FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The toothy, predacious fish hasn’t broken any laws on its own, but someone is thought to have done so by introducing the nonnative species into Kenney Reservoir on the White River.
It’s a fish that’s fun to catch and great to eat, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. But it also wreaks havoc on populations of rainbow trout and other species that make up the fishery at Kenney. Worse yet, northern pike pose a threat to endangered fish that are part of an intensive recovery program in the Upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
That’s the back story behind why CPW and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District are working with partners to offer anglers a $20 reward through Nov. 30 for every northern pike caught and removed from Kenney Reservoir, the White River and other waters from approximately Stedman Mesa to the Utah border…
Another concern is the threat pike pose to Colorado pikeminnow, one of four endangered fish that are the focus of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The largest adult population of the Colorado pikeminnow is on the lower White River, which is designated critical habitat for the fish upstream and downstream of Kenney Reservoir. The lower 18 miles of the White River in Utah is designated critical habitat for the endangered razorback sucker.
The reward for northern pike was first offered last year, and just 19 fish were turned in. Hampton said northern pike can be harder to catch, favoring deep, cool waters farther from shore. Organizers hope for more participation this year, to get anglers more involved in the efforts to eradicate the northern pike around Rangely.
Participants should bring their freshly caught northern pike to CPW’s office in Rangely from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays. CPW staff will dispense reward money that comes from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and is sourced from the state Species Conservation Trust Fund generated by severance tax dollars.
Partners in the effort also are planning a weekend fishing derby and expo June 5-7. It includes a $250 prize for whoever brings in the most smallmouth bass, another nonnative predator. With COVID-19 social-distancing measures being heeded, there will be interactive learning opportunities, a display of an electrofishing boat and an aquarium display including endangered fish.
Here’s the release from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies:
In the Grand Canyon reach of the Colorado River, two species play an outsized role in the fate of mercury in the aquatic ecosystem, and their numbers are altered by flood events. So reports new research, published in Science Advances, that is among the first to meld ecotoxicology and ecosystem ecology to trace how mercury flows through aquatic food webs and then spreads to land.
Mercury is an environmental contaminant that occurs in ecosystems globally. In its organic form, it is a potent neurotoxin that can harm people and wildlife. Mercury accumulation in animals and how it magnifies along food chains is well studied. Less well understood are the pathways mercury takes through food webs to reach top predators, such as fish and birds, and how those pathways might change after large ecosystem disturbances, such as floods.
Emma Rosi is an aquatic ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and co-lead author on the paper. She explains, “By combining data on mercury concentrations in aquatic life with well-studied food webs, we were able to reveal how mercury moves through an ecosystem. We found that flooding and an invasive species both influenced the flow of this contaminant of global concern.”
The traits of organisms living in an ecosystem – their physiology, what they eat, and what eats them – determine contaminant movement and exposure. These factors have rarely been included in models of contaminant flux and fate. “Pairing contaminant concentrations and highly detailed food webs has the potential to improve the management of contaminants in ecosystems,” Rosi notes.
To study these pathways, the research team developed mercury-based food webs for six sites spanning 225 miles of the Colorado River, extending downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam in Grand Canyon National Park. Food web sampling took place seasonally over two years. At each site, they measured algae, invertebrates, and fish to determine who was eating what – and what that meant for mercury exposure at each level of the food web.
Insects (blackflies and midges) and invasive New Zealand mudsnails were the dominant invertebrates in the river. These animals play a vital role in moving energy and contaminants from the bottom of the food web to fish predators at the top. Fish included native Bluehead Sucker, Flannelmouth Sucker, Speckled Dace, and Humpback Chub, as well as non-native species such as Common Carp, Fathead Minnow, and Rainbow Trout.
The stomach contents of invertebrates and fish were assessed to identify what they ate and in what amounts. Algae, detritus, and animals were analyzed for mercury concentrations and, combined with the diet data, the team estimated the amount of mercury that animals were consuming throughout the year.
Food web complexity varied across the study sites. Just below the Glen Canyon Dam, food webs were simple with few species and food web connections. Further downstream, food webs had higher species diversity and more connections. Across the study sites, regardless of food web complexity, relatively few species were key players in the movement of mercury.
Algae and tiny particles of detritus were the source of 80% of mercury flowing to invertebrates.
In sites closest to the dam, invasive mudsnails dominated the food webs. Trout were the only fish in this part of the river, and they are unable to digest mudsnails. Mercury accumulated by the snails did not move up the food chain. Because the snails are fully aquatic, mercury cycled back into the river’s detrital food web when they died.
Blackfly larvae were the source of 56-80% of the mercury flowing to fish. Blackflies are preferred prey for fish, such as Rainbow Trout, and blackflies had higher mercury contaminations compared to other invertebrates. Blackflies that escape predation and emerge from the river as flying adults move mercury from the river to land. This can expose terrestrial predators, such as birds and bats, to mercury that started out in the river.
The amount of mercury that blackflies moved to land was dependent on the number of hungry fish in any part of the river. At some sites, fish ate nearly 100% of the blackfly larvae, leaving few left to emerge. At other sites, there were a lot more blackflies than the fish could eat. When these blackflies emerged as adults, the mercury inside them hitched a ride to terrestrial food webs along the river.
One year into sampling, the study sites were flooded as part of a planned dam release. The team was able to explore the effects of the flood on mercury movement in the food webs. At sites near the dam, the flood washed away large numbers of New Zealand mudsnails and led to a boom in blackfly populations. With the rise in blackflies, more mercury flowed to trout. Because trout gobbled up nearly all the blackflies in their larval form, very little of the mercury accumulated in these abundant insects was transported to land by the flying adults.
Rosi explains, “Changes to the animal populations in an ecosystem will impact how mercury moves through a food web. This was especially apparent at sites where flooding changed the proportion of blackflies relative to fish. Flooding dramatically altered mercury pathways in the simple tailwater food web near the dam, but not in the more complex food webs downstream.”
“Invasive species and dams are common in rivers globally, and both factors were at play in the Grand Canyon reach of the Colorado River.” Rosi says. “We found that flooding changed the species present at our study sites, and mercury flow changed with those shifts.”
“Understanding the factors that control the movement of mercury through food webs can help resource managers protect ecosystems that are susceptible to mercury pollution,” says David Walters, USGS scientist and co-lead author of the study.
Rosi concludes, “This study is exciting because it sheds light on the depth of understanding we can achieve when we merge ecological and ecotoxicological thinking. Species traits, animal populations, predator-prey interactions, and disturbance can all influence the movement of contaminants in the environment. Understanding the complex interplay of these factors can improve risk management of animal exposures in the environment.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife:
As the final winter frosts begin to thaw, reservoirs are opening to boating and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials are busy ramping up inspection stations for the upcoming season. Boat inspections for aquatic nuisance species (ANS) are mandatory in Colorado and required for motorized or trailered watercraft entering the state and prior to launching on most public waters within the state.
ANS boat inspections and COVID-19
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many local and federal waters are postponing opening to boating and ANS inspections at this time. Waters operated by CPW are continuing to open and provide recreation opportunities as weather permits. Boaters are reminded not to travel long distances to go boating or fishing while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect Colorado. Recreate at local reservoirs in compliance with the Stay-At-Home order from Gov. Jared Polis.
Boaters are reminded to stay at least six feet away from inspection station staff at all times.
Do not congregate in groups larger than 10 individuals and practice good social distancing in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Local health orders may further limit group size; please be aware of local requirements.
Boaters should wait until the inspector calls them up to the station.
Boaters should stay in their vehicles, set the parking brake, turn their vehicles off, and remain in the vehicles unless instructed by an inspector to get out and assist with the inspection.
If you have a green seal receipt, please keep your window closed and show it to the inspector through the window glass. CPW reminds everyone to get a green seal and receipt after boating to speed up the next inspection.
CPW is diligently working to keep state parks’s waters open for boating so the public can enjoy the health benefits associated with being outside. However, visitors must enjoy parks responsibly during the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s important for everyone to follow the recommendations from CDPHE for easy, everyday actions to protect yourself and those around you.
Up-to-date information about how CPW is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is available on our website.
Reminder: Get your ANS stamp
An ANS stamp is required prior to boating in Colorado. The stamp helps CPW fund ANS inspections, monitoring, education, and other activities across the state.
Colorado boat owners who operate motorboats and sailboats on lakes and reservoirs must purchase a $25 ANS stamp annually. The cost of the stamp for out-of-state motorboats and sailboats is $50. Boaters from out of state can purchase online at http://www.cpwshop.com.
Colorado is one of just a few states in the country that doesn’t have an infestation of adult mussels in any of its waters,” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species program manager for CPW. “That’s directly attributable to our mandatory inspection and decontamination program that’s been in place for over a decade now.”
There have been 281 watercraft infested with zebra or quagga mussels intercepted in the state since the program’s inception. Last year, inspectors intercepted 86 infested watercraft, a huge increase from 51 in 2018 and 26 in 2017.
“CPW is very confident in the statewide inspection and decontamination system to protect our waters. However, this program relies on the compliance of the boating community,” said Reid DeWalt, Assistant Director for Aquatic, Terrestrial and Natural Resources for CPW. “Boaters need to know the rules and follow them if we are going to be effective at keeping zebra and quagga mussels out of the nation’s headwaters.”
Aquatic nuisance species, such as zebra and quagga mussels, pose a serious threat to natural resources, recreation and the water infrastructure of the state. Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton, they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Invasive mussels could have devastating ecological, economic, and recreational impacts if infestations were to establish here.
“Keeping Colorado’s waters free of invasive species is critical to maintaining efficient water delivery and infrastructure systems, and providing high-quality fishing and boating opportunities for our residents and visitors,” Brown said. “The success of the ANS Program is due to the dedicated inspection and decontamination staff across the state. We are grateful to those individuals that are working on the front lines to provide recreation and protect our waters.”
A complete list of Colorado inspection sites and hours of operation, along with information about the ANS stamp, can be found on CPW’s boating page. Always check with your destination reservoir before going to verify hours of operation.
Here’s some of the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas from Matt Weiser writing in The High Country News, [February 27, 20214]:
When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.
The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp, instead of solid ground. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.
Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.
But this estuary did the opposite. As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out, and his hopes thinned. On foot and horseback for three days in March, he and his companions searched fruitlessly for a way through the tangle of channels.
“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”
Crespi was the first European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it.
Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain – all mud, tules and marsh – finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only place comparable is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Within a century of Crespi’s expedition, European settlers were trying to engineer their own logic into the place, trenching new channels and building levees to create some of the world’s richest farmland. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.
But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.
The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve them by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. If approved this year, it would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands. The state believes the proposed tunnel intakes would be far enough upstream to protect the water supply from disaster, at least under present climate-change scenarios. The intakes would also include modern fish screens, potentially preventing the extinction of the native Delta smelt, spring-run chinook salmon and other species that are being killed by the current water export system.
But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish that state officials hope to restore. The Delta continues to confound.
Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. They left the Spanish presidio, or fort, at San Franciso, which was established three years after Crespi’s visit. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.
His party had a hard time from the start: They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. The storm blew Arguello onto the shore of the San Joaquin River, near its mouth. Durán and a second padre, in the other boat, took refuge for the night on a soggy mound of tules in the middle of the Sacramento.
When the storm finally quit and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose. It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress to show for it.
On top of that, the men experienced a condition that plagues Delta visitors to this day: They became disoriented.
Seeking to remain on the Sacramento River, the party soon encountered a variety of branching side-channels. They could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. A gap in the trees that looked like a river channel might turn out to be a flooded island where a boat would quickly run aground. “The thick leafiness makes the whole river like a tree-lined promenade,” Durán remarked.
The next day, May 16, they traveled only four leagues upriver. They also took a wrong turn and left the Sacramento on a side channel – a serious mistake, as any detour meant more labor for the rowers. Eventually, though, they got lucky and recovered their course.
Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled on rafts as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated, either because of the spring flood or because word had spread that the Indians might be conscripted as laborers in the Spanish missions.
Occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.”
Durán felt obliged to baptize both women, “because it seemed to us that they could die before Divine Providence could arrange another convenient time when we could baptize them in one or another of the missions.”
Durán, who was no naturalist, made no effort to identify important land features or tree species, and does not mention sighting any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. Giant tidal marshes, packed with tules and cattails, hosted millions of waterfowl. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states. Yet it may not survive. There are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.
Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.
The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where, by chance, they spotted some rafts in the tules and a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”
Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver, where they were promised fish.
But Durán and his cohorts, possibly disoriented, never found the second Indian village, and never got the promised fish. Exhausted and frustrated, they were ready to turn back. Amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.
The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, or approximately near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.
Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years.
The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen.
An endowment fund to protect the Yampa River opened applications for its first grant cycle Tuesday, Feb. 11.
The Yampa River Fund, launched in September 2019, plans to award approximately $100,000 to $200,000 in grants during this cycle, according to its manager Andy Bauer. Applications will be accepted through March 24.
A partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the entire Yampa River Basin collaborated to create the board that governs the Yampa River Fund. Its mission, according to Bauer, is to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years.
This comes amid concerns over the health of the Yampa River, the supply of which is vital to local agriculture and a key component to recreation from rafting in the summer to snowmaking in the winter.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs water resource manager and chair of the Yampa River Fund board, cited three primary issues the fund aims to address: warming waters, the proliferation of northern pike and the deterioration of riparian forests.
Recent measurements have shown river temperatures are reaching dangerous levels. Romero-Heaney cited the 2018 Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan, which found that summer water temperatures were surpassing healthy levels by about 5 degrees. Such temperatures kill off cold-water fish species, namely trout.
Non-native northern pike, which are aggressive predators, have decimated native species. Wildlife agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourage the fishing of pike through contests and the implementation of pike removal projects to limit their numbers.
Asked about the deterioration of riparian forests along the Yampa River, Romero-Heaney pointed to the last century of land management as a major factor. The number of cottonwoods has seen a particular decline, which decreases the amount of shade over the water and contributes to further warming.
Despite these issues, the Yampa River is healthier than many waterways in the country. The river remains largely free-flowing, unlike many rivers controlled with extensive dams. It is the largest, unregulated tributary remaining in the Colorado River system, according to the National Park Service. It also has been protected from extensive development along its banks, Romero-Heaney said…
As manager of the fund, Bauer listed three types of projects that will be prioritized during the grant cycle. Those include projects to sustain healthy flows, restore riparian habitats and improve infrastructure along the river, such as diversion structure and irrigation systems.
Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts and irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowners associations and nonprofits, according to a news release from the Yampa River Fund. Bauer encourages private landowners to partner with these entities to secure funding.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
More boats requiring decontamination because of infestations of destructive mussels entered Colorado last year than in 2018, but the statewide inspection program coordinated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife again succeeded in keeping invasive mussels out of the state’s lakes and reservoirs.
While Colorado remains mussel free, CPW officials are concerned that the number of boats entering Colorado that need decontamination continues to increase. CPW will not let down its guard to keep invasive aquatic species out of the state.
“The Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Program continues to meet the challenge of protecting the state’s water resources and infrastructure from the establishment of Aquatic Nuisance Species,” said Elizabeth Brown, the agency’s invasive species program manager. “Colorado remains free of adult zebra and quagga mussel reproducing populations, while some nearby western states without mandatory inspection programs continue to detect infestations. Colorado has prevented the introduction of this invasive species due to the diligent efforts of watercraft inspection and decontamination, early detection monitoring, education and enforcement efforts.”
Other western states that have mussel infestations include: Arizona, Utah, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and California. Where there are infestations, mussels can clog up pipes and important infrastructure, cover docks, shorelines, rocks, any hard surface and can ruin powerboat engines.
Throughout the state last year, 481,543 boat inspections were conducted, 7,000 more than in 2018. A total of 22,947 boats, 281 with attached mussels, were decontaminated, compared with 19,111 in 2018. Unfortunately, the number of intercepted boats fully infested with mussels increased by 40 percent, from 51 in 2018 to 86 in 2019. In 2017, only 16 mussel-infested boats were intercepted.
Brown said she’s very concerned about the substantial increase in infested boats entering the state.
“This growth trend is directly related to the growing threat invasive mussels pose to Colorado’s water infrastructure, natural resources and outdoor recreation. Along with work by our partners, CPW’s Invasive Species Program is critical to maintaining opportunities for recreation, preserving natural heritage and protecting water supply and delivery infrastructure for municipal, industrial and agricultural use,” Brown said.
A fully formed adult zebra or quagga mussel has never been detected in Colorado waters. However, the larval stage of the mussels, known as veligers, were detected as recently as 2017 in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County and the reservoir is still considered suspect for quagga mussels. For detection, biologists perform three types of sampling to target the three life stages of mussels. CPW confirms all visual detections with DNA analysis to confirm the genus and species of the mussel. If no additional detections are verified in 2020, Green Mountain Reservoir will be delisted.
In 2019, crews sampled 179 standing, and four flowing waters statewide for veligers. In addition to the sampling efforts performed by CPW, the National Park Service contributed 38 plankton samples. There were no detections of zebra or quagga mussels in Colorado.
CPW works in partnership with dozens of other agencies, counties and municipalities throughout the state. Help from the partners is critical in maintaining a mussel-free Colorado, Brown said.
In 2019, CPW authorized 72 locations to perform watercraft inspections and decontaminations.
Following is a list of the Colorado waters where the most inspections are conducted:
In the city of Lakewood, the Bear Creek Greenbelt is the place to be for residents who love the outdoors. Each year, the park, located at 2800 S. Estes St., attracts thousands of cyclists, hikers and others who get the opportunity to enjoy a scenic route to Denver, Bear Creek Lake Park or other places.
With a grant secured from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board, the Colorado Youth Corps Association, a statewide coalition of eight corps that train children, young adults and veterans to work on conservation projects, will work with Lakewood to make the Bear Creek Greenbelt an even better place.
At the beginning of last month, the GOCO Board awarded the city of Lakewood a $34,000 grant to help remove Russian olive trees. The removal will be done through a partnership with Lakewood and Mile High Youth Corps, one of the corps that is part of the Colorado Youth Corps Association.
Russian olive trees usually reach 12 to 45 feet tall, according to Utah State University Extension. They’re typically found along floodplains, riverbanks, stream courses, marshes and irrigation ditches in the western area of the country and can displace native riparian vegetation, according to the university. The tree can also choke irrigation ditches and damage tires.
“Really, the big benefit is to protect and restore wildlife habitat. It’s part of a larger restoration effort that is going to have an impact on people and the landscape,” said Madison Brannigan, program officer at GOCO. The organization uses proceeds from the Colorado Lottery to preserve, protect and enhance the state’s wildlife, parks, rivers, trails and open spaces.
The other part of the restoration effort at the Bear Creek Greenbelt will involve planting native trees and shrubs, removing weeds, seeding native grass, installing fencing, planting wetland vegetation and improving water quality, according to a release…
Outside of training, members of the Colorado Youth Corps Association earn a payment and education award to use toward college or payment for student loans…
In total, the GOCO Board awarded $61,000 worth of grants in Jefferson County to fund Colorado Youth Corps Association projects. Outside of Lakewood, the Foothills Park and Recreation District received a $27,000 grant to remove invasive species and to support habitat restoration.
The other big story of the decade was the environment. As the drought steadily worsened in the early teens, President Ben Shelly found himself between a rock and a hard place. A proposed settlement of the water rights on the Little Colorado River, which would have included the Nation sacrificing a portion of its water rights in exchange for infrastructure, proved so wildly unpopular that he was forced to back down, leaving the Nation to take its chances in court.
A plan to round up Dinétah’s feral horses, which ranchers accused of drinking up and fouling the ever-scarcer watering holes, stirred an international uproar from humane organizations and even actor Robert Redford. It was eventually abandoned and the animals remain a problem, now numbering in the tens of thousands with few natural predators.
Water issues continued in 2015 as an estimated several hundred Navajos — including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the construction of an oil pipeline beneath the tribe’s main water source, braving sub-zero temperatures, tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the summer of that year, the Diné had their own water issue to contend with, watching in amazement as the Animas River ran orange with dissolved metal compounds from an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, Colorado — the result of a botched containment effort by the US. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Navajo Nation joined the states of New Mexico and Utah in suing the agency and its contractor. As of this writing the litigation is still pending.
Then there was Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016, and reduced by 85 percent by President Donald Trump less than a year later. That’s also slogging through the courts.
But by far the biggest environmental story was the rapid dethronement of King Coal, which for decades had propped up state, local, and tribal economies in the Four Corners.
As prices for natural gas and renewable energy declined, power plant owners beat a hasty retreat from the dirty fossil fuel that had sustained generations of Navajo miners and a good chunk of the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ budgets.
In 2013, the Navajo Nation managed to stave off the closure of BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine by creating a company to buy it, but there was no stopping the demise of the Navajo Generating Station and the two mines on Black Mesa that fed it.
Environmentalists had for years been pressuring the tribal government to create a plan to replace the revenue that would be lost when the plant closed, preferably by converting it to a sustainable energy producer, but as the last coal shovelful of coal was turned this past November, the only plan was to dig into the Permanent Trust Fund former President Peterson Zah had created in 1985 for just this eventuality.
Meanwhile the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the tribal enterprise created to buy the Navajo Mine and then lead the Nation into a more sustainable energy future, purchased three more coal mines in Wyoming and Montana — a move that shocked not only environmentalists but the president and Council.
The San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico, is next on the chopping block, slated to close in 2022 unless the state’s Public Regulation Commission approves a plan to convert it to a carbon capture facility.
We’re reporters of the news, not prognosticators. But it’s not too risky to predict that all these environmental issues will extend into 2020 and most likely beyond, joined by ones no one has even thought of yet as irreversible climate change takes hold.
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
Bill Strengthens Preventative Efforts to Protect Water Infrastructure and Ecosystems from Invasive Mussels
Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act of 2019, new legislation to slow the movement of aquatic invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, into Colorado, Montana, and other Western States.
“Because of our strong watercraft inspection efforts, Colorado is one of the few headwater states still free of zebra and quagga mussels, but there’s an ever-present risk of infestation from neighboring states,” said Bennet. “There is a lot on the line for water users and local economies. Our bill provides states and municipalities the resources they need to keep watercraft inspection and decontamination stations up and running, and prevent the spread of invasive mussels into Colorado.”
“Water is the most essential need of Montana communities, and a powerhouse for our recreation economy,” said Daines. “Our bipartisan bill helps continue the fight to prevent aquatic invasive species, like quagga and zebra mussels, from damaging pristine Montana ecosystems. Empowering our local communities with the resources they need to ensure our waterways, rivers, and lakes remain free from these invasive species is critical to our Montana way of life.”
“Invasive aquatic mussels present a serious threat to Montana’s water infrastructure and outdoor economy, and we’ve got to do more to stop them at the source. This bill is simple—it helps do that by building and staffing new inspection stations so we can better contain their spread and avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in mitigation down the line,” said Tester.
Aquatic invasive species pose a significant threat to Western rivers and reservoirs. Once established, these intruders are nearly impossible to eradicate and wreak havoc on crucial water infrastructure, limit recreation opportunities, and harm ecosystems and local economies. As invasive mussels spread across the West, preventative measures – like watercraft inspection and decontamination stations – are key to limiting their spread.
The Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act would:
Strengthen prevention efforts by providing the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) explicit authority to partner with states and municipalities to fund watercraft inspection and decontamination stations;
Provide all federal agencies who participate in the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force the same authorities to limit the movement of invasive species into and out of U.S. waters, eliminating problematic differences between the various agencies;
Ensure that all at-risk basins are eligible and prioritized for watercraft inspection and decontamination funding.
In the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Bennet secured a provision to protect Colorado’s watersheds from invasive species. That bill directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish, operate, or fund watercraft inspection stations in a number of Colorado river basins. Bennet first introduced this provision as an amendment to the 2016 WRDA, but it was not included in the final bill.
Following the August 2017 detection of quagga mussel larvae in the Green Mountain Reservoir, Bennet led the Colorado delegation in sending a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging a rapid response. In 2010, Bennet introduced the Invasive Species Emergency Response Fund Act to establish a loan fund for Western states to combat invasive species.
“Containing the spread of invasive quagga and zebra mussels is a high priority for western states and we appreciate Senator Bennet’s, Senator Daines’s, and Senator Tester’s bipartisan leadership in enabling state and federal agencies to more effectively combat the spread of invasive mussels. Every year, these invaders cause substantial damage to water delivery systems, hydroelectric facilities, agriculture, recreational boating and fishing, and native wildlife,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association.
“This legislation is will be an incredible help to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels, and other aquatic invasive species, which are a serious threat to Colorado waters,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. “We are fortunate that in Colorado our multi-jurisdictional mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination program has so far prevented the spread of these invasive aquatic species. We appreciate the leadership of Senator Bennet and his colleagues for introducing this legislation which will increase state and federal collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries to protect western watersheds from these harmful and costly invaders.”
“This legislation will provide the authorization needed, as well as a funding opportunity, to improve the joint implementation of mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination stations that may significantly benefit Colorado and the Western U.S.,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This partnership is critical to protecting our natural resources, outdoor recreation, and water supply systems used for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture and industrial uses for future generations.”
“The spread of quagga and zebra mussels throughout our nation’s water storage and delivery infrastructure is alarming,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the Colorado River District in Western Colorado. “This legislation will help to protect West Slope water users and bolster state-led efforts to inspect and prevent mussel infestations in our waterways. I want to thank Senator Bennet for his leadership on this important issue.”
The bill text is available HERE and a section-by-section is available HERE.
Here’s the release from Governor Gordon’s office (Michael Pearlman):
Reflecting his goal of making Wyoming a national leader on combating invasive species, Governor Mark Gordon announced today he has launched an initiative to address terrestrial invasive plants in the state.
The initiative will be comprised of two teams– a Policy Team and a Technical Team, each comprised of local, state and federal government representatives, private citizens representing industry and agricultural groups, as well as scientists and practitioners.
The two teams will work cooperatively to develop recommendations for the Governor in the context of a large-scale strategy for invasive species management. Terrestrial invasive species represent a significant threat to Wyoming’s forests, rangelands and agricultural lands with varying levels of impact.
“Wyoming is faced with threats from multiple invasives species, both on land and in our waters,” Governor Gordon said. “I have specifically asked these groups to address terrestrial plants and provide recommendations on how to take the first step towards tackling some of the toughest questions. Our best efforts should begin close to home.”
The first meeting of the two teams will take be held at 9:30 am on October 10 at the NRCS Building, located at 100 East B. Street, room 3002 in Casper.
Policy Team members are Steve Meadows (chair), Wyatt Agar, Brian Boner, Jacque Buchanan, Josh Coursey, Jessica Crowder, John Elliot, Jack Engstrom, Colleen Faber, Jamie Flitner, Slade Franklin, Rob Hendry, Mark Hogan, Matt Hoobler, Astrid Martinez and Tom Walters.
The Technical Team includes Justin Derner (chair), Bob Budd, Ben Bump, Todd Caltrider, Justin Caudill, Scott Gamo, Lindy Garner, Ken Henke, Brian Jensen, Julie Kraft, Rod Litzel, Brian Mealor, Dwayne Rice, Pete Stahl, Amanda Thimmayya and Mahonri Williams.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandnowski):
Anglers who participated in the 2019 smallmouth bass tournament at Ridgway State Park, again, helped Colorado Parks and Wildlife on its mission to preserve native fish species.
For the fifth year in a row, licensed anglers caught hundreds of smallmouth bass that are a threat to Colorado’s native fish that live downstream in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. A total of 79 registered anglers removed 1,498 smallmouth bass in the month-long tournament that ended July 27. Smallmouth bass are non-native and were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir about 10 years ago. They are predators and could wipe out populations of native fish downstream.
“In the five years of the tournament we have reduced the population of smallmouth bass in the reservoir by 79 percent,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose and the organizer of the tournament. “It is truly amazing what these anglers can do. They are participating directly in wildlife management in Colorado.”
Before the first tournament in 2015, Gardunio estimated there were 3,632 adult smallmouth bass in the reservoir. Adult fish measure six inches in length or more. Now it is estimated that only 763 adult fish live in the reservoir.
“We are making substantial headway in suppressing the population of smallmouth that were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir,” Gardunio said.
The Ridgway tournament targets smallmouth bass because they could escape from the reservoir and migrate downstream to a section of the Gunnison River that is considered “critical habitat” for native fish.
“The work by CPW staff along with the help of anglers shows that through targeted management techniques we can enhance survival of rare aquatic species,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the Southwest Region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
With assistance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CPW was able to offer $12,000 in prize money to tournament participants.
Chase Nicholson of Ouray was the big winner this year, catching 571 smallmouth and the top prize of $5,000 for most fish caught. He also won $500 for smallest fish caught – 3.3 inches. Nicholson tied with Tyler Deuschle of Delta for biggest fish caught, 17.2 inches they split the $500 prize. Second place for most fish caught went to Lawrence Cieslewicz of Montrose, who caught 283. He also won the grand-prize raffle for an additional $2,500. Chris Cady from Delta turned in 128 fish and placed third for most fish caught.
The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
Stevens-Rumann, a 33-year-old assistant forestry professor at Colorado State University, was [on site to observe the aftermath of the Spring Fire to measure and mark what comes next. In all likelihood, the ponderosa pine forest that had been there would not return.
Aspen and scrub oak have already sprouted, but all the pine trees and their cones were destroyed. No pine saplings poke through the charred soil.
Across the Rockies and even into the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades, forests are changing or simply vanishing. Wildfire has played a big role. Insect infestations have also had a hand, as has drought.
Behind it all is one driving force — climate change. Scientists charting the fate of forests see it, whether they are entomologists or botanists or wildfire ecologists like Stevens-Rumann. The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
“We are really moving out of a climate that is suitable for forests,” Stevens-Rumann said. “Old trees can persist, but when change comes in a disturbance like a wildfire and the ecosystem resets, the forests don’t come back.”
The transformation isn’t quite that simple. Lower elevation forests, like those along the Front Range, are most at risk, but as the forest rises into the mountains, the nature of the woods may change with spruce, fir and pine competing for survival even as new pests push into those higher, and now warmer and drier, mountain reaches.
“As ecosystems change, there are going to be winners and losers,” said Thomas Veblen, a biogeographer and distinguished professor at the University of Colorado. “The regulator function of the forest could diminish … leading to more runoff and flash floods. With a reduction of the forest canopy, we are going to see the potential for greater erosion. The question is how much of the forest will fail to regenerate.”
Fire changes the forest’s composition
Colorado’s Front Range has had five ecotones — shifts in plant and animal communities — from grasslands at 5,500 feet above sea level to alpine tundra at 11,300 feet.
“When we go to higher elevations under warming temperatures, we do expect the species from lower elevations to do better after a fire or other disturbance,” Veblen said.
After six years as a forest firefighter in an elite hotshot crew, Stevens-Rumann, curious about what happens after the fire is out, became a wildfire ecologist.
In a study of 1,485 sites that burned in 52 wildfires in forests from Colorado to northern Idaho, a team led by Stevens-Rumann found tree regeneration was significantly reduced at the sites that burned after 2000.
Fewer than half the spots had signs of growing back with a density of trees similar to the pre-fire forest, and nearly one-third of the sites had no trees at all.
These forests ranged from lower elevation dry conifer forests, containing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, to moister conifer forests of Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine. The highest elevation forests in the study were around 9,000 feet.
The researchers measured the site temperatures and moisture, and classified the areas by the severity of the burn.
It appeared that the hotter and drier the site, the less chance of a forest coming back. “There is an ecotone shift already underway,” Stevens-Rumann said. “We may see aspen and scrub oak replace pine and at higher elevations, maybe pine replace fir.”
This is happening across the Front Range. An analysis of five Front Range forest fires between 1996 and 2003 — Bobcat Gulch, Overland, High Meadow, Buffalo Creek and Hayman — found that 23% of the forest cover has been lost.
“Below 8,200 feet, we saw little generation; above 8,200 feet, where it tends to be cooler and moister, we saw more,” said Marin Chambers, a researcher at the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the study’s lead author.
Savage wildfires disrupt the trees’ lifecycle
At the site of the 2002 Hayman Fire — the largest in the state’s history, consuming 135,114 acres northwest of Colorado Springs — the most intensely burned areas have come back as grasslands.
The problem, Chambers explained, is that while fire releases the seeds of pine cones, they do not travel very far. And the hotter, drier and more open sites where they land are less hospitable.
Fire has been an essential component of the pine forest ecosystem. The pine and fir trees are “serontinous” — depending on fire to release their seeds and simultaneously clear an ashy, nutrient-rich bed for new seedlings.
Two things, however, have altered the natural cycle. First, a century of fire suppression — think Smokey the Bear — has prevented regeneration, creating forests of mostly large, old trees. Additionally, it has built up dead wood on the forest floor that aids fires to burn more intensely when they do happen.
And now those fires are coming more quickly and more savagely. Since 2000, there has been vastly more acreage burned in Colorado than in the three previous decades, with peaks of more than 300,000 acres scorched in 2003 and about 160,000 acres destroyed in 2013.
Across the West, about 20 million acres burned between 1979 and 2015. The average fire season grew by 26 days, a 41% increase, and high-fire-potential days increased by 17, according to a study by John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho geographer.
Abatzoglou measured drought conditions and water availability, as well as temperature, and estimated that climate change contributed to about half the forest fire acreage as heat parched the forests, creating more dry fuel.
The analysis also found that significant declines in spring rains in the southwestern U.S. during the period from 1979-2015 and in summer precipitation in the Northwest add to the fire problem.
Another Abatzoglou study projects the shortening of the snowpack season except for in the high Rockies and parts of the Uinta and Bighorn ranges in Utah and Wyoming, as well as more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.
How much hotter has it been? The average observed summer temperature in Colorado between 2005 and 2009 was nearly 67 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest it has been in a century, up almost 2.5 degrees since 1989, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The temperature itself poses an ecological Rubicon. A study of 177 burn sites from 21 forest fires in the northern Rockies documented the same phenomenon Stevens-Rumann saw: fewer trees growing in the lower elevation patches and no trees at about one-third of the sites, with grasses, sedges and a wild, purple evening primrose called fireweed taking root.
The study also calculated that at summer average temperatures above 63 degrees, fir tree regeneration would be “minimal.” Ponderosa pine is slightly more heat tolerant at temperatures up to 66 degrees, the study said…
So much is at stake. And it’s not about the view.
There is much more at stake in the fate of the high-country forests than just a majestic view. The snowpack that falls in the woods, and is essential to nourishing the forest, and it is also the main source of drinking water for the state.
“Every person in Colorado gets a touch of the forest ecosystem every day when they open up the tap,” West said. But thinner forests would lead the dwindling snowpack to run off more quickly.
Even without the spruce beetle, the high-elevation forests are under threat. In a study of Colorado Front Range forests between 9,500 feet and 11,150 feet, researchers found a decrease in new spruce and fir as a result of declining snowpack and rising summer temperatures.
Above-average snowpack was found to be a key in the establishment of new Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, according to one of Veblen’s studies. Conversely, declining snowpack along with cooler, wetter summers was related to a decrease in the number of fir and spruce establishment events from 1975.
A study of high-elevation areas in Rocky Mountain National Park warned that these ecosystems were “at higher risk of species redistribution as they are more insular and experience more rapid changes than environments at lower elevations.”
In some places, climate change is pushing forests higher or farther. In Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve, boreal forests have moved as much as 300 feet north onto what was formerly treeless tundra.
In Yosemite National Park researchers have found whitebark and lodgepole pines pushing into montane meadows as high at 10,000 feet.
Researchers suggest new approach needed to address Anthropocene risk
A team of international researchers led by Colorado State University is calling for a new approach to understanding environmental risks in the Anthropocene, the current geological age in which humans are a dominant force of change on the planet.
Patrick Keys, a research scientist in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU, is the lead author of “Anthropocene risk,” a perspective paper published July 22 in Nature Sustainability that suggests adopting a holistic approach to understanding environmental risks. Keys said the team hopes that the article is “productively provocative.”
“The Anthropocene is a time of rapid global change – socially, environmentally, and geophysically,” he said. “Typical notions of neatly and cleanly delineating complex environmental risks are changing in unexpected ways. It’s becoming clear that a more holistic perspective, including social history, power relations, and environmental ethics may be important components of Anthropocene risks.”
As an example, Keys said it’s a common belief that the civil war in Syria has been driven by drought and climate change. While those two factors more than likely played a role in what led to the civil war, it also ignores other aspects such as incentives by Syrian government officials that kept farmers on agriculturally precarious land for decades. Keys said those incentives made it possible for drought and climate change to have such an impact.
“If we ignore the social and political economic factors that deliver us to this present, we will attribute an event to being caused by the environment when, in fact, that was just one cause or the icing on top of the cake. If we look at things only in the present, we will come up with solutions to a problem defined in the present, but we may not be defining the problem correctly.”
This point of view stems from Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development (GRAID), a program based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where five of the paper’s co-authors currently work.
In the paper, the research team explores four different cases outside of Europe and North America to highlight this way of looking at environmental risks and underline why people studying such risks must take a broader approach.
“As the Anthropocene unfolds, navigating new and emerging risks will require considering changes that happen over years, decades, centuries, or even millennia.” Keys said. “In this increasingly interconnected and accelerating world, it’s on us to really educate ourselves about how to interact intelligently and meaningfully to work toward a more sustainable world.”
FromThe Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via Tucson.com:
That the tiny beetles brought to the U.S. from Asia in an experiment to devour invasive, water-sucking tamarisks showed up at the Verde River in central Arizona is no surprise. But it’s further evidence they’re spreading faster than once anticipated and eventually could pervade the Southwest U.S, raising wildfire risks and allowing less time to uproot the tamarisks, also called salt cedars, and replace them with native trees.
Without those efforts, an already highly flammable tree will burn more intensely, and an endangered songbird that nests in tamarisk might not have a home.
The federal program to use the beetles to chew up tamarisk trees began as an experiment in rural Nevada in 2001 and was approved for more widespread use in 2005, as long as they were at least 200 milesfrom Southwestern willow flycatcher territory. It ended in 2010 as the beetles intruded on the birds’ habitat. An unintentional release in southern Utah also helped the insects spread into Arizona.
Johnson believes the quarter-inch beetles hitchhiked to the Verde River on clothing, a backpack or a boat. Normally, they are wind travelers but would have had to catch quite a gust to get to the river from the closest drainage where they’ve been recorded, he said.
Johnson has sent samples to a geneticist in Colorado to determine if the beetles can be traced to a population north of Arizona or a subtropical one from Texas that multiplies quicker.
Arizona once was projected to be too hot for the beetles to survive, but they’ve evolved as they’ve expanded their reach.
Dan Bean with the Colorado Department of Agriculture found even more this summer in far southwestern Arizona along the California border, where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.
The concern now is the beetles establishing themselves in the Gila, Salt and San Pedro watersheds, which have higher concentrations of flycatcher habitat.
The beetles aren’t known to feast on anything other than tamarisks, though one beetle can’t eat much on its own. In the thousands, they can consume entire trees, Bean said.
The tamarisk leaves can grow back within the season, but repeated attacks can be fatal for the trees — a welcome result in places flycatchers don’t live.
Dead tamarisks can litter the ground with leaves and increase wildfire risks.
The trees already are notorious for burning hot and black, and beetle predation would provide more fuel.
Ben Bloodworth works with Rivers Edge West, formerly the Tamarisk Coalition, which has been tracking the beetles’ movement for years.
The group has mapped the beetles along the Green River in Utah, the Rio Grande and Pecos River in New Mexico and Texas, the Arkansas River in Colorado, the Colorado River — a major source of water for 40 million people in seven Western states — and other waterways.
“Eventually the beetles will be throughout the entire Southwest, and really what we need to do is, in areas where it’s appropriate, get in ahead of the beetle (and) plant willows and cottonwoods and other native species that can provide habitat for the willow flycatcher,” Bloodworth said.
The beetles and the songbird have been the subject of legal fights. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2013.
The lawsuit alleged the damage caused by the insects through the beetle release program violated the Endangered Species Act, and argued the federal government should be held liable.
As part of a settlement, the USDA released a draft conservation plan in June for the flycatcher, which is found in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. Under the plan, the agency would aid existing conservation programs, contribute money and monitor beetle impacts. The public has until Aug. 8 to weigh in.
The beetles would not be in the United States if not for the tamarisk that thrives along riverbeds.
As confirmed cases of invasive mussel contamination on out-of-state boats reach record numbers in areas close to Boulder County, local authorities say the problematic species’ profile remains low, as it traditionally has, within county borders.
Reservoirs popular with recreational users in Boulder County have policies governing what boaters have to do before putting in, efforts to decontaminate all crafts entering local waters and biology to thank for the good news…
At Longmont’s Union Reservoir, inspectors in the past 10 years have come across only two vessels contaminated with invasive mussels, and so far, none have been found this year, according to John Brim, a city parks and open space ranger.
Because only wakeless boating is allowed at Union Reservoir, it doesn’t attract boats used most often at out-of-state bodies of water known to harbor the invasive species; Lake Powell is especially notorious…
At Boulder Reservoir, cases of contaminated boats are slightly more common, with one confirmed contamination this year, and about five suspected mussel contaminations, with several of those confirmed, since 2008, according to Boulder Reservoir Manager Stacy Cole…
Between 15 and 20 decontaminations have taken place this year in Boulder, including one Monday, for boats that haven’t received a permit tag from the city or those that have and since were used on an out-of-state waterway.
“Parks and Recreation staff use a mobile decontamination unit which flushes the system including ballast tanks with high-temperature water — 140 degrees Fahrenheit — necessary to kill mussels,” Boulder spokesperson Denise White said. “The city also adds potassium hydroxide to the decontamination water to kill any possible mussels before the wastewater enters the city’s sanitary sewer system.”
Boulder boosted its precautions for this year, requiring not only an initial decontamination process for untagged boats and those coming in after a stint outside Colorado, but also an ensuing seven-day quarantine period on dry land at Boulder Reservoir and a second decontamination before the vessel is allowed back in the water. Cole said there was no particular incident that prompted the city’s move. Rather, the growing number of mussel-infested waterways in surrounding states has prompted such prevention initiatives across the state, she said…
Boaters can receive their first decontamination for free from state officials in Denver, and then pay Boulder for their second decontamination at rates that vary from $35 to $175 depending on the size of the watercraft…
Broomfield protects itself from the pesky organism by disallowing boating on all its waterways.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
The number of boats infected with mussels intercepted in Colorado by inspectors in 2019 is already even with the total from last year – and we’re only halfway through the boating season.
“I am just being completely over-run by mussel infested boats,” said Robert Walters, CPW’s assistant manager for the aquatic nuisance species program. “We are already up to 51 interceptions this year. We are having interceptions just about every day at waters throughout the state. And most of the boats are coming out of Lake Powell.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is warning boaters that they must clean, drain, dry and disinfect their boats before traveling to any reservoir in Colorado, especially when boats are brought in from out-of-state. Boats coming in from heavily infested Lake Powell are especially problematic. While boats are supposed to be inspected as they leave the desert impoundment, inspection stations there are overwhelmed and not all boats are thoroughly inspected. Mussels have even been found on paddleboards and canoes that have been in Lake Powel.
All boats that are not previously “sealed” at Colorado reservoirs receive a thorough inspection and engine flush at inspection stations. Any boats found with mussels must be completely decontaminated, a process that can last a week or more.
Colorado’s reservoirs are mussel free and the state and cooperating agencies operate a robust inspection program. But if an infestation occurs, it could be devastating for reservoirs and water-based recreation.
The number of boats infected with mussels is increasing. In 2018, 51 boats with adult mussels were found at inspection stations, far more than the previous record of 26 boats in one year. Since the ANS program started in Colorado in 2008, CPW staff and other entities have completed nearly 4.5 million boat inspections, more than 90,000 boats have been subject to decontamination procedures and more than 200 vessels with confirmed mussel infestations have been intercepted and decontaminated.
Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton, they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest and Lower Colorado River. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist, include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
Kirstin Copeland, manager at Ridgway State Park, explained that the companies and organizations that own most of Colorado’s reservoirs could shut down all water-based recreation.
“They are concerned about potential damage to their infrastructure,” Copeland said. “They could say no to all boating.”
All boat owners who have been to Lake Powell should take extra care to inspect every inch of their craft and trailer – including lines, anchors, seat cushions, live wells and paddle craft. Owners can also call CPW if they have questions about the aquatic nuisance program and inspections.
Range fires get bigger every year, threatening sagebrush habitat and rural towns.
Between the town of Elko, Nevada, and the Idaho border stretches some of the most remote land in the Lower 48, rolling hills and arid basins as far as the eye can see. Last July, this section of the Owyhee Desert was scorched by a fierce, fast-moving blaze with 40-foot flames, the largest wildfire in state history. In the end, the Martin Fire burned 435,000 acres, including some of the West’s finest sagebrush habitat. Now, the raw range wind whips up the bare earth into enormous black clouds that roil on the horizon.
Once rare, fires that large, hot and destructive are now common in the Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile region of mountains and valleys that includes all of Nevada and much of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho and Oregon. But despite the rising fire risk, a general lack of attention is putting the rangeland in growing danger.
The fire problem “risks permanent loss” of the ecosystem, according to Jolie Pollet, a fire ecologist and the Bureau of Land Management’s division chief for fire planning and fuels management. This is a genuine crisis, she said, and it demands greater urgency and attention than it is currently getting.
“The general public, especially urban areas, doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for the impacts on these landscapes, since the areas are so sparsely populated,” she said.
The new ferocity of rangeland fires has an old culprit: cheatgrass, an annual originally from Eurasia that was brought to this country in cattle feed, packing material and ships’ ballast in the late 1800s. It has since proliferated through overgrazing and development. The grass burns easily and often, and it thrives on fire. In intense blazes, when native shrubs perish, cheatgrass simply drops its seeds and then expands into the burned areas. The areas of greatest fire risk in the Great Basin have a high correlation with the areas of highest cheatgrass incursion, and the increasingly dry and arid climate brought by climate change is encouraging its spread. The Great Basin now has the nation’s highest wildfire risk.
Historically, sagebrush habitat burned about once every century or less, but now it happens around every five to 10 years. Over the past two decades, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush have been permanently lost to fire, according to the BLM, 9 million of them since 2014. Overall, since 2000, more acres of shrubland or grasssland have burned than forest.
If sagebrush decline continues, the approximately 350 species that depend on it are in serious trouble. The Martin Fire burned some of the best sage grouse habitat in the country and destroyed more than 35 grouse mating grounds, or leks. The fires also harm watersheds, cause erosion and destroy wildlife corridors used by pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk.
The impact on rural Americans is equally severe. Counties and ranchers must deal with infrastructure loss, including troughs, fencing, and damage to roads and powerlines. Many ranchers struggle with the additional costs, said Ron Cerri, a rancher and commissioner in agriculture-dependent Humboldt County, where the Martin Fire burned. Ranchers may lose hayfields in a blaze, for example, and six months of hay for 500 cattle costs about $216,000, according to Cerri. Cattle often die in the flames, and ranchers have to put down animals crippled by the smoke. Jon Griggs, a Nevada rancher whose land burned in 2007, called it the worst part of the job.
Because sagebrush ecosystems are neglected, they get less funding, making the fire threat even worse. Indeed, the BLM receives even less money than the already-underfunded Forest Service. For 2019, the Forest Service got about $400 million in annual funding for fuel management, and about $1.3 billion for firefighting preparedness. The BLM received $85 million and $180 million respectively, even though it manages about 50 million more acres of public land. The BLM also received $11 million for fire recovery, a microscopic amount, given the scale of the problem.
When the BLM runs out of firefighting money, it’s forced to raid other programs, as the blazes quickly burn through agency budgets.
“The agencies run out of money and all the other programs get gutted,” said University of Montana wildlife biology professor Dave Naugle. “In the long term, it really hurts conservation.”
Last year, Congress passed a measure that allows the BLM to access emergency fire funds without draining other initiatives. But the provision doesn’t kick in until next year, and even when it does, the BLM will remain seriously underfunded for firefighting, prevention and restoration.
Meanwhile, wildfires are already burning across the West, and the cheatgrass is beginning to dry up, turning from its spring purple to the yellowish hue that signals its readiness to burn.
Pollet put it succinctly: “I’m scared for 2019.”
Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at email@example.com.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Mike Porras):
The illegal, unapproved relocation of fish from one body of water to another continues to cause significant problems for management agencies, water providers and ethical anglers across Colorado.
Recently joining the list of reservoirs impacted by the presence of illegally introduced northern pike is northwest Colorado’s Kenney Reservoir. In the fall of 2018, Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologists confirmed the presence of the nonnative predator in the estimated 335-surface-acre reservoir located near the town of Rangely. Authorities believe the northern pike were most likely dumped illegally into the reservoir, or the White River, by a ‘bucket biologist,’ a pejorative term used to describe someone that moves live fish in an effort to create their own personal, unapproved fishery.
“Releasing fish unlawfully and selfishly is self-defeating and will not work as intended,” said Lori Martin, CPW’s Northwest Region senior aquatic biologist. “Because northern pike are indiscriminate predators and consume any fish they catch, we will not throw our hands in the air and ignore the problem. We will take action one way or another to deal with this illegal introduction because it is very harmful and the stakes are so high. This hurt existing fisheries and it certainly has negative impacts on anglers, the majority of whom are law-abiding and ethical.”
CPW says illegal fish stocking can result in fines up to $5,000 and the permanent loss of hunting and fishing privileges. In addition, anyone convicted of illegal fish dumping will likely have to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to reclaim the body of water.
The presence of northern pike has prompted CPW and reservoir owner Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and other partners, including the Town of Rangely, Rangely Area Chamber of Commerce, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to initiate an angler harvest incentive targeting all northern pike found within the District’s boundaries. Beginning June 1 and continuing through Nov. 30, licensed anglers can earn $20 for each northern pike caught and removed from Kenney Reservoir, the White River and other waters, from approximately Stedman Mesa to the Utah border.
Kenney Reservoir is very popular with anglers and currently recognized as an excellent channel catfish, black crappie and common carp fishery. In addition, CPW stocks rainbow trout annually at the expense of the State of Colorado; however, due to the presence of northern pike, Martin says the agency will have little choice but to cancel the remaining catchable trout plants in Kenney Reservoir in 2019. She says until the issue is resolved, she is not sure when they can resume stocking.
“Moving any live fish is a criminal act and can cause great damage to an existing fishery, threaten our native fishes and cost the sportsmen and women of Colorado thousands of dollars annually,” said CPW’s Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie of Meeker. “We would prefer to dedicate our time and sportsmen’s dollars on other projects that directly benefit the angling public, rather than spend money and manpower on fish removal efforts.”
Research conducted by partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has shown that the unapproved presence of nonnative predators like northern pike and smallmouth bass in critical, native fish habitat is among the most significant impediments to the recovery of Colorado’s endangered fishes – Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker. The rare species exist nowhere else in the world except in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the White River, upstream to the Rio Blanco Lake dam west of Meeker and downstream of Kenney Reservoir, is designated critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow, and the lower 18 miles of the White River in Utah is designated as critical habitat for razorback sucker. Smallmouth bass, northern pike and other nonnative species in these river stretches have proven detrimental to native fishes.
Other Northwest Region reservoirs dealing with the repercussions of unlawful stocking of northern pike include Green Mountain Reservoir and Wolford Mountain Reservoir. CPW and the Colorado River Water Conservation District initiated angler harvest incentives at both reservoirs several years ago, similar to the one planned at Kenney Reservoir. Licensed anglers can earn $20 for each northern pike caught and removed.
To participate in the angler harvest incentive within the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s boundaries, anglers should bring their freshly caught northern pike to the District office at 2252 East Main Street in Rangely during typical business hours, 7 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday – Thursday, and 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. on Friday. The District will administer the cash harvest incentive with funds provided by CPW through a Colorado legislative bill that appropriates severance tax dollars to the Species Conservation Trust Fund.
To collect CPW’s angler harvest incentive at Green Mountain Reservoir, anglers can bring freshly caught northern pike to the Heeney Marina during business hours. Call 970-724-9441 for more information. To collect the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s angler harvest incentive at Wolford Mountain Reservoir, take the freshly caught northern pike to the campground host, or call 970-724-1266.
For each body of water, anglers must present their fishing license to qualify for the harvest incentive.
“Our removal efforts thus far have been effective at reducing the number of northern pike in Kenney and we believe the population is still relatively small,” said Martin. “But northern pike are prolific and it doesn’t take long for a small population to grow, especially if no management action is taken. We encourage anglers to participate and help us eliminate northern pike from Kenney and the surrounding area. If the pike population continues to grow, we may have to resort to less palatable options for managing against northern pike in the future.”
For more information about the angler harvest incentives contact CPW Northwest Region Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin at 970-255-6186.
To report unlawful fish stocking anonymously, call Operation Game Thief at 877-265-6648. Rewards are available for information that leads to an arrest or citation.
On May 1 state officials kicked off the summer boating season in Grand County with the opening of the Stillwater Boat Ramp on Lake Granby. Since then several other boat ramps across Grand County have been opened to the public. According to information from Elizabeth Brown, invasive species coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Grand Lake Boat Ramp was opened May 17 along with the Sunset Boat Ramp on Lake Granby and the Green Ridge Boat Ramp on Shadow Mountain Reservoir…
Historically boaters were able to launch boats onto the waters of Grand County any time of year, even when boat inspectors were not present. However, beginning in 2018, federal officials began requiring that all boat ramps leading onto the waters of Grand County remain locked whenever boat inspectors are not present.
The boat inspection program is part of an invasive species prevention program operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The program is primarily focused on preventing the establishment of quagga and zebra mussels, both of which are invasive species, in the waters of Colorado. Brown confirmed that currently no waters in Colorado are infested with either of the small bivalves. In 2017 12 juvenile quagga mussels were found in Green Mountain Reservoir. According to Brown additional searches were conducted that year that revealed no additional mussels. Follow up testing of the reservoir over the past year has yielded no additional mussels.
A private business, Rocky Mountain Recreation, is contracted by the state each year to provide boat inspectors in Grand County. That contract alone, which does not include any personnel costs derived from state or federal employees, is $468,000. That tally includes the cost of inspections at Williams Fork Reservoir along with inspections on the Three Lakes. Statewide the total program is roughly $4.5 million…
According to Brown there were 3,084 inspections conducted on Grand Lake last year, 4,500 on Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 12,600 on Lake Granby. That figure includes boats that were inspected on their way into the lakes and on their way out as well.
The establishment and naturalization of non-native Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) in southwestern US riparian habitats is hypothesized to have negative implications for native flora and fauna. Despite the potential for Russian olive establishment in new riparian habitats, much of its ecology remains unclear. Arid river systems are important stopover sites and breeding grounds for birds, including some endangered species, and understanding how birds use Russian olive habitats has important implications for effective non-native species management. We compared native bird use of sites that varied in the amount of Russian olive and mixed native/non-native vegetation along the San Juan River, UT, USA. From presence/absence surveys conducted in 2016 during the breeding season, we found 1) fewer bird species and functional groups used Russian olive habitats and 2) the composition of species within Russian olive habitats was different from the composition of species in mixed native/non-native habitats. Our results suggest Russian olive may support different bird compositions during the breeding season and as Russian olive continues to naturalize, bird communities may change. Finally, we highlight the paucity of research surrounding Russian olive ecology and stress the need for rigorous studies to improve our understanding of Russian olive ecology.
Click here to go to the Invasive Mussel Collaborative website:
This webinar is part of a miniseries on the genomics of invasive mussels hosted by the Invasive Mussel Collaborative. Part one of the miniseries covers the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s prize competition “Eradication of Invasive Mussels in Open Water.” The first prize awarded in this competition proposed a novel genetic modification-based method for control…
Sherri Pucherelli: Invasive Mussel Prize Competition
Steve Suhr: Eradication of Invasive Quagga and Zebra Mussels using Engineered Disseminated Neoplasia
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:
The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.
From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.
The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.
“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.
Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…
As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.
In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.
But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.
Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.
The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.
“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”
The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.
For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.
In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.
But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.
Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.
Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”
The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.
The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.
Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.
Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.
Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”
Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.
Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.
Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.
Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.
Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.
“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.
Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.
In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.
Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.
But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.
The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.
In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.
Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.
In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.
On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.
And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?
“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewanowski):
In order to keep destructive quagga and zebra mussels out of lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, boaters will help to provide crucial funding for the state’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Inspection Program starting in 2019.
“Colorado is one of just a few states in the country that doesn’t have an infestation of adult zebra or quagga mussels in any of its waters,” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “That’s directly attributable to our watercraft inspection and decontamination prevention program that’s been in place since 2008.”
Earlier this year, the Colorado General Assembly approved a bill that requires those who operate motorboats and sailboats on waters of the state to purchase an ANS stamp annually. The cost of the stamp for Colorado residents is $25. For boaters coming to Colorado from other states or provinces the stamp will cost $50. The stamp fee is separate from the annual boat registration permit but will be included in the cost of registration for in-state boats. The stamp and registration is currently available for residents at CPW offices and the agency website. Boaters coming from other states can buy their stamp online, at CPW offices or at any sales location beginning January 1, 2019.
Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest and Lower Colorado River. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
Since the ANS program started in Colorado in 2008, CPW staff and other entities have completed 4.4 million boat inspections, more than 90,000 boats have been subject to decontamination procedures and 195 vessels with confirmed mussel infestations have been intercepted and decontaminated. The threat of boats transporting mussels also appears to be growing: This year 51 boats with adult mussels were found at inspection stations, far more than the previous record of 26 boats in one year.
The new fee will cover half of the cost of the inspection program. The remainder will be paid by CPW and a variety of stakeholders, including federal agencies, local governments, water providers and other partners.
“We appreciate that Colorado boaters have been very cooperative with CPW on the ANS inspection program. And we all need to continue to be vigilant,” Brown said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists counted 50 yearling razorbacks during a recent survey in the upper Colorado River Basin — the result of water releases in 2016 and 2017 from the Navajo Reservoir aimed at helping the fish, agency officials said this week.
Federal operators of the reservoir let out 5,000 cubic feet of water per second for 50 days, more than doubling regular flows in the San Juan River. This increased flow created nursery pools, the habitat razorbacks and three other endangered native fish need to spawn and survive.
Saving razorbacks and other fish “is going to be totally dependent ” on putting more water into rivers, said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a 25-year, $360 million government-run rescue effort.
“We’re not going to be able to restore the natural hydrological conditions. We understand that,” Chart said. “But we can recreate conditions that help young fish much more regularly.”
Yet the intensifying climate shift toward heat and aridity in Southwestern states, combined with population growth, constrains biologists’ push to put more water into rivers for environmental purposes. No water could be released this year from the Navajo Reservoir, which straddles Colorado and New Mexico and holds 1.7 million acre-feet, Bureau of Reclamation engineer Susan Behery said. Probably none will be spared next year, either, because water managers are prioritizing storage after a near-record low snow year left the reservoir half full.
Raising, stocking razorbacks
For more than 30 years, federal biologists responsible for emergency rescues of endangered species have relied on raising razorbacks in hatcheries and copiously stocking them into Colorado River tributaries. Razorbacks evolved in wild free-flowing rivers, enduring for millions of years, until widespread dams and diversions reduced and regularized nature’s fluctuating flows. The razorback had nearly blinked out by 1980 with only 100 survivors — weakened by the disruption of flows and attacked by non-native predators such as bass, walleye and pike that state wildlife agencies have introduced for recreational sport fishing…
Federal survey crews counted the 50 yearling razorbacks along the San Juan River downriver from the Navajo Reservoir. That’s the most fish counted since the surveys began two decades ago. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists calculated that this many yearlings could mean there are thousands of razorbacks along a 180-mile stretch of the river before it reaches Lake Powell.
Navajo tribal biologists have embraced the effort to save razorbacks and other imperiled native fish. A Navajo team this year helped move 300 razorbacks over a barrier for spawning while weeding out non-native predators.
“We are trying to preserve the razorback for our future generations,” said Navajo fish biologist Jerrod Bowman. “So that our kids can see razorbacks. … Our numbers are really looking great.”
“Far from the self-sustaining populations”
The problem with officially upgrading the status of fish, Bowman said, is that just the presence of yearlings may not establish that a species has become self-sustaining as required. Razorbacks usually don’t reproduce until they’re at least 2 years old. Adults can live up to 40 years.
Under President Donald Trump, federal wildlife officials have faced pressure to upgrade and de-list endangered species when scientists still aren’t certain about survival, said ecologist Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today that Reclamation has selected three submissions for its prize competition seeking ideas to eradicate mussels in open water. Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut will receive a full award of $80,000 for their idea while Wen Chen and Absar Alum with Stephanie Bone will each receive $10,000.
“Providing water managers with new tools to control invasive quagga and zebra mussels is an important part of protecting infrastructure and ecosystems,” Commissioner Burman said. “Reclamation is committed to working with our partners to prevent the spread of quagga and zebra mussels in the West.”
The prize competition was a theoretical challenge and sought innovative solutions to eradicate invasive quagga and zebra mussels from large reservoirs, lakes and rivers in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner. Invasive mussel infestations pose a significant logistical and economic challenge for local communities, recreationists and water managers. There is no practical method available today for the large-scale control of invasive dreissenid mussel population once they become established.
Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut, founders of Biomilab, LLC, proposed using genomic modification to induce a lethal malignant hemic neoplasia in mussels that can be transferred from one mussel to another by proximity. They suggested utilizing the CRISPR/cas9-mediated genome modification to target the function or expression of endogenous dreissenid mussel p53 or telomerase reverse transcriptase genes, or to introduce the viral SV40 Tag gene. This submission for the prize competition received $80,000.
Wen Chen, a research scientist at Harvard Medical School, proposed utilizing single stranded DNA/RNA oligonucleotide-based aptamers to target the modified amino acid 3,4 dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA) or dreissenid specific foot proteins to interrupt attachment, eventually leading to mussel mortality. The use of aptamers to target DOPA and foot proteins to interrupt mussel settlement is a novel idea and received $10,000.
Absar Alum of BioDetek with Stephanie Bone proposed genome modification to develop male mussels that produce sperm containing a light triggered optogenetic switch to drive upregulation or downregulation of cyclin-b expression resulting in death of the fertilized egg. This strategy relies on sunlight penetration into the upper portions of a water body to turn on the optogenetic switch in free-floating, transparent developing eggs and embryos. It was found to be a novel idea and received $10,000.
A total of 238 solvers signed up to solve this challenge and more than 100 solvers submitted solutions. Of those solutions submitted, 67 were deemed viable and were judged. Reclamation collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Molloy & Associates on this prize competition. To learn more about this prize competition please visit https://www.usbr.gov/research/challenges/mussels.html.
The results of this prize competition will support a broader effort 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. To learn more, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/mussels.
The Dolores River shows us what’s at stake in the fight to protect the American West — Conservation Colorado
Photo via the Sheep Mountain Alliance
Dolores River watershed
Dolores River south of Lizard Head Pass
Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River above Dolores
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
FromThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Severance tax revenues have fallen off dramatically in the past three years, down from nearly $300 million in 2014-15 to about $57 million in 2016-17. That’s due partly to lower oil and gas drilling activity and to additional property tax deductions awarded to the oil and gas companies, the result of the state losing a lawsuit two years ago to oil giant BP.
As a result, the state doesn’t have enough severance tax money to cover some of those obligations, and the Joint Budget Committee decided to put $30 million in general funds (income and sales tax) into the main severance tax fund to ensure those operations and activities are covered.
Sonnenberg’s idea is to amend House Bill 1338 to start paying back some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in severance tax money that state borrowed to shore up the budget in recession years. Sonnenberg’s amendment will deal with more than just that money; he also wants to be sure there’s enough in the fund to avoid charging boat owners a fee for inspections for zebra mussels. That’s another measure — House Bill 1008 — that’s awaiting final debate and a vote in the Senate.
The measure would charge boaters between $25 and $50 for a stamp that would cover the cost of inspections at state waterways, such as Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County, where a zebra mussel was found last year.
Sonnenberg considers the zebra mussel problem one of statewide interest, hence his desire to fund the inspection program out of severance tax dollars rather than requiring boaters to pay for it. Sonnenberg is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1008 but voted against it in the Senate Appropriations Committee because of its funding source. “With a $1.3 billion surplus we can pay back severance tax dollars” and cover the cost of the program, estimated at around $2.2 million, he said.
A boost to severance tax dollars might also help out the state water plan. Last week, the annual CWCB projects bill came out, with $7 million targeted toward water plan projects. That’s $3 million less than what the water plan got last year, and that’s because of the lack of severance tax dollars, sources told this reporter. “We have to live within our budget,” Sonnenberg said.
The projects bill devotes $3 million out of the water plan’s $7 million planned appropriation to storage, which Sonnenberg applauds.
Should the non-native quaggas infest the [Green Mountain Reservoir], millions in taxpayer money will be spent to ensure they do not clog or damage water infrastructure, as well as to prevent destruction of the aquatic ecosystem and the associated recreational fishing industry.
The danger posed by this critter is so high that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, Summit County and other agencies are combining efforts to make sure the quagga does not wind up ruining the reservoir as it has other water bodies in Colorado.
Legislatively, a bill called the “Mussel-Free Colorado Act” dedicated to eradicating quagga and zebra mussels is well on its way to becoming state law. The bill requires boat owners to purchase an aquatic invasive species sticker on top of their regular boat registration to fund mussel prevention measures.
County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier has been following developments at the reservoir intently since last August, when the Bureau of Reclamation discovered quagga veliger, or larvae, in the reservoir. At the time, Stiegelmeier said she was furious with the lack of federal funding to pay for boat inspections preventing mussel infestation in the first place.
“Other reservoirs like Dillon Dam and Wolford are taken care of by the responsible dam owners,” Stiegelmeier said. “They pay for regular boat inspections before they get in the water, as they should. But the federal government reservoirs always contract out recreation and claim it’s not their job to making sure boats aren’t contaminated before they launch.”
Federal authorities were put on high alert and finally turned their attention to Green Mountain once mussel larvae was detected. Stiegelmeier said that it will be a much more expensive endeavor to try to ward off infestation after it starts.
“Once a reservoir is infested, the feds wind up having to pay many times as much to deal with the infestation,” she said. “Once the adult mussels get in there you can’t get rid of them. We have a huge number of reservoirs, like Lake Powell, that are infested. It costs an enormous amount of money to get mussels off the dam infrastructure, and it absolutely destroys the aquatic ecosystem.”
While samples at Green Mountain have come back clean since the initial detection, Bill Jackson, head of the U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District, said that concern over quagga is far from over…
Jackson said that to prevent the infestation, the Forest Service and other agencies will monitor water at Green Mountain for at least three years — the maximum amount of time quagga need to fully develop. The agencies are also working to divert all incoming boat traffic to a single launch point at Heeney Marina, where they can be centrally inspected and decontaminated before reaching the water. Jackson said that one major risk factor for contamination was how many boats were previously launched from unauthorized areas along the shoreline.
“We had a lot of motorboat launches into the reservoir without proper inspection and decontamination,” Jackson said. “We’ve really been trying to make sure that we got on that right away to prevent folks from doing that.”
Jackson said that the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which gets some of the water from the reservoir, helped in providing rocks, boulders and other implements to block off the known boat entry points. He also said that signage will be put around the reservoir directing boat owners to proper launch points where they will be inspected and decontaminated before hitting the water.
In the months leading to boating season, Jackson said that a major collaborative project will be taking place to improve the inspection and decontamination process at Green Mountain.
The Bureau of Reclamation and other partners will help Heeney Marina to improve its boat launch facilities and parking to accommodate the large amount of boat traffic being funneled there. The Forest Service will do its part by allowing modifications to the marina’s permit for construction there, as it operates on Forest Service land.
The project will also require Summit County to help by closing down and improving the county roads leading into and out of the reservoir, as well as introducing more signage. Details of the project have yet to be released in full to the public, but Jackson said a press release is forthcoming.
Jackson added that they needed the public’s help in preventing contamination.
“If folks are not getting their boats inspected, that doesn’t help anyone, and we wind up dealing with the aftermath of cleanup efforts. Prevention is where we want to be.”
Jackson said that boat owners can help by following a three part procedure: Clean, drain and dry.
Click here to view the list of the West’s worst invasive species according to the Western Governors’ Association.
A bill in the state capitol is aiming to cut down the chances there are for our bodies of water to be infested with an invasive species.
This bill is called the mussel-free Colorado act. It would fund Colorado parks and wildlife aquatic nuisance species program more consistently.
If passed into a law, a person living in the state would have to pay 25 dollars for a stamp. The stamp proves the boat has been inspected and it’s clean. A non-resident would have to pay 50 dollars.
That money would go to the department’s inspection program.
“We all have a stake in this to keep these species out of Colorado; whether that’s through a stamp or cleaning and draining and drying your boat or going through an inspection process,” said Mike Porras, a spokesperson with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The bill would also increase fines if you do infest any water. It’s currently 150 dollars but that would change to 500 dollars.
The bill will be heard next in the senate appropriations committee.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
Colorado has done well keeping aquatic nuisance species out of its lakes and rivers, but that won’t continue to be the case if it doesn’t properly fund a program combating them, sponsors of a bill to raise fees to pay for that program said Monday.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is proposing establishing a $25 annual fee for a special boat stamp — $50 for out-of-state boaters — that would come on top of the annual boat registration fee the state already assesses on the more than 90,000 boats that use Colorado waters.
The fee is expected to raise about $2.3 million a year, which is about half of what the program costs, said Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, who’s sponsoring the bill along with Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose.
“It’s better to have a sustainable source of income coming from the people who use the waterways to fund this,” Arndt told the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee, which approved the measure 10-3…
While some state lawmakers said the bill didn’t properly address the program’s entire funding needs, others said the fee should be higher.
“I’m not a wild fan of fee increases or a large fan of government intervention; however, I can tell you that this fee amount is a compromise,” said Kellen Friedlander, who testified on behalf of the Colorado Marine Dealers Association. “Colorado registrations are still one of the lowest, so we’re not asking for something that’s … totally out of whack with other states. We’re still relatively inexpensive to register boats.”
Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said it would be worse for Colorado’s rural economy if the state were forced to close lakes because of such nuisance species as the zebra mussel.
“If we are not successful at this … everybody is going to pay to get those little buggers off the pipes,” Catlin said. “I really think the state of Colorado has a serious problem, and if we don’t get with it we’re going to have one we can never solve.”
The bill also would increase penalties for boaters who fail to get inspected before launching, raising that fine from $150 for a first offense to $500.
The Colorado legislature will consider a bill that would provide stable funding for Colorado Parks and Wildlife efforts to keep zebra and quagga mussels out of state waters.
The Mussel-Free Colorado Act (HB 18-1008) was introduced Jan. 10 in the legislature.
If passed, this bill will provide a funding source of $2.4 million for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Program in 2019 and beyond by requiring motorboats and sailboats to purchase an ANS stamp.
Colorado residents will be charged $25 and non-residents will be charged $50.
The bill also would continue Tier 2 Severance Tax appropriations, when available, to cover the remainder of the $4.5-$5 million annual cost of ANS program implementation, increase fines for violations and allow CPW to charge for labor and costs incurred to store and decontaminate intercepted vessels.
“Zebra and quagga mussels pose a serious threat to our state’s water infrastructure, natural resources and recreation,” said Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said in a press release. “As a headwater state with no adult mussel infestations, the only way zebra or quagga mussels can get into Colorado is overland by hitchhiking on watercraft.”
The numbers of motorboats and sailboats found by inspectors each year infested with zebra and quagga mussels continues to rise, according to the release.
In 2017, Colorado inspectors intercepted a record 26 boats infested with adult mussels coming in from out of state. They have intercepted 144 boats infested with adult mussels since the ANS Program began.
Zebra and quagga mussels are not native to the nation’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Adult infestations harm aquatic ecosystems and fisheries by disrupting the food web and out-competing native species, according to CPW, as well as problems for water infrastructure used for municipal, agriculture and industrial purposes by attaching to, clogging and impairing water storage, treatment and distribution systems.
“While the problem is getting worse in neighboring states, Colorado’s prevention program is working to keep mussels out of our waters,” Reid DeWalt, assistant director of wildlife and natural resources for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said.
Click here to for the Inside skinny and to register:
Join Tamarisk Coalition and the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University for the 16th annual Riparian Restoration Conference in Grand Junction, Colorado, a premier destination on Colorado’s Western Slope.
They can track feral animals, survey invasive species, check fencelines and photograph rare plants on the highest, steepest cliffs. In doing so, the Nature Conservancy’s newest conservation workers float like butterflies over the native forest.
“Drones are revolutionizing the way conservation can be conducted, and for far less than the cost of a helicopter or sending in ground teams,” said Alison Cohan, the Conservancy’s director for Maui Nui forest programs.
Unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—are performing jobs that would otherwise be time-consuming, dangerous and, in some cases, impossible. And with every passing week, wildland managers are identifying new applications for this remarkable technology.
Like herding—using drones as airborne sheepdogs to move feral animals out of areas where they threaten native plant communities. Or taking drones out over the ocean to assess the health of coral reefs. Or flying up the side of a tall native palm to inspect flowers and fruit, to confirm it is a new find or an endangered species.
“We started thinking about this years ago, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” said Trae Menard, director of forest conservation for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i.
Menard led the Hawai‘i program into the world of drones. At first, the batteries didn’t last long enough. They were far too expensive. And they didn’t have first-person viewing—the ability for the operator to see what the drone is seeing in real time.
About two years ago, those matters had been largely resolved. Drones were cheaper, you could view their imagery on an iPad or a cell phone, they were linked with cameras of superb quality, and they had enough power to do real work. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruled that to use a drone for non-recreational purposes would require a pilot’s license.
“We would have needed pilots on staff,” said Melinda Ching, the Conservancy’s senior regional attorney.
Ching worked with the mainland law firm Morrison & Foerster, which in turn worked with the FAA to develop a special certification for conservation drone operators—detailed enough to ensure public safety, but you didn’t need to know how to fly a full-size plane.
“Morrison & Foerster has a whole team that does aviation law. We were able to influence regulations for small commercial operations and to develop a remote pilot certification. The Nature Conservancy’s examples of conservation use were cited in the commentary on the new rule,” Ching said.
The Conservancy’s Hawai‘i forest program operates drones from three of its offices—Kaua‘i, Maui Nui and Hawai‘i—and in just six months to a year of use, their value has become apparent. Shalan Crysdale, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i Island director for forest conservation, listed a few of his drone applications:
● Assessing the effectiveness of a mountain slope to serve as a natural barrier against pigs by flying a drone out over the edge to measure its steepness.
● Gathering close-up imagery of suspect incipient weeds in remote areas, specifically vines in Ka‘ū that appeared to be banana poka or bitter melon, but were proven to be native hoi kuahiwi, or Smilax melastomifolia.
● Identifying endangered plant species in remote areas, such as Pritchardia lanigera, a rare loulu palm, in Ka‘ū preserve.
● Mapping trails and village sites within lava fields along the Hīlea coast at Kawa Bay.
“Shalan has also used drones to make a video for a grant proposal,” Menard said. “We realized that this could be an outreach tool, a way to bring the forest to the people.”
Maui Nui’s Cohan said her teams have used drones to check on the effectiveness of herbicide treatment on invasive Monterey pine, Mexican weeping pine and Sugi pine. Those weedy trees often grow on steep slopes that are too dangerous to access regularly on foot.
“We are able to fly these areas to do pre-and post-treatment comparisons—to monitor the dieback,” she said.
Drones are used on several islands to scout possible fenceline routes for natural geological barriers where fences can terminate. And once fences are in place, the drones can check their condition—to see whether pigs or deer have breached the wire mesh, or whether trees have fallen and damaged the fences.
LOWER COSTS, INCREASED SAFETY
At the Conservancy’s Kānepu‘u Preserve on Lāna‘i, drones are used to check on whether deer have managed to gain entry to the state’s best remaining natural assemblage of dryland forest, with its mature stands of native ebony (lama) and olive (olopua) sandalwood (‘iliahi) and Hawaiian gardenia (nā‘ū).
And if deer are observed, Cohan said, the buzzing drones can be used to drive them out of the protected forest area. “We can do this work at far less cost and with greater safety than traditional helicopter and ground operations,” she said.
Lucas Behnke, the natural resource manager for Kaua‘i, is one of the Conservancy’s certified drone pilots. He was licensed in September 2016.
“The drone changes the angle from which we can observe the environment,” he said. “That perspective is the most exciting part about drones.”
Of course, it’s not all good. Drones can also cause problems.
“They make a lot of noise. They clearly can affect invasive ungulates (hooved animals like goats, pigs and deer), but they also have the potential to affect bird behavior,” Behnke said. “We need to be careful.”
That said, drones have the potential to allow researchers to regularly fly the forest and create images that map changes over time—seasonal changes, changes in weed invasion, changes in forest composition, even progression of diseases through the landscape.
The Conservancy’s drone corps is anxious to hook up forward-looking infrared capacity to the drones—perhaps to identify the presence of invasive ungulates under the canopy. With the help of heat-sensors, drones could also potentially identify remnant hot spots after forest fires have been largely extinguished, Menard said.
The Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine program is also experimenting with drones. Community-based Program Manager Manuel Mejia and Fellow Bert Weeks are testing whether a drone called the “aquacopter” can be used to detect coral bleaching and the regrowth of invasive algae on patch reefs in O‘ahu’s Kāne‘ohe Bay.
The aquacopter can be programmed to land on water and uses a camera on its underbelly to capture underwater photos and video as it moves from point to point along a pre-determined flight path. “If we are successful, the aquacopter could substantially reduce the long man hours normally required for surveying,” Weeks said. “Another potential application is using the cameras to create 3-D models of the reefs.”
As Conservancy staff continue to identify new uses of existing drones, the drones themselves are getting better. The expectation is that engineering advances will create drones that are smaller, lighter and have a longer battery life.
“It’s powerful. A new frontier,” said Menard. “It’s changing the way we do conservation.”
A coalition of local government agencies that formed to prevent an invasive mussel contamination at McPhee Reservoir can claim victory in its first year.
A test in October showed no sign of the dreaded quagga or zebra mussels, which proliferate rapidly and can attach in suffocating layers to irrigation and municipal infrastructure.
“With the help of the community, we have avoided contamination and protected our water source,” Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said during a recent community meeting to gather public comment.
The success is credited to stringent new rules that require all motorized and trailered boats to go through mussel inspection stations at either the House Creek or McPhee boat ramps during open hours. Mussels are carried in standing water of engines and ballasts.
Restricted access changed the culture of McPhee access.
The program, authorized in 2008, has faced cutbacks in recent years just as mussels and their larvae are increasingly being found on boats entering Colorado reservoirs.
According to Doug Krieger, aquatic section manager for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife (CPW), about a half million inspections are done every year at Colorado’s 80 reservoirs. The state was able to declare itself mussel-free in January, but that victory was short-lived, according to Krieger, when mussel larvae were detected in August at Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. Seven other Colorado reservoirs that previously detected mussel larvae have since been declared mussel-free, including Pueblo Reservoir, which had the worst problem in the state with mussel larvae between 2008 and 2011.
Unfortunately, the inspection program at Green Mountain has been cut back about 35 percent, Krieger told the committee, due to funding cuts. That means a shorter inspection season and shorter hours for those inspections. And that can lead to boaters who avoid inspections, whether putting in boats on private land around the reservoir or at the public ramps when inspections aren’t available.
At the same time, the discovery of mussel larvae at the reservoir means boats entering and exiting the reservoir are now subject to what Krieger called “high-risk” inspections and decontamination.
Green Mountain isn’t the only reservoir that has seen mussel activity; Krieger said there were seven other reservoirs this year with mussel detection.
Boats at state reservoirs are inspected and decontaminated, if necessary, at no charge, Krieger told Colorado Politics. Mussel larvae can attach itself to anything that gets wet, whether it’s the boat, anchors and anchor ropes, fishing gear, boat trailers or outboard or inboard engines. In one case, in southwestern Colorado, a boat came in heavily contaminated with mussels and their larvae, and it took weeks to completely decontaminate the boat, according to Doug Vilsack, the legislative liaison for the Department of Natural Resources. But because there’s no basis in law to recoup those costs, the boat owner was charged nothing for that decontamination.
The bill the committee decided to sponsor Tuesday would do two things: require boaters to obtain a stamp for their boats, and allow the division to recoup the costs of decontaminating boats that come in with mussels or their larvae.
FromCronkite News (Kianna Gardner) via the Arizona Daily Sun:
The adult quagga mussel finding [on March 3, 2013], coming less than a year after [veligers] were first spotted, marked the end of more than a decade of attempts to keep the invasive species from taking over Lake Powell and cued the beginning of a new fight.
Experts deem it impossible to entirely eradicate the mussels from Lake Powell, a tourist destination that spans Utah and Arizona. The mussels latch on to the walls of Glen Canyon Dam and the hundreds of boats skimming the lake’s waters. If the mussels could not be removed from the lake, the experts concluded, at least they might contain the threat to keep it from spreading to other waters.
Clumps of quagga mussels damage the dam’s water flow, undercut an ecosystem for other aquatic species, cling to boat engines and cost millions of dollars to handle.
“It was a huge responsibility and honor to try and protect this lake. It is still a huge responsibility and honor to contain the quagga mussels here,” said Colleen Allen. She holds a distinctive title as a leader in the quagga mussel incursion: aquatic invasive species coordinator for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The quagga mussel, a freshwater mollusk that likely was unwittingly brought into Lake Powell by boat, have proven to be a small but mighty foe. Less than three years after finding that mussel, the invasion had spread throughout most of the 186 miles of Lake Powell. Today, quagga mussels can be found in every canyon crevice, Glen Canyon officials said.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
On Tuesday, October 24th, from 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm, the Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education will host a webinar on the threat of aquatic nuisance species, specifically zebra and quagga mussels, to our waterways and delivery systems in Colorado.
Aquatic nuisance species continues to be a hot topic for the water community, but we need to reach beyond our own network when communicating about this looming threat to our pristine waterways. Join us to learn about the threat these invasive mussels pose, and how Colorado is working to educate the public and our policy makers so we can maintain healthy waterways and infrastructure.
Mountain Studies Institute and Southwest Conservation Corps continue to wage war against the Russian olive, an invasive species that chokes out native trees and degrades the quality of the watershed.
Last year, MSI was awarded a $195,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and an additional $52,000 from Colorado Parks and Wildlife for a three-year Russian olive-removal project.
Removal efforts continued Saturday morning at Animas Valley Elementary and Christ the King Lutheran Church with two saw crews from SCC, and help from Durango Daybreak Rotary Club.
MSI’s Amanda Kuenzi said the project specifically targets Russian olive trees on private land…
Originally introduced for ornamental landscaping, the plants are native to East Asia and Russia, and consume nearly 75 gallons of water per day.
They are considered a “List B noxious weed,” which requires local governments to manage their spread under Colorado state law…
“Russian olive reduce wildlife habitat, interfere with nutrient cycling and outcompete native species,” Kuenzi said. “The wetlands have been deteriorating in the West because of irrigation practices and water storage. We have to protect these important ecosystems.”
She said crews will be working on removal efforts through mid-November with about 60 private landowners throughout the Animas River Valley.
On Saturday, the Rotary Club collected wood from the removal effort for its firewood-distribution project.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
The South Platte Forum was initiated in 1989 to provide an avenue for a timely, multi-disciplinary exchange of information and ideas important to resource management in the South Platte River Basin. Its stated mandates are:
to enhance the effective management of natural resources in the South Platte River Basin by promoting coordination between state, federal and local resource managers, and private enterprise, and
to promote the interchange of ideas among disciplines to increase awareness and understanding of South Platte River Basin issues and public values.
Nearly every member of Colorado’s congressional delegation has signed a letter to the Trump administration asking for help with the emerging crisis of tiny invasive mussel larvae found in Green Mountain Reservoir…
“We urge you to respond rapidly, deploy available resources and work with the state and local communities to prevent this initial detection from growing into a full infestation,” the delegation wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “A rapid response is critical during the window of opportunity immediately after the detection of invasive species.”
The letter, dated Thursday, was signed by Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, as well as Reps. Diana DeGette, Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn, Jared Polis, Ed Perlmutter and Mike Coffman.
Rep. Ken Buck, a Weld County Republican, did not sign the letter.
“As a headwater state that is currently free of adult invasive mussels, the detection of invasive mussel larva poses a tangible threat to our economy,” the letter said. “The Department of Interior has recognized the importance of preventing invasive mussel infestations in western headwater states, such as Montana where larva was identified in late 2016 and resources were deployed to the Columbia River Basin.”
Zinke is from Montana.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras said his agency has drawn more than 100 samples from Green Mountain Reservoir since the larvae were detected. “All of these samples have come back negative for all aquatic nuisance species including quagga mussels.”
Tiny mussel larvae, known as veligers, have been found in Colorado before. Lake Pueblo, for instance, tested positive for them in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Biologists, however, have never found an adult zebra or quagga mussel in any Colorado lake or reservoir.
Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and Arizona, has been ravaged by a mussel infestation since veligers were detected in late 2012 and four adult mussels were found on a boat that had been pulled for service in March 2013.
Boats and other watercraft can quickly spread the invasive species. Colorado wildlife officials have said the veligers found in Green Mountain Reservoir likely hitched in on a boat that had been in water outside the state.
State lawmakers during the past legislative session cited the threat of invasive mussels as one reason why they voted down a proposal to allow sea planes on Colorado’s bodies of water, saying they could act as long-range vehicles for the species.
Platte River photo credit US Bureau of Reclamation.
Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Brock Merrill):
The Bureau of Reclamation is preparing an environmental assessment (EA) for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Proposed First Increment Extension. Reclamation, working with the states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, water users, and environmental and conservation organizations, proposes to extend the First Increment of the basin-wide, cooperative Recovery Implementation Program by 13 years. Reclamation is doing this to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
The purpose of this action is to continue implementing projects that provide additional water, in order to accomplish the following:
Reduce flow shortages in the Platte River aimed at conforming with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows
Continue land management activities necessary to provide habitat for target threatened and endangered species
Continue integrated monitoring, research, and adaptive management, in order to assess the progress of the program and inform future management decisions
Reclamation will hold four public scoping meetings during the 45-day scoping period to gather information from other agencies, interested parties, and the public on the scope of alternatives for the EA. The public is encouraged to attend the open house EA scoping meetings, to learn more about the proposal and to assist Reclamation in identifying issues.
The public scoping meetings on the EA are scheduled as follows (All meetings will be held 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.):
October 4, 2017, at Goshen County Fair Grounds, 7078 Fairgrounds Road, Torrington, Wyoming
October 5, 2017, at The Ranch Events Complex, 5280 Arena Circle, Loveland, Colorado (Located in the Larimer County Conference Center; park in Lot B)
October 11, 2017, at Hotel Grand, 2503 S. Locust Street, Grand Island, Nebraska
October 12, 2017, at Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Executive Director’s Office, 4111 4th Avenue, Suite 6, Kearney, Nebraska
At each meeting, the public will have the opportunity to provide written input on resources to be evaluated, significant issues or concerns, and potential alternatives.
Written comments are due by close of business November 2, 2017. Members of the public may submit written comments at the public scoping meetings, via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail to:
Bureau of Reclamation
Attention: Brock Merrill
P.O. Box 950
Torrington, WY 82240
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Lauren Truitt):
Monitoring finds Evidence of Quagga Mussel Larvae in Green Mountain Reservoir
State and federal officials have confirmed the presence of invasive quagga mussel larvae, known as veligers, in Green Mountain Reservoir located in Summit County along Hwy 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling.
On Aug. 18, as part of a state and federal initiative to monitor aquatic nuisance species in the state, specialists with the Bureau of Reclamation first confirmed the presence of the veligers, initially through microscopic analysis followed by DNA testing. An independent laboratory contracted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed Reclamation’s findings. It is unknown if the veligers were dead or alive at the time of detection.
CPW immediately increased monitoring of the reservoir for all life stages of quagga mussels. Through a partnership with the Denver Aquarium, CPW’s volunteer ANS scientific scuba dive team surveyed the reservoir last Friday and did not find any evidence of invasive mussels. No adult zebra or quagga mussels have ever been found in Green Mountain Reservoir or anywhere in the state of Colorado, although eight different reservoirs in Colorado have been temporarily suspect or positive for mussel veligers since 2008.
“Although this is very troubling, it’s important to keep in mind that the reservoir is not considered infested, a designation given only to bodies of water that have extensive and reproducing adult populations,” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species coordinator for CPW. “At this point, Green Mountain Reservoir is only considered ‘suspect,’ not positive. A body of water can be considered ‘positive’ only after a second independent specimen collection is obtained and the genetics confirmed by two independent laboratories, which has not yet occurred.”
Officials are most concerned about the possibility that the presence of veligers could eventually lead to a major infestation. This would put the reservoir’s hydroelectric power generation, water quality, drinking water delivery and recreation at risk.
“This is an unfortunate discovery, and something we have been working very hard to prevent,” said CPW Director Bob Broscheid. “It shows why we need a robust inspection program. As more and more people move to or visit Colorado and use our water resources for boating, we must continue to work hard to prevent the spread of these harmful invasive species. We cannot overstate how serious this is.”
All ballast boats, inboard and inboard/outboard engines must have a green seal in between launches or decontamination may take place prior to launching. Boaters are encouraged to inspect their own boat between every use and make sure it is clean, drained, and dry.
The State of Colorado requires boats to be professionally inspected if:
a boat has been in any body of water that is positive, or suspect for ANS
a boat has been in any body of water outside of Colorado
a boat will be entering any water body where inspections are required
Officials are unsure how the veligers entered the water but suspect a boat that visited an infested body of water in another state may have become contaminated, then launching illegally into Green Mountain Reservoir.
“This situation demonstrates the importance of following the law and going through the required inspection and decontamination process upon entering and exiting bodies of water,” said Reid DeWalt, Assistant Director Wildlife and Natural Resources with CPW. “We could face the possibility of a very harmful infestation that could cause severe damage to the reservoir and its infrastructure.”
The watercraft inspection and decontamination station at Green Mountain Reservoir is operated by the Heeney Marina and funded by a partnership between CPW and the U.S.Forest Service. The station has now begun implementing containment protocols which means that every boat has to be inspected when exiting the reservoir and will be issued a seal and blue receipt. If a boater leaving Green Mountain Reservoir intends to launch in a different water body, their boat must be decontaminated before launching by a certified professional.
Cooperation with Colorado’s mandatory inspection and decontamination program has proven successful to stop the movement of harmful invasive species, such as quagga mussels, into new waters. Public awareness and participation is the best weapon in the prevention of invasive species. Invasive mussels severely endanger our water supply for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture, recreation and natural resources.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to take care of our natural resources,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, Summit County Commissioner. “This news is certainly difficult to hear with the amount of effort and diligence we have put into the ANS program on the reservoir. We will continue working alongside our partners to make sure we educate residents and visitors of the importance of decontamination of boats before and after they are on a body of water. This can be prevented, but we need everyone’s participation.”
Boaters are reminded to take the simple precaution of making sure that they clean, drain, and dry their boat every time they go boating. Due to financial constraints the state does not have additional inspectors that can be sent to assist with boat inspections at Green Mountain. Going into a holiday weekend state and federal officials are asking for the public’s help to prevent invasive species.
“We know this is an extra step for those who have come out to enjoy recreating on the lake, but staying vigilant has proven to be effective throughout Colorado,” said JT Romatzke, NW Region Manager with CPW. “We need to make sure we are balancing our recreation with the integrity of our water resources.”
At first, they look like a mirage on the edge of the horizon of southern Colorado’s broad and sweeping San Luis Valley. Then, as you rumble south down Highway 17 through Moffat and the other barely-holding-on valley towns, their wave-like ridges reveal a unique reality.
Finally, as you turn east and head into the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, mountains of sand tower almost 800 feet over you and the valley floor.
“A piece of Arabian desert transplanted into this plain,” wrote Dr. Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus, in his remembrance of an 1848 expedition to northern New Mexico.
But this isn’t the Arabian Peninsula. Nor is it the coast. These dunes were created in this landlocked valley by prevailing winds that pick up sand and deposit it in the shadow of the Sangre De Cristo mountains. The 30-square-mile dune field offers a view unlike any other in Colorado.
“I would rather go three days around, than travel once more over the sand hills with a wagon,” Wislizenus wrote more than 150 years ago, a thought echoed by many hikers since then.
These days, most visitors will play in the cool water of adjacent Medano Creek before they climb up one or two dunes. Few venture up into the mountains on the eastern side of the dunes. And it’s there the park is investing in an ambitious project that’s symbolic of how land managers are approaching one of their biggest long-term issues: climate change.
Largely Unscathed — So Far
Earlier this summer, President Barack Obama declared that climate change is the biggest issue the 100-year-old National Park Service now faces. The effects of warmer temperatures at places like Rocky Mountain National Park are clear — once-clear lakes are now warm enough to sprout algae blooms, for example.
In Colorado’s other national parks, the effects are more subtle: warmer temperatures are complicating already difficult climbs at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And in Mesa Verde, scientists wonder if the changing climate is affecting the stability of ancient Pueblo ruins.
Sand Dunes appears largely unscathed — so far. The park’s average annual air temperature has held steady around 42 degrees Fahrenheit (or 6 degrees Celsius) for more than 100 years.
A recent study looked at pikas, a tiny rodent-like mammal that lives on mountain peaks and can die from overheating after just a few hours at eight national parks across the West. Researchers concluded there’s “encouraging evidence” the small mammal will be able to survive at the Sand Dunes.
But one climate model from the National Park Service says that unless the world’s carbon emissions drop by 40 to 70 percent, temperatures at the park could rise by up to 9 degrees by 2100.
Under those scenarios, invasive plants like leafy spurge could move in, streams and creeks could run dry, and wildfires could become more frequent. That has staff at the Sand Dunes thinking hard about how they can help the park adapt to a warming climate.
Which brings us to trout.
One of the park’s current projects is the restoration of the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to the Sand Creek watershed, which tumbles down the Sangres to the north side of the dunes. Fred Bunch, resource management specialist at the park, said the park has spent about $120,000 on it so far, and plans to spend about double that before it’s all said and done.
But Bunch said the money, which comes from visitor fees, Sand Dunes is spending on the trout project is worth it. It’s park service policy to restore native species. And the Sand Creek watershed, wildlife officials believe, is an ideal place for the fish now — and they hope it will be decades from now as well.
Elevation An Ally
“It’s all a function of elevation,” Bunch said. “Higher elevation streams may be a great area for habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat as we see this climatic variability.”
Andrew Todd, a research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, has been collecting data for the Sand Creek project for a few years now. He developed his interest in fish years ago as a kid when his dad would take him and his siblings fishing near Aspen.
For some reason, Todd said, they would always catch a ton of fish. Finally, 10 years ago, his dad ‘fessed up.
“He’d make sure we were on the water right after the stocking truck came through,” Todd said. “So our whole childhood fishing experience was based on a lie.”
These days, Todd is devoted to the plight of the Rio Grande cutthroat. The state fish of New Mexico is native to that state and southern Colorado. It was decimated first by miners who overfished it in the 19th century, then by the invasive rainbow, brook and brown trout the miners brought in as replacements.
“Over time, your cutthroat trout population will lose out,” Todd explained. “They interbreed with rainbow trout and they don’t compete well with brown and brook trout.”
Today, the Rio Grande cutthroat exists only in 10-15 percent of its historic range. It’s so rare, in fact, that the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group, sued the federal government last month because they want the fish to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner for the Arizona group, said he supports the NPS-led project. He just wants more projects like it.
“This lawsuit is necessary because the fish, despite efforts from a lot of people, is continuing to decline,” McKinnon said. “Endangered Species Act protections will compel a more vigorous recovery program, a more coordinated recovery program. And it will provide the agencies the resources they need to get the job done.”
The surviving fish are mostly relegated to small rivers in the Rio Grande basin. Those isolated populations are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change — droughts and wildfires can erase them in short order.
Wildlife officials got a scare earlier this summer during the Hayden Pass Fire about 60 miles north of the Sand Dunes. They were worried that another rare cutthroat trout that only lives in one small location in that area actually went extinct because of the fire.
It turns out the fish survived, but that wildfire made the stakes clear.
“If you have a really small stream, just one stream, [with] no tributaries, and it burns you could lose that entire population,” Todd said.
That’s not the case at Sand Creek, where nearly the entire watershed is on public land. The area they are trying to restore isn’t just one small piece of water. It’s a whole self-contained system, from snowmelt-fed lakes to where the creek seeps underground on the valley floor.
“You could potentially have a fire in there that burned a good portion of the watershed,” Todd said. “As long as it doesn’t burn the whole thing, you’re well buffered against things like wildfire.”
If the project is successful, Todd said that Sand Creek and its tributaries would make up one of the largest cutthroat trout watersheds in the state.
The water temperature data Todd has collected so far shows promise for the Rio Grande cutthroat. Up at the top of the mountain range, Todd said the sun actually warms Sand Creek quite a bit. But as it falls below treeline, and its colder tributaries dump into it, it gets really, really cold.
And that’s just how the trout like it.
“Our standard for cutthroat trout is around 17 degrees [Celsius],” Todd said. “In Sand Creek, where it hits the sand it’s about 12 or 13 [Celsius]. So we’ve got a good 4- or 5-degree buffer before we start to butt up against temperatures here that would preclude trout from being here.”
Water temperatures rise more slowly than air temperatures, Todd said. So even if climate change pushes air temperatures to the higher end of the park’s estimates, the trout could theoretically still survive.
If that kind of change takes place, the Sand Dunes will have “many other problems” to deal with, he surmised.
Killing Many Fish To Save A Few
Eventually, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will remove all the non-native fish from the watershed using a natural pesticide called rotenone. It kills only fish and leaves other wildlife unharmed.
After the creek, its tributaries and the nearby lakes are cleared and restocked with Rio Grande cutthroat, the fish will need about three years to recover. That means anglers who fish the drainage will have to look elsewhere for awhile.
“It’s the consequence of restoring,” said John Alves, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region. “There’s drainages nearby that also have trout.”
It’s possible that CPW could apply rotenone in stages; a waterfall halfway up the creek provides a natural barrier. So once the top half is cleared, they don’t need to worry about non-natives in the lower part invading again.
It’s also very difficult to reach Sand Creek, which helps keep out “bucket biologists” — anglers bent on undoing the government’s work by dumping non-native fish back into a cleared waterway.
“When you go in and you try to reclaim it for the natives, not everyone is always on board,” Todd said.
The whole idea of killing off a watershed is off-putting to at least one angler. Phil Armstrong has fished there for more than decade and said while he can appreciate the desire to restore a native fish, he’s disheartened by the “heavy-handed tactics” the state will use.
“Nothing natural is left in this state. People have been everywhere. Mining has been everywhere,” he said. “We’re only taking human intervention steps to get to some approximation of that. We don’t know what that watershed was like a hundred years ago.”
Andrew Todd concedes that point. He doesn’t have proof that Sand Creek historically held Rio Grande cutthroat. But philosophical arguments aside, Todd said the important thing is to strike a balance between native and non-native fish.
“We need to decide what level of biodiversity we want to protect,” Todd said. “It’s one of the prettiest fish in Colorado. And I think it’s worth preserving.”
The project is something of a sequel for the NPS’ Fred Bunch. The park restored Rio Grande cutthroat to Medano Creek using similar tactics back in the 1980s and 90s. Bunch said he’s excited to expand anglers’ chances of catching a native trout even more — especially given that their dollars are paying for the Sand Creek project.
“If this species is restored to 12 miles of prime habitat, that is a huge victory,” he said.
Bunch said he wants anglers to be able to count on a “consistent experience” at the park and preserve. With the climate forecasted to be anything but consistent, what the National Park Service does now, in southern Colorado and elsewhere across the country, faces its real test in the decades to come.
There’s an unplanned experiment going on in the northern Rocky Mountains. What’s happening is that spring is arriving earlier, and it’s generally warmer and drier than usual. And that’s messing with some of the fish that live there.
The fish is the iconic cutthroat trout. It’s a native North American fish that thrives in cold, small streams. Explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame was among the first European-Americans to catch this spangly, spotted fish. He used deer spleen as bait.
It’s relative rarity now makes it a favorite for catch-and-release anglers. But biologists have now found that it’s in danger. The much more common rainbow trout is invading cutthroat streams and mating with the native fish. Ecologist Clint Muhlfeld says that creates hybrids.
“It jumbles up the genes that are linked to the locally adapted traits that these fish have evolved with,” says Muhlfeld, who’s with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.
Those traits have allowed cutthroats to survive through millennia in cold northern streams. And cold streams were thought to protect them from rainbows, which prefer warmer water.
But climate change is warming many high-altitude streams, and they frequently have less water, another change that favors rainbows. So they’re moving in.
Muhlfeld says that when rainbows and cutthroats breed, the resulting hybrids are feeble — “less fit,” in biological terms. “They don’t survive as well as the native fish,” he says. And hybrids that do survive continue to make more hybrids; there’s no going back to making cutthroats again.
Writing in the journal Global Change Biology, Muhlfeld and a team of scientists from several research institutions studied fish in hundreds of locations in the northern Rockies. Hybridization was widespread. It was most common in places where fish and game departments have introduced rainbow trout, a practice that goes back to the 19th century.
Some states are trying to solve the problem by getting rid of rainbow trout. That might not please some anglers, but Muhlfeld says the cutthroat species could disappear otherwise.
“There are so many places around the world where you can go catch a rainbow trout,” he says; it’s been introduced all over the world. “There’s very few places where you can actually go and catch a native fish that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.
“Extinction is permanent. Once the native genomes and adaptive traits are gone, they are gone forever.”