as well as for cooling towers at local power plants. The utility reported in 2016 that reuse saves one billion gallons of drinking water every year.

    Senate Bill 38, signed into law on April 28, would add industrial hemp on the list of approved crops irrigated with recycled domestic wastewater and in accordance with existing water rights. Industrial hemp is a crop that under the bill could not be used for food production.

    Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, the bill sponsor, explained that hemp is a high-protein crop, higher than alfalfa, and that it poses no risk to cattle, for example. The bill was supported by the Colorado Water Rights Association, the Colorado Water Congress and the hemp industry.

    The bill was amended to address concerns about water quality.

    The bill allowing recycled water for irrigation of marijuana — House Bill 1053 — wasn’t as lucky and died in the Senate Finance Committee, at the request of its sponsor. The marijuana industry opposed the bill, based on concerns that the law would require cultivators to use recycled water that could contain pesticides that cannot by law used on cannabis plants.

    Would you use recycled water to flush toilets? Colorado law changed a couple of years ago to allow developers to build greywater systems in new homes, but left out existing homes and businesses.

    House Bill 1069, signed on April 30, would let businesses and multifamily residences, such as apartments, condos and townhomes, to flush toilets with recycled domestic wastewater. The state’s plumbing code is changed under the law, and toilet plumbing would have to be retrofitted to accommodate the rerouting of recycled water.

    The General Assembly also changed state law on water quality to allow recycled water to be used to irrigate food crops, but only if that water meets the water quality standards for commercial crops under the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act. That bill was signed into law on April 28.

    The law does not apply to big agriculture, according to the sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins. She said the intention is to use recycled water to replace drinking water that is used to irrigate indoor grows;l community gardens; community-supported agriculture, usually farms of one acre or less; and other forms of urban agriculture.

    Finally, the General Assembly put another $7 million toward implementing the state water plan. Under Senate Bill 218, $3 million would go toward developing additional storage, recharging aquifers and dredging existing reservoirs to add capacity; $1 million for agricultural projects; $1 million for grants that would implement long-term strategies for conservation, land use and drought planning; $500,000 for grants on water education and $1.5 million for environmental and recreation projects. That bill was signed into law on May 30.

    On June 19, the interim water resources review committee is scheduled to meet in Denver to review a study commissioned in 2016 to look for new or enhanced water storage opportunities along the South Platte River, primarily in northeastern Colorado.

    Northwest Colorado Food Coalition: Protecting Yampa River more than just recreation

    The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition via Steamboat Today:

    his time of year embodies the pastoral landscapes the Yampa Valley is known for. The change of seasons brings the return of the familiar sights and sounds of geese, cranes and other migratory birds. People, too, flock from around the world to celebrate this rebirth, as our valley sheds its winter coat and begins to bloom.

    While many in our community are watching the weather to see how long they can continue to ski, when bike trails will be dry and how high the river will be for the 38th annual Yampa River Festival, another group of valley residents is tuned into the weather for another reason.

    Our agriculture community is tracking the same indicators that skiers, bikers, rafters and fisherman are watching: snowpack, water flows and historical averages. Area farmers and ranchers need this crucial data to determine how long they will be able to irrigate their fields.

    Without the extensive use of irrigation on area ranches, our landscape would be very different. Irrigated land provides numerous benefits beyond agricultural yields: It provides habitat for migratory birds, feeds riparian zones along the Yampa and increases late-season flows.

    Friends of the Yampa, or FOTY, has done a lot of growing during the past several years. FOTY received its nonprofit status in 2008 and has been hard at work ever since. Branching into roles beyond building recreational features, we now facilitate projects that address noxious weeds, late season flows and other issues specific to the Yampa River.

    The Leafy Spurge Project, for example, aims to address a weed that is threatening agricultural and riparian lands throughout the West. Leafy spurge, for those who are not familiar, is an invasive weed that is becoming more prevalent each year. Through partnerships with public and private landowners, state and federal agencies and other advocacy groups, FOTY and its partners hope to address this growing threat.

    FOTY continues to support exploring innovative options to provide late season flows through Steamboat Springs. Options such as Alternative Transfer Methods, headed by the Colorado Water Trust and the State Engineer’s Office, provide water-rights holders the ability to lease water to downstream users for up to three years in a 10-year period, while still retaining original rights.

    Similarly, FOTY is excited about research into the creation of a water fund. Groups, including the Nature Conservancy, are exploring this concept, which could be used to finance and implement similar transfers to benefit the health of the river into the future.

    It is through these collaborative efforts that FOTY hopes it can continue to be a helpful resource for water users throughout the basin. Agriculture, recreation, municipal and industrial users are in this together. Using strategic partnerships and innovative water use practices, we can insure a vibrant river community for generations to come.

    Learn more about this and all our work at friendsoftheyampa.com. See you on the river.

    2018 #COleg: Governor Hickenlooper signs HB18-1008 (Mussel-free Colorado Act)

    Zebra and Quagga Mussels

    From email from Colorado Parks and Recreation:

    On Tuesday, April 24, 2018, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Mussel-Free Colorado Act into law in a short ceremony at the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver. The new law provides a stable funding source of $2.4 million for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Program for 2019 and beyond.

    In February, the House passed the bill 44 – 20. The bill passed the Senate 24 – 10 in March.

    “This is a huge win for protecting Colorado’s water,” said CPW Director Bob Broscheid. “Stable funding for the ANS program means a stable future for Colorado.”

    The law requires Colorado residents to purchase a $25 ANS stamp for their boat. Non-residents must purchase a $50 stamp. The new law also:

  • Continues Tier 2 Severance Tax appropriations, when available, to cover the remainder of the $4.5 – $5 million annual cost of ANS program implementation
  • Increases fines for ANS-related violations. The fine for unlawful boat launches without inspection will be raised from $50 to $100. The fine for knowing importation of ANS into the state will be raised from $150 to $500 for a first offense.
  • Allows CPW to charge labor/costs incurred to store and decontaminate intercepted vessels.
    Encourages federal partners to take responsibility for ANS inspection funding at their reservoirs.
  • Why do we need a mussel-free Colorado?

    Zebra and quagga mussels are not native to the nation’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs and are considered our most serious invasive species threat. Adult infestations harm aquatic ecosystems and fisheries by disrupting the food web and outcompeting native species. They cause enormous problems for water infrastructure used for municipal, agriculture and industrial purposes by attaching to, clogging and impairing water storage, treatment and distribution systems.

    Eradicating an adult mussel infestation in an open water body is nearly impossible. Controlling infestations becomes a permanent and expensive part of normal operations post invasion. Colorado has implemented an effective prevention program to stop mussel introduction by inspecting and decontaminating watercraft before they enter our waters and ensuring that users clean, drain and dry their own watercraft in between each use.

    Almost all the states east of Colorado have a zebra or quagga mussel infestation. A mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination program, coupled with monitoring and education, is the best approach to keep Colorado free of the invasive mussels and other ANS.

    In 2017, Colorado inspectors intercepted 26 boats infested with adult mussels coming in from out of state – a new record. Colorado has intercepted more than 145 boats infested with adult mussels since the ANS Program began in 2008. The number of infested boats increase each year and there have already been six infested boats intercepted in 2018.

    Colorado’s ANS Program was in Jeopardy

    The Colorado ANS Program was authorized by the Colorado Legislature in 2008 utilizing severance tax funds. CPW has leveraged those funds with federal and local grants to fund the ANS Program since inception. However, severance tax is a fluctuating source and federal funds have been reduced in recent years. The Mussel-Free Colorado Act is essential to providing a stable base of funding for the ANS Program to be leveraged with other dollars for the continued protection of water infrastructure, natural resources and maintaining recreational access to lakes and reservoirs. This funding source is critical to protecting our waters and water infrastructure from irreversible invasion.

    For more information about CPW’s ANS Program and the Mussel-Free Colorado Act, visit http://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/ISP-ANS.aspx.