The Grizzly Creek Fire covered 32,631 acres before it was officially deemed contained Dec. 18. It shut down Interstate 70 for two weeks after it ignited on Aug. 10. It threatened Glenwood Springs’ water supply and forced the closure of popular hiking trails and rafting put-ins.
The disruption likely isn’t finished.
“We’re going to learn a lot this summer,” said Steve Hunter, a former engineer with the White River National Forest and member of the Burn Area Emergency Response team, or BAER. That group of scientists and specialists started assessing the Grizzly Creek burn area for soil burn severity and potential problems areas for flooding and debris flows even before the fire was out.
Hunter discussed the role of the BAER team and the major issues facing the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar during a videoconference Thursday night hosted by Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt nonprofit that explores all issues related to water in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The BAER team’s work helped determined that 12% of the terrain within the perimeter of the fire suffered a high level of burn severity. That means all or nearly all of the pre-fire ground cover and surface organic matter was consumed. The soil became hardened and will shed water instead of absorb it.
Firefighters did a remarkable job protecting two of the major drainages from the fire. No Name Creek, which drains down into a residential area, was only 8% burned. Grizzly Creek was 14% burned. Terrain in other catchments was up to 40% burned.
The areas that suffered the most fire damage may be most susceptible to flooding, debris flows and rock falls. The Glenwood Canyon walls are steep, Hunter said.
Many of the roots and vegetation that anchored rocks and dirt have disappeared. So a canyon that was susceptible to rock falls events even before the fire is even riper now…
Several steps have already been taken to try to gauge the risks and provide tools to warn about threats to Interstate 70, utilities in the Colorado River corridor and homes in populated parts of the canyon.
Numerous rain gauges were installed high up the canyon walls to help foresee flash flooding potential. The U.S. Geological Survey has run hydrologic modeling and runoff for major drainages within the burn area. (The website wasn’t operating properly Friday.) The U.S. Service assessed areas where culverts need to be cleared, repaired and even enlarged to handle expected debris flows…
At this point, the Forest Service does not plan to reseed significant acreage within the burn area. One hurdle is the terrain itself. Sending hand crews up the steep slopes is not practical or safe and it would be difficult to seed by airplane…
Where access isn’t as big of a challenge, the Forest Service will monitor conditions to determine if terrain can be managed for natural recovery. In other areas, such as the interstate right-of-way and at trailheads, the Forest Service is working on reseeding with the Colorado Department of Transportation…
Places where firebreaks were cut by bulldozers or hand crews, for example, need soil amendments at the least to help natural vegetation grow back. Some of those areas may also need to be seeded.
The Forest Service has also secured funding for trail and road stabilization. Some of the work started last fall and will continue when the snow melts out.
Swamps, wet meadows, floodplains, bottomlands, bogs, freshwater and saltwater marshes, places where the water stands still and the soil becomes inundated to the point of saturation — these are wetlands.
Tuesday, Feb. 2, marked the annual celebration of World Wetlands Day (check out http://worldwetlandsday.org). Though this day will have passed once this edition of The SUN makes it to print, it’s important to note that this often-neglected habitat type is a true reflection of life and biodiversity, so let’s celebrate it.
After all, wetlands are the great defenders. They control flooding events by slowing down and spreading out pulse runoff flows, they absorb and purify water by trapping excess sediment, they sequester many impurities by trapping and storing them in their anaerobic soils, thereby protecting the adjacent and often more vulnerable aquatic life in riparian zones. Along coastlines, wetlands act as bulwarks, taking the brunt of tidal shifts and defending inland waterways from erosion.
Why, then, must we continue to undermine and take for granted this portent of necessity and life? In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Wetlands Inventory determined that between the 1780s and 1980s in what we now call the lower 48 of the United States, we had somewhere close to a net loss of 53 percent of its total wetlands. A startling figure, it’s been estimated that during this 200-year period, 60 acres of wetland were lost every hour to development and associated means. A more recent (2019-2020) toll included the devastating and uncensored groundwater pumping from the iconic 2,400- acre San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona for border wall construction. This wetland complex houses a wide array of diverse life, including two species of native and endangered fish found nowhere else. The bottom line is: We have a long-standing debt to pay back on our wetland take.
Now for the good news. Among other top-line priorities, the current administration plans to restore protections ensured within the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), two measures that offer wetlands hope and security. If you have access to water rights and have an interest in re-establishing defunct wetlands, consider contacting the Colorado Division of Water Resources to learn more about what you can do to provide valuable habitat. Additionally, development projects can visit Colorado’s Wetland Information Center to learn more about the difference between Compensatory Mitigation vs. Voluntary Restoration.
Ask yourself, how familiar are you with your local wetlands? Consider a visit to a local wetland and ask some questions. If you have children, here are a few activities to try out:
(1) How many different types of plants can you find in and around the wetland? Notice that some of the plants are either partially or fully submerged in the water. These are hydrophytes. What adaptations may these plants have adopted to live in a wetland?
(2) What kind of wildlife can you detect? Though it’s still winter time, pay a visit to our warm-water wetlands downtown and with a few minutes of observation, one may note a surprising amount of life. There are roughly 180 species of birds that visit this area yearly. How many can you spot? Once the red-winged blackbirds arrive, watch for their unique breeding and nesting activities.
(3) As we advance toward spring, keep an eye out for increased activity and noises. One spring tradition I have with my daughter is to crawl commando-style on our bellies as close to our neighborhood wetland as possible to see if we can spot the Houdini-act of the boreal chorus frogs as they emanate piercing mating songs. Give it a shot.
(4) For more age-appropriate challenges, visit http://plt.org/stem-strategies/ watch-on-wetlands/ where Project Learning Tree offers STEM-based activities ranging from mapping activities to quantifying ecosystem goods and services gained from preserving wetlands.
For more regional-appropriate resources, visit http://rockies.audubon.org and enter “wetlands” into our search bar. Additionally, learn of upcoming plant and bird walks along the downtown San Juan Riverwalk by following Weminuche Audubon Society events at http://weminucheaudubon.org and by following Pagosa Wetland Partners, an associated group, on Facebook.
Peaks to People Water Fund have launched its Big Thompson Initiative in Northern Colorado to proactively treat wildfire risk through accelerated forest restoration and stewardship in the watersheds.
The Big Thompson watershed’s water infrastructure supplies between 40 percent and 55 percent of Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley’s annual water needs, providing water to 30 additional towns and cities along the state’s front range. The state’s forests have become dense and overgrown after years of protection from wildfire, which has increased the risk of severe wildfires such as the Cameron Peak Fire that threaten water supplies with sedimentation and debris.
“Living in an environment where fire is part of the natural cycle is our reality in Northern Colorado, but Peaks to People and its partners are working to return the forest to a healthy condition that minimizes the intensity of fires when they do strike,” said Alex Castino, Great Outdoors Colorado Land Protection Program Officer. “This allows people and small businesses, plants and animals, waterways and water infrastructure, to bounce back quickly and thrive in this beautiful place we all call home,” Alex said.
The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome wildfires west of Fort Collins emphasize the urgent need for proactive treatment with a combined cost of over $149 million to suppress them and more than 1,000 miles of river impacted. The Peaks to People Water Fund team has analyzed and determined that treating 37,000 acres within the 575,000-acre Big Thompson watershed could reduce 90 percent of severe fire risk while conserving the forests most essential for water supply.
Peaks to People plans to invest a total of $90 million through the Big Thompson Initiative over the course of the next ten years to restore forests to their natural state and reduce the risk of severe wildfires. Treatments are costly at as much as $3,600 per acre with Peaks to People working with partners to leverage funds to stretch contributions…
Peaks to People have partnered with the Colorado State Forest Service, Nature Conservancy of Colorado, Big Thompson Conservation District, Larimer County Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Brendle Group, and the Center for Collaborative Conservation to make this initiative successful. More funding must be raised to accomplish the initiative’s goals even though some funding is already in place.
Click here to read the article (Caroline S Nash, Gordon E Grant, Susan Charnley, jason B Dunham, Hannah Gosnell, Mark B Hausner, David S Pilliod, Jimmy D Taylor). Here’s the abstract:
Beaver-related restoration is a process-based strategy that seeks to address wide-ranging ecological objectives by reestablishing dam building in degraded stream systems. Although the beaver-related restoration has broad appeal, especially in water-limited systems, its effectiveness is not yet well documented. In this article, we present a process-expectation framework that links beaver-related restoration tactics to commonly expected outcomes by identifying the set of process pathways that must occur to achieve those expected outcomes. We explore the contingency implicit within this framework using social and biophysical data from project and research sites. This analysis reveals that outcomes are often predicated on complex process pathways over which humans have limited control. Consequently, expectations often shift through the course of projects, suggesting that a more useful paradigm for evaluating process-based restoration would be to identify relevant processes and to rigorously document how projects do or do not proceed along expected process pathways using both quantitative and qualitative data.
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
Photo credit: Wisconsin Wildlife Services
A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A beaver slap on the upper Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Nathan Coombs, a burly alfalfa farmer in the San Luis Valley, never imagined he would trust an environmentalist, much less partner with one to improve habitat for fish in the region’s rivers and streams. As manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, Coombs cares first and foremost about supporting the livelihoods of agricultural water users in the upper Rio Grande Basin. As such, he had figured that more water for fish meant less water for farmers and ranchers.
And that was unthinkable.
But things took a surprising turn about seven years ago when Coombs met Kevin Terry, a fish biologist at Trout Unlimited. Terry, who manages the organization’s efforts in the Rio Grande Basin, approached Coombs with what seemed like an outlandish idea, if only because it had never been suggested before, at least not here: shift the timing of some water deliveries from storage reservoirs to provide enough water for trout to survive the winter, while still meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. Even a small boost in streamflows can be enough to significantly help trout and other fish hang on until the late-spring snowmelt naturally improves their ability to reproduce.
For decades reservoirs in the basin have only released water for agricultural, the basin’s primary water users, during the April-through-October irrigation season. As a result, many streams and ditches run dry or slow to a trickle in the winter.
What kept Coombs, whose district operates the Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River, from rejecting Terry as just another antagonizing environmentalist or silver-spoon fly-fisherman, as he might have previously, was that Terry didn’t pontificate or try to persuade. Rather, he asked Coombs and other board members and residents what they needed to support their farms and ranches.
Terry then suggested a way to help them: Pay irrigators to re-time reservoir releases, providing them with cash, while giving native and wild fish a leg up.
Over the course of many discussions with Terry and heated debates among district board members, Coombs became convinced that this did not need to be a zero-sum proposition. About two years later, in 2015, he joined Terry in creating the Rio Grande Winter Flow Program. That same year the district board voted unanimously to change a longstanding rule to allow for the re-timing of water released from reservoirs.
The program works like this: Trout Unlimited pays participating water users to shift the release of a portion of their water allocation from the growing season to the winter months. Those landowners then pay a fraction of what they receive from TU to their local water conservancy district to release that amount of water from their storage reservoir, and they can keep the difference.
Dennis Moeller, for instance, owns a 2,000-acre ranch near the town of Antonito that stretches to the Conejos River in the southern San Luis Valley. Some 80 head of cattle roam the ranch in the winter, and another 400 graze on public land in the mountains. Now, the Conejos district releases a portion of Moeller’s allocated water from Platoro Reservoir into his ditch through the winter. Not only does this help the trout upstream of Moeller’s ranch, but he no longer needs to truck in winter water for his cattle. Trout Unlimited pays him $10 per acre-foot. Moeller pays the Conejos district $4.50 per acre-foot and pockets the $5.50 difference. For a total of about 84 acre-feet, he netted $462. Hardly a 401(k) plan, but it’s easy money. He said he still comes out net positive even if he needs to buy extra water to irrigate his meadow grass and alfalfa hay during the growing season.
And the collaboration is paying off across the valley.
“I promise you, I was considered the most anti-environmentalist in the room a few years ago,” said Coombs. “And the attitude of the board in the beginning was ‘no and hell no.’ But we realized that the [winter flow] program could benefit operators in the district, and that fish were a footnote. And we came to recognize that it also helps fisheries and tourism broadly in the region. The genius of this [program] is getting enough people in the room who understand what the common goal is, and enough trust.”
Five storage reservoirs in the basin participate in the program: Platoro, Continental, Terrace, Beaver Creek and Rio Grande. They operate on the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa rivers.
For the voluntary program with an annual budget of about $80,000, Trout Unlimited does not set firm goals, but Terry noted that any additional water in the winter helps fish and their habitat. “The more the better, but we consider the program a success if we get any additional acre-feet of water for instream flows,” he said.
Last year was Colorado’s second-driest year on record, making precious little water available for additional instream flows.
The situation is also made more complicated by the Rio Grande Compact. Under this agreement, formalized in 1938, water users in the valley must make sure that certain amounts of water are delivered across the state border en route to New Mexico and Texas every year.
And the winter flow program, which works cooperatively with the water users, is able to work within the constraints of the compact.
Although Terry said Trout Unlimited’s goal to raise streamflows in the basin is not specific, the Conejos district set a goal of adding at least three cubic feet per second (cfs) per day, a 43 percent increase from its minimum required release of 7 cfs, in the non-irrigation season, amounting to roughly 900 acre-feet total to the program.
Last winter the Conejos far exceeded its goal—releasing an additional 4,345 acre-feet during the winter months. Overall, the winter flow program generated more than 5,000 acre-feet, according to Terry. And although it was not the most productive year, it was a pleasant surprise.
“The message is that we made a small portion of the [Rio Grande] Compact water do more work while it was still in Colorado, by re-timing some of it so that Colorado’s streams benefitted and we still paid the bill,” Terry said.
Estevan Vigil is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has been researching fish populations and their habitat in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers. He said the program has helped to restore and improve some trout and insect habitat, although low flows in the last two years especially have made it difficult to survey fish populations. Going forward, he said, climate change and drought will pose major slow-moving threats.
“Doing things like the winter flow program, where we’re keeping flows higher in rivers as often as we can, allows us to try to mitigate the impacts of those changes,” Vigil said.
Anecdotal evidence from fly-fishing outfitters suggests that the winter flows have helped bring more wild brown and other trout into local rivers and streams. Randy Keys, owner of Riffle Water LLC in Antonito, said the program has helped restore certain areas for fishing, drawing more anglers to the area. “It has made a huge difference,” he said. “For example, before the program the area right below the Platoro [Reservoir] was nothing but meadow water, with not a lot of holding places for trout. Now it’s great for fishing.”
As water in this region, and more broadly in the West, becomes increasingly scarce, the winter flow program may become one of many examples of how different water interests with seemingly competing priorities are reassessing their historic perspectives in order to figure out how to squeeze more out of every drop, for everyone.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just changing people’s mindsets,” said Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer at the Division of Water Resources, which has been working with Trout Unlimited to administer water under the winter flow program. “We don’t have to do everything exactly like we did in the past. We can adjust it a bit to get multiple benefits.”
Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @susan_moran.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado River District will spend the first $1 million in partner project funds made possible from a recent tax approval to help pay for a Grand County effort to address environmental impacts from a reservoir.
The district board last week approved the contribution to a $23.5 million project for a channel to reconnect the Colorado River where the Windy Gap Reservoir blocks its flow.
The decision means nearly a quarter of the annual amount that the tax approval will generate for such projects will be spent in just one of the 15 counties in the river district. But district General Manager Andy Mueller believes it’s a good place to start. And a district policy newly approved by the board aims to ensure that over the long run, funding is allocated fairly and broadly around the district…
In November, voters, including in Mesa County, approved roughly doubling the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The measure is expected to boost its revenues by nearly $5 million in the first year. Some of the annual revenues from the new tax will help the district address operating budget needs, but most of it — about $4.2 million this year — is to go toward partnering on projects addressing agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.
Under the board’s new policy to implement the program, it is seeking over time to spread funds among those categories and among counties and river basins in the district, while also considering factors such as the relative populations of counties and basins, and the district’s strategic goals.
The district also plans to use funds to help lobby for contributions of funds from other sources, rather than paying for projects by itself…
Mueller told the board the Windy Gap project is the kind of funding partnership he had in mind, in that “it really brings together all of these folks to fix something.”
Among those who already have committed to the project are the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (about $5.67 million), the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and related entities ($5 million), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (more than $3.2 million) and Grand County ($1 million).
With the river district commitment, the project remains more than $6.3 million short of full funding, but Mueller plans to use the district’s commitment to push for further funding from a variety of sources, including by pressuring the Northern Colorado Water to chip in more…
The bypass project partly involves reconfiguring the reservoir through construction of a redesigned dam, and building a roughly mile-long natural channel around the reservoir to reconnect the river upstream and downstream of it.
The project is expected to improve Gold Medal trout habitat and improve water quality for downstream irrigators…
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the river district board, told fellow board members that the project is necessary…
He said it provides a lesson to the current generation of the water community about the need to “really pay attention to what you’re doing” to avoid unintended consequences…
As for other projects that the new river district tax revenue could someday fund, the district more locally has pointed to possibilities such as helping rehabilitate the Grand Valley Roller Dam in Mesa County, and working to maintain for the long term Colorado River flows secured by the senior water right associated with the aging Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”
Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.
The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.
Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.
“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.
“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”
Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.
Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.
Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.
District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.
Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District at a board meeting [January 19, 2021] voted to give $1 million of their taxpayer-raised funds to help construct the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will improve deteriorated conditions at the headwaters of the Colorado River.
“When I look at this, it has benefits that are assisting our communities in the damage caused by transmountain diversions,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said during the meeting.
The district’s vote is the first step in a final push to fund and build the long-awaited channel, which has been in the works since the early 2000s. The connectivity channel is the first project to which River District board members have allocated money as part of the organization’s new Project Partnership Funding Program.
If built, the channel would mitigate much of the damage to the Colorado and Fraser rivers that has been caused by the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County. While the channel itself has broad support, its fate is tangled in that of a more controversial project that will draw additional water from the Colorado River system.
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District constructed the original Windy Gap Project in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to customers across the Continental Divide.
“It’s an unchanneled reservoir, meaning that it’s just plopped right in the middle of the Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, the legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It basically blocks the river all the way across, and that has serious consequences.”
The project cut off the river’s flow and led to large stretches of river that went dry. It caused sediment buildup and a documented decline in biodiversity below the reservoir, including a 38% loss of its aquatic insect species and declines in fish populations.
The connectivity channel, which is designed to undo some of this damage, would reconnect the Upper Colorado and Fraser rivers to the main stem of the Colorado by routing the river around the dam of the Windy Gap Reservoir, creating a path for fish, water and sediment to flow down the river.
Since the release of its original conceptual design in the early 2000s, the connectivity channel has seen its estimated costs grow from about $10 million to $23.5 million. The River District money would help close the remaining $7 million funding gap — but not completely. According to Mueller, the River District voted to give the money in hopes that it would entice other groups to do the same.
The project has been lauded as a rare example of collaboration in the world of water management. It carries support from an unusual coalition of environmental groups, local government and water-management groups on both sides of the Continental Divide. The River District is just one of 10 of the project’s financial backers, which include Northern Water, Grand County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the channel’s construction does come at a cost. Much of the funding for the project depends on the construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project — an expansion of the Windy Gap Project that would result in the construction of a 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in Larimer County.
To date, the Windy Gap’s junior water right has meant that the project’s managers have not been able to divert water in dry years and have not had a place to store water for their customers during wet years. The reservoir would give the project’s customers a consistent supply — or “firm yield,” as it’s called — of 30,000 acre-feet annually.
Drawing additional water from the beleaguered Colorado River was controversial, so to win support for their plan, Northern Water signed on with a battery of agreements with environmental groups and Western Slope municipalities and water managers.
Included in these agreements was $5 million for the connectivity channel, a guarantee to maintain a minimum streamflow below the dam, construction of water storage for Western Slope communities and a promise to open negotiations over other water rights that impact the Western Slope.
For many groups that traditionally oppose moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the benefits from the project were enough to win them over. Additional supporters and sponsors of the project include Trout Unlimited and the Grand Board of County Commissioners.
“We have to look at this in a realistic light,” Mueller said of the compromise. “This won’t fix the original sin of placing the Windy Gap Reservoir right in the middle of the Colorado River channel, but it does mitigate it.”
Trout Unlimited has used the funds from Northern Water as leverage for attracting other funding and grants for the connectivity channel and other projects to improve the habitat quality on the river. These include plans to protect the river from some of the effects of climate change by narrowing parts of the river channel to lower stream temperatures and adding fire protection.
“Everything that we’re doing is to make the river more resilient,” Whiting said. “It’s not going to be what it would be naturally in terms of size and volume and flows, but it will function naturally and it will function as good habitat in spite of all those limitations.”
But while many have heralded the Windy Gap Firming Project as the beginning of a new era of cooperation in water management, not everyone agrees that mitigating environmental damage to the river is enough.
“We are past the point where we can do work around the margins,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “There is a climate crisis, there’s a water crisis. These things are real, and they are not going away by us mitigating them around the edges.”
WildEarth Guardians is one of six environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Save the Colorado, that filed a lawsuit against the Windy Gap Firming Project. The 2017 suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleged that the agencies violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act by approving the permits for the Windy Gap Firming Project. Northern Water was not a defendant in the case.
In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argued that the agencies did not consider conserving water instead of building a diversion project as an alternative for providing water to Front Range communities.
The call for conservation came as a surprise to Northern Water, which used the state’s water-demand projections to justify the need for their project. Those projections already assume that municipalities will adopt a certain level of conservation measures.
“We’ve been pretty confident with our project that we addressed all the issues in our environmental work that they had questions about,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering. “And part of the reason they take so long is because the federal agencies are nervous about getting sued like this, and they want to make sure they check all their boxes and get things done.”
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December. In his ruling, the judge did not analyze water conservation as an alternative. Instead, he noted that the agencies followed the procedural laid out in the law and that he was required to give deference to the agencies’ decisions.
While the plaintiffs weigh whether to appeal the case, Northern Water and the other supporters of the Windy Gap Firming Project have begun taking small steps toward constructing their projects. Barring another legal challenge, they will begin construction on the project’s reservoir as soon as this summer and on the connectivity channel in the fall.
For now, the supporters of the firming project are excited about what they see as a paradigm shift in water management: a move toward cooperation over competition for water resources. Those against the project also are hoping for an eventual shift, but their idea of what that looks like is something more dramatic.
“This just highlights for me that federal environmental laws aren’t really working anymore. When you have deference to the agency, it’s hard for someone else to come in and say that here are other ways that this can be done,” Pelz said. “I think one of the things that needs to happen, which is a radical thing, is that we need to actually live within the river means.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. AJ was supported by the Walton Family Foundation from 2016 to 2018, and the foundation has also supported Trout Unlimited. This story ran in the Jan. 20 editions of The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.
A private ranch is seeking Colorado environmental regulators’ permission to inject the Blue River with phosphorus — a chemical regulated as a pollutant — as part of an experiment that could help improve trout habitat at a popular high-country fishing destination.
Kremmling-based Blue Valley Ranch, owned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II, proposes beginning the project as soon as next summer on an 8-mile stretch of the river running through its 25,000-acre ranch, which is located on both sides of the river between Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado River.
The ranch has not yet applied for a state discharge permit, which it will need before beginning the project. In September, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a 35-member group of water planners, voted to provide Blue Valley Ranch, which did not request a financial contribution, with a letter of support.
The ranch sits alongside the lower section of the river. Areas on this stretch that have public access are home to relatively large and abundant trout, earning a “gold medal” status from the state. The experiment may help explain why trout farther upstream above the Green Mountain Reservoir appear undernourished. The ranch expects that adding phosphorus to the river will grow more algae, a building block in the aquatic food-chain supporting fish.
If the project helps the fish, water managers could use a similar one to restore the gold-medal status of a section of the Blue River upstream from the ranch’s property that the state delisted in 2016. The designation is based on the size and abundance of fish in rivers with public access. The rare delisting on the river section, north of Silverthorne, was a blow to residents who saw the designation as a way to attract outdoor tourism to the region.
Scientists warn that adding too much phosphorus could create problems downstream. Excess phosphorus [enables algae blooms including cyanobacteria], an algae that can be toxic to humans. Last summer, such algae blooms prompted the state to issue warnings and closures to lakes across the state, from Steamboat Lake, north of Steamboat Springs, to Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir.
This is one reason why the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on new rules to limit phosphorus pollution based on the chemical’s ecological impacts. The state may soon require owners of large facilities, such as wastewater-treatment plants, to make costly upgrades to comply with new limits.
That same agency will have to decide whether to grant the ranch a discharge permit, weighing the possibility of improving trout habitat with the environmental risks. MaryAnn Nason, a spokeswoman for the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in a statement that the state would evaluate whether the additional phosphorus protects aquatic life, drinking water and recreation, and complies with the state’s regulations on phosphorus.
The theory behind the project is that the river has too little phosphorus, a circumstance that may be preventing the growth of periphyton, an algae eaten by aquatic insects that state biologists say are “sparse” in the river. One of the reasons the river lacks nutrients is that the 231-foot dam in Silverthorne is causing it to back up. The dam was built in 1963 to create the Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water uses to ship drinking water under the Continental Divide to residents on the Front Range. The dam traps nutrients such as phosphorus and prevents downstream flooding, a natural process that can pull phosphorus back into the river. In the 1980s, the state imposed strict limits on phosphorus pollution from wastewater-treatment plant operators in the basin, which has kept phosphorus concentrations to about 10 parts per billion in the reservoir to prevent algae blooms. That means the cold water flowing out of the bottom of the dam also is relatively low in phosphorus.
“This is a success story,” said William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Limnology and who has studied the reservoir’s chemistry for decades.
Whether the successes of curbing pollution are hurting fish habitat downstream is hard to say for sure, Lewis said. But supporters of the Blue Valley Ranch proposal say the experiment could test this one factor among the many affecting the river.
“We have to better understand those factors. And measure them. And then rate them,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates for fish habitat and supports the ranch’s proposed experiment.
According to a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable by Blue Valley Ranch, the company proposes placing jugs of liquid fertilizer at six sites along the river bordering its property, injecting it with as much as nearly 2,000 gallons per year. In an emailed statement from the company, it said it plans to increase the phosphorus concentrations in the river by 3 parts per billion. It would then sample the growth of periphyton, aquatic insects and the fish population. The company cites a project on Idaho’s Kootenai River in which researchers increased phosphorus levels of as much as about 12.5 parts per billion. Bob Steed, the surface water manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the Kootenai River project has increased the size and number of fish without causing toxic algae blooms or other problems with water quality.
But scientists still have reservations. Lisa Kunza, a professor of chemistry biology and health sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who has studied the ecological impacts of the Kootenai River project, said she wondered whether Blue Valley Ranch plans to spend enough time studying baseline conditions before the experiment. And she wondered what’s motivating the company to do the project.
According to the company’s website, the ranch seeks “to be a leader in conservation.” Its owner, Jones, is an investor whose philanthropy has earned him recognition as a “conservationist.” Jones spent $805,000 on Highway 9 wildlife crossings north of Silverthorne as well as other projects across the county, including setting up a foundation aimed at protecting the Florida Mangroves. The property is known for its intensive management, such as using a diesel-powered backhoe to make the river narrower and deeper, and locals call the stretch of river flowing through the ranch “Jurassic Park.”
Brien Rose, a biologist with Blue Valley Ranch who has worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, has been giving presentations on the project and speaking with the Department of Public Health and Environment. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Before the ranch stepped up with the idea, the concept of its experiment was already being discussed among the region’s water managers, some of whom are monitoring conditions upstream and perhaps laying the groundwork for a similar project. The Blue River Watershed Group, which helps manage the river, is backing the project. Supporters see it as a way to help restore the river to a more natural state before the dam trapped its nutrients.
“Studies of the lower Blue River have shown that it is deficient in some nutrients because of the two upstream impoundments on the river. A major goal of this research is to add to the base of knowledge that will ultimately benefit other impounded rivers in the Western United States,” said Brett Davidson, a manager with Blue Valley Ranch, in an emailed statement.
But what the river looked like before the dam is unclear, researchers say. Aside from the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, the Blue River has been impacted by hardrock mining and the growing mountain towns of Silverthorn, Frisco and Breckenridge. For decades, the state has been stocking the river with brown and rainbow trout, game fish that white settlers introduced to Colorado. One of the reasons the middle section of the Blue River lost its gold-medal status was because the state scaled back stocking.
Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, said she sees the value in Blue Valley Ranch’s experiment. She, too, wants to better understand the effects of phosphorus on a river’s ecology.
But Marshall said “further tinkering” with the river to restore it could have its risks. She added: “The proposed study sounds like a Band-Aid, rather than fixing the underlying causes of degraded stream habitat.”
This story ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
One year ago, exactly zero parts of Colorado were officially designated as being abnormally dry or in drought. What a difference a year makes.
Now, even as the ski season starts up, every corner of our state is facing drought conditions. As the effects of unchecked climate change continue to worsen, these conditions, which previously would have been considered extreme, are sadly becoming the new normal, and the impacts are wide ranging.
As Coloradans know all too well, these hot, dry conditions played a significant role in fueling wildfires that tragically steal away lives, communities and our beloved natural landscapes. Images from recent months of families fleeing burning homes and beleaguered firefighters waging battle while air tankers swoop overheard are pictures that we won’t soon forget.
Some of these record-breaking wildfires — like Cameron Peak — are still burning, even as it snows. Last year, the Fern Creek Fire burned all winter, in a place where fire has not occurred in 500 years.
The impacts of these disasters stretch well beyond the fire lines, and have downstream effects on our precious rivers and waterways.
Colorado’s mountains supply water to seven downstream states and the wildfires can directly impact the quantity and quality of that water. This problem is likely to only worsen in the years and decades ahead, which is why we need to take action now to safeguard our water supplies and ensure that our state’s vital natural resources are protected.
This may seem like a daunting problem, but there is so much that our society can do. Fortunately, voters know that protecting our water is critical. Colorado voters are notoriously anti-tax, but on Nov. 3, voters in 23 Colorado counties approved two ballot measures to protect our water and rivers. That follows 2019, where statewide voters approved a measure to provide as much as $29 million annually to implement Colorado’s Water Plan. Similar local county measures were enacted in 2016 and 2018.
The results are clear: Coloradans are aware of the threats facing our water supplies and are willing to dedicate state resources toward preserving and protecting them.
The dollars from these measures are critical and will go a long way toward protecting our water for future Coloradans, but only if we leverage them in the right ways and build on a coalition. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and if we’re serious about tackling these issues we need to marshal all of the support we can find and elicit the help of as many stakeholders as possible.
The federal government can help by funding water conservation efforts by both cities and the agricultural sector, who have both been largely leading the charge. It also can help support natural water storage and build on “natural infrastructure,” i.e. natural or naturalized areas that are strategically managed to conserve the ecosystem’s protective functions while also providing economic and societal benefits.
What does that mean in layman’s terms? It means providing jobs to restore healthy forests. It means safeguarding the wetlands and streams that naturally clean our water, provide firebreaks, and support the wildlife and scenery for which our state is famous. We know these techniques can work, we just need the resources to properly implement them.
And the only way to protect enough forests, wetlands and streams at a big enough scale to make a difference is to layer public funds with other sources of funding in creative ways. The innovative Environmental Impact Fund under development in southwest Colorado is a perfect example of such creativity.
This fund is the result of years of partnerships and collaboration that have brought all stakeholders together with local leadership — homeowners, water providers, agriculture, hikers and agencies. They are working together to combine and leverage funding so that they can protect forests and water resources in a coordinated and cost-efficient way that provides jobs, reaches economies of scale, and protects the community and its water for people, agriculture and nature.
Finally, let’s not forget that all of this helps implement Colorado’s Water Plan, which is currently marking its fifth anniversary. The plan was developed with input from community leaders and residents throughout the state. The resulting plan outlines solutions to address the gap between our finite water supplies and demand, while setting a goal of achieving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation savings by 2050. It also outlines steps for maintaining our vital agricultural economy, which bolsters our communities while supplying food and fiber around the world.
Studies show that the entire American Southwest is on the precipice of a historic megadrought, which means that our climate and ecosystems are entering into uncharted territory. The future is already here: We must act now to help our communities and environment navigate future wildfires and intensifying drought.
Protecting Colorado’s rivers and streams today means acting to protect future generations of Coloradans. But we’re Coloradans. We have proven that water is an issue that unites us, and we are poised to lead the nation on creative and effective solutions to address this issue head-on.
Jill Ozarski is a program officer in the Environment Program focusing on the Colorado River initiative for the Walton Family Foundation.
Developers often dropped by unannounced at the Allely farm to ask if the family would consider selling their 70-acre property south of Greeley at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers. The answer was always no — the Allelys did not want their land, which had been in the family since in the early 1960s, to be developed, now or in the future.
So when staff from Westervelt Ecological Services first approached the Allelys about creating a habitat preservation program on their farm roughly three years ago, the family was skeptical. But over the course of many months and long conversations, they began to warm to the idea and eventually agreed.
Instead of selling their property to the highest bidder or leaving it to the next generation, the family established a conservation easement — a permanent agreement to never develop the land — and, for a fee, allowed Westervelt to create the new Big Thompson confluence mitigation bank. The project broke ground in late October.
Now, a developer who disrupts wetlands or streams elsewhere along the Front Range and in parts of eastern Colorado can offset that impact by buying credits generated from floodplain and ecosystem restoration work completed on the Allelys’ land. Purchasing credits from this new mitigation bank allows developers to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act.
“It’s a very important piece of property to us as a family,” said Zach Allely, the fifth-oldest of the six children who grew up on the farm. “If there’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘No, this is a place where native fauna, native flora can thrive forever,’ we’ll take that.”
Mitigation banks, explained
Mitigation banks are not new in Colorado — there are some 21 pending, approved, sold-out or suspended throughout the state, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ database — but this is the first new mitigation bank approved on the Front Range in 20 years.
Across the country, mitigation banks have become more popular since 2008, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed a preference for mitigation banks (over other types of mitigation) and offered clearer guidance, standards and timelines for these projects.
Mitigation banks like this one are a byproduct of the federal Clean Water Act, first enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and then expanded and reorganized in 1972. More specifically, they relate to Section 404 of the act, which aims to protect the country’s wetlands from the discharge of dredged or fill materials during the construction of dams, levees, highways, airports and other development projects.
Under Section 404, developers must take steps to avoid and minimize damage to wetlands and streams by adjusting the scope, location, design and type of project they wish to undertake. After avoidance and minimization, they must turn to a third mitigation type: compensatory mitigation.
Under compensatory mitigation, developers can restore, establish, enhance or preserve wetlands at the project site or somewhere else nearby. But this type of work isn’t always practical or possible, which is where mitigation banks come into play. Instead of going to all that trouble, a developer can pay for someone else to do the heavy lifting at a different, nearby location.
A mitigation banker, in this case Westervelt, pays for the upfront costs of finding a suitable piece of land, gaining approval from the right regulatory agencies, and doing the actual mitigation work. Then, depending on the scope and size of the project, the banker can sell a certain number of credits to offset the impacts of future development within the bank’s general vicinity.
Restoring historical floodplain
Today, crews are hard at work on the Allely property, re-establishing the historical floodplain to help restore the ecosystem for plants and animals and improve flood resiliency for nearby communities.
This restoration work also creates 34.76 wetland credits and 460 stream credits — released in phases — that developers, public agencies, mining companies and others can buy to help mitigate the unavoidable damage their projects will cause to other Colorado wetlands and streams.
Lucy Harrington, the Rocky Mountain region director for Westervelt Ecological Services, declined to say how much the company is charging for credits from the new 72.4-acre bank, citing variable pricing and bulk discounts.
But the Colorado Department of Transportation, which regularly buys credits from mitigation banks across the state, recently paid $200,000 for a credit from the new bank to help offset the impact of its Central 70 highway improvement project, said Becky Pierce, CDOT’s wetlands program manager.
To find potential mitigation bank sites, Westervelt staffers perform geographic information system (GIS) analyses that take into account a property’s proximity to streams, hydrology, oil and gas infrastructure, and proximity to other conserved properties, among other factors, Harrington said.
The company, which opened its newest regional office in Centennial in 2016, also looks at community-identified areas for wetland restoration and conservation, as was the case with the new Big Thompson confluence bank. Westervelt staff worked with the Middle South Platte River Alliance to understand local priorities and identify possible sites for the new bank. The alliance helped introduce Westervelt to the Allely family.
“It’s really a confluence of technical work, relationship-building and a little bit of luck, to be perfectly honest,” Harrington said.
Westervelt and other mitigation bankers often buy property outright. But in this case, Westervelt paid the Allely family an undisclosed amount to use their land for the mitigation bank and, in return, the Allelys protected the property in perpetuity with a conservation easement, which comes with its own tax benefits and incentives. Westervelt and the Allelys also established a long-term endowment for the site’s management with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
After creating a detailed plan and getting approval from regulatory agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others, Westervelt began work.
Credits going fast
The company has released its first round of credits, which includes 8.69 wetland acres and 115 functional feet of stream credits. So far, the company has sold more than half of the wetland credits, Harrington said.
“Any project, whether it’s a highway widening that may cross a river, home development that may affect ephemeral or perennial drainage, a Walmart parking lot that’s expanding, a pipeline going in, any of those development items that could impact wetlands and streams, instead of having to provide a wetland offset themselves can just come to us, write a check and just walk away,” Harrington said. “We take on all the liability of the site in perpetuity.”
Meanwhile, the Allely family knows that their property will never be developed and is instead being restored to its historical conditions. They can also still access the land under the conservation easement, which is held by the nonprofit land trust Colorado Open Lands.
Staff at Colorado Open Lands say they hope the success of the Big Thompson mitigation bank will inspire other landowners to conserve their land.
“It’s just another tool, another way for us to look at getting creative about protecting open space in Colorado,” said Carmen Farmer, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. “Traditionally, we protect land throughout the state using state tax credits and federal tax deductions and incentives. Sometimes the traditional model doesn’t necessarily pencil out for landowners. This is another way for us to go about incentivizing landowners to help protect their properties and make sure they’re compensated for doing so.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Glenwood Springs is spending more than $10 million on repairs and upgrades to water supply infrastructure following Grizzly Creek Fire.
The Grizzly Creek Fire was not even 10% contained. Jumbo jets still were dousing flames as firefighting teams from across the country scrambled to protect Glenwood Springs and a critical watershed above the Colorado River. And teams of scientists were in Glenwood Canyon, too, battling alongside firefighters.
Those hydrologists, biologists, geologists, archaeologists and recreation specialists are still there, even after the flames are gone, waging a behind-the-scenes battle to protect water and natural resources…
Burned Area Emergency Response — or BAER — teams typically come in when a fire is 50% contained to assess damage and create a multi-year restoration plan. Roberts and the Grizzly Creek Fire BAER crew were on the ground when less than 10% of the fire was contained as both forest and fire managers recognized threats to water supplies. In less than three weeks, they had a map detailing where the Grizzly Creek Fire burned hottest, which helped the Colorado Department of Transportation identify areas where rockfall hazards increased in the fire.
In a twist on the BAER assessment — which usually focuses on protecting resources after a fire — the team helped build an emergency communication plan that helped firefighters in the canyon, and identified areas where they could swiftly take cover in the event of rockfall or a sudden rainstorm that could sweep debris and rocks off canyon walls…
It was this early assessment that sparked an urgent plea for help from Glenwood Springs. As firefighters battled back flames on the western edge of the wildfire, the city’s leaders rallied politicians far and wide to acknowledge damage to the city’s water supply infrastructure. Barely three weeks after the wildfire sparked along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, the city had a list of immediate work needed to protect the city’s watershed.
Sen. Michael Bennet prodded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to unleash millions from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program. Glenwood Springs was first in line, with a clear message that spring snowmelt, or even a rainstorm, could cripple the city’s water supply…
It didn’t take long for Glenwood Springs to identify immediate repairs and upgrades to protect water systems from expected sediment and debris flowing from scorched canyon walls. First on the list were intake systems on Glenwood Canyon’s Grizzly and No Name creeks. The city also needed an upgrade to a backup water intake on the Roaring Fork River, should the systems in the canyon go down. And finally, the city is eager to finish a long-planned bridge that could help residents flee a wildfire on the south end of town.
By early September, less than a month after the Grizzly Creek Fire started, the city had a list of $86 million in projects. And the money started flowing almost immediately.
The city secured more than $1 million from the NRCS’s Emergency Watershed Program for projects to protect intake infrastructure on No Name and Grizzly creeks, high above the Colorado River…
The city asked the NRCS for wiggle room on the requirement that municipalities pay 25% of the total grant. The service agreed to an 80-20 split, which meant the city needed a little less than $200,000 to protect the structures that funnel millions of gallons of water a day into the city’s water treatment plant.
Work on the Grizzly Creek intake started first, with helicopters ferrying workers 3.8 miles up the drainage. The workers put in steel plates to protect the diversion and valve systems from debris that could clog the intake during the next big rain or spring melt. They stabilized the banks upstream and downstream of the intake, which required flying 11 cubic yards of cement up the drainage.
The team finished in October and then turned to No Name Creek, where intake diversions and valves are accessible by truck. That work included similar protections as Grizzly Creek, plus a concrete wall to keep debris from hitting a city structure on No Name Creek.
The No Name work also included upgrades to a 1962 tunnel near the bottom of the creek, with new strainers and filters designed to remove bulky sediment before water reaches the treatment plant. The No Name work is ongoing but will be completed before the spring melt.
In addition to the intake repairs and upgrades, Glenwood Springs this month secured an $8 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money was among the first awarded through the board’s 2020 Wildfire Impact Loan program, which streamlines funding for municipalities racing to protect watersheds after a wildfire. The program offers 30-year loans with no payment necessary for the first three years.
The $8 million will help design and construct new pipelines from the city’s pump station on the Roaring Fork River, which delivers water uphill to the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant. Glenwood Springs has two water sources: the intake systems on No Name and Grizzly creeks and the pumps on the Roaring Fork River. The Roaring Fork water is a backup in case either of the intakes on the creeks above the Colorado River go down. But the intakes in Glenwood Canyon and the pumps on the Roaring Fork cannot run at the same time, and the city is building a second pipeline into the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant so the two sources can deliver water simultaneously, if needed.
“This will give us a lot of resiliency moving into the future. Not just fire resiliency, but it gives us a lot of water resource resiliency,” said Matt Langhorst, the public works director for Glenwood Springs. “Having one water source is not acceptable. We need two or three and this would give us three.”
Glenwood Springs is applying for a Department of Local Affairs grant for the pipeline running from the Roaring Fork River, which would reduce its loan amount from the CWCB.
A third project, still part of that $8 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will plan and construct a concrete basin above the Red Mountain Water Treatment plant that will mix water coming from the Grizzly Creek and No Name intakes with the water from the Roaring Fork River. The mixing basin helps remove sediment and creates a consistent type of water so technicians do not need to overhaul various treatment processes to accommodate different sources of water.
A fourth project — and the biggest — would upgrade the entire Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant, which has not been updated since 1977. An upgraded plant, with new technology, would be able to more quickly and efficiently remove sediment from higher volumes of incoming water…
Sprinkling special-made seeds
The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s emergency loan program was developed in response to the 2013 floods. The idea was to get emergency funds approved by the board ahead of time so communities do not have to wait through a prolonged application and review process. The board’s emergency loan program distributed $23 million in emergency watershed protection funding following the devastating floods in September 2013…
With the fire climbing out the canyon by the middle of September and the risk to crews reduced through communication plans and safety maps, Roberts’ BAER team of specialists started their work on emergency stabilization and long-term restoration.
They created a second burn severity map along with a satellite-derived data map of vegetation in the burn zone. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program also created a similar map identifying areas where debris flow could be heaviest during a rainstorm.
The BAER team started hiking into the canyon, sometimes driving up to the top of the canyon and dropping in from above, and sometimes hiking up. They scoured the soil in burn areas for organic, woody debris and intact roots, which raise the likelihood of natural recovery. Roberts said new plants already are pushing through the charred topsoil.
“What we have seen to date is there is a lot of that organic material and native seed left in the soil that is allowing a lot to come back,” Roberts said, describing a patchy burn in a “mosaic” pattern. “We see good potential for recovery.”
Roberts and her team assisted the natural recovery process, sprinkling seeds as soon as rain and snow dampened the soil. They walked all the fire suppression lines where bulldozers hastily cleared entire swaths of forest and yanked out non-native weeds that took root. And they threw seeds everywhere.
Roberts collected native grass seed from the nearby Flat Tops to create a seed mix for Glenwood Canyon. The mix will produce resilient grasses that help stabilize soil and combat invasive weeds. The team’s reseeding of suppression lines is nearing completion as the snow piles deeper. The stabilization work will continue into next summer.
Emergency trail and road stabilization will pick up in the spring, when Roberts will move into the restoration phase, which includes aggressive mitigation to prevent non-native weeds and monitoring vegetation growth.
Researchers with Utah State University also joined Roberts in the field and launched a year-long study of how the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts runoff and erosion. The researchers expect the data — gathered from USGS gauges upstream and downstream of the burn zone as well as monitoring equipment inside the canyon — will help better calibrate the models used to predict debris flow in areas burned by wildfire.
Starting the week of October 26, contractors working for the City of Montrose will begin a river improvement project along 0.65 miles (3,400 feet) of the Uncompahgre River. The project will include the stabilization of riverbanks, restoration of a more natural stream system, improvement of aquatic and riparian habitats, and improvement of river access and fishing opportunities for the public.
Construction will start around North 9th Street and continue downstream within a 41-acre river corridor tract within the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority boundaries. The property was recently donated to the City of Montrose by Colorado Outdoors.
For safety reasons, public access to the Uncompahgre River within the project area will be closed throughout construction. However, the new recreation trail situated alongside the project, as well as boating access on the remainder of the Uncompahgre River, will remain open throughout the construction project. Through boaters are encouraged to take out at the West Main Trailhead upstream of the project. Although a temporary takeout will be constructed at the beginning of the project area, vehicular access to this area will be much more limited than at West Main. Project activities are expected to last until June 2021.
The river improvement project is being made possible largely due to approximately $785,000 in grants received from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The remainder of the $1.6M project is being funded by the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority.
A decades-long effort to restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek has been completed, resulting in the largest continuous stretch of waterway for the native fish species in the state…
The upper reaches of Hermosa Creek were instantly recognized as an ideal place for a restoration project, both for its outstanding water quality as well as easy access through a Forest Service road that runs behind Purgatory Resort.
Over the years, barriers have been installed to isolate certain stretches of water and an organic poison known as rotenone has been used to clear out invasive species, like brown, brookie and rainbow trout.
All this to clear the path for cutthroat reintroduction.
Last weekend, CPW stocked an estimated 4,000 cutthroat fingerlings and an additional 475 mature cutthroats in the final stretch of the Hermosa Creek project, giving the waterway back to the native fish for the first time in 100 years.
And now, the project to restore 23 miles of cutthroat habitat is finally complete…
For the stretches of upper Hermosa Creek that have been restocked with cutthroats, populations are showing encouraging signs. White said there’s about 400 to 600 fish per mile, which he called a “nice, healthy population.”
Because the area is a popular draw for anglers, there is a strict catch-and-release policy. Local fish-guiding companies have said in the past that anglers come from all over the country to fish native cutthroats.
The Hermosa Creek project was a collaboration between CPW, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.
Our descendants own the future, but the decisions and actions we make now will tremendously impact generations to come, says philosopher Roman Krznaric. From a global campaign to grant legal personhood to nature to a groundbreaking lawsuit by a coalition of young activists, Krznaric shares examples of ways we can become good ancestors — or, as he calls them, “Time Rebels” — and join a movement redefining lifespans, pursuing intergenerational justice and practicing deep love for the planet.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
RiversEdge West, a nonprofit based in Grand Junction, has been awarded $164,566 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, to support the creation of what the group is calling a Western Colorado Sustainable Stewardship model to protect and sustain restoration work. A $40,000 grant from the Bacon Family Foundation also will help with that initiative and let RiversEdge West continue to provide leadership and support for the Desert Rivers Collaborative in Mesa and Delta counties. This includes planning and mapping work, and technical, coordination and fundraising assistance.
RiversEdge West formed the Desert Rivers Collaborative in 2012. The collaborative has completed more than 1,565 acres of riparian restoration on the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. Among the partners are private landowners, other nonprofits, state and federal agencies including Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, volunteers, Mesa County, and municipalities including Palisade, Grand Junction and Fruita.
In addition, RiversEdge West co-leads, along with the Southwest Conservation Corps, the Dolores River Restoration Partnership. That collaborative effort has treated nearly 6,000 acres along 200 miles of the Dolores River in six counties and two states.
The partnerships have focused particularly on two invasive species — tamarisk and Russian olive. Shannon Wadas, associate director of RiversEdge West, said those species outcompete native plants, are less conducive to providing wildlife habitat, pose a higher wildfire risk, affect instream habitat relied upon by native fish, and can interfere with river and bank access for recreation…
That’s where the sustainability component of restoration work comes in. RiversEdge West is working to incorporate long-term monitoring of restored areas and training of partners in that monitoring. Wadas said monitoring protocols are in place already on the Dolores River and RiversEdge West plans to implement those on the Colorado/Gunnison restored areas as well.
It also plans to create, and provide partners with, a framework and guide to help with decisions regarding when and where restoration work should be completed. The CWCB money also will fund two-person “strike teams” with the Southwest Conservation Corps and Western Colorado Conservation Corps to do ongoing maintenance work such as treating tamarisk and Russian olive resprouts and secondary weeds, and doing revegetation.
Wadas said the sustainability efforts are intended to protect the investments already made in riverside restoration, and the hope is that the new sustainability model will be used not just by watershed groups across western Colorado.
From Colorado Trout Unlimited via The Sky-Hi Daily News:
A project designed to improve the Fraser River in Granby began construction Thursday.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of November and the bridge across the Fraser River at Kaibab Park will be closed during the work.
The Granby Diversion Dam, which helps divert the town’s water supply and agricultural irrigation water, is an 80 foot wide, 3.5 foot high boulder structure that spans the Fraser River. At low flows, the dam is a barrier that prevents fish movement critical for a healthy fishery and blocks the movement of small non-motorized crafts that currently portage around it, according to a release from Trout Unlimited.
The project is the result of a partnership between Granby, Trout Unlimited and Grand County. Funds were contributed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Open Lands, Rivers and Trails Fund, with the Northern Colorado Water Conservation Board contributing most of the materials for the project and Colorado Parks and Wildlife providing assistance.
The goal of the project is to provide fish passage for trout and native species and for non-motorized boating recreation without interfering with water diversion for municipal and irrigation purposes. The project will also provide resilience for future flood events, facilitate natural stream processes like sediment transport and no rise in the 100 year floodplain.
Here’s an in-depth look at the methods and motivation to restore Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo from Kevin Simpson writing for The Colorado Sun. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
The multi-agency project to restore the native species has been years in the making. But the optics still can be shocking.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to signs posted in the area, had used a chemical called rotenone to kill all the fish in the [Sand Creek] lakes and Sand Creek, which meanders south down the mountain before veering west to eventually disappear, after 13 miles, into the depths of the Great Sand Dunes.
The project is part of a long-planned strategy to restore the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to waters where its numbers have dwindled toward the edge of extinction.
Increasingly scarce in a dwindling native range and hybridized with other species like non-native cutthroats, which had been stocked alongside it many years ago, the Rio Grande cutthroat eventually will be reintroduced to the mountain lakes and streams where it once thrived…
The Sand Creek drainage was officially listed in a 2013 strategy document.
In 2019, meetings on both the Westcliffe and Alamosa sides of the mountain yielded no opposition — other than concern over the temporary loss of fishing — and little public comment. The project moved ahead, though a year later than originally scheduled due to a late fish spawn…
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest Region, which includes the Sand Creek drainage, notes that the state agency has done similar projects before and will do more of them throughout Colorado.
“We don’t get a great deal of pleasure having to poison a stream, but it is necessary to restore native species,” he said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “This has been done in waters to restore the Rio Grande, greenback and the Colorado River cutthroat; and these projects will continue…
After the 2003 conservation agreement, federal and state authorities started doing reconnaissance in 2004 to determine if the drainage could be restored. Geography that essentially isolated water flow, and therefore fish migration, proved fortuitous.
Bunch points to several reasons why reintroduction of the Rio Grande cutthroat looms important. First, there’s federal policy that favors native species in national parks and preserves. Another has to do with the essential characteristics of a wilderness area. A third is for preservation of the species.
“This is an ideal opportunity to restore 13 miles of habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout,” he said.
The stakeholders who signed the conservation agreement meet annually to discuss the status of its efforts. The key thing, Bunch said, is to prevent the listing of the Rio Grande cutthroat as an endangered species and ensure it has robust habitat…
Although the battle over listing the fish persists, all sides celebrate the ideas that in the case of the Sand Creek drainage, the area could become a refugium for the species, where the fish could naturally multiply and be used as a source for future stocking or restoration if some other habitat experiences problems — say, from wildfire.
On a recent morning, Liza Mitchell of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rolled out fiber mats over a soil-filled portion of a ditch in the North Star Nature Preserve, adding a final layer to a wetland plug that the natural resource planner and ecologist and her team had been working on for the three weeks prior.
The plug is the central component of the program’s fen-restoration project, which aims to enhance the wetland’s ability to provide habitat, store and filter groundwater, and sequester carbon.
While North Star is known as an idyllic paddleboarding and beach destination, 77% of the preserve is closed to public access. This includes the property west of the Roaring Fork River, where the fen sits.
The preserve’s 245 acres function primarily to protect native species and ecosystems. The first 175 acres of the preserve were bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1977. In 2001, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen jointly purchased the 70 acres below the initial property, creating the current North Star Nature Preserve, according to the 2020 North Star management plan.
“It’s for wildlife,” Mitchell said of North Star.
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Critical to the nature preserve
Aligning with the goal of conservation, Open Space and Trails staff identified the North Star fen as a site for ecological restoration. Situated in the northwest corner of the property, the 14-acre fen, which is a peat-filled wetland, is populated with sedges, reeds and grasses.
The wetland is critical to the entire preserve, providing wildlife habitat, water filtration and flood mitigation. In dry months, groundwater stored in the fen percolates into the Roaring Fork River, benefiting the watershed and its thirsty users, Mitchell said.
Yet, due to human alterations to the watershed and North Star, the fen is drying out. In 1936, two tunnels, multiple canals, and the Grizzly and Lost Man reservoirs were completed as part of the Independence Pass Trans-Mountain Diversion System. The system moves water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin to the east side of the Continental Divide, satisfying the water needs of Colorado’s largest cities, according to the 2020 management plan.
This system diverts as much as 40% of the Roaring Fork’s headwaters upstream of the preserve, reducing the volume of river water that flows into the property and saturates the fen, Mitchell said.
The fen underwent further drying in the 1950s, when the preserve was a private ranch owned by James Smith. Smith dug ditches through the fen for pasture and hay cultivation, and those ditches continue to drain standing water into the Roaring Fork, according to Mitchell.
The wetland plug combats the drying by slowing the outflow of water from the fen into the Roaring Fork River. Mitchell, two staffers from Basalt-based Diggin It Riverworks and two ecological consultants began the plug construction Aug. 10. The first week, the team filled 130 feet of the main ditch with a mixture of locally sourced and imported soil. In the second and third weeks, the team added a layer of local soil, scattered native plant seeds and sealed it all with hay, mulch and matting, Mitchell said.
“It’s been a pretty quick project,” she said. “We’ve really tried to get in, get out and minimize disturbance as much as possible.”
6,700 years of carbon sequestration
The wetland plug increases saturated conditions in the fen, or the presence of standing water, enhancing the fen’s ability to provide ecological services to the preserve. For instance, saturated conditions allow fens to function as carbon sequesters by storing peat, or carbon-rich plant material.
Peat accumulates at a rate of 8 inches per 1,000 years, according to David Cooper, wetland ecologist and professor at Colorado State University. With 53 inches of peat soil, the North Star fen is estimated to be 6,700 years old, according to a Pitkin County news release.
“Peatlands make up about 5% of the land surface of the world,” Cooper said, “but almost 45% to 50% of all the soil carbon on Earth is in peatlands.” When fens dry up, the carbon stored as peat is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming, he said.
Saturated conditions also support wildlife. Standing water creates the ideal habitat for native plants, such as beaked and blister sedge, as well as native amphibians and waterfowl. Saturated conditions suffocate canary grass, an invasive species that spread increasingly through the fen as it dries up, Mitchell said.
Wet by standing water, fens filter groundwater. The peat body removes excess nitrogen as well as heavy metals that would otherwise accumulate in watershed fish populations, Cooper said.
A positive for North Star neighbors
Mitchell anticipated finishing the construction phase of the restoration project this past week. She plans to place wattles, or cylinders of hay, across the wetland plug to prevent soil and seed erosion. She also will add hay bales and cylinders to the fen’s two smaller ditches to retain water and provide a surface for native plants.
After this construction phase, a hydrologist and botanist hired by Open Space and Trails will monitor the fen for three years. The consultants will conduct studies and submit reports to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the initial permit for the project in 2018, according to Mitchell.
In the spring of 2021, Open Space and Trails staffers hope to get the local community involved with the project by having volunteers plant native sedges and rushes over the plug.
Already, community response to the restoration project has been very positive. Even without physical access to the fen, neighbors are excited about the prospect of improving habitat for wildlife, such as blue heron and elk, which they enjoy watching from their windows, Mitchell said.
“North Star can get a lot of negative attention surrounding the paddleboarding and recreation use, so it’s really nice to have another project that there seems to be widespread agreement on,” Mitchell said. “Everyone can get behind that it’s a pretty light touch for a pretty big benefit.”
This story ran in the Sept. 5 edition of The Aspen Times.
A multi-agency effort to restore the federally threatened greenback cutthroat trout into its native river basin took a giant hike upwards last week when an army of Colorado Trout Unlimited volunteers led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service staff stocked the Colorado state fish into a new body of water.
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Around 10 staffers and 40 volunteers from Colorado Trout Unlimited each hiked between 12-15 greenback cutthroat trout in backpacks into a Poudre River tributary stream. This introduction marks just the fifth body of water in the state the greenbacks now can call home, with four of those five within the South Platte River basin that the greenbacks are native to.
“Today is one of those exciting instances of getting a new population established,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW. “We are trying to replicate and perpetuate this resource across the landscape, by getting greenbacks into more water bodies within the South Platte River basin.”
A total of 711 greenbacks were stocked on Tuesday, July 28. They came from the Mt. Shavano Hatchery out of Salida. It took the hatchery one year to take the fertilized eggs, hatch and raise the fish to five inches in length, primed for release into the wild.
“Colorado Trout Unlimited is a proud partner in the campaign to protect and restore our native trout,” said Dan Omasta, Grassroots Coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This stocking project is another great example of how anglers and local communities can work together to save a threatened species. We had over 40 volunteers that traveled from as far as Eagle, Colo., and Wyoming to carry fish over nine miles into the backcountry on a rainy afternoon. The passion and dedication of our community is what drives an optimistic future for the greenback cutthroat trout.”
U.S. Forest Service personnel located the fishless stream in the Poudre River basin a couple years ago and the agencies did their due diligence to make Tuesday’s stocking become a reality. Aquatic biologists conducted stream sampling with backpack electrofishing units and took eDNA samples to confirm it was indeed a fishless location. Habitat suitability work also took place to ensure the fish would survive once stocked. Everything checked out and the greenbacks were stocked into a fifth body of water in Colorado.
“We’re excited and proud to be partnering with CPW on this important effort reintroducing greenback cutthroat trout and restoring part of Colorado’s natural heritage,” said Christopher Carrol, Fisheries Biologist and Watershed Crew Lead with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland. “We especially want to thank Colorado Trout Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Flycasters Chapter of Trout Unlimited for organizing so many passionate volunteers and helping collect data that informed our decision for making the reintroduction. Shared stewardship and working together pays dividends for native species.
An important characteristic when looking to identify a reintroduction site is that the stream must be fishless. It must also have protection from invasion of non-native trout that will outcompete and overrun the greenbacks.
“This location is protected by a series of natural waterfall barriers, upwards of 20-feet, that ensures the reach we stocked will not be invaded by non-native fish downstream,” Battige said.
The greenbacks have previously been stocked into Herman Gulch, Dry Gulch, and Zimmerman Lake – all within the South Platte River drainage. These rare fish, twice believed to be extinct, are descendants of the last wild population of native greenback cutthroat trout found in Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs in 2012. Bear Creek is the fifth body of water in Colorado where the fish currently reside.
“This project could not have been completed without the hard work and dedication of today’s volunteers. The hikes that they did range from four miles roundtrip up to nine miles and covered 1,200 to 2,400 vertical feet of elevation, so it was a pretty substantial undertaking,” Battige said.
The fish were loaded onto the hatchery truck at 3:30 a.m. and driven roughly 240 miles to the trailhead where they got loaded into bags with 1-2 gallons of water and pumped full of oxygen. The fish were put in ice water before leaving the hatchery, so they can handle the conditions better during their long journey.
“Lowering the temperature helps the fish travel well, ensures that their metabolism slows down and decreases the overall stress on the fish,” Battige said.
The water temperature in the stream was 51 degrees, so before getting stocked the volunteers tempered their fish, meaning they took time to slowly acclimate the fish to the temperature in the creek over a 10-15 minute time period.
Crews will stock additional greenbacks into the same location each summer for the next two years as they look to establish the population. They will follow up with surveys to see how the fish are doing and aquatic biologists will look for signs of natural reproduction and new greenbacks hatching in the stream in 3-4 years.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) received a water court decree for an instream flow water right on Himes Creek, located in San Juan National Forest, to protect a rare population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. This lineage of trout is native to the San Juan River Basin and was previously thought to be extinct.
“This instream flow water right on Himes Creek is one of the most significant that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has appropriated in the program’s history,” said CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “CWCB staff, along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, consulted with leading researchers and scientists for the past two years to develop a strategy to best protect this extremely rare and at-risk species.”
When this instream flow recommendation was initially brought to CWCB in 2017, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was interested in protecting flows on Himes Creek to support a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. During data collection, genetic testing confirmed that the fish in Himes Creek have the same genetic markers as the San Juan lineage once thought to be extinct. Researchers estimate that the total number of San Juan lineage trout in all known populations is estimated to be as few as 1,000.
The CWCB approved the Himes Creek instream flow recommendation in March 2019, and the water court issued a decree for the Himes Creek instream flow water right on July 27, 2020.
The sound of revving chain saws and crackling tree limbs filled Palisade’s Riverbend Park on Monday morning as Western Colorado Conservation Corps crews sawed through invasive Russian olive trees and ripped up tamarisk…
The work to restore the native habitat along the Colorado River in the park is thanks to a partnership between the Town of Palisade and RiversEdge West, which is working to remove the invasive species.
RiversEdge West is using a grant to fund the Conservation Corps work, which will continue for four days this week, moving east of the boat ramp. Costigan explained how the non-native plants harm the river ecosystem.
“They out-compete with the native plants, and they don’t let the native willows and cottonwoods grow how they’re supposed to,” Costigan said. “They also grow in so thick, it blocks wildlife from accessing the water. So there are a lot of reasons that we want to remove these invasive plants.”
Troy Ward, Palisade director of Parks, Recreation and Events, said the collaboration with RiversEdge began last year and is expected to continue for some time to fully restore the riverbank in Riverbend Park…
As part of its grant, Rivers- Edge West will also help Palisade plant native vegetation in the area.
It has already planted several cottonwood trees in the bank it had previously cleared. In addition to cottonwoods, Ward said it will plant willows and native grasses…
The town also has a new wood chipper it was able to purchase with grant funds, which will allow it to reuse the wood chips elsewhere in its parks. This will keep the town from having to dispose of the plant material in a less useful way, Ward said.
“Instead of us having to send this to the landfill or burn it, we can now chip it and then we can create mulch that we can use to augment some of our soils on the badlands, if you will, out in the disc golf area,” Ward said. “If citizens want some of this mulch, we can make it available to them as well.”
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Notebook: Dust suppression, habitat are key elements in long-term plan to aid sea, whose ills have been a sore point in Colorado River management
Out of sight and out of mind to most people, the Salton Sea in California’s far southeast corner has challenged policymakers and local agencies alike to save the desert lake from becoming a fetid, hyper-saline water body inhospitable to wildlife and surrounded by clouds of choking dust.
The sea’s problems stretch beyond its boundaries in Imperial and Riverside counties and threaten to undermine multistate management of the Colorado River. A 2019 Drought Contingency Plan for the Lower Colorado River Basin was briefly stalled when the Imperial Irrigation District, holding the river’s largest water allocation, balked at participating in the plan because, the district said, it ignored the problems of the Salton Sea.
“The Salton Sea has to be acknowledged for what it is — a serious public health and environmental crisis that can and will have long-term, devastating consequences across the region,” said Norma Galindo, president of the irrigation district’s board of directors. “It is an indispensable part of the Colorado River system, not an invisible one. Its decline simply must be addressed.”
The state of California, long derided for its failure to act in the past, says it is now moving full-bore to address the sea’s problems, with ambitious plans for wildlife habitat expansion and dust suppression.
“We are moving as fast as we can and are fully committed to doing the really good things that we need to be doing at the Salton Sea to address the real issues down there,” said Arturo Delgado, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency.
Agencies with a stake in the Salton Sea are racing to cope with twin problems: suppressing dust from the sea’s receding shoreline to protect the small communities that ring the lake while enhancing areas that are essential to fish and birds. In a state where more than 90 percent of historic wetlands have been lost, the Salton Sea is a vital stop for birds along the migratory route of the Pacific Flyway. All told, more than 400 bird species make regular use of the Salton Sea.
A Question of Urgency
As California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea is unique. More than 230 feet below sea level, it has no natural outlet and is twice as salty as ocean water. For about 20 years, the sea’s water level has steadily declined, further concentrating the salinity.
Protecting and restoring the sea’s ecological values has been a longtime aspiration, but progress has been achingly slow. State plans, some of them ambitious in scope, have come and gone while the sea deteriorates.
“There is no sense of urgency,” said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director with Audubon California. “The Salton Sea has never been a priority for the state or any other entity outside the area.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has pledged to make progress. Getting there includes the laborious tasks of siting, designing and building dust suppression and habitat projects and convincing skeptical locals that inroads will be made where other efforts have fallen short. The state has set the lofty goal of creating 30,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression by 2028.
Delgado said he and his colleagues are up to the challenge.
“When I came in eight months ago, we took stock of our current situation and started developing a realistic timeline based on when we could possibly complete this work,” he said. “It’s a very aggressive timeline but it’s doable.”
The action plan includes working with local partners such as the Imperial Irrigation District, which has long chafed at the pace of progress at the sea. Earlier this year, the state and Imperial Irrigation District completed the Bruchard Road Dust Suppression Project on about 125 acres of exposed playa at the sea’s southern edge.
Imperial Irrigation District opposed participating in a Colorado River Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan last year because it did not adequately address the sea’s plight. The federal government’s lack of financial commitment to the sea “has been the single biggest impediment to a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan that could do what Imperial and all other Colorado River contractors need it to do, which is reduce the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Mead,” said Galindo, the district’s board president. Earlier this month, in its legal challenge to the Drought Contingency Plan, the district reaffirmed its view that the drought plan should be suspended until the sea’s environmental needs are assessed.
Making Something Bad Better
Imperial Irrigation District signed on to a landmark 2003 water transfer between the district and San Diego, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), to help California reduce its overuse of Colorado River water. One effect of that was a significant curtailment of the Salton Sea’s inflow from farm irrigation. As part of the agreement, the state committed to pursuing a restoration plan for the sea while the district contributed mitigation water through 2017. However, a long-term, comprehensive Salton Sea management program has never fully emerged, due in part to the expense.
The transition from the Gov. Jerry Brown administration to the Newsom administration in 2019 brought renewed focus to the sea. However, tangible results remain elusive, said Tina Shields, Imperial’s water manager.
“When you are 15 years behind, you are not just going to wave a magic wand and suddenly have all of these projects completed,” she said.
Identifying and remedying problem areas can be a checkered process, Shields said. Potential projects often face extensive hurdles. “You’d think it would be easy to permit a mitigation project, something that’s going to make something bad better,” Shields said. “But it’s just as complicated as building a Walmart in Temecula because you have to bring in all of those wetlands permits.”
The state’s plan hinges on near-term and long-term actions that improve all elements of the sea, including evaluation of a possible “whole sea” solution that would import ocean water from the Sea of Cortez to stabilize the Salton Sea. Adding water from a source as reliable as the Pacific Ocean would seem to be an obvious solution, but it’s not that easy.
“It’s all about the salt,” said Phil Rosentrater, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, the joint powers authority of local leaders that works with the state to revitalize the sea. “Water is certainly a critical part of the equation for a more sustainable sea, but salt management is the difference between life and death for the ecosystem.”
Teed up for work this year are plans by the state to launch 3,800 acres of habitat for the fish-eating birds that are most affected by a crashing sea. Rosentrater said his agency is poised to leverage state investments with federal dollars to work on habitat and dust suppression projects.
Air quality is a significant issue. At times the rotten egg smell caused by the sea’s hydrogen sulfide emissions has spurred complaints from people in Simi Valley, 200 miles away.
Dust suppression is paramount. The sea’s inflow from farm runoff has fallen substantially since 2003, accelerating the sea’s retreat, increasing salinity and exposing more shoreline, especially in the shallower areas. What’s left is a chalky playa that stirs into blinding clouds when the wind blows. The dust is laden with toxic elements, posing further harm to local communities, many of them disadvantaged and already struggling with high asthma rates.
The situation does not sit well with Imperial County, which last year declared a local state of emergency at the sea to address the dust suppression issue. Last month, on June 23, the county’s Air Pollution Control District slapped notices of violation on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Imperial Irrigation District for failing to address ongoing dust problems at the sea’s southeastern edge.
Projects to address the problems take time and resources and must navigate the regulatory permitting process. Furthermore, because the state is not a major landowner or water rights holder in the region, it must secure easements and needed water, said Delgado, the Resources Agency official.
The Imperiled Sea
Situated in an ancient lakebed that naturally filled with Colorado River water on occasion through the centuries, the Salton Sea of today came to life in the early 1900s when river water blew through an irrigation ditch. By the time the flow stopped, it filled a basin 45 miles long, 17 miles wide, and 83 feet deep.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was touted as a Riviera-like destination for sun lovers and water enthusiasts, but that destiny was short-lived. Since then, the Salton Sea has assumed an other-worldly aura with occasional spikes of foul odor and dead fish.
The Salton Sea’s role as one of the few remaining refuges for migratory waterfowl raises its profile substantially.
“Everybody in the Western Hemisphere needs to care at one level because it’s an integral and critical part of the Pacific Flyway,” Celeste Cantú, former executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in an interview. “If we lose the Salton Sea, we lose one of the last wetlands for migrating birds.”
A native of Calexico in the Imperial Valley, Cantú moderated a panel on the state’s response at the October 2019 Salton Sea Summit.
The state has outlined short-term and long-term actions for the sea, targeting habitat creation and more than 8,000 acres of dust suppression projects by the end of 2022.
Shields, with Imperial Irrigation District, sees both sides of the equation – the state’s efforts and the frustration of local residents tired of inaction.
“I think the state’s making progress,” she said. “The problem is for all the effort they are putting into it now; the general public isn’t going to see that progress for two or three years. Until you get the contractors out there, the trucks moving dirt, they [the general public] don’t get the process behind designing and going out to bid and staffing up.”
The Big Picture
Since the signing of the QSA, the clock has been ticking at the Salton Sea, which will keep demanding the attention of everyone concerned about and responsible for public health and ecological preservation.
Then there is how the sea will be accounted for in the grander vision of Colorado River management. Imperial Irrigation District hopes the sea “will have a much higher profile and receive the attention it needs in relation to the region’s collective management of the Colorado River,” said Galindo, the district’s board president.
Forging a sustainable path for the Salton Sea is “a must-have” for Imperial, Galindo said. She added that the district’s twin goals of being a good citizen on the Colorado River and seeing a sustainable Salton Sea are compatible and “linked together, hydrologically and morally.”
Rosentrater acknowledged the inertia of the past and the difficulties with finding the right solutions. There was a time when people believed the sea’s problems were insurmountable and not worth the investment of time or resources. That’s changed.
“When you get down to it, doing nothing turns out to be the most costly and reckless of all options,” he said. “That was the conversation of a decade ago, let the thing die and stop trying to prop it up. We have come a long way from there to realizing if we let it go, it’s catastrophic.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer.
One of Jonathan Coop’s first vivid memories as a child was watching the flames of the 1977 La Mesa Fire in north-central New Mexico. The human-caused fire burned more than 15,000 acres of pine forests in the Bandelier National Monument and areas surrounding the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Now a forest ecologist and professor at Western Colorado University, Coop studies the ecological effects of fire on forests in the Southwest United States. He’s also the lead author of a new scientific synthesis about how wildfires drive changes in forest vegetation across the United States. Sean Parks — research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station — and Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University, are co-authors of the synthesis.
The new paper, with contributions from more than 20 researchers, uncovers common themes that scientists are reporting, including increasing impacts of wildfires amid climate change from the borderlands of Mexico and Arizona to the boreal forests of Canada.
Following high-severity fire, scientists have found forest recovery may increasingly be compromised by lack of tree seed sources, warmer and drier post-fire climate and more frequent reburning. [ed. my emphasis]
“In an era of climate change and increasing wildfire activity, we really can’t count on forests to come back the way they were before the fire,” said Coop. “Under normal circumstances, forest systems have built-in resilience to disturbance – they can take a hit and bounce back. But circumstances aren’t normal anymore.”
The loss of resilience means that fire can catalyze major, lasting changes. As examples, boreal conifer forests can be converted to deciduous species, and ponderosa pine forests in the southwest may give way to oak scrub. These changes, in turn, lead to consequences for wildlife, watersheds and local economies.
‘Assisted migration’ an option in some cases, places
Researchers said that in places where the most apparent vegetation changes are occurring, such as the Southwest U.S. and in Colorado, land managers are already exploring ways to help forests adapt by planting tree species that are better suited to the emerging climatic conditions following severe fire.
“In places where changes are not quite so visible, including Montana and Idaho, those conversations are still happening,” said Stevens-Rumann. “In these large landscapes where trees are not coming back, you have to start getting creative.”
Parks, who often uses data collected in protected areas to study wildfire patterns, causes and consequences, said some fires can be good, creating openings for wildlife, helping forests rejuvenate and reducing fuel loads.
“However, some fires can result in major changes to the types of vegetation,” he said, adding that this is particularly true for high-severity wildfires when combined with the changing climate. “Giving managers information about where and how climate change and wildfires are most likely to affect forest resilience will help them develop adaptation strategies to maintain healthy ecosystems.”
Stevens-Rumann said that land managers have largely continued to operate in the way they’ve done in the past, replacing fire-killed trees with the same species. “Given the effects of climate change, we need to start being much more creative,” she said. “Let’s try something different and come up with solutions that allow natural processes to happen and interact with landscapes in different ways.”
Coop said that ecologists and managers are beginning to develop a suite of approaches to increase forest resilience in an era of accelerating change.
One approach that he said he’s partial to is allowing fires to burn under benign or moderate fire weather conditions – similar to what happens in a prescribed burn – which results in forests that are less prone to high-severity fire because of reduced fuel loads and patchy landscapes. This is also known as managing wildfire for resource objectives, an approach that researchers said is cost-efficient, allowing managers to treat more acres.
“Increasingly, we’re realizing you either have the fires you want and can influence or you’re stuck with these giant fires where, like hurricanes, there’s no shaping their path,” said Coop.
Loss of forests is personal
For many of the researchers involved in this synthesis, the issues being analyzed are personal.
Before becoming a scientist, Stevens-Rumann spent three years on a USDA Forest Service “Hotshot” crew, specializing in fighting fires in hard-to-access and dangerous terrain. Parks grew up in Colorado and California and acknowledges seeing changes in the forests and landscapes he grew up with.
Coop said he’s seen an incredible amount of forest lost in the Jemez Mountains where he grew up. The La Mesa fire was only the first in a series of increasingly large and severe fires, culminating with the 140,000-acre Las Conchas fire in 2011. Within the footprint of Las Conchas, less than a quarter of the landscape is still forested.
“Seeing these things unfold over my lifetime, I don’t know if I ever really could have imagined it,” he said. “I’ve borne witness to these very dramatic changes unfolding in the one place that I really know best on Earth.”
First-of-its-kind report shows the global economy is better off with more nature protected
In the most comprehensive report to date on the economic implications of protecting nature, over 100 economists and scientists find that the global economy would benefit from the establishment of far more protected areas on land and at sea than exist today. The report considers various scenarios of protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean to find that the benefits outweigh the costs by a ratio of at least 5-to-1. The report offers new evidence that the nature conservation sector drives economic growth, delivers key non-monetary benefits and is a net contributor to a resilient global economy.
The findings follow growing scientific evidence that at least 30% of the planet’s land and ocean must be protected to address the alarming collapse of the natural world, which now threatens up to one million species with extinction. With such clear economic and scientific data, momentum continues to build for a landmark global agreement that would include the 30% protection target. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has included this 30% protected area goal in its draft 10-year strategy, which is expected to be finalized and approved by the Convention’s 196 parties next year in Kunming, China.
This new independent report, “Protecting 30% of the planet for nature: costs, benefits and economic implications,” is the first ever analysis of protected area impacts across multiple economic sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, and forestry in addition to the nature conservation sector. The report measures the financial impacts of protected areas on the global economy and non-monetary benefits like ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation, flood protection, clean water provision and soil conservation. Across all measures, the experts find that the benefits are greater when more nature is protected as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
The nature conservation sector has been one of the fastest growing sectors in recent years and, according to the report, is projected to grow 4-6% per year compared to less than 1% for agriculture, fisheries, and forestry, after the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Protecting natural areas also provides significant mental and physical health benefits and reduces the risk of new zoonotic disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, a value that has not yet been quantified despite the extraordinarily high economic costs of the pandemic. A recent study estimated the economic value of protected areas based on the improved mental health of visitors to be $6 trillion annually.
“Our report shows that protection in today’s economy brings in more revenue than the alternatives and likely adds revenue to agriculture and forestry, while helping prevent climate change, water crises, biodiversity loss and disease. Increasing nature protection is sound policy for governments juggling multiple interests. You cannot put a price tag on nature — but the economic numbers point to its protection,” said Anthony Waldron, the lead author of the report and researcher focused on conservation finance, global species loss and sustainable agriculture.
The report’s authors find that obtaining the substantial benefits of protecting 30% of the planet’s land and ocean, requires an average annual investment of roughly $140 billion by 2030. The world currently invests just over $24 billion per year in protected areas.
“This investment pales in comparison to the economic benefits that additional protected areas would deliver and to the far larger financial support currently given to other sectors,” said Enric Sala, co-author of this report, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and the author of the forthcoming book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild (August 2020). “Investing to protect nature would represent less than one-third of the amount that governments spend on subsidies to activities that destroy nature. It would represent 0.16% of global GDP and require less investment than the world spends on video games every year.”
The Campaign for Nature (CFN), which commissioned this report, is working with a growing coalition of over 100 conservation organizations, and scientists around the world in support of the 30%+ target, and increased financial support for conservation. CFN is also working with Indigenous leaders to ensure full respect for Indigenous rights and free, prior, and informed consent. CFN recommends that funding comes from all sources, including official development assistance, governments’ domestic budgets, climate financing directed to nature-based solutions, philanthropies, corporations, and new sources of revenue or savings through regulatory and subsidy changes. As 70-90% of the cost would be focused on low and middle income countries because of the location of the world’s most threatened biodiversity, these countries will require financial assistance from multiple sources.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife:
On June 30, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials were met with a blizzard and 34-degree temperatures at Zimmerman Lake while conducting its greenback cutthroat trout spawning operation. This video from Senior Video Producer Jerry Neal highlights the dedication of CPW’s aquatics staff working in these winter-like conditions, even if it says summer on the calendar.
While teamed up with CPW Cutthroat Trout Research Scientist Kevin Rogers, the Northeast Aquatics team collected spawn and mark recapture data from the greenback cutthroat trout “broodstock” population at Zimmerman Lake. Aquatic Biologists are always prepared for variable weather when working at 10,000 feet, but they certainly were not expecting blizzard conditions when they arrived at the lake early in the morning on June 30.
The team captured the fish using live “trap” nets that were deployed the previous afternoon (when it was sunny and warm). Eggs were collected from females and mixed with milt (sperm) from males. The fertilized eggs were driven in small one-gallon coolers to CPW’s Salida Isolation Unit, operated by the Mt. Shavano Fish Hatchery, where they are either reared to fry to be stocked back out into the wild at other reintroduction sites, or raised to one year of age to be stocked back into the wild and replenish the broodstocks at Zimmerman Lake and the Leadville National Fish Hatchery.
All of the fish that are stocked into Zimmerman Lake are given a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag, each with a unique alphanumeric code, and a color coded Visual Implant Elastomer (VIE) tag, with each color representing a different year class and family group. During the spawn operation at Zimmerman Lake, each fish was scanned for its PIT tag and visually checked for its VIE tag. Additionally, aquatic biologists measured length and weight and identified sex of each fish. All of this information enables biologists to assess individual fish growth rates and estimate survival of the different year classes and family groups, and thus evaluate CPWs efforts to maximize genetic diversity in the broodstock.
The broodstocks at Zimmerman Lake and the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, and associated hatchery operations, represent the backbone of efforts to recover the Federally Threatened State Fish of Colorado, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.
“It is fun and rewarding work for the biologists, even though the weather isn’t always ideal,” said Boyd Wright, CPW Native Aquatic Species Biologist.
From Great Outdoors Colorado via The Mountain Mail:
The Great Outdoors Colorado board awarded a $1,625,000 grant this month to Central Colorado Conservancy in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to help conserve four ranches covering more than 2,400 acres in Chaffee County.
The project is part of the Heart of the Arkansas Initiative, aiming to protect water resources and diverse landscapes surrounding the Arkansas River.
The grant is part of GOCO’s Special Opportunity Open Space grant program, which funds high-value conservation projects that seek funding beyond the $1 million maximum request amount set in GOCO’s ongoing Open Space grant program.
Those projects help give outdoor recreationists places to play and enjoy scenic views, protect wildlife habitat, safeguard the state’s water supply and watersheds and sustain local agriculture.
“This GOCO grant will help match the conservancy’s easement awards received through Chaffee County’s new Common Ground Fund, which supports community-based conservation projects for local agriculture, healthy forests and managing recreation impacts,” Adam Beh, conservancy executive director, said.
“Our local communities value these ranchland conservation projects and have shown their support through generous donations to match our other fundraising efforts. We appreciate and respect the local landowners who have made the choice to help protect this beautiful valley.”
The three organizations will protect four ranches: Centerville Ranch, Arrowpoint Ranch, Pridemore Ranch and Tri Lazy W Ranch. The cattlemen’s trust will hold the conservation easement on Pridemore Ranch, while the conservancy will hold the conservation easements for the other three ranches.
This conservation work is also supported by funding from the Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The properties boast several miles of stream and riparian corridors along the Upper Arkansas River as well as significant water rights that support agricultural production while contributing to overall watershed health. They also support outdoor recreation experiences for visitors to Browns Canyon National Monument and nearby public lands along the Arkansas River.
In conjunction with surrounding private and public lands, the properties create a continuous corridor of open space that serves as a seasonal migration route for big game species.
The riparian areas and surrounding wetlands support several species listed as “greatest conservation need” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and birds of “conservation concern” as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Data from the Fish and Wildlife Service also indicates the landscape is suitable for several federally threatened or endangered species, including North American wolverine, Mexican spotted owl and Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly.
The properties operate as working ranches and will continue to do so after conservation easements are in place. Tri Lazy W Ranch has won numerous awards for exceptional stewardship of the land, and Arrowpoint Ranch provides natural beef to several local restaurants.
Centerville Ranch and Pridemore Ranch both feature several hundred acres of irrigated land and produce thousands of tons of hay each year.
While unrestricted public access is not permitted on any of the properties, visitors can access and fish a section of the Arkansas River that flows through Pridemore Ranch via the adjacent Pridemore State Wildlife Area.
Centerville Ranch and Arrowpoint Ranch will feature limited opportunities for guided hikes, 4-H programs and volunteer work days.
To date, GOCO has invested more than $14.2 million in projects in Chaffee County and conserved more than 3,500 acres of land there. GOCO funding has supported conservation of Steel Ranch, Buena Vista River Park, Ruby Mountain Campground and Salida River Trail, among other projects.
Great Outdoors Colorado invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers and open spaces.
GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Created when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,300 projects in all 64 Colorado counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.
Thanks to a collaborative partnership between the Clark Fork Coalition, National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife, expert assistance is now available to public and private landowners seeking non-lethal approaches to manage beaver activity.
A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
A beaver slap on the upper Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay.
Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.
The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done….
“It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” [Lance] McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”
Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.
“It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”
[Jeff] Ravage is a big fan of mushrooms. He’s also the North Fork watershed coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, an organization that has been working to protect the ecological health and water quality of the 1.6 million-acre watershed southwest of Denver since 1998.
In early June, Ravage and a team of volunteers inoculated a massive pile of wood chips at Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms with mushroom spawn. The goal? To highlight how quickly and efficiently fungi can convert a pile of waste and debris into beneficial compost, using completely natural processes.
Ravage’s team has spent the last six years experimenting with and proving out this concept. Now, they want to demonstrate that this fungal degradation process works on an industrial scale in the hopes that foresters and land managers across the country — and even private companies — begin to replicate it.
“The goal is to create enough information to allow people to do this with their local mushrooms where they’re at,” Ravage said. “It could be done by people who run sawmills who have to deal with waste. It could be done by municipal waste management, who end up with a lot of tree trimmings from residents. It can definitely be done by forest managers.”
A graduate of the University of Arizona with a master of science degree in agricultural economics, Salmón was appointed to the position of Mexico IBWC Commissioner on April 15, 2009.
In his time with the Commission, which has the responsibility for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico, the two nations have taken huge steps forward in assuring that commitments to the primary binational water agreement in the Southwest – the 1944 Mexico-U.S. Water Treaty – were faithfully upheld.
“It was pleasure working with Commissioner Salmon,” said Jayne Harkins, Commissioner, United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission.
“He was visionary and worked to find benefits to both countries on international projects. I wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Thanks to a minute to the Treaty backed by Salmón in 2010, Arizona and the other Basin States were able to participate in binational discussions on Colorado River matters. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke observed that the personal relationships that developed from those discussions helped pave the way for future binational agreement.
“Commissioner Salmón recognized the value of personal relationships and worked to develop trust among colleagues on both sides of the border,” recalled Buschatzke.
“That work was a key component in successfully negotiating the minutes and managing the Colorado River.”
In November 2012, Salmón joined in San Diego with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other representatives of both countries at an official signing ceremony of Minute 319 to the 1944 Treaty. The ceremony capped three years of work to reach an agreement on a set of cooperative measures for management of the Colorado River system lasting through 2017.
Commissioner Salmón observed at the time that the agreement paved the way for cooperation that can “guarantee sustainability” in the border region, particularly on future water supply for Mexican border communities.
Salmón again was on hand at the U.S. “entry into force” event in September 2017 in Santa Fe, which constituted the final flourish of the intense binational negotiations over Minute 323, the successor update to Minute 319.
Minute 323 established a program of joint cooperative actions to improve Colorado River water management through 2026.
Like Minute 319, the new Minute 323 provides for the U.S. and Mexico to share proportionately in Lower Basin shortage and surplus, and allows Mexico to create water savings in the Colorado River system in the U.S.
The updated agreement also opened up opportunities for U.S. water users to fund conservation programs in Mexico, which in turn create “Intentionally Created Surplus,” or ICS, in Lake Mead. ICS is playing an important role in helping to keep the reservoir from descending to dangerously unstable surface levels.
Salmón’s work on the Commission extended to developments that directly impacted Arizona’s capacity to express its interests in Colorado River matters.
In 2010, he participated in treaty negotiations that produced Minute 317, known as the “Conceptual Framework for U.S. Mexico Discussions on Colorado River Cooperative Actions.” It established a binational process for coordination on Colorado River matters and expressly called for Basin State participation.
Also in 2010, Salmón negotiated with his U.S. counterparts on the enactment of Minute 318, which called for the creation of deferred water deliveries to Mexico after infrastructure damage caused by the 2010 Mexicali earthquake.
Minute 318 allowed Mexico to implement a form of its own ICS, then called “deferred deliveries.” Because Mexico could not beneficially use water as a result of extensive earthquake damage, the water was saved in Lake Mead for Mexico to use in future years.
In an interview with the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center published shortly after his appointment to the Commission in 2009, Salmón hailed the level of cooperation on water issues between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly through the IBWC.
“Although there have been rough times in the relationship, the IBWC has been able to succeed, to the beneﬁt of both countries,” he said.
“(T)here is an accumulated knowledge and methodologies developed for dealing with delicate issues that have worked in the past, and still work in the present.”
Salmón replaced Arturo Herrera who died in a plane crash in late 2008 along with his U.S. counterpart, Carlos Marin, while ﬂying over ﬂooded areas near Ojinaga, Mexico.
Salmón’s experience in water and agriculture is extensive.
Prior to assuming his position with the Commission, he served as Northwest Regional Manager of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua), known as CONAGUA, and covering the state of Sonora and part of the state of Chihuahua where the Yaqui and Mayo river basins originate.
His duties with CONAGUA were sweeping. The federal institution deals with all aspects of water in Mexico. Among its many missions, CONAGUA administers water rights, and constructs, manages, operates and maintains reservoirs throughout the country. CONAGUA also manages irrigation districts and units.
The organization also is involved in the extensive negotiations occurring among the many stakeholders and interest groups in Mexico concerned with water issues – tasks that, in later years, would provide great preparation for Salmón’s duties with the Commission.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University:
Colorado residents will vote in November on a ballot initiative that calls for the proposed reintroduction of gray wolves to the state. Proposition 107, a citizen-initiated measure, would direct the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves to the western part of the state.
To help ensure the public is informed on this topic, Colorado State University scientists have teamed up with Extension staff to produce and publish educational materials on the possible wolf restoration.
“As Colorado’s only land-grant institution, CSU is uniquely positioned to provide science-based information on the subject,” said Kevin Crooks, professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and director of the new Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence. “The educational materials have undergone extensive review by scientists within and outside CSU, including world experts on wolves.”
Crooks helped lead the development of these educational materials. The center he leads is focused on integrating science, education and outreach to minimize conflict and facilitate coexistence between people and predators.
The center’s team has developed projects in a variety of systems where human-carnivore coexistence is proving difficult. In addition to wolves, they are tracking growing conflicts with urban black bears and coyotes, polar bears in energy fields in Alaska, lions and cattle keepers in East Africa, and ranchers in systems with predators in the United States.
Wolves already spotted in Colorado
In early 2020, after the initiative was approved to be placed on the ballot, a pack of wolves was confirmed to be living in Moffat County in the northwestern part of the state. Another lone wolf was confirmed in North Park in summer 2019. These wolves likely migrated from a nearby state, perhaps Wyoming, where they were reintroduced 25 years ago.
“Science-based information provided from this team is critical to aid in policy development around wildlife and public lands,” said Ashley Stokes, associate vice president for Engagement and Extension at CSU.
Stokes said that these resources are also important for people who vote, so that they may better understand the issues surrounding potential reintroduction of wolves and the impacts on ecological systems, agricultural producers and local communities.
CSU researchers analyzing public response, media coverage
Rebecca Niemiec, assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimension of Natural Resources at CSU, recently led research studies on public perspectives and media coverage of the wolf restoration issue in Colorado.
“One thing we have found from our social science research is that the public has a diversity of beliefs about the potential positive and negative impacts of wolves,” explained Niemiec. “Some of these beliefs are supported by ecological and social science research, while some of them are not. Our hope is that with these educational materials, we can facilitate more productive, science-based discussions about wolf reintroduction and management.”
John Sanderson, who directs the Center for Collaborative Conservation at CSU, helped direct the scientific review process and worked with partners to produce the educational materials.
“The topic of wolves is uniquely contentious,” Sanderson said. “If wolves are part of Colorado’s future, we need an inclusive process of creating policy and making decisions that builds trust and identifies mutually acceptable solutions among people with different perspectives.”
Public surveys over the last few decades suggest support for wolf reintroduction from the majority of Colorado residents. Despite those survey results, restoring wolves in the state is a contentious topic that taps into diverse emotions and passions across various groups. And misinformation about wolves is widespread, on all sides of the issue.
Click here to read the release from the State of Colorado (Chris Arend, Heatheryn Higgins, Jessica Bralish, Matt Inzeo):
The Colorado Departments of Natural Resources, Public Health and Environment, Transportation and the Colorado Energy Office joined together in a statement expressing concern about President Donald Trump’s Executive order to lift reviews of environmentally impactful activities.
“The June 4, 2020, Executive Order from President Donald Trump directs federal agencies to bypass requirements for a number of bedrock federal environmental laws, including:
The National Environmental Policy Act
Endangered Species Act
Clean Water Act
Federal Policy and Land Management Act
It leaves to the federal agencies what projects or decisions they may move forward without complying with the protections of these and other laws, and removes the public’s ability to know about and comment on how such agency decisions will affect them and their communities.
Our Departments have successfully worked with local governments, businesses, stakeholders and citizens on numerous high profile projects where public engagement and additional environmental review enabled better projects, greater community buy-in, and increased protections for wildlife and natural resources. Specific examples include the Central I-70 Development in Denver, I-70 Mountain Corridor near Glenwood Springs, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project.
The attempt to avoid public engagement, environmental analysis and mitigation will damage Coloradans’ health, environment and economy. It will affect all parts of the state, from our prized public lands to urban development. It will threaten protections and careful balancing for water projects, as well as progress towards environmental justice including in building transportation infrastructure — which has had a legacy of significantly impacting urban downtowns and minority communities in the 1950s and 1960s, before these environmental protections were put in place. At a time when the risks of respiratory illnesses are especially worrisome, we should be doing more to account for communities’ health, not less.
The state of Colorado prioritizes efficient government processes with respect to project approvals, but emphasizes that public input and participation is a critical step in that efficient process, ensuring we’re not allowing public resources to be spent or used for publicly harmful practices.
While emergency exceptions do occur for some federal environmental rules, they are intended for true physical emergencies such as washed out roads from the 2013 floods, replacement of critical facilities after wildfires or failing dams.
Neither the COVID-19 emergency nor current economic conditions fall into that category that would justify shortcutting engaged, smart and thoughtful projects and decisions. Indeed, now more than ever, we need to ensure that projects protect our communities and safeguard Coloradans’ health, land, air, water, and wildlife.
Unilateral Executive Orders will only serve to delay needed highway improvements, critical energy infrastructure or efforts to protect our endangered wildlife and their habitat through litigation and administrative appeals.
We urge the Trump Administration to work with the State of Colorado on mutual beneficial projects which are collaborative, thorough, and protective of our environment and communities while providing long term benefits for all Coloradans.”
Will Toor, Executive Director, Colorado Energy Office
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Department of Natural Resources
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Executive Director, Department of Public Health and Environment
Shoshana Lew, Executive Director, Department of Transportation
The administration has brazenly axed another long list of environmental protections — when it should have been healing a nation wounded by the pandemic and racist violence.
Under cover of tear gas, the Trump administration last week intensified its ongoing demolition of the country’s bedrock environmental protections — a series of calculated moves made while the nation remained gripped by the twin viruses of COVID-19 and institutional racism.
It started on Thursday, June 4, when President Trump used the pandemic as an “emergency” excuse to issue an executive order allowing federal agencies to set aside key protections in the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in order to speed up the construction of oil and gas pipelines, highways and other projects.
Trump’s long-threatened NEPA rollback, which will limit citizens’ ability to voice objections to destructive projects, poses a direct threat to minority communities already facing greater levels of illness and death under the COVID-19 pandemic following decades of environmental racism.
“Here we are in the midst of an epidemic that affects your respiratory system and communities that are concerned about respiratory health are losing a voice to stop projects that exacerbate serious health issues,” David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University’s School of Law, told The Hill.
The executive order came three days after Trump used police and teargas to clear away peaceful crowds protesting racially biased police violence to make room for his now-notorious photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
And it came the same day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that world atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had reached a new record high of 417.1 parts per million, putting the planet further on the path toward runaway climate change. “Progress in emissions reductions is not visible in the CO2 record,” NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans said in the announcement. “We continue to commit our planet — for centuries or longer — to more global heating, sea level rise and extreme weather events every year.”
The text of the press release continued: “If humans were to suddenly stop emitting CO2, it would take thousands of years for our CO2 emissions so far to be absorbed into the deep ocean and atmospheric CO2 to return to pre-industrial levels.”
Which made it all the more perplexing when the EPA, following Trump’s order for additional “emergency” deregulation, announced it would ease the rules that require factories and power plants to report — or even monitor — their pollution emissions, although it did state that these industries should continue to obey existing pollution limits.
In another giveaway to industry, the new policy has been made retroactive to March 13, 2020.
As if those two changes weren’t enough, the slash and burn of environmental protections continued Friday, June 5, when Trump opened Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. The 4,913-square-mile reserve, located 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, was established by President Obama in 2016 under the Antiquities Act and is home to “fragile and largely pristine deep marine ecosystems and rich biodiversity,” according to NOAA.
The move came exactly one week after Trump declared June to be “National Ocean Month” in a bizarre proclamation that focused more on offshore oil and gas development and seafood production than conservation.
The changes were, of course, immediate criticized.
“This rollback essentially sells off the future of the ocean and the future of the ecosystem for almost no present economic benefit,” Miriam Goldstein, ocean policy director at the Center for American Progress, told The Guardian. She added that it’s “puzzling that the president is doing it now, in the middle of the pandemic and with police riots going on around the country.”
Mystic Aquarium was instrumental in providing the scientific rationale for the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, an area critical to combating the climate crisis that we are facing. To roll back protections is a mistake. pic.twitter.com/E9pdH1m6jd
Much like Trump’s similar moves to shrink or eliminate other national monuments established by Obama under the Antiquities Act, the change to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is probably illegal. As we’ve written before, presidents have the legal authority to establish monuments but not to rescind or downsize them. Lawsuits over Trump’s previous monument reductions continue to work their way through the courts, and new suits over this rollback are already expected to follow.
Still more rollbacks are on the way.
Also on Friday June 5, the Trump administration moved forward with plans to reduce the protections offered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, another giveaway to the oil and gas industries — a particularly tone-deaf move during the middle of Black Birders Week, a nationwide event celebrating diversity in nature that coincided with the protests over racial police violence.
The changes to the 1918 international treaty law, which has helped hundreds of species over the past century, would decriminalize “incidental” (non-intentional) bird deaths caused by industrial projects such as oil pits, mines, telecommunications towers, wind turbines and other threats.
The changes aren’t final and are subject to a public-comments period, although citizens have already submitted approximately 200,000 public comments in favor of keeping the law as-is. But as National Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold pointed out, comment periods under the Trump administration “have become a cruel joke. The administration continues to ignore scientists, experts and … bird-lovers in favor of a few bad corporate actors who can’t be bothered with common sense environmental protections.”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) also criticized the changes, saying they would “lead to the deaths of thousands and thousands of birds protected under the MBTA. The administration’s radical action needlessly ties the hands of the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], while at the same time undermining our international treaty obligations.”
What does all of this really mean in the long run? Legal experts have already pointed out that Trump’s executive order doesn’t have many teeth. “The Order is legally shaky and unlikely to accomplish much,” Dan Farber of UC Berkeley School of Law wrote this week.
Even corporate interests expressed some doubt, especially since the executive order will undoubtedly face court challenges. One engineer tweeted, as quoted by the Washington Post, that “there is *NO WAY* I would turn a shovelful of dirt based on this Order.”
But industry groups actively celebrated the changes and expressed hope they would extend beyond the “emergency” period.
“We value the importance of these reforms now and underscore the need for finalizing rules across regulatory agencies that will implement permanent reforms,” American Exploration and Production Council chief executive Anne Bradbury told the Post.
It’s the last two words of Bradbury’s quote — “permanent reforms” — that say the most. We can expect industry to continue to ask for — and the Trump administration to grant — expanded, permanent deregulatory favors beyond this “emergency” period, changes that will continue to worsen our environment for people, wildlife and entire ecosystems.
And as with so much the Trump administration has done over the past three and a half years, these slash-and-burn changes will come as quietly as they can manage, with regressive actions continuing to take place under cover of darkness or tear gas.
Of course none of them will address the many other real crises this nation faces — and as we’ve seen this past week, all of them will likely only serve to make things worse.
The Narrows is one of a handful of small parks owned and operated by Larimer County in the Big Thompson Canyon, now known as the Big Thompson Parks. They opened for the season on May 15, most of them for the first time since the 2013 floods devastated the canyon.
“This is a big milestone for us,” said Chris Fleming, Big Thompson district manager for the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.
The Big Thompson Parks start just west of Loveland with Glade Park and continue 17 miles west along U.S. 34 including Narrows, Forks and Sleepy Hollow. Over the past seven years, Larimer County worked with other land agencies to restore these parks properties to allow for river access…
The Big Thompson River is home to native trout, and forests and wildlife surround the water.
The parks are different than they used to be before the flood, but they are open.
Glade, for example, previously had a parking lot and picnic area. Now, there is a pullout and a path to the river for fishing.
Narrows is accessed by a small pull-out and features a short trail to the water’s edge.
Most of the land in the park is fenced off with signs that it has been planted by the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition as part of a restoration project. But there is access to the river, and a peaceful place to fish, to picnic without tables, to read a book or to sit and watch the birds fly and the water flow…
The Forks, which is just east of Drake, is probably the most dramatic change. A moonscape after the flood, the park now has a paved parking lot and bathroom, stairs down to the river and a rocky bank to walk along and fish. During the reconstruction of U.S. 34, the park was essentially home base for construction crews and filled with mounds of construction materials.
It no longer has picnic tables, but people can access the river and enjoy nature there.
Join us for a two-part miniseries of our podcast series We Are Rivers. We’ll learn more about Stream Management Plans, an innovative planning tool prioritized in Colorado’s Water Plan, from people working with stakeholder groups and communities across Colorado to put them in place.
Water has always been the architect of life in Colorado. Communities have worked within the availability, demands, and constraints of water to engineer lives and livelihoods. Water designs our lives as much by its availability as it does by scarcity—perhaps even more. In 2013, the State of Colorado recognized the impending impacts of rising populations, increasing demand across the state and the West, and a changing climate, then-Governor John Hickenlooper called for a plan to address these issues. He directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board—the government entity tasked with conserving, developing, protecting and managing the state’s water—to work with diverse stakeholders and develop Colorado’s first water plan. You can learn more about the Plan from Episode 6 in our podcast series.
In some ways, Colorado’s Water Plan articulated and formalized ways to meet the needs of agriculture, land use, and storage that were already in place. But it also did something else: for the first time, the Colorado Water Plan called for the consideration and integration of environmental and recreational flow needs. This decision came from growing recognition of the critical role rivers play in local economies, and the immense ecosystem services that healthy, functioning rivers and streams provide for all values—human and environmental. With this in mind, the Water Plan outlined a goal of inspiring community-driven development of Stream Management Plans for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers and streams.
In the first episode of this miniseries, we hear from Nicole Seltzer, Science and Policy Manager of River Network, who talks us through the fundamentals of the stream management planning process. Holly Loff, Executive Director of Eagle River Watershed Council, shares on-the-ground experiences of a community planning effort along the Eagle River, and Chelsea Congdon-Brundige, a watershed consultant in the Roaring Fork Valley, shares her highlights from a similar but unique effort for the Crystal River.
As you’ll hear in the podcast, a critical component of Stream Management Planning is the diversity of stakeholders and interests at the table; the important and foundational role of science; and the way each Plan is unique to the community that builds it. SMP’s (as they’re often referred to) are really more about process than a final product, and the greatest win is the long-lasting trust inspired through tough but important conversations across values. SMPs aren’t designed to prioritize any one interest, but instead to bring agriculture, the environment, municipal needs, and recreation alongside one another for the best possible solutions for all.
If you’re inspired by this first Episode, and we suspect you will be, make sure to tune in for part 2 (coming 6/1/20) . We’ll hear from some of the same voices and from new ones from the Rio Grande Basin – including Heather Dutton with the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Emma Reesor with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project – about the groundbreaking and inspiring ways communities are working together to plan for the future of the rivers and streams that bind them, and all of us, together. Join us – and listen in today!
Addressing flood risk after an area has already developed is complicated, expensive, and messy in every way you can imagine. This video will recap a challenging flood mitigation project that was 20 years in the making and contrast it with the Mile High Flood District’s modern approach to urban stream design – an approach we call High Functioning and Low Maintenance Streams (HFLMS)
From The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Valley Courier:
Over the past several years, the Restoration Project has worked with five ditch companies and diverse stakeholders to improve irrigation infrastructure on the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, while also benefiting the river as a whole. The project’s founding document, the 2001 Study, found that changes in hydrology and aging, failing diversion structures were causing sediment deposition, erosion, loss of riparian habitat, and inefficient diversion of water.
The Five Ditches Project addressed these issues by replacing diversion dams and head-gates for five ditches and restoring surrounding streambanks. These efforts have resulted in a multitude of benefits, including improved diversion efficiency and irrigation operations, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, reduced erosion and increased community safety. As the Five Ditches Project wraps up, those involved wanted to once again acknowledge the incredible collaboration that made this project possible and give an overview of everything that has been accomplished together.
If you haven’t seen it already, check out the film made by Moxiecran Media about the Five Ditches Project…
Rio Grande #2
Ditch The Rio Grande #2 Ditch irrigates 250 acres northeast of Del Norte. It suffered from an inefficient diversion dam and high maintenance due to trash and sediment. In Winter 2017, the diversion dam and headgate were removed and replaced with a fish-passable stacked rock cross vain diversion structure and a steel headgate. The surrounding channel and streambanks were also reshaped and stabilized, and aquatic and riparian habitat improvements and a rock deflector were added.
Consolidated and Pace Ditches
The Consolidated Ditch irrigates 6,849 acres, and had a crumbling, century-old concrete headgate with a difficult to maintain push-up diversion dam. To remedy these issues, the headgate was replaced with a new concrete structure with trash rack and automation, and a new concrete diversion dam was constructed featuring a fish ladder and two Obermeyer gates for fine control and sediment flushing. The adjacent banks have also been reshaped and revegetated, improving habitat for wildlife and channel stability. The Pace Ditch is a smaller diversion irrigating 107 acres, and is located directly adjacent to the Consolidated Ditch. Both ditches share the new diversion dam, and the Pace headgate was replaced at the same time as the Consolidated headgate, with a manual slide gate and pipe to convey water to the ditch. San Luis Valley Canal The San Luis Valley Canal provides water for 20,200 irrigated acres. Its headgate was redesigned to replace the existing hundred-year-old structure. Over time the river had moved away from the headgate structure, resulting in a static pool in front of the headgate that caused sediment deposition. The new concrete headgate is situated closer to the river and features automated gates. The banks were reshaped around the new structure, and a severely eroding bend in the vicinity of the diversion was reshaped, stabilized, and revegetated. The project also includes a trash deflector and rock weir check structure.
Supplying water to 8,500 acres, the Centennial Ditch had a degraded concrete diversion that was dangerous to maintain. In order to divert water at certain flows, the ditch rider would have to wade into the river to put boards across the dam and raise the water level. In Winter 2017, the old diversion structure was removed and replaced with a grouted rock dam. The new structure also includes an Obermeyer gate in the low flow channel for fine control and sediment flushing. By request from CPW, the dam is a fish barrier to prevent the passage of nonnative species. Nearby streambanks were also stabilized.
Thanks again to each of the five ditch partners!
Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company
Consolidated Ditch and Headgate Company
Cooley & Sons Excavating
Rio Grande #2 Ditch Shareholders
San Luis Valley Canal Company National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
The Five Ditches Project made great strides toward meeting agricultural, environmental, and recreational needs on the Rio Grande, however aging infrastructure and bank erosion is still a significant challenge across the Rio Grande headwaters. Your support will allow them to continue working with irrigators, landowners, and partners on the Rio Grande and Conejos River to complete infrastructure improvement and river restoration projects!
FromThe High Country News [April 22, 2020] (Gary Paul Nabhan):
Farmers and ranchers hold the key to carbon storage.
As we celebrate Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, the environmental movement finds itself at a critical point in time to reflect upon its record. When have we, as environmentalists, fostered collaboration with the food and farming sectors, and when have we pushed those potential partners away and generated conflict in our rural communities?
When I worked at the headquarters of the very first Earth Day in 1970, it operated as a network of grassroots environmental organizers, and there was little focus on the overall environmental benefits or consequences of farming and ranching.
Our little newsletter, Environmental Action, covered how toxins were appearing on the lands and in our food, even though terms like “environmental justice” and “food justice” had yet to be coined. Nevertheless, very little of our “environmental action” was directed to ensuring the health of the soil, the diversity of the crops planted on it, the preservation of food-producing or the viability of livelihoods for farmers and ranchers.
Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet had recently hit the stands, and all the talk was about abandoning meat to eat low on the food chain. For a while, many of us tried to boil up soybeans or pintos to plop down on a heap of brown rice or corn mush. To my amusement, the results did not always sit well with our GI tracts or our taste buds.
As Wendell Berry — farmer, poet and natural historian — has pointed out in his many books, including The Unsettling of America, few environmentalists had any notion of how important it might be to support small-scale, diversified farming, with or without livestock. There was little dialogue about how to help reduce the kinds of collateral damage that food production caused to the environment and to the farm workforce. Berry wrote: “At the time of the first Earth Day, conservation was dealing with wilderness preservation and environmental emergencies,” not regenerative agriculture.
In some ways, Berry believes, not much has changed: “Now it is dealing with wilderness preservation, environmental emergencies, saving the world by replacing too much fossil fuel energy with too much wind and solar energy, and by eating fake meat!”
In retrospect, it is almost hard to imagine how little we recognized that solving the challenges faced by farmers and ranchers had everything to do with solving the challenges faced by the planet and its inhabitants at large.
Today, food-producing activities extend to nearly 40% of the planet’s land surface, not counting the aqua-cultural production that spans a large swath of the world’s estuaries, lagoons and wetlands as well.
While agriculture (including livestock production) may generate 9% to 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions, it also sequesters a large portion of the carbon that humans produce. The ways we source, process and waste our food generate roughly one-fifth to one-third of global “anthropogenic” greenhouse gas emissions.
So why are farmers and ranchers increasingly seen as adversaries — not allies — to environmentalists? Perhaps it is because of the powerful influence that industrial food production, processing and distribution have on accelerating climate change, creating hypoxic dead zones in the oceans, and diminishing the diversity of microbes, plants and wildlife in our landscapes.
But what has escaped the logic chain of many environmental activists is this: More than any other human activity, small- and medium-scale food production has the capacity to shift from being a major emitter of carbon to becoming a major absorber and storehouse of it.
At least a half-dozen global surveys — and hundreds of on-farm projects — demonstrate that the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture can reverse food production’s contribution to global warming. It can do so by 2050, according to a University of Virginia study released this last year in Nature Climate Change.
But even climate-friendly farming will not bear fruit unless environmentalists become allies to the farmers and ranchers who are trying to produce food in ways that heal both the land and the rural communities that depend upon it. As Mary Berry — Berry’s daughter and the executive director of the Berry Center — recently warned, “Since the first Earth Day, we haven’t made any progress in linking the threats to environmental health with the health of working landscapes. How can farmers afford to farm well, and how do we become a culture that will support good farming?”
When ranchers, farmers and environmentalists choose to bury the hatchet and work on the collaborative conservation of working landscapes in Western states, it is a game-changer.
Just seven such collaborative efforts have brought more than 3.8 million acres into co-management and restoration. When the Diablo Trust ranching collaborative invited the Arizona Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit focused on conservation, to see the work they were doing for pronghorn habitat enhancement, conflicts between the two groups subsided, and they began working together.
Collaborations like these have built bridges between more than 250 federal, state, county, local, nonprofit and for-profit entities in counties where divisiveness and litigation once reigned. Would you rather feed the bank accounts of litigious lawyers, or feed the soil, our rural communities and the landscapes that nurture us all?
As Berry prophesized several decades ago, “The most tragic conflict in the history of conservation is that between the conservationists and the farmers and ranchers.
“It is tragic because it is unnecessary.”
Gary Paul Nabhan — the sleepy-headed dropout who dozed on mailbags at Earth Day headquarters in 1970 — now works as an agro-ecologist, orchard-keeper, nature writer and Ecumenical Franciscan brother. His latest book is Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Lands and Communities from Island Press. Follow him on http://www.garynabhan.com and http://www.healingtheborderdisorder.org.
FromThe High Country News [January 31, 2020] (Tom Udall):
In his 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, my father, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, sounded the alarm about the creeping destruction of nature. “Each generation has its own rendezvous with the land, for despite our fee titles and claims of ownership, we are all brief tenants on this planet,” he wrote. “By choice, or by default, we will carve out a land legacy for our heirs.”
[January 31, 2020] would have been Stewart Udall’s 100th birthday. And 57 years after he wrote the The Quiet Crisis, it is more urgent than ever that we heed his words — and follow his example — in order to save the natural world.
As Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, my father was the visionary leader of a burgeoning conservation and environmental movement. During his first year as secretary, then-Bureau of Reclamation Chief Floyd Dominy took him on a flight over southern Utah to show him the “next” big dam. My dad took one look at the red-rock spires below and saw not a dam, but the next national park. He carried this vision back to Washington, D.C., and worked to establish what is today Canyonlands National Park.
Canyonlands is one of four national parks, six national monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges that Stewart Udall helped create as secretary of the Interior. In the face of environmental damage and species loss, he worked with Congress and the president to enact some of our country’s most successful conservation programs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Clean Air Act, and the national wilderness system. In the process, he protected millions of acres of public lands.
In the span of a few years, Stewart Udall and other conservation leaders significantly deepened our national commitment to the lands and waters that sustain us. In addition to providing our generation and future ones with cleaner air and water, the lands they preserved and the protections they put in place created the bedrock of a strong economy today.
But now, the quiet crises that my father warned us about have risen to a crescendo that is impossible to ignore. Climate change is widely acknowledged as an existential threat to our planet. Meanwhile, the nature crisis has accelerated close to the point of no return. We lose a football-field’s-worth of nature every 30 seconds. And according to a United Nations report, 1 million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity.
The Trump administration has helped inflame these crises, eviscerating landmark protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Power Plan. President Donald Trump has already created the worst environmental record of any president in history as his administration hacks away at the nation’s proud conservation tradition.
But merely reversing Trump’s environmental attacks would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound. These crises were already worsening before he took office, and the trajectory will continue after he leaves unless we drastically rethink our approach to conservation.
If we fail to enact the kind of bold conservation framework my father envisioned, we will forever lose millions of plant and animal species — the biodiversity critical to our rich natural inheritance and fundamental to our own survival. We will lose not just our way of life, but the planet as we know it.
Today, just as we did 50 years ago under Stewart Udall’s leadership, we must write an aggressive new playbook to confront the climate and nature crises head-on. And we need to act fast.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature — a resolution to set a national goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, with half protected by mid-century. The resolution reflects the will of the scientific community, including and scientists like E.O. Wilson, who say that we need to protect half the planet to save the whole.
We must also face down climate change with the urgency it requires. To do so, we should make our public lands pollution-free. Emissions from fossil fuels extracted on public lands account for nearly one-quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of being a source of pollution, public lands can and should be part of the solution. Knowing that we must transition away from fossil fuels, we need an inclusive approach that gets us to net zero carbon pollution.
And as we transition, we must support and protect the communities, tribes and states that have long relied on fossil fuels. No one should be left behind in our transition to a clean energy economy.
Indeed, equity, inclusion and environmental justice must be our guiding lights — our true North Star — just like they were for my father. After a long career in public office — during which he fought segregation and discrimination at every turn — my dad spent his final chapter fighting alongside the widows of Navajo uranium miners. His mission was to ensure that families hurt by the federal government’s nuclear weapons activities were justly compensated, because he understood that low-income communities, communities of color and Native communities often bear the worst consequences of the environmental desecration and destruction too often caused by the rich and powerful.
Our conservation work must provide equitable access to nature and a just distribution of its benefits. We must ensure environmental justice for all. The future of our planet — and of humanity itself — depends on it.
Today, on what would be my father’s 100th birthday, let us remember a man who saw a national park where others saw a gigantic dam — a man who clearly saw the peril in mortgaging the land for short-term economic incentives.
Just a few years before his passing, my father and my mother, Lee, published a letter to their grandchildren in High Country News. This was their call: “Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”
Now, with the wonder and beauty of the earth under threat, we must listen to Stewart Udall’s plea: that we do well — by the planet, and by future generations.
Tom Udall is a United States Senator representing New Mexico. A member of the Democratic party, he has also served as a U.S. Representative and New Mexico’s State Attorney General. Email High Country News at email@example.com.
In the long-dry Colorado River Delta in Mexico, environmental groups are using small amounts of water to restore wetlands and forests one area at a time
The Colorado River once flowed with so much water that steamboats sailed on its wide, meandering stretches near the U.S.-Mexico border. When the environmentalist Aldo Leopold paddled the river’s delta in Mexico nearly a century ago, he was filled with awe at the sight of “a hundred green lagoons.”
Now, what’s left of the river crosses the border and pushes up against the gates of Morelos Dam. Nearly all the remaining water is shunted aside into Mexico’s Reforma Canal, which runs toward fields of cotton, wheat, hay and vegetables in the Mexicali Valley.
Downstream from the dam sits a rectangular lagoon that resembles a pond in a city park. Swallows swarm over the water, diving and skimming across its glassy surface. From here, a narrow stream the width of a one-lane road continues into a thicket, flanked by tall grasses.
About a dozen miles farther south, the Colorado River disappears in the desert. Beside fields of alfalfa and green onions, the dry riverbed spreads out in a dusty plain where only gray desert shrubs survive…
[Jennifer] Pitt is director of the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program. She visited the delta with Gaby Caloca of the Mexican environmental group Pronatura Noroeste. The two co-chair a cross-border environmental work group that includes government officials and experts from both countries, and they’re working together on plans to restore wetlands in parts of the Colorado River Delta.
These efforts to resurrect pieces of the delta’s desiccated ecosystems face major challenges, including limited funds, scarce water supplies, and the hotter, drier conditions brought on by climate change.
But in the past decade, environmental groups have had success bringing back patches of life in parts of the river delta. In these green islands surrounded by the desert, water delivered by canals and pumps is helping to nourish wetlands and forests. Cottonwoods and willows have been growing rapidly. Birds have been coming back and are singing in the trees.
Pitt, Caloca and other environmentalists say they’ve found that even though there isn’t nearly enough water available to restore a flowing river from the border to the sea, these modest projects planting trees and creating wetlands are showing promise. Even relatively small amounts of water are helping breathe life into parts of the delta.
And during the next several years, more water is set to flow to the restoration sites under a 2017 agreement between Mexico and the U.S…
In the spring of 2014, a surge of water poured through the gates of Morelos Dam on the border. That “pulse flow” of 105,000 acre-feet of water brought back a flowing river in areas that had been dry since floods in the late 1990s.
Crowds of jubilant revelers gathered by the resurrected river. They dipped their feet into the water and waded in.
Some danced on the banks and drank beer. Others tossed nets into the water and pulled out flapping fish…
…the pulse flow gave Mexican and U.S. officials a visual demonstration of the potential of restoration efforts — an example that nudged them toward budgeting water for the environment as they negotiated a new Colorado River agreement.
“I think having that river flowing piqued people’s interest,” Pitt said. “It opened people’s imagination to the idea. It gave them a vision of the Colorado River here that has energized these restoration efforts.”
When representatives of the governments signed the next deal in 2017, it cleared the way for smaller but substantial flows to expand several habitat restoration sites.
The agreement, called Minute 323, acknowledged that the work group led by representatives from both countries had recommended goals including expanding the habitat areas from 1,076 acres to 4,300 acres, and setting aside an annual average of $40 million and 45,000 acre-feet of water for environmental restoration in the delta…
The deal included pledges for about half that much water, a total of 210,000 acre-feet through 2026 — enough water that if spread across Phoenix would cover two-thirds of the city a foot deep. This water — averaging 23,000 acre-feet a year — represents a small fraction of the 1.5 million acre-feet that Mexico is entitled to each year under a 1944 treaty, and an even smaller fraction of the larger allotments that California and Arizona take from the river upstream.
Mexico and the U.S. each agreed to provide a third of the water, while a coalition of environmental nonprofits pledged to secure the remainder. Each government agreed to contribute $9 million for restoration projects and $9 million for research and monitoring work.
So far, environmental groups have been buying water in Mexico through a trust and pumping it from agricultural canals into three restoration areas. More water is scheduled to be delivered by the two governments over the next several years, including water the U.S. plans to obtain by paying for conservation projects in Mexico.
When the infusion comes, the wetlands and newly planted forests will get a bigger drink.
“We are scaling up,” Pitt said from the backseat, while Caloca drove through farmlands toward one of the restoration sites.
Town officials say private property owners are needed to see more improvements in Gore Creek water quality
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday told staff to draft a stream protection ordinance that would apply to private property in town. The creek in 2013 landed on a state list of “impaired waterways,” along with many other mountain towns. The town, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and other organizations have been working since then to improve water quality in the creek.
Much of that work starts with cleaning up what runs into the creek, including runoff from paved areas, pesticides and other pollutants.
In an April 7 presentation, town watershed education coordinator Pete Wadden reminded council members that after a few years of improvement, the creek’s scores regarding macroinvertebrate populations — the bottom of the creek’s food chain — dipped in 2018. Most of that was due to a change in the way those populations are counted, but those are the figures used by state officials.
Wadden noted that the town has made “huge progress” on its own property along the stream, but not as much on private property.
Wadden said the ordinance the staff is recommending includes a two-tiered setback, with more stringent rules closer to the stream.
Wadden added that the ordinance could restrict pesticide use in town, but the Colorado Legislature will have to pass a law that allows towns to pass those regulations.
FromThe High Country News (Ethan Linck) [March 1, 2020]:
The last wolf resident in Colorado in the 20th century died in 1945 at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, where a high green country falls into dark timber near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. It was caught by its leg in the ragged jaws of a steel trap, set by federal authorities following reports that it had killed 10 sheep.
If the wolf was mourned, it wasn’t mourned by many. Contemporary newspaper articles reflected widespread support for ridding the West of wolves. “Wolves are like people in that they must have their choice morsel of meat,” wrote Colorado’s The Steamboat Pilot in an April 1935 story on the retirement of William Caywood, a government contract hunter with over 2,000 wolf skulls to his credit. “(Some would eat) nothing but the choice parts of an animal unless they were very hungry. Wolves are killers from the time they are a year old.”
Seventy-five years later, public perception has changed, and otherwise clear-eyed Westerners regularly wax poetic over Canis lupus. “Colorado will not truly be wild until we can hear the call of the wolf,” opined one writer in a recent editorial for Colorado Politics. “That mournful sound rekindles primordial memories of our ancestors, and to most of us, brings a state of calmness that nothing else can approach.”
Wolves, it turns out, may be a part of the world we want to live in after all.
This about-face is more than conjecture. According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wolves in Colorado,” echoing similar polls over the past 25 years. Yet state wildlife officials have been reluctant to comply, wary of the toxic politics surrounding reintroduction in the Northern Rockies.
In response, activists seized an unprecedented strategy. A coalition of nonprofit groups in Colorado, led by the recently formed Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, spent 2019 tirelessly gathering support to pose the question to voters directly through a 2020 ballot initiative. They succeeded, delivering more than 200,000 signatures to the Colorado secretary of State. Initiative 107 was officially ratified in January and will be voted on this November. (Meanwhile, neither politicians nor wolves have stayed still. In January, a state senator introduced a controversial bill to regain legislative control of the issue; in the same week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a pack of at least six wolves was now resident in northwest Colorado, though it’s far from clear they represent the start of a comeback. For the moment, the future of wolves here still likely rests on the initiative.)
A new transplant to Colorado from the Pacific Northwest, I learned about the campaign from a canvasser outside Whole Foods in north Boulder on a sunny June day last year. In a parking lot filled with Teslas and Subarus, the tattooed volunteer stood opposite a wall-sized advertisement for the store, featuring the smiling faces of ranchers and farmers on the Western Slope.
It was a scene that would have done little to assuage fears that urban liberal voters were forcing reintroduction on rural residents. The canvasser caught my eye as I left the store. “Can I talk to you about reintroducing wolves to Colorado?” he asked, waving a pamphlet. I demurred and walked back to my bike. But the initiative and its backers — happy to use scientific justifications for their cause, paired curiously with populist rhetoric about its overwhelming public support — lingered in my head.
The initiative fascinated me, beyond its potential to transform the landscape of my adopted home. As an academic biologist, I tended to think science should be both privileged in debate and somehow above the fray. But my own environmental ethic operated on an independent track — drawing on the scientific literature when it supported my opinions, and claiming it was beside the point when it didn’t. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project reminded me uncomfortably of this contradiction.
If voters decide to reintroduce wolves to an increasingly crowded state from which they were effectively absent for over 70 years, Colorado’s ecosystems and rural communities may change rapidly, in unexpected ways. Yet unlike nearly all other major wildlife management decisions, the choice would rest not with a handful of experts, but with the public.
The case poses a thorny set of questions. What will happen if wolves return to Colorado? When, if ever, can science tell us what to do? And, in the face of empirical uncertainty, could direct democracy be the best solution?
I wondered: If I knew my own research could dramatically affect ecosystems and livelihoods, would I want it to play more of a role in public life — or less?
CONSERVATIONISTS OFTEN HESITATE to frame arguments in moral terms, leaning on the perceived authority of empiricism to buttress their positions. At the same time, many conservation debates are complicated by the collision of disparate worldviews, where evidence is almost beside the point. Large carnivores — intensively studied and politically controversial — fall squarely in the center of this push-and-pull between data and belief.
In 1995, federal biologists released eight gray wolves from Alberta, Canada, in Yellowstone National Park, seeding a population that eventually grew to as many 109 wolves in 11 packs. With the wolves came the unique opportunity to test the theory that their influence on elk numbers and behavior reduced grazing pressure on riparian vegetation, with consequences for the very structure of rivers themselves.
Preliminary data suggested that this process — known as a trophic cascade — was indeed in effect. Elk numbers were down, grazing patterns were different, tree growth was up, and at least some river channels appeared to recover. A tidy encapsulation of the idea that nature had balance, it had broad appeal: In a viral YouTube video from 2014, British environmentalist George Monbiot breathlessly described these changes over soaring New Age synthesizers and stock footage of an elysian-seeming Yellowstone, calling it “one of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century.”
Yet ecology is rarely simple, and as the mythology surrounding the return of wolves grew, so, too, did skepticism in the literature. Over the past 15 years, a cascade of papers has called into question most of the findings taken for granted in the popular account of Yellowstone’s transformation. Elk browsing might not be reduced in areas with wolves; streams and riparian communities had not returned to their original state; maybe beavers were more fundamentally important to these processes than wolves were. In sum, a 2014 review paper suggested that there are no “simple, precise, or definitive answers” to the question of whether wolves caused a trophic cascade in the park; another evocatively concluded that “(the wolf) is neither saint nor sinner except to those who want to make it so.”
Yellowstone represented a single experiment — one possible outcome among many. In a different corner of the West with more people, or different habitats, or more or fewer elk — in Colorado, for example — would wolves have had the same effect? Last June, a paper in the journal Biological Conservation attempted to answer this question indirectly by aggregating data on species reintroductions and introductions around the world and asking whether their removal or addition caused a reversion to historic conditions. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “it depends”: Restoring predators has unpredictable, complex consequences.
That paper’s lead author, Jesse Alston, was a graduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wyoming. I met him on a bright fall day in Laramie, at a coffee shop in a strip mall on the east side of town. Driving up from Boulder the same morning, I marveled at the abrupt transition in landscape at the border between Colorado and Wyoming: In the span of only a few miles north of Fort Collins, the sprawl of the Front Range fades away, and the High Plains begin rolling up into a sepia-colored saucer from the flatter, hotter agricultural land of eastern Larimer County.
Alston spoke quietly and slowly, in the cautious manner of someone who anticipated a long future working with wildlife and wildlife-related controversies. Though he thought the evidence favored trophic cascades in Yellowstone, he was circumspect about predicting whether wolf reintroduction in Colorado would have the same effect. “(It) really hinges on the idea of there not being adequate predation currently. And there are a lot of hunters in Colorado.” But hunters are a minority of trail users, he added, and recreation of all kinds can influence elk behavior much the way fear of wolves does.
I asked him to elaborate on the role of science in justifying carnivore restoration and whether he thought it might backfire. He paused, thinking, then said: “I think the people who would be most turned off if you don’t see large-scale ecosystem effects are the people who are least inclined to listen to science anyway, so I don’t see that being that big of a deal. But I do think that — as scientists, particularly as good scientists — that we should be sure that our ideas are buttressed by empirical findings.”
Of course, there are empirical findings, and then there are the caveats that always accompany them — the reasons we can’t say for sure what will happen when wolves return. “I think really where the science-policy nexus is most problematic has been when there’s misunderstanding of uncertainty,” Alston continued. “I think it’s good to advocate for causes that we believe in, but we should be pretty straightforward about discussing the uncertainty that comes along with that.”
IF WOLVES ARE NOT an ecological magic bullet, it is not readily apparent in the literature of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which nonetheless aims to “disseminate science-based information” as part of its mission. On its website, a blog post suggests that since wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, “the ecosystem has balanced.” This isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it isn’t correct, either, and the simplification belied a willingness to use science as a political battering ram. I was on board with the group’s mission as a voter, a Coloradan. As a scientist, though, it made me uneasy.
Though the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is itself young — founded at the end of 2018 — its roots go back nearly to the release of wolves in Yellowstone, through its Boulder-based predecessor, Sinapu. In 2008, Sinapu — whose name was taken from the Ute word for wolves — was folded into Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, which also sought to restore large carnivore populations to the Southern Rockies. On an October evening at a brewery in South Boulder, I asked Rob Edward — founder and president of the board of the wolf fund, longtime Sinapu employee and the public face of wolf reintroduction in Colorado for decades — why the group had chosen to emphasize what might be described as the spiritual resonance of the effects of carnivore reintroduction on ecosystems and landscapes.
Edward was eloquent but blunt, a middle-aged man who dressed in a way that suggested he was as comfortable in the rural parts of the state as in Boulder. His wife, Anne Edward, also a longtime wolf advocate, joined us; she was quieter, with gray hair and eyes that lit up whenever wolves were mentioned. They had chosen their language based on polling data, Rob Edward said. “They use that term — ‘restoring the balance of nature.’ Now, is it an oversimplification of a tremendously complicated system? Absolutely. Do I care? Not really.” At the same time, he said, the connection to research and its perceived authority was important. “The public as a whole places a tremendous amount of stock in scientists.”
While it was clear the couple would support reintroduction even if they were the only two people on earth in favor of it, they nonetheless viewed public opinion as validating. A ballot initiative was a necessary last resort, a way to force the state and its slow-moving wildlife officials to comply with the will of the people of Colorado. “We’re not excluding experts, we’re simply telling them, get it done!” Rob Edward said, pounding the table in a gesture that passed unnoticed against the backdrop of his general animation. “Figure it out! Don’t keep machinating about it for another five decades. Get it done!”
As I listened to him, I again found myself deeply conflicted at the prospect of the ballot initiative, and at putting major wildlife management decisions up to a simple vote. On the one hand, I appreciated that it was a creative solution to an intractable political problem, on behalf of a natural system divorced from the political ebb and flow of Denver. On the other, it seemed to set a dangerous precedent. As the history of our complicated relationship with wolves shows, popular opinion can be capricious. Was it really right to pose complex questions — questions at the limit of expert understanding — to a largely naive public?
Laws that translate science to policy can give a voice to a nonhuman world that cannot advocate for itself. Yet in our society, democracy is haunted by the question of whose voices matter. Edward was clear that polling showed clear majorities of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction across the state, including groups that you might expect to oppose it: Rural residents on the Western Slope, hunters and Republicans all support it by a substantial majority. But Colorado is changing, becoming less white, and he was unable to refer me to data broken down along racial and ethnic lines — particularly among historically disadvantaged groups that remain underrepresented at the ballot box.
Nor have the views of Indigenous people — who have the longest history of cultural connection to wolves, and whose lands in Colorado will likely be among the first impacted by a rebounding wolf population — been highlighted in the debate. I was unable to reach wildlife officials with the Southern Ute Tribe by press time, but they are clearly watching the issue closely. In a statement on the initiative, the tribe clarified that it does not have an official position on wolf reintroduction and is “simply evaluating whether (to) support, oppose, or remain neutral on the subject.”
SCIENCE IS VERY GOOD at addressing the how, but often fails when confronted with the should — the biggest questions, which veer into the realm of values. There is no experiment we can conduct to say whether we should proceed with wolf introduction, no data that can tell us if it is the right thing to do. It comes down to how evidence is filtered through our worldview: whether we think of humans as a part of nature or separate from it, and whether we think changes in grazing habits and water channels — and the presence of wolves themselves — add up to a fundamental good worth fighting for.
But, like conservationists, scientists often shy away from such moral judgments, and for valid reasons: the fear of being perceived as not impartial, thereby undercutting the authority of their research; a sense of obligation to the politically diverse taxpayers who fund their work; an acute awareness of the limitations of their data, statistics and the scientific method itself. In the public sphere, however, this feigned objectivity can have the negative consequence of suggesting there are scientific solutions to philosophical questions.
That wolf reintroduction advocates lean on science rather than those weightier themes is understandable. Yet arguing that having wolves in Colorado is an intrinsic good — because they represent what we want Colorado to become, not because they will have a net benefit on aspen growth or stream hydrology — would be more honest, and might win people over in unexpected ways.
Back at the brewery in suburban Boulder, Rob Edward vacillated between polished language justifying reintroduction in scientific terms and moments of raw emotion: “They have wolves on the Gaza Strip. They have wolves in Italy. They have wolves in Northern-freaking-California. Why can’t we have wolves here?”
IF THE BALLOT INITIATIVE passes this November, a three-year planning process begins, followed by what Anne Edward described as “paws on the ground” — the release of the first few wolves — in 2023, almost certainly in the San Juan Mountains. Advocates anticipate that this process will be difficult, and they are prepared for a fight.
A successful reintroduction would be a remarkable accomplishment, given the fraught history of wolves in Colorado, as well as a landmark event in the gradual return of large carnivores to the 21st century West. It would also be a remarkable reflection of the blurring lines between science, belief and politics in the 21st century. As political gridlock becomes a feature of daily life, and environmental degradation — the cancerous rot of the Anthropocene — metastasizes, the impulse to circumvent collapsing institutions in response to crises is likely to become more common. In these circumstances, what role should scientists and science play? How much should uncertainty prevent action, and how much should empiricism determine our value system?
There are no easy answers here. If the basic question of whether or not to reintroduce wolves to Colorado is largely beyond the purview of science, then perhaps putting it to a vote is the most responsible option. The messiness of democracy can be terrifying. Still, there may not be a better way. After all, the language of values has been a part of the modern conservation movement since its birth — the Endangered Species Act of 1973, for example, states that endangered species provide “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation.”
Toward the end of my conversation with the Edwards, thinking of their many years of advocacy and of the curious arc of history, I asked them what it was like to see an end in sight. “Do you allow yourselves to get a little carried with the fantasy of it?” I asked. “Things are in your favor — have you started imagining ‘paws on the ground’?”
Both were quiet for a moment, and the noise of the bar washed over us. “I’ve been working on this for 25 years,” Rob said, his voice breaking into a sob as Anne reached out and gripped his arm. “I certainly do.”
Ethan Linck has previously written about recreation and conservation for High Country News, and about science and nature for Los Angeles Review of Books, Undark and Slate. He is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico, where he studies evolution and genetics in birds. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For example, in Florida, the loss of just 3% of wetland coverage resulted in $480 million in property damage during just one hurricane.
Mangrove forests, marshes, and seagrass beds protect inland areas from storm surges and strong winds. Over long periods, coastal wetlands like these build up sediment that mitigates sea level rise and local land subsidence.
A new analysis of property damage from Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal storms has shown that counties with larger wetlands suffered lower property damage costs than did counties with smaller wetlands.
“Starting in 1996, the U.S. government started to produce damage estimates for each tropical cyclone in a consistent manner,” explained coauthor Richard Carson, an economist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla. Before that, the data were collected only for hurricanes, which hindered past attempts to put a price on the marginal value, or price per unit, of wetlands, he said.
With the complete data set, the researchers examined all 88 tropical cyclones and hurricanes that affected the United States starting in 1996. That time period includes Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
A Protective and Economic Boon
In addition to property damage data for tropical cyclones of all strengths, “our data set has considerably more spatial resolution,” Carson said, “which is a result of large amounts of information on storm tracks, property location, and wetland location all being digitized for use in a geographical information system basis.”
First author Fanglin Sun, formerly at UCSD and now an economist at Amazon.com, added that “areas subject to flood risk in a county are more accurately estimated, based on local elevation data and detailed information on individual storm trajectories” and wind speeds throughout affected areas.
The finer level of detail for the storm data let the researchers finally begin connecting wetland coverage and storm damage on a county-by-county basis, Carson said. “A storm track moving a couple of kilometers one direction or the other allows the amount of wetland protection to vary within the same county.”
In terms of property damage, Sun and Carson found that a square kilometer of wetlands saved an average of $1.8 million per year. Over the next 30 years, an average unit of wetlands could save $36 million in storm damage.
Some wetlands were valued at less than $800 per year per square kilometer and some at nearly $100 million. That marginal value depended on many factors, including a county’s property values, existing wetland coverage, coastline shape, elevation, building codes, and chance of actually experiencing damaging winds. And each of those variables fluctuated over the 20 years the team studied.
Overall, the highest-valued wetlands were in urban counties with large populations and the lowest-valued were in rural areas with small populations. However, wetlands provided a greater relative savings against weaker cyclones and in counties with less stringent building codes — areas that might not expect or plan for a tropical storm.
The team found no significant difference in the marginal value of saltwater versus freshwater wetlands or mangroves versus marshes. “Forested wetlands tend to be better at reducing wind speed and marshes tend to be better at absorbing water,” Carson said, “so the specific nature of the storm when it hits an area is likely to matter. [But] our results suggest that, on average, there is no difference.”
The team published these results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on March 3.
Wetlands at Risk
Most areas that have experienced storm-related property damage in the past 20 years have also lost wetland coverage, the researchers found. They calculated that Floridians would have been spared $480 million in property damage from Hurricane Irma alone had the state’s wetland coverage not shrunk by 2.8% in the decade prior.
Moreover, recent changes to the Clean Water Act have made the remaining coastal wetlands more vulnerable.
“The federal government, with respect to the U.S. Clean Water Act, took the position that the previous wetland studies were not reliable enough for use in assessing the benefits and cost of protecting wetlands,” Carson said.
“The value coastal wetlands provide for storm protection is substantial and should be taken into account as policy makers debate the Clean Water Act,” Sun said. “It’s also worth noting,” she added, “that storm protection for property is just one of many ecological services that wetlands provide. We hope our study will spur future research quantifying these other services as well.”
With tropical storms and hurricanes expected to happen more often because of climate change, the team wrote, wetlands will be more economically valuable than ever.
Audubon’s Western Water Initiative advocates for healthy rivers and lakes in the arid West, as well as the people and birds who depend on them.
Audubon’s priority saline lake ecosystems—Great Salt Lake, Lahontan Valley, Salton Sea, Owens Lake, Mono Lake, and Lake Abert—are at risk due to changes in water quality, quantity, and timing of water delivery. These changes are brought on by drought, diversions, and climate change.
This series of webinars will focus on efforts by Audubon and others to protect some of these unique systems. In this first webinar we will focus on a unique ecosystem that lies at the intersection of Western Water priority landscapes: The Salton Sea.
Two members of Audubon California’s Salton Sea team, Andrea Jones (Director of Bird Conservation) and Frank Ruiz (Salton Sea Program Director) will discuss the history and current status of the Salton Sea, its relationship to the Colorado River and Delta, the status of birds, policy initiatives, and community engagement and education programs. Learn how you can contribute to our efforts at the Salton Sea, both locally and remotely.
Feb 20, 2020 04:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Boris Kondratieff):
Editor’s note: Boris Kondratieff, professor of entomology and curator of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity at Colorado State University, wrote this piece for The Conversation in January 2020. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.
Experienced anglers recognize that for a trout, the ultimate “steak dinner” is a stonefly or mayfly. That’s why fly fishing enthusiasts will go to extreme lengths to imitate these graceful, elegant and fragile insects.
I share their passion, but for different reasons. As a an entomologist who has studied stoneflies and mayflies for over 40 years, I’ve discovered these insects have value far beyond luring trout – they are indicators of water quality in streams and are a crucial piece of the larger food web. And they are in trouble.
I have served as director of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity since 1986. The greatest thrill of my career has been collecting and adding mayflies and stoneflies to our collection.
To find specimens, I have traveled to pristine streams in every U.S. state, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Ecuador, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. My collecting trips have yielded more than 100 new species of mayflies and stoneflies.
One of my favorites literally fell into my lap as I was beating lush foliage along a pristine stream in southern Oregon during May 2014. The beating sheet is an efficient means of sampling dense, streamside vegetation, where adult insects hide. The sheet itself is made of sturdy canvas stretched over two wooden cross members. A stick is used to knock the insects from the vegetation onto the canvas, where they are collected.
When I saw a large yellow and black insect drop onto my sheet, I knew immediately it was a new stonefly species, previously unknown to science. I was ecstatic. My colleagues and I subsequently described it as Kathroperla siskiyou, after the Siskiyou mountains of southern Oregon.
Mayflies and stoneflies thrive in unpolluted water – a fact my colleagues and I have witnessed firsthand on our numerous expeditions. Not only do we see greater overall abundance of these insects in clean streams, but more diversity of species, as well. In polluted areas, we observe the exact opposite. Without a doubt, the presence or absence of mayflies and stoneflies in a stream is a reliable indicator of the quality of its water.
The role of mayflies and stoneflies in the food chain is fundamental, as well. Immature mayflies and stoneflies consume algae, living plants, dead leaves, wood and each other. In this nymph phase, when they have gills and live exclusively underwater, they are an important food source for many animals further up the food chain, including fish and wading birds. When the mayflies and stoneflies emerge from the water as adults, they are essential food for spiders, other insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, and many kinds of birds and bats.
Currently, scientists estimate that 33% of all aquatic insects are threatened with extinction worldwide. Many of these species are mayflies and stoneflies. The mayfly species Ephemera compar has already gone extinct in Colorado, and several other species of aquatic insects are threatened in my home state.
Life drains into a stream
Less than 1% of Earth’s water is potable and available for human use. Maintaining water quality has become an ever increasing challenge because of the large number of chemicals people use in everyday life and in commerce. Common contaminants such as sediment, organic enrichment including fertilizers and animal waste and heavy metals are constantly making their way into the waters, as well. Declining water quality is like a police siren alerting humanity to current, ongoing and emerging pollution problems.
One of my great passions is to enlighten others on how to protect the most valuable natural resource of the planet: streams and rivers. Individually, citizens can make a difference. Storm water is the number one water quality problem nationally. Enhancing and planting riparian buffers – that is, planted areas near streams – can help to prevent precipitation and sprinkler runoff. People can also prioritize using only native plants; decreasing mowing areas; recycling or composting yard waste; using less or no fertilizer; avoiding the use of pesticides; and bagging pet waste. Insisting that environmental laws be enforced and strengthened will also help reduce water pollution.
Without clean water, life on Earth will become difficult or impossible for mayflies and stoneflies, not to mention people.