Del Norte Riverfront Project update

Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.

From the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (Emma Reesor) via The Alamosa News:

The reach of the Rio Grande running through North Park has seen a lot of change in the last two months. Workers and machinery from Robins Construction have braved the elements as part of a plan to improve access to one of Del Norte’s most valuable natural resources.

North Park is one of the few public parks in Del Norte, situated on the Rio Grande just west of Highway 112. While featuring a fishing dock and riverside trail, the community thought more could be done to better connect residents to the river.

From this need arose the Del Norte Riverfront Project a community-led effort to improve access, create recreation infrastructure, and enhance wildlife habitat on the Rio Grande adjacent to North Park. Project partners, including the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project,

Town of Del Norte, Del Norte Trails Organization, Riverbend Engineering and Trout Unlimited have worked with the public over the past five years to plan and fundraise for the DNRFP.

Phase 1 of the DNRFP was completed during the winter of 2018 and included a new boat ramp and parking area located on the north side of the river.

In March of 2019, the DNRFP was selected to receive funding from Great Outdoors Colorado’s Local Parks and Outdoor Recreation grant program.

It was one of 22 projects chosen to receive funding in a highly competitive pool of projects.

This grant, along with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Gates Family Foundation, SLV Conservation and Connection Initiative, Del Norte Bank, Rio Grande County, and community donors, helped realize Phase 2 of the project, which includes the in-stream construction of a boating Play Wave, fish habitat improvements and passage, and river access points.

Work on these structures began in November 2019 and will be complete in early 2020.

Still yet to come this spring is an ADA accessible picnic area, as well as other park amenities. All these improvements will help promote a deeper connection to the river for residents and visitors alike.

Emma Reesor, Executive Director of the RGHRP, has been integral in the planning and fundraising for the project, and is excited to see construction in full swing. “It’s been a joy to work with the community of Del Norte to make this vision a reality” Reesor said, “Improving connectivity between people and rivers will have a positive effect on the community as a whole”.

Marty Asplin with the Del Norte Trails Organization has been a part of the DNRFP from the very beginning and worked hard to bring partners together to benefit Del Norte. “The addition of access to the Rio Grande was part of the Del Norte Trails Master Plan which was adopted by the Town of Del Norte and Rio Grande County in 2007,” said Marty Asplin, “accomplishing this is a large piece of the plan.”

If you’d like to check out the progress of the project, the fishing dock is a great place to view the construction.

To learn more about the DNRFP, contact Reesor at info@riograndeheadwaters.org or visit http://www.riograndeheadwaters.org.

Report courtesy of Emma Reesor, Executive Director, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.

As the #SaltonSea shrinks, it leaves behind a toxic reminder of the cost of making a desert bloom — Food & Environment Reporting Network

Aerial view of the Salton Sea from the north-northeast (from over Joshua Tree National Park), looking into the early afternoon sun. Photo credit: Dicklyon via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an in-depth report from Lindsay Fendt that’s running on the Food & Environment Reporting Network website. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Now the Salton Sea has another problem: Climate change is making this dry region even drier. And a growing demand for water in the booming cities and suburbs of Southern California has reduced the amount of Colorado River water diverted to nearby farms. In the coming years these two factors are expected to dramatically increase the pace at which the lake shrinks, exposing more lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud.

The desert winds lift dust from the lakebed, and scientists fear that eventually the toxic residue of more than a century of agricultural runoff will be blown into the air — and into the lungs of residents. The area surrounding the Salton Sea already has some of the worst air quality in the country, caused by particulate matter swept up from farms and the desert. Local residents have some of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory problems in the state, and public health officials say the heavy metals and chemicals in the lake bed pose an even greater threat…

It seems unnatural, the shimmering water surrounded by chalky sand and cactus. But water has found its way into this desert basin repeatedly throughout history. Before dams and other diversion structures fixed the Colorado River on its current path, the river used to periodically migrate across the floodplain, changing course to circumvent sediment that had built up in previous seasons. Sometimes it emptied here in the Salton Sink. During one such period, the river sustained an even larger lake, Lake Cahuilla, that stretched from the Coachella Valley, up by Palm Springs, all the way to northern Mexico.

We fly near the Chocolate Mountains that rise up south of the Salton Sea, and Ruiz points to a discolored line high on one of the ridges where a thousand years ago lake water once reached.

“If you talk to anyone from the Cahuilla tribe, the people who have been in this basin forever, they say water has always been here,” Ruiz said. “So this isn’t just about saving some artificial lake.”

Lake Cahuilla dried up sometime in the 16th century after the river again shifted course, this time to the Gulf of California. Dams have tamed the river’s meandering, and it’s unlikely the Colorado will ever find its way into the Salton Sink again. Yet the river’s water is still coming, diverted into the desert via the 80-mile-long All-American Canal.

Changes coming to Bear Creek Greenbelt — The Lakewood Sentinel

Bear Creek Lake Park. Photo credit: GoHikeColorado.com

From The Lakewood Sentinel (Joseph Rios):

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

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.

Challenges ahead for aspen forests — @AspenJournalism

Aspen’s namesake trees, the quaking aspen, acts as a keystone species that sustains hundreds of other plants and animals. Aspens are also under stress from drier conditions, increased temperatures and over-browsing by large herbivores. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Just as new research shows that aspen forests are a fountain of biodiversity, Aspen’s namesake trees in the Roaring Fork River watershed are battling warming temperatures, drier conditions, climate disruption, and unchecked herds of deer and elk. Although local aspen forests are currently faring OK, they face serious challenges.

There are a few small aspen groves in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park, tucked in valleys where there’s more moisture than what the surrounding oak brush needs— and Elise Osenga, a researcher at the Aspen Global Change Institute, keeps a close eye on these groves. Osenga leads a program that monitors soil moisture as part of efforts to better understand climate conditions in the Roaring Fork River watershed. Two of the monitoring stations — one at Sky Mountain and the other at North Star Nature Preserve — are in aspen groves.

“We are interested in seeing,” Osenga said, “if soils are consistently drier over time, are the aspen able to survive?”

There is not yet a long history of local soil conditions, but Osenga recently completed an assessment of the health of aspens near the two research stations.

“The good news of what we found is we didn’t actually find many dead trees at this point,” she said. But Osenga noted that aspens can die off in sustained droughts or even after just one or two really dry years. Additionally, as temperatures rise with a changing climate, the rain that does fall evaporates more quickly, further drying out soils.

Elise Osenga, a researcher with the Aspen Global Change Institute, walks among the aspens on the Airline Trail in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park. She heads up a program to monitor soil moisture and climate conditions. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Aspens thrive on disruption

Other local experts have found that there are local aspen groves that are struggling.

“It’s really those south-facing, dry slopes where the aspen decline is pretty evident,” said Adam McCurdy, forest programs director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

He pointed to groves near the radio tower on the Sunnyside Trail and up Castle Creek near the Toklat Gallery. Throughout the West and particularly in southwest Colorado, aspen trees on south- and southwest-facing slopes at low elevations are declining.

But overall, the local forests are faring pretty well, McCurdy said. In fact, aspens thrive on disruptions.

Dry conditions can mean increased risk of wildfire and bark-beetle infestations in evergreens, which thin forests and create openings for aspens to reproduce.

In the mountains around Aspen, avalanches have cleared paths for aspen trees to peek through evergreen forests, creating landscape-level diversity that benefits the local ecosystem.

“This really serves to break up the large stretches of what would otherwise be just spruce-fir forests and makes our forests more resilient to beetles and fire and all sorts of other disturbance,” McCurdy said.

Young aspen trees with massive leaves poke up through avalanche wreckage in Maroon Creek Valley in the summer of 2019. Aspens take advantage of sunlight to grow after disruptions like avalanches, wildfire or beetle outbreaks. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Sunlight and moisture bring diverse life

Young aspens are already taking root in the paths cleared by last spring’s historic avalanche cycle — and creating space for all kinds of forest life.

Quaking aspen leaves let sunlight through the canopy, and the deep, rich soils under aspen communities hold more moisture than those in conifer forests. Such a combination of moisture and sunlight is the magic ticket for diverse life.

“Under aspen communities, there might be up to a hundred different plant species, and then some people have made tabulations of 50, 60 or more animals using aspen on a daily basis,” said Paul Rogers, director of Western Aspen Alliance, which coordinates research and management of aspen ecosystems across western North America.

A bear walks through an aspen grove in Snowmass Village this past fall. Bears are among dozens of animal species who use aspen communities. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Research shows biodiversity benefits of aspen forests

Rogers co-authored a recent review of aspen research that contends that conservation of aspen ecosystems can benefit global biodiversity. Rogers and more than a dozen fellow researchers argue for a “mega-conservation” strategy: By sustaining the keystone aspen forests, a wide range of species would also be protected.

But, in addition to drier soils, aspen forests across the world are under stress from human activities such as mining, logging and urban development — as well as from some of the very wildlife they help support. Young trees are particularly nutritious and attractive to elk and deer, and herds sometimes stay in one spot for days, eating all the new shoots.

This results in an aging forest, and when the old trees start to die off, “you have a real problem,” Rogers said. “And so, if you combine that with drought, which is happening throughout Colorado, throughout the Western states, that is the biggest threat to aspen ecosystems.”

Reintroducing predators, such as wolves, could help — especially because when predators are in the area, herbivores can’t stay in one place long enough to overeat young trees, Rogers said. The reintroduction of wolves in Colorado is a contentious issue that is likely to be on the ballot in the fall of 2020.

Rogers also noted that Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have increased the targeted size of elk herds over decades. The population goal for the Avalanche Creek elk herd, for example, increased from 3,300 in 1988 to a range of 3,600-5,400 in 2013.

“We’ve taken away predators, for the most part, that are going to keep those populations in check, but we’ve also managed those big herbivore populations for economics, quite frankly,” Rogers said. “Every state sells hunting licenses, and so to keep those revenues up, they keep those populations high. And those high populations have an impact on ecosystems.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. A version of this story aired on APR on Dec. 27 and this story ran in the Dec. 29 edition of The Aspen Times.

@COParksWildlife celebrates 30 years of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act

Photo of wetlands at Eliott State Wildlife Area courtesy of Ducks Unlimited via Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating 30 years of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act this month. NAWCA, signed in December 1989, provides financial support for waterfowl habitat that also supports a multitude of other wetland-related wildlife species. NAWCA provides matching grants to wetlands conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Over the past three decades, the acquisition and restoration of wetland habitat have provided healthy wetlands where:

  • waterfowl populations have grown,
  • waterways and water sources are cleaner,
  • and recreation opportunities (birding, hunting, hiking and boating) have all increased.
  • NAWCA grants increase bird populations and wetland habitat, while supporting local economies and American traditions such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, family farming, and cattle ranching. Wetlands protected by NAWCA provide valuable benefits such as flood control, reducing coastal erosion, improving water and air quality, and recharging groundwater.

    In the past two decades alone, NAWCA has funded over 2,950 projects totaling $1.73 billion in grants. More than 6,200 partners have contributed another $3.57 billion in matching funds to affect 30 million acres of habitat.

    Since it began 30 years ago, NAWCA funds have contributed $25 million to Colorado’s wetlands.

    “Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Wetlands for Wildlife Program has been able to leverage annual grant funding from Great Outdoors Colorado to expand the scope of projects in Colorado that are eligible for matching grant funding under NAWCA,” said CPW Wetlands Program Coordinator Brian Sullivan. “These funds are critical to our ability to conserve wetlands in Colorado.”

    “Funding from the North American Wetland Conservation Act was critical to the success of our Rio Grande Initiative to protect 25,000 acres of private ranchland along the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” said Allen Law, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. “Conservation easements on these ranches helped our agricultural community while permanently protecting thousands of acres of Colorado’s most resilient and important wetlands.”

    Below are some examples of NAWCA-funded projects in Colorado

    Elliott State Wildlife Area Shallow Water Wetlands – Completed September 2018
    Elliott State Wildlife Area (SWA), adjacent to the South Platte River near Brush, Colorado is a complex of numerous shallow wetlands that are flooded in the spring and fall utilizing Union Ditch water rights for migratory bird habitat and fall public recreation. Unfortunately, many of the basins contained deep, scoured areas that tended to pool deep water, which then limited the capacity of the entire flow-thru complex and greatly hampered bird and hunter use.

    Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU) utilized their professional expertise to engineer and regrade 15 of the existing basins, amounting to roughly 200 acres of wetlands. For this project, DU developed a professional engineering plan set that established ideal grading across 15 of the basins, amounting to roughly 200 acres of wetlands. DU then bid, contracted, and managed heavy equipment operators to fill and redistribute soil in the basins in order to disperse water better and provide additional flooded habitat.

    CPW staff also worked to refurbish the water delivery ditch and diversion structures, and improve the water management structures between basins. NAWCA funds of more than $150,000 secured by DU were matched by CPW and Great Outdoors Colorado contributions of nearly $75,000 to enable this project.

    The benefits of this partnership project are widespread, including increased habitat acres, higher quality recreation opportunities, more efficient water use and improved management capacity.

    Cross Arrow Ranch Conservation Easement – Completed September 2009
    Lying at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Conejos River, the Cross Arrow Ranch conservation easement held by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) protected 3,238 acres of productive ranchlands along with senior water rights. Over 2,000 acres of this property are wetlands, which provide habitat for a wide variety of migratory birds like waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

    Conservation easements are important to wetland conservation in the San Luis Valley because over 90% of wetlands regionally are on private lands. Similarly, the most resilient wetlands are on private lands because senior water rights and flood irrigation boost wetland function, especially during drought years. Conservation easements protect these critical habitats from fragmentation, water export, and residential development.

    To preserve the wetlands on this spectacular ranch forever, NAWCA funding secured by RiGHT was matched by generous contributions from the landowners, Great Outdoors Colorado, and the Nature Conservancy.

    Learn more about the 30th anniversary of the North America Wetlands Conservation Act by visiting http://nawmp.org/nawca30.

    The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awards >$500,000 to help threatened #RioGrande #Cutthroat survival #Colorado #NewMexico

    From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

    Every year in late spring, 200 volunteers hike into Rio Grande Gorge north of Taos. Their backpacks are each filled with a few gallons of water – and 100 young Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

    The state fish of New Mexico thrives in clear, cold, high-altitude streams, which means its habitat is threatened by wildfires, warming waters and invasive trout species. Now, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded more than half a million dollars as part of a new recovery program.

    Toner Mitchell, Trout Unlimited’s New Mexico Water and Habitat and Public Lands Coordinator, said the money will fund stream improvements and fish restoration. Trout Unlimited will receive $96,059 for New Mexico projects and $152,416 for Colorado projects…

    Agencies and tribes in New Mexico and Colorado renewed a conservation agreement in 2013 with a strategy to protect the fish. The groups have restored trout habitat on Comanche Creek, a main tributary of the Rio Costilla and just a few miles from the Colorado state line.

    “We want to bring these new fish populations into the best available habitat,” said Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited Rio Grande Basin Project Manager. “We have spent decades reconnecting stream miles, removing non-native trout and stocking streams with Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Then the agencies check in on those fish to make sure they’re healthy and reproducing.”

    On Comanche Creek, the groups have reduced bank erosion and raised the riparian water table by at least a foot, which improves stream flow and habitat for the sensitive fish…

    The new funding will help assess habitat restoration work for tributary streams of the Rio San Antonio.

    The Center for Biological Diversity wants Rio Grande cutthroat trout to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. But many conservationists believe they can save the fish without federal protection.

    The restoration projects are already working, said Mitchell, who added that restrictions on grazing, fishing and land use that usually accompany an endangered status could turn the Rio Grande cutthroat trout into “public enemy No. 1.”

    […]

    The Rio Puerco Alliance will also receive $151,684 as part of this program to minimize bank erosion on Encinado Creek in Rio Arriba County and create a barrier to keep out invasive trout species.

    Wild rainbow trout population growing in the Gunnison Gorge — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife

    A tiny rainbow trout fry is giving CPW biologists hope that wild fish are reproducing naturally in the Gunnison River Gorge and that will eventually help to restore wild rainbows to rivers throughout the state. Photo credit: CPW

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

    Work to restore wild rainbow trout in the Gunnison Gorge is starting to pay off as the population of the species is slowly increasing, according to surveys conducted recently by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. CPW biologists are hopeful that the success on the Gunnison will eventually help bring wild rainbows back to all Colorado’s rivers and streams.

    Rainbow trout once dominated the renowned Gunnison River; but in 1994 CPW biologists found fish there infected with whirling disease and their population drifted toward zero. Brown trout, which are much more resistant to whirling disease, quickly took over and now are the dominant fish in the gorge and many other Colorado streams. Whirling disease infected streams and rivers throughout the state and imperiled rainbow trout populations.

    The most significant observation from the Gunnison survey completed in October showed an abundance of “young of the year” fish that hatched in mid-summer and that showed no symptoms of whirling disease.

    “We found the highest number of rainbow fry we’ve ever seen since the 1990s and they were spread over multiple sites in the canyon,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose. “We’re seeing natural reproduction throughout the canyon and survival of wild fish in the life stage where they can be affected by whirling disease. It’s very encouraging.”

    Rainbow Trout

    For adult fish, the survey found 630 rainbow trout per mile in the survey sections. That’s significantly fewer than the 1,500-2,000 rainbows found per mile in the days before whirling disease; but improvement from the last few years is evident. In 2014, surveys found just 173 fish per mile; 489 fish per mile in 2016; and 522 fish per mile in 2017.

    By comparison, brown trout now number about 5,000 fish per mile.

    “It’s a very healthy river, but for rainbows we have a long way to go before we’ll be comfortable saying they are fully recovered,” Gardunio said.

    CPW continues to stock whirling-disease resistant rainbows in that section of the Gunnison and at other rivers throughout the state.

    The recovery plan for the fish started tentatively in 2003 when CPW obtained a whirling-disease resistant strain of rainbows from a hatchery in Germany. The fish, however, had been hatchery-raised for decades and were “domesticated”, meaning they had no experience in the wild. CPW researchers crossed the spawn of these fish, known as Hofers, with several other strains of rainbow trout. The crosses showed significant resistance to whirling disease and exhibited a “flight response” when placed in reservoirs.

    In the spring of 2007, biologists started stocking the Hofer-cross fry in rivers and reservoirs statewide. Results were mixed throughout the state, but biologists found that the new strains did best in the East Portal section of the Gunnison River where CPW had, for many years, spawned wild trout to supply state hatcheries. That spot continues to be a productive area and rainbows are spawned there every year. They’ve even been given their own name – Gunnison River Rainbows.

    Finding the young wild fish downstream in the Gunnison Gorge provides another encouraging sign that the 20-year journey to recover rainbow trout has been worth the effort. The abundance of brown trout, predators that feast on small fish, are perhaps the biggest challenge in the Gunnison and other rivers.

    “The wild fry are the best thing for us to see down there,” Gardunio said. “As those fish grow into adults we’ll have more and more fish and hopefully, a self-sustaining population. We hope to see a continuing gradual increase.”

    And if they thrive in the Gunnison, biologists are confident they’ll eventually take hold in big rivers throughout the state.

    Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch