Recent flights over Colorado’s historic Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fire burn scars revealed a troubling observation: Three years after the state’s largest wildfires scorched nearly 400,000 acres, nearly half of those acres are still so severely burned that little to no regrowth has taken place. That has caused concern among a cadre of local researchers from federal and state governmental agencies, Colorado State University, conservation groups and private industry studying the vast scar from 2020.
Sarah Beck, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests fire recovery coordinator, said more precise aerial mapping of the scar will be forthcoming, but for now, large areas of the burn scar are not seeing expected revegetation recovery.
“These patches of high burn severity are so large there is a real possibility of recovery taking 50 years or longer,” she said. “It’s really concerning. I don’t think we have seen this in North America. I think this is a new condition in complexity.”
With the enormity and complexity of post-fire impacts still looming three years later to human safety, critical water supplies, recreational facilities and fish and wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service has begun a new approach. In August, it announced a partnership with the nonprofit conservation organization American Forests to develop a longer-term reforestation strategy for the burn scars. The planning will continue to be developed collaboratively with input from community-connected partners, research institutions and local and state agencies.
“The problem is really big, and it is not something we have the capacity to tackle alone,” Beck said.
Over the course of two decades, David Cooper, a senior research scientist emeritus of wetland and riparian ecology at Colorado State University, returned to Rocky Mountain National Park’s Kawuneeche Valley to map a visual timeline of the ecological collapse occurring before his eyes.
Cooper’s research team found that the 86-year-old Grand Ditch—a 15-mile water diversion that siphons 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River and transports it to the arid Eastern Plains—had dried out the valley floor, making it difficult for riparian trees and shrubs to grow. Swelling elk and moose populations were overgrazing the remaining vegetation, leaving an already dwindling beaver population with few building materials for their dams. The area’s beaver population was critical to keeping the ecosystem healthy. Without beavers’ careful stewardship, their ponds drained, decreasing the amount of surface water in the area by 95% and dramatically altering the hydrology of the valley, according to Cooper.
It’s a reality that plays out across Colorado and the West. Riparian areas—the lands along the edges of rivers and streams—and wetlands, have been degrading for decades due to mining pollution; overgrazing; flow alterations from dams, diversions and roads; and historical and present-day farming and timber management practices. Approximately 61% of smaller streams and 97% of major rivers in Colorado have experienced floodplain alterations, rendering them partially or wholly nonfunctional, according to a 2017 analysis for the Center for American Progress.
Cooper’s decades-long research helped inform the creation of the Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaborative, which is working to restore four riparian areas within the valley by protecting vegetation and mimicking beaver activity in hopes of luring nature’s master river engineers back to their historical homes. The project, which is primarily using low-tech, process-based restoration methods, is one of dozens of such projects occurring across the state—bolstered by a recent influx of state and federal funding.
Process-based restoration, of which low-tech, process-based restoration is a subset, targets the root causes of ecosystem change with a goal of restoring a river’s natural processes.
Research shows that connected floodplains and healthy riparian areas provide valuable ecosystem services such as capturing sediment as it heads downstream; filtering out pollutants; storing more water on the landscape to increase vegetative growth and biodiversity; and moderating soil moisture, streamflows and temperatures throughout the year. All of this combines to make the watershed more resilient to floods, wildfire and drought.
But research surrounding low-tech, process-based restoration is fairly limited, especially as it relates to how projects might impact downstream water availability and the timing of flows.
Because of this, in part, the process for getting restoration projects approved in Colorado has been somewhat opaque and challenging for practitioners to navigate, prompting state lawmakers to draft a bill last session that sought to clarify the process in order to scale up efforts across the state. The final bill was amended by those who were concerned with how the projects might impact priority water rights, so work continues to determine whether more restoration projects can be better facilitated with policy that makes them easier to permit while still protecting water rights.
Scientists and restoration experts are pushing forward with projects, given the scope of riparian degradation and the strain climate change and population growth continue to have on water resources and the ecosystems that support them.
Beaver mimicry as restoration
Jackie Corday, a land and water conservation attorney based in Montrose, has been an enthusiastic proponent of low-tech, process-based restoration since 2018, when she first saw the impact that these low-tech projects could have. “I could see the difference. It just made sense,” Corday says.
While working at Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a water resource manager, she began to research the benefits—and potential legal barriers—for scaling up those types of restoration projects.
“You can do it the fast way and come in with a big excavator and try to reset the elevation to what it would have been,” Corday says. “But that’s very expensive. It’s like $600,000 to $1 million a mile, and there are thousands of miles. It’s not even a possible approach [on its own].” By comparison, low-tech, process-based approaches can be cheaper and faster, at $50,000 to $100,000 per mile.
“Also, the science was showing that [a high-tech approach] wasn’t necessarily always bringing back the [ecosystem] that you were hoping for,” she adds.
“What these researchers were showing was that, well, there’s actually a better way to do this. You mimic beaver.”
Beaver dams have been shown to retain sediment and nutrients, as well as heavy metals, which can improve water quality.
An example of a low-tech, process-based method would be to install posts vertically into a creek bed to catch wood and debris floating downstream, mimicking natural log jams. This can jumpstart a beaver’s home. In other cases, structures that mimic a beaver dam, called a beaver dam analog, are installed in the stream to slow the flow of water to allow it to pool and rehydrate the soil.
While low-tech, process-based restoration is seemingly growing in popularity, it’s not always the right tool. Sometimes, higher-tech engineering is needed, such as after major flooding events, below dams that alter flows, or when a river’s natural processes have been strained to the breaking point, rendering them unable to self heal, according to a design manual created by Joe Wheaton, an assistant professor of fluvial geomorphology at Utah State University.
Low-tech, process-based restoration also may not be appropriate near housing developments or busy roads, where there is the potential for flooding and infrastructure damage, according to Corday.
“So we have to look farther up the watershed in the public lands and the private lands, the big ranches where there is space for the river to be natural again and to reconnect with its floodplain,” Corday says.
Legislation to pave the way for minor stream restoration projects
In 2019, Corday helped create Colorado’s Healthy Headwaters group, which included conservationists, academics, NGOs, state and federal agencies, and water stakeholders, to come up with policies and strategies to scale up riparian restoration projects throughout the state. The group influenced legislation that was introduced by state lawmakers in April 2023 as SB 23-270. But amendments reduced the bill to include only “minor” restoration projects—and removed language related to low-tech, process-based restoration projects.
“Those [low-tech, process-based] projects were the least understood and raised the most concerns for water users,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “And so that’s why we ended up having to amend coverage for those projects.”
The bill, which was signed into law on June 5, clarifies that minor stream alterations such as bank stabilization or restructuring a channel after it’s been damaged by wildfire or flood are presumed to not impact water rights users.
“The key [in the final bill] is there can only be an incidental amount of flooding or pooling with those structures and they can’t exceed the ordinary high water mark, so they can’t push water outside of the natural channel,” says Romero-Heaney.
For minor restoration projects defined in the bill, a person or group does not need to go to water court, obtain water rights or get a plan of augmentation, according to Romero-Heaney. Projects established before August 2023 are also “grandfathered in” meaning they are presumed to not impact water rights and can move forward.
Those who sought to amend or defeat the bill included various agricultural groups, cities, water districts, and some environmental groups.
“Their concerns are that their water rights may be injured by a stream restoration project that changes the timing in flow or increases evapotranspiration associated with the growth of trees and shrubs along the river corridor,” says Romero-Heaney, who also sits on Gov. Jared Polis’ policy team as a special advisor on water policy. “What we hear a lot is it might be ‘death by 1,000 cuts.’”
Tyler Garrett, the director of government relations for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union—a group that represents 17,000 farmers and ranchers across Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming—told state lawmakers that his main concerns with the original bill were related to what recourse a person could seek if their water rights were impacted by a restoration project, and the amount of time they had to file a complaint or lawsuit.
“The geomorphic changes may not even be completed during this two-year window and injury may not be realized,” he said during the bill committee hearing this spring. “We also need to ensure the water right holders have time to collect the proper data and build a proper suit when they are injured.”
Romero-Heaney says it will take time for the Department of Natural Resources to interpret the new law in order to provide guidance to existing project managers and other entities interested in restoration
In the meantime, Corday says the Colorado Healthy Headwaters group is continuing to have conversations on how to streamline the process for restoration projects in the hopes of potentially introducing another bill next legislative session to expand the existing law’s scope.
Romero-Heaney is excited to participate and help coordinate field trips for members of the water community to see process-based projects in action.
She hopes the conversations help bridge the divide between the ecological community and the water attorneys who work on protecting water rights portfolios.
Progress in the Kawuneeche Valley
Back at Rocky Mountain National Park, the Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaborative—which includes the National Park Service, Northern Water, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado River District, The Nature Conservancy, Grand County, and the Town of Grand Lake—is installing beaver-like structures within Beaver Creek to slow streamflows, catch sediment, and promote vegetative growth farther from the banks.
“We’re really looking to improve the habitat, kind of the Field of Dreams approach, where if we improve the habitat in the area, then hopefully beavers will come back on their own,” says Kimberly Mihelich, a water protection specialist with Northern Water, a water conservancy district that serves eight counties in Northeastern Colorado.
The group—funded by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Northern Water, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board—isn’t looking to re-introduce beavers into the ecosystem since the environment wouldn’t be able to support them given the lack of vegetation available for them to build dams. But beavers have started to show interest.
In summer 2021, the group stumbled upon something they hadn’t seen in nearly two decades—an active beaver dam. The beaver home was nestled within a 35-acre, fenced-in restoration area in the valley that had been installed a decade ago to keep moose and elk from overbrowsing the willow trees. The fences have gaps in the bottom so small animals such as beavers can slip through.
“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, these fences work!’” Mihelich says. “There was so, so much excitement.”
“[The beaver dam] did get washed away in some of the spring runoff,” she quickly adds. “But it was really exciting to show that if the habitat is there, beavers in the area might make it home.” This isn’t unusual: Beaver dams are often damaged during large floods, but the beaver are able to rebuild if the environment can support them.
This summer, the team installed more fence enclosures to keep moose and elk from overgrazing the restoration areas and continued using herbicides to kill off invasive plants.
Mihelich says Northern Water is involved in restoring the riparian areas because it’s a way to improve drinking water quality. The Colorado River, which winds through the Kawuneeche Valley, is part of a storage system that includes Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Granby Reservoir on the Western Slope. The system has struggled with poor water quality due to increases in fine sediment loading, debris and nutrients, all of which impair water quality and can clog up water infrastructure. The system has also been impacted by recent wildfires, which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change.
But restoring the riparian zones and changing the hydrology of the valley will take time, says Koren Nydick, the resource stewardship manager for Rocky Mountain National Park, especially since the damage has spanned decades.
And efforts to replace natural processes aren’t always as effective as the real thing, she adds. “We aren’t beavers. We can’t do it all,” she says. “The hope is that they come in and do it better than we could ever do it.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
When President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries of both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in 2021, public-land lovers felt they had achieved a lasting victory.
Biden’s action reversed the Trump administration’s shrinkage of these protected areas in southern Utah, and once again put those spectacular canyons off-limits to mining and energy development. The victory was confirmed in August, when a federal court dismissed Utah’s lawsuit attempting to overturn Biden’s action.
But in some ways, the crucial work of preserving these places has just begun. The proclamations establishing and restoring the two national monuments are lofty documents that make the case for wielding the Antiquities Act to protect the landscapes in question. But the real test is always what happens on the ground.
We have a clearer picture of that now, because this August, the BLM released its draft resource management plan and environmental impact statement for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The public has until Nov. 9 to make its wishes known.
The local environmental community sees the agency’s “preferred” alternative, which “emphasizes the protection and maintenance of intact and resilient landscapes …” as a vast improvement over the status quo. Though it’s less restrictive than one of the other four alternatives, this approach would significantly limit grazing, motorized vehicle use, and target shooting across the monument.
State and local politicians who subscribe to the Sagebrush Rebel ideology have been attempting to dismantle the national monument ever since then-President Bill Clinton established it in 1996. Neither Congress nor even the George W. Bush administration would accede to their demands, but over the years the monument has been starved of funds, lost valuable staff and its management has been influenced by the local culture, which is generally hostile to federal land management.
Then two decades after Grand Staircase-Escalante was established, Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch convinced President Donald Trump to drastically shrink it. The legality of the move was questionable at best: The Antiquities Act gives the president the power to establish national monuments, but not to rescind or dismantle them. The Trump administration’s management plan also gutted protections for what remained — especially relating to grazing.
The livestock industry has long claimed that the national monument’s grazing rules would destroy local ranching. Yet Clinton’s proclamation clearly stated that grazing would continue under the existing BLM rules. In fact, the national monument helped a handful of ranchers who were ready to get out of the marginal business of running cows in inhospitable — yet beautiful and sensitive — terrain. The ranchers struck a deal to retire their grazing permits along the Escalante River and some of its tributaries in exchange for a generous cash payout from the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust.
Even after the buyout, more than 95% of the monument remained open to livestock, and the number of cattle — or animal unit months — permitted on the monument is about the same now as it was in 1996. Today, though, fewer cattle run on nearly every permitted grazing allotment. It is clear that the livestock operators themselves are the ones limiting the number of cattle.
But here’s the problem: Biden’s restoration of the monument did not repeal the Trump-era plan that opened up retired grazing allotments. Now the public has an opportunity to do that.
The agency’s “preferred” alternative — which the document is quick to point out is merely a starting point for discussions — would divide the monument into four management areas, with different levels of development and access in each. Grazing allotments not currently under permit would be permanently closed to livestock. New range improvements would be limited or prohibited. And off-road vehicles would be banned from the Primitive Area and selected other areas and limited to designated routes in the rest of the monument.
It’s a lot less than most conservationists were looking for. It would leave 85% of the monument open to tens of thousands of grazing cattle trampling fragile cryptobiotic soils. But Scott Berry, board president of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a nonprofit founded to protect and preserve the monument, urges the environmental community to get behind the plan.
“Political forces in Utah are going to do everything in their power to prevent the new plan from being adopted,” he said, “which would leave the Trump (plan) the controlling authority.”
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:
For decades, Dillon Reservoir has been a place where anglers could hook the fish of a lifetime — a 10-pound, 30-inch wild brown trout. But the brown trout population in one of Colorado’s most visible and accessible mountain reservoirs has declined in recent years, prompting state wildlife officials to consider stricter fishing regulations on the reservoir and seasonal closures on nearby waters. It’s unclear exactly what is causing the decline, said Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But increased fishing during the pandemic, and after, may be a factor…
Other potential causes include a change in water quality, development along the rivers and streams where the trout spawn, and stress from higher water temperatures caused by drought, Ewert said…
The number of brown trout measuring more than 14 inches long has declined for four consecutive testing years, according to population surveys conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The agency conducts surveys every two years. In 2014, trout larger than that size made up 62% of all brown trout caught in the survey nets. By 2022, they made up only 33%…The brown trout in the Blue River upstream from the reservoir also have experienced an “obvious and significant decline,” according to a 2019 CPW report…
The proposed rules would require anglers to immediately release brown trout that are longer than 14 inches, with the rule applying to the reservoir, to sections of the Blue River south of the reservoir and to Tenmile Creek. Fishing would be banned entirely from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1 in two places where the trout spawn in the fall: the Blue River between the reservoir and three miles north of Breckenridge, and West Tenmile Creek from Copper Mountain to the reservoir.
This year we bid farewell to two lost frogs, the Chinese paddlefish, a plant from New Hampshire, and many others.
Last July scientists in Texas announced some surprising news: They had rediscovered an oak tree species previously believed to be extinct. Until then the last known Quercus tardifolia tree was believed to have died more than a decade earlier. But lo and behold, one more tree was discovered in Big Bend National Park, meaning the species wasn’t extinct after all.
The rest of the news wasn’t as good: That lone tree isn’t doing so well. It’s been burned by fire and shows signs of a fungal infection. Scientists say it’s in need of “immediate conservation.”
This situation isn’t that atypical in the world of wildlife conservation, where species that have avoided extinction in the Anthropocene still need dramatic support. A recent study found that more than half of all known endangered species require targeted recovery efforts if they’re to avert “human-induced extinction.”
If that doesn’t happen, we’re going to lose more species — a lot of them. Despite rediscoveries like the oak tree in Texas, the world is still losing biodiversity at dangerously high rates. In 2022, scientists announced that they had given up efforts to find dozens of long-lost species, including two frogs, one of the world’s biggest fish, an orchid from Florida, a grass from New Hampshire and many others.
And those are just the ones we know about. Another 2022 study warned about the threat of “dark extinction,” the loss of species science has never even identified as having existed in the first place. By conservative estimates, millions of species are yet to be discovered, identified and named, and most are at risk of disappearing before that ever happens as humanity continues its relentless expansion. And if we don’t know they exist, we can’t do anything to save them.
So let’s take a moment to talk about the ones we do know that we’ve lost, to remember their names, to add them to the Book of the Dead, and to use their lessons to prevent others from suffering the same fate. We’ve compiled dozens of stories of extinction from the past year, including species that have been declared lost after many decades of looking, other species that have vanished from key ranges of their habitat, and others that are now extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity.
But before we get to those names, let’s take a lesson from the Endangered Species Act here in the United States — a law that turns 50 this year. Virtually every species that has been protected under the Act has had its extinction prevented. Some were added to the list too late, and they died out as a result. Many are still hanging on by a thread, but active conservation efforts are preventing them from disappearing any further. Many have recovered — most recently two plants from the Channel Islands — and more are likely to do so in the future. That is the ultimate lesson of the extinction crisis: It’s preventable if we work hard enough.
Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) — The declared extinction of this iconic fish shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Last seen in 2003, these massive beasts — who reportedly reached up to 23 feet in length — were already on the decline due to overfishing and habitat degradation before the Gezhouba Dam was built in 1981. That dam cut off their migration route in the Yangtze River and doomed the species. People have been looking for them ever since but, given their gigantic stature and the fact that no one has spotted any in that time, the species was declared extinct this past year. As the only member of its genus, the Chinese paddlefish’s extinction represents the loss of an entire evolutionary line.
Yangtze sturgeon (Acipenser dabryanus) — An extinction in the making, or recovery on the cusp? Either of those could be the fate of the Yangtze sturgeon. No mature fish have been seen in the wild in years, and the species was declared extinct in the wild this year by the IUCN. Ongoing captive-propagation efforts have produced tens of thousands of young sturgeon, who are released annually into the Yangtze River, but so far that hasn’t paid off in terms of wild reproduction. The species initially declined due to a long list of threats, including overfishing, shipping, dams, pollution and other habitat degradations, and few of those dangers have faded. Those same threats affect all other sturgeon species: Two-thirds are now critically endangered.
Florida govenia (Govenia floridana) — This large orchid, native to Everglades National Park in Florida, was mistakenly identified as another species when it was first discovered in 1957. That delay in recognition probably doomed it. At the time of discovery, only 25 plants existed. Poaching probably quickly wiped them out before they could be protected. The IUCN declared the species extinct in 2022, decades after its last verified sighting in 1964.
Sharp-snouted day frog (Taudactylus acutirostris) — Gone in the blink of an eye. It took just five years for this once-common Australian amphibian species to decline and ultimately disappear, probably due to the deadly chytrid fungus, which is causing frog extinctions all around the world. Last seen in 1997, the day frog was declared extinct this past year following two decades of extensive searches.
Mountain mist frog (Litoria nyakalensis) — Another Australian frog, another probable victim of the chytrid fungus. This one was last seen in 1990, and extensive searches have failed to prove it still exists.
Saxicolella deniseae — Known from a single waterfall in the Republic of Guinea, this herb appears to have gone extinct after its only habitat was flooded during construction of a hydroelectric dam.
Raiatean ground partula snail (Partula navigatoria) and Garrett’s tree snail (P. garrettii) — These species from French Polynesia were nearly eaten into extinction by the notorious, carnivorous rosy wolf snail, an invasive species around the planet. The last live animals were found and brought into a captive-breeding program in the early 1990s. A reintroduction program began in 2016 at a site that (unfortunately) was later found to contain another predatory invasive species, the New Guinea flatworm. Pending the success of future reintroductions, these species have been assessed as extinct in the wild, joining other snails from French Polynesia in that purgatory-like category.
Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) in the United States — One of the major regional extinctions on this year’s list. The jaguarundi, a small feline, was last officially seen in the United States — the northernmost part of its range — in 1986. In 2022 a major 18-year study reported no evidence the species still exists in the country and declared it ripe for reintroduction efforts.
Beilschmiedia ningmingensis — This tree was last seen in China in 1935, in an area that has long since been converted to agriculture and plantations. China already considered it extinct; the IUCN added it to the list of extinct species this year after extensive recent surveys.
Coote’s tree snail (Partula cootei) — Last seen in French Polynesia in 1934, this snail probably disappeared slowly as it hybridized with another introduced species. Researchers assessed it as extinct in 2017, but the information wasn’t published or added to the IUCN Red List until this past year.
White-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) and northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) — China formally declared both these primates extinct in the wild within their borders this past September, at least a decade after they were last seen in the country. Researchers blamed “human activities” (including hunting, deforestation and the pet trade) for their disappearance. Each species still exists in other countries in Southeast Asia, although the white-handed gibbon is endangered, and the northern white-cheeked gibbon is critically endangered.
Dugong (Dugong dugon) in China — These gentle manatee relatives, who are considered “vulnerable to extinction” through most of their range, have all but disappeared from China, another major extirpation for the country this year. A paper published in July declared dugongs “functionally extinct” in Chinese waters, meaning some of them still exist there but not enough to form a healthy population. This, according to researchers, represents “the first reported functional extinction of a large vertebrate in Chinese marine waters” and serves as a “sobering reminder” of the threats faced by other species.
Poecilobothrus majesticus — What little we know about this long-legged fly from the United Kingdom stems from a single male specimen collected on the Essex coast in 1907. Scientists didn’t taxonomically name it until 1976, and a 2018 report on UK flies of the Dolichopodidae family concluded that it was probably extinct, as “one would have expected them to have been encountered by now.” The IUCN added it to the Red List as extinct this past year.
Luciobarbus nasus — This fish was known from just a single river system in western Morocco, where it hasn’t been seen since 1874. Pollution from a nearby city may have done it in, but that remains unclear. Here’s the good news though: After years of scientific debate, this species has now been reclassified into four species, with three of them remaining in existence (and one of those endangered).
Chott el Djerid barbel (Luciobarbus antinorii) — When you use too much water, don’t expect fish to stay alive much longer. That’s what happened in Tunisia, where this rare fish disappeared sometime around the 1990s or 2000s. It was listed under the IUCN Red list as a data deficient for many years but was declared extinct in 2022.
Syzygium humblotii — This tree, a member of the myrtle family, hasn’t been seen in about 130 years. It grew in Mayotte, an overseas department of France located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique, in an area that has since been degraded by farms, livestock and other nonnative species. Searches over the past three decades have failed to turn up signs of its existence, so this year the IUCN declared it extinct.
Kalanchoe fadeniorum — Relatives of this long-lost Kenyan plant are grown as houseplants around the world. This species isn’t as lucky. Known from just one site, it hasn’t been seen since 1977. The areas surrounding where it grew aren’t very well surveyed, so scientists are hedging their bets and calling it “extinct in the wild.”
Heenan’s cycad (Encephalartos heenanii) — Every member of this plant genus (commonly referred to as bread trees or bread palms) is endangered due to overcollection, sometimes for food, sometimes for traditional medicine, sometimes just to own them. Previously listed as critically endangered, Heenan’s cyad was reassessed as extinct in the wild in 2022 due to “persistent pressure from plant collectors.”
Giant Atlas barbel (Labeobarbus reinii) — Although this Moroccan fish was last seen in 2001, it was listed on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable to extinction” for several years. Well, that prediction has come true: This year the IUCN declared it extinct. It was known from just one small stretch of river that suffered from pollution and runoff from a nearby city, as well as a dam that separated populations. These factors undoubtedly affected the fish, but the exact reason for its extinction remain unknown.
Abrolhos painted button-quail (Turnix varius scintillans) — This Australian bird subspecies is known from just three islands. Now it’s down to two. The population on North Island in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago has been “eaten out of house and home” by introduced invasive species, which degraded the habitat. Researchers spent nearly 13,000 nights camera trapping the island between 2018 and 2021 and concluded in a 2022 paper that the bird no longer exists there. The quail is considered one of the five Australian species most likely to face extinction in the coming years, so this extirpation represents a major blow for its conservation.
Cystophora — Not one extinction, but many? A 2022 paper declares several species of this algae genus “functionally extinct” along the coast of southern Australia. At least seven species are reportedly now absent from the warmest edges of their historical range. The causes of their decline and disappearance are not known, but the paper cites slightly likely impacts from “gradual warming, marine heatwaves and rapid urbanization.”
Mollinedia myriantha — This Brazilian tree has a sad history. It was discovered in , then lost for 123 years. A sole individual tree was rediscovered in 2015, but fieldwork conducted in the following years found that the lonely tree had died. Researchers officially declared it “critically endangered, possibly extinct” this past year. The same paper warns that the genus faces a wide range of threats and many species remain unassessed, meaning they too could soon face extinction.
Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) in Laos — The last individual of this species in Laos was found dead on Feb. 15. It had been injured by being caught in fishing gear — it escaped, but only after receiving injuries that left it unable to hunt. Irrawaddy dolphins remain in other countries, but the species is endangered, and its loss in Laos represents a major population gone.
And 562 more? — Proving an extinction is never easy — it’s easier to see something than it is to not see something. But many species have gone unseen for decades, and while scientists still look for them every year, hope begins to dwindle after a time.
Is it time to give up hope for 562 lost species? That’s the question raised by a paper published this May, which examines long-unseen species listed on the IUCN Red List. It identifies 137 amphibians, 257 reptiles, 38 birds and 130 mammals that have not been seen for at least 50 years and asks if that half-century of no sightings means they’re extinct. Maybe, maybe not. We need to be prepared for that possibility, but the paper suggests this analysis actually provides something positive: a way to prioritize geographic “hotspots” where scientists can target their searches for long-lost species.
In other words, let’s find these lost species while there’s still time.
The consultant with UnderstandAG — which uses the tagline restoring soil, profits, farms and futures — conducted a water infiltration test in the field that after 10 minutes showed very little water soaking into the hard soil. That is because, for one reason, the field had no armor, or a soil cover of plant residue on the surface. Soil cover is one of the six key elements for building healthy soil that the landowners and ranchers learned about during the all-day Soil Health Field Day on Aug. 15.
“Hay producers might be better off in the long term if they left a 3 or 4-inch stubble of hay, which would help generate a more healthy soil system and by maintaining a continuous living root or ground cover,” said Lyn Halliday, board president of the Routt County Conservation District, which organized the free workshop.
Halliday explained that healthy soils act like a sponge helping to absorb and contain moisture. Low soil moisture can cause plants to stop growing or dry out and may provide fuels for wildfires. On the other hand, when soil moisture content is high, fires have more difficulty in igniting, burning and spreading rapidly.
In the next demonstration area on the property, Fuchs showed with an infrared thermometer the 30-40 degree difference in temperatures of healthy soil versus compacted, poor soil. When Fuchs took a reading of 143 degrees on bare soil, he stopped to take a photo of the startling results because, he said, at 140 degrees, good soil bacteria die. He pointed out a soil temperature study that showed at 130 degrees, 100% of moisture is lost through evaporation and transpiration. At 100 degrees, 15% of moisture is used for plant growth and 85% is lost…
The conservation district recently released a “Routt County Landowner Toolkit for Building Drought, Wildfire and Soil Health Resiliency,” that is online at RouttCountyCD.com. The toolkit includes links to helpful resources with the goal of inspiring county landowners and ranchers to adapt to changing conditions that affect the land and daily practices of farming and ranching. The toolkit points out the best management practices for agriculture include reducing or eliminating tillage, nurturing the living organic components of soils, promoting diversification of soil flora and fauna below ground and plants above ground, creating pollinator habitat, diversifying rotations including grazing, and reducing wind erosion by establishing wind breaks.
I spent a couple of days last week out of Pagosa Springs in southern Colorado, touring forest restoration work in the headwaters of the San Juan-Chama Project, which produces critical water supplies for central New Mexico. In others words, water for my neighhbors and me.
We’ve learned over and over in the last couple of decades the risk to city water from wildfire in our headwaters, and the benefits of forest restoration. But the institutional path to restoration is challenging – because of cost, because of the complicated mix of land ownership, and because of the distance (both physically and also conceptually) between the mountain watersheds and the people who depend on the water they supply.
I came away optimistic about the creative problem solving I saw. This stuff’s hard, especially to do at the scale needed, but the efforts are impressive.
FOREST TO FAUCETS (AND HEADGATES)
A few years back, my University of New Mexico collaborator Bob Berrens helped guide a research project intended to flesh out the relationship between Albuquerque and the distant headwaters (a ~200 mile drive away) that provide a critical piece of our water supply.
a mean willingness to pay of $64 per household, which equates to $7 million a year flowing out of Albuquerque to help support forest restoration in the watershed on which we depend, and
even households far away from watersheds support shelling out cash to pay for the work – not just communities like Santa Fe that can look up from their back porch to see their watershed (more on this later – in addition to its back porch watershed, Santa Fe also gets water from the San Juan-Chama headwaters)
COLLABORATIONS AT THE WATERSHED SCALE
While in Pagosa Springs and the surrounding watersheds, we got to see and learn about an amazing set of collaborations involving the Forest Stewards Guild, the Chama Peak Land Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund, which provides a crucial conduit for the “payment for ecosystems” model Bob’s work talks about.
One of the keys to making this work is a business model – the money supports folks in communities like Pagosa Springs who actually drive the masticators (big machines that grind up overgrown forest stuff). It’s part of the rural-urban social contract Bob and I talk about in the UNM Water Resources Program class we’re teaching this fall.
COLLABORATIONS AT THE REGIONAL WATER MANAGEMENT SCALE
Bob’s called this stuff “forests to faucets”, but what we’re seeing this year on the Rio Grande through central New Mexico is a reminder that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and the river channel itself, also depend on the importation of San Juan-Chama Project water across the continental divide. Absent the SJC water over the last couple of months, the MRGCD’s ditches would have gone dry sooner, as would the river channel. (Both ditches and river channel are starting to go dry as we speak, after MRGCD’s San Juan-Chama water ran out, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)
The organizer of last week’s tours was the San Juan-Chama Contractor’s Association, a group formed several years ago to try to create a framework for collective action among the New Mexico water agencies that use this imported water. Other states have umbrella agencies to organize big parts of their Colorado River water management – the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (“CAP”) in Arizona, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the Southern Nevada Water Agency (Las Vegas NV). In New Mexico, we have a bunch of separate San Juan-Chama Project water users, each with their own contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. The SJC Contractors Association has created a framework for thinking about collective action on things like physical infrastructure costs and maintenance – and forest restoration!
Key Rio Grande Valley players in attendance were leadership from Albuquerque, Santa Fe (which in addition to San Juan-Chama water, gets supplies from its own local Sangre de Cristo watersheds, which have forest health challenges too) and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
In addition to spending time in drop-dead gorgeous mountain watersheds, last week’s tours and meetings also created a great framework for sitting out on the back patio at Motel SOCO in Pagosa Springs eating delicious bar food and drinking our choice of beverages and building social capital. Bonus points for the tours organizers for getting the forest nerds and the water nerds talking.
Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents the second congressional district including Routt County, Rep. Lauren Boebert as well as Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet discussed the importance of Colorado River water as a national-level concern…
Neguse, who once served on then Gov. Hickenlooper’s cabinet, said, “The governor would remind us that there was no margin in making enemies and that collaboration was ultimately the key ingredient to solving any problem or challenge facing our state.”
Neguse, Hickenlooper and Bennet used the word “we” repeatedly in their short remarks focusing on the importance of cooperation in complicated water issues. The four elected officials listed Colorado water projects that garnered millions of dollars in federal funds. Hickenlooper said the bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021 included $300 million for Colorado River Basin drought contingency plans, and the Inflation Reduction Act from August 2022 included $8 billion for water infrastructure funding…
After the senators and representatives spoke and answered several questions from panel moderator Christine Arbogast, vice president of the Colorado Water Congress, Gov. Jared Polis addressed the ballroom full of hundreds of attendees for about seven minutes…Polis listed various active water-saving measures ranging from leak detection programs to “Colorado-scaping” education to swap turf for water efficient and climate-appropriate landscaping including tax credits for turf replacement. The governor encouraged people in the water community to speak up about the need to integrate water usage and planning, noting integration “had been done on a haphazard basis before but is at the level that we have to do this thoughtfully as a state.” The governor called housing a very important example of how to “achieve solutions that make sense” such as constructing more water efficient housing options such as duplexes, quad-plexes and multi-family housing…
The governor said the Colorado Department of Agriculture is hiring for the first time an agriculture water advisor.
In this film by American Rivers and Swiftwater Films, Indigenous leaders share why removing four dams to restore a healthy Klamath River is critical for clean water, food sovereignty and justice. “Guardians of the River” features Frankie Joe Myers, Vice Chair of the Yurok Tribe, Sammy Gensaw, director of Ancestral Guard, Barry McCovey, fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe, and members of the Ancestral Guard and Klamath Justice Coalition.
The flash flooding currently happening in Southern California and Nevada is the latest example of why we must transform the management and health of rivers and streams to strengthen communities in the face of climate change. Tropical Storm Hilary was the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 and it has dropped historic amounts of rainfall on parts of communities from southern California to Las Vegas and across the Southwest. This event follows just weeks after major floods caused widespread damage across Vermont and the Northeast.
Climate change is fueling more frequent and intense storms, putting pressure on federal and state agencies to help communities manage the runoff and stormwater from these extreme events. This means adapting our existing infrastructure–elevating roads, expanding bridges, setting back levees- and it means making smart decisions about how we are developing along rivers and throughout watersheds.
American Rivers is calling on federal, state, and local governments to protect communities from increasingly severe flooding. Decision-makers must:
Give rivers room to flood safely: Naturally functioning floodplains (the low-lying lands along a river) are a community’s natural defense against flooding. These areas soak up and store floodwaters and reduce downstream flooding. Keeping floodplains natural and undeveloped is the best way to avoid flood damage to begin with. Governments must prioritize protecting undeveloped floodplains and putting in place policies like the FEDERAL FLOOD RISK MANAGEMENT STANDARD that require development to be resilient to Increasingly severe floods.
The fact is, many communities have already developed in their floodplains and have channelized and leveed their rivers, disconnecting them from their floodplains. All of this puts people and property at risk. Wherever possible, communities must work with residents and landowners to find solutions that improve their resilience and leverage state and federal funding to restore damaged floodplains to give rivers room to flood safely.
Protect wetlands and small streams: The Supreme Court’s recent Sackett v. EPA ruling stripped federal Clean Water Act protections for small streams and 50% of the nation’s wetlands. These wetlands, along with perennial and ephemeral streams, are critical to public safety because they absorb and store floodwaters. By leaving streams and wetlands vulnerable to destruction and pollution, more communities are now at risk. State and federal decision-makers must shore up protections for wetlands to safeguard public health and safety.
This record Southwest flooding highlights the important connection between rivers and the ephemeral and intermittent headwater streams that lost protection under the Sackett case and are now at risk of unregulated development. Ephemeral and intermittent streams are dry for much of the year but fill with water during heavy rains. These headwater streams make up 81% of the arid and semi-arid Southwest and are the source of drinking water for people in the Southwest. Unchecked development on headwater streams could further increase future flood damage.
Remove unsafe, outdated dams and levees: More frequent extreme rain storms mean more risk of dams, levees, and other infrastructure being overtopped or failing resulting in catastrophic loss of life and property. We cannot wait until dams fail to take action. Poorly maintained and improperly designed dams and levees need to be removed to protect downstream communities and infrastructure before they fail. States need programs that work with dam and levee owners to provide technical and financial support to remove dams and levees that they no longer want or need.
In addition, many dams are outdated and unsafe. Hundreds of dams have breached or failed in recent years because of heavy rainfall and flooding, putting communities at risk. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that aging dams across the nation need more than $70 billion in repairs.
Communities are not prepared for the increasingly frequent and severe flooding fueled by climate change. Our infrastructure was not built for this. We must help communities prepare, and that means protecting and restoring rivers. A healthy river is a community’s best and first line of defense against flooding and other climate impacts. When we pave over streams, disconnect floodplains, and destroy wetlands, we strip communities of these vital defenses. We must protect and restore rivers to make our communities stronger, safer, and more resilient.
Click the link to read the article from the Colorado Basin Roundtable (Anna Drexler-Dreis) via the Sky-Hi News website:
The Grand County Stream Management Plan was created in 2010 and was the first of its kind in Colorado. Since the inception of the plan, changes have occurred throughout that warrant a necessary reexamination of the technical aspects of the stream management plan to better reflect current river conditions.
In addition, a significant amount of new data (macroinvertebrates, fish, sediment, stream temperature, stream flow and water quality) has been collected that supports a robust watershed assessment to improve characterization and prioritization of areas of concern. The plan update is focused on river health and needs, and the goal is to make general improvements to support stream health for aquatic habitat.
The Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort is a nonprofit made up of partner organizations from both sides of the Continental Divide in Colorado, and its overarching goal is to maintain, and when reasonable, possibly restore or enhance the aquatic environment in Grand County. For more information, check out the website at GrandCountyLearningByDoing.org
Learning By Doing’s focus is the Cooperative Effort Area, which includes over 100 river miles in Fraser and Williams Fork River basins upstream of the Colorado River’s confluence with the Blue River in Grand County. Since it was formed in 2013, it has made significant progress in establishing a long term scientific-based program to collaboratively monitor and address changes in the area.
Each year, it designs, funds and implements a plan for field data collection that achieves the goals of monitoring key aquatic metrics in Grand County streams and rivers consistent with the stream management plan. The intergovernmental agreements that founded Learning By Doing state that it is the task and responsibility of the cooperative to update the Grand County Stream Management Plan.
Updating the plan includes a robust stakeholder outreach program that allows Learning By Doing to engage with a broad diversity of interest groups to inform and support the plan’s update. Peak Facilitation Group, a professional public outreach facilitator, is organizing the stakeholder outreach program. The stakeholder outreach process consists of three groups: a stakeholder group, which has open membership; an advisory board of representatives, a smaller subset of the stakeholder group selected by stakeholders to represent the diverse field of interests involved in the update; and Learning By Doing working with all the groups as the project manager.
The first open house meeting was held in early May. At this open house, Grand County’s Manager Ed Moyer and Grand County Water Quality Specialist Kayli Foulk presented the history and background of the stream management plan, an overview of Learning By Doing and its role in managing the update to the plan. Then, Peak Facilitation Group presented the overall purpose and scope of the update. The meeting concluded with Northern Water’s Jen Stephenson and Trout Unlimited’s Katie Schneider presenting a high-level summary of the objectives and methods for completing a comprehensive watershed assessment of data collected within the Cooperative Effort Area.
The second open house meeting was held on July 18 at the Granby Library and was well attended by stakeholders. This meeting included a presentation by Seth Mason from Lotic Hydrological on the background chapter of the comprehensive watershed assessment. Samuel Wallace from Peak Facilitation presented an overview of the stakeholder survey results. The meeting ended with an exercise where the stakeholders were encouraged to share their vision on stream and aquatic health within the Cooperative Effort Area.
The next chance for public engagement will be at an open house in September. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for general information or to be added to the email distribution list to be involved in this stakeholder process.
For additional ways to support waterways in the Colorado River Basin, consider getting involved with the programs of the Public Education, Participation and Outreach (PEPO) Committee of the Colorado Basin Roundtable (CBRT). The roundtable is a group of water managers, users and stakeholders who work to solve water-related issues within the Colorado River Basin in the state of Colorado from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Utah state line. Their goals are to protect, conserve and develop water supplies within the Colorado Basin and the Western Slope of Colorado for future needs. For more information visit ColoradoBasinRoundTable.org.
…among the most significant issues, is the impact of historic gravel mining on the 6-mile stretch from Bakers Bridge to Trimble Lane, north of Durango. Over the years, gravel mining has completely altered the function of the river and turned it into what looks like the surface of the moon…the damage left by gravel mining between Bakers Bridge and Trimble has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed – in part, because that stretch, hemmed in by private property, is relatively unused for recreational purposes such as river running or fishing.
But that all might soon change. Recently, a number of stakeholders invested in the Animas River began the process of forming a stream management plan (SMP) for the waterway, which will likely address lasting impacts caused by historic gravel mining.
“It’ll be in there,” Warren Rider, coordinator of the Animas Watershed Partnership, which is leading the SMP process, said. “Too many people are justifiably concerned about how the river is behaving in that area and the consequences of it. It was eye-opening when I first saw what the impacts have been.”
During the summer of 2020, Woody Creek landowner Jennifer Craig noticed that beavers had taken up residence on her property, building a dam across the channel and creating a pool.
The network of dams, pools and lodges has continued to grow over the past few seasons, creating a lush, muddy wetland thick with willows. And despite what Craig characterized as complaints about flooded land from downstream neighbors and calls for her to clear out the beaver handiwork she says the beavers are beneficial because they keep water on the landscape.
“As an upstream landowner, the best thing I can do is nothing,” she said. “Flooding from a beaver dam is natural, but people don’t like the chaos. Beavers provide habitat for so many other creatures, and they are keeping water in that whole corridor down there.”
Pitkin County is hoping that other landowners see things the way Craig does as it makes beavers a top priority, funding measures that may eventually restore North America’s largest rodent to areas it once lived in the Roaring Fork watershed.
Prized among early trappers for their fur that made fashionable hats, beavers were also seen as a nuisance to farmers and ranchers — perspectives used to justify killing them. But there has been a growing recognition over the past few years that beavers play a crucial role in the health of ecosystems. By building dams that pool water, the engineers of the forest can transform channelized streams into sprawling, soggy floodplains that recharge groundwater, create habitat for other species, improve water quality, and create areas resistant to wildfires and climate change.
The growing popularity of the animal caught the attention of Healthy Rivers board members, a group whose mission includes improving water quality and quantity. They are hoping to teach landowners how to coexist peacefully with beavers, correct beaver misconceptions and maybe even reintroduce them onto carefully chosen areas of the watershed. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board has spent just over $70,000 to date, with another $50,000 planned toward bringing back beavers, according to Healthy Rivers staff.
“They are so important for our environment and, in particular, our water environments,” said Wendy Huber, chair of the Healthy Rivers board. “How do we shift people’s perception of them from being destructive rodents to being our partners in protecting the environment?”
Forest Service inventory
Healthy Rivers has, so far, come up with two ways to do that.
One is a public-awareness campaign called Bring Back Beavers that features cute yet edgy beaver characters and catchphrases (“It’s About Dam Time,” for example), with plans to put the slogans on T-shirts and stickers. A new website presents beaver facts (their teeth never stop growing) and busts beaver myths (they don’t eat fish).
The other part of the strategy is to fund a program with the U.S. Forest Service for a beaver survey that aims to document more than 200 randomly selected riparian sites on public land in the headwaters over two years to find where beavers are thriving and identify locations where they could be successfully relocated in the future. Healthy Rivers has spent $50,000 on the project, which paid for two Forest Service technicians to carry out the work and has earmarked another $50,000 for next season.
Clay Ramey, a fisheries biologist with White River National Forest, is leading the effort, along with two technicians in the field, Samantha Alford and Stephanie Lewis, who are spending the summer chasing beavers. Ramey said that for a watershed-scale project such as this, it is important to analyze data collected from around the entire region, not just in places where beavers live.
“Beavers come and go, so measuring known sites is not helpful,” he said. “We are in the habitat business, so we want to know the big-picture questions like where do we have beavers, where do we not have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do not have beavers.”
To that end, Alford and Lewis have been heading into sometimes-remote sites on streams throughout the watershed — North Thompson Creek, Fryingpan River, Conundrum Creek, Hunter Creek, Snowmass Creek and others — to measure the width of waterways, the slope of streams, the types of vegetation present and any signs of beaver activity, past or present, such as dams, lodges or chewed sticks.
Beavers generally like slow-moving streams that are not too steep and have plenty of nearby willows, aspens, cottonwoods and alders, which they can use for food and building materials.
“We know slope is relevant to where a beaver can prosper,” Ramey said. “Aspen, cottonwood, alder — a site that has none of those is not a place a beaver is going to do well because it doesn’t have any food.”
Ramey hopes the information collected by the inventory project will be incorporated into revisions for the updated forest-management plan, which is in progress.
Tom Cardamone, executive director of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative and former longtime director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, is one of several beaver boosters who have been quietly meeting over the past few months, plotting how to communicate with the public about beaver restoration.
With permission from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Cardamone has relocated nuisance beavers on Nicholson Creek, which is a tributary of Capitol Creek, but he realized that a more formal protocol will be needed if rehoming them becomes more frequent. An eventual outcome of Pitkin County’s campaign may be relocating troublemaking beavers on private land to sites identified by the Forest Service survey as prime habitat on public land.
“You need to catch a whole group and move them to get them to stick,” Cardamone said. “It takes a few days to catch them and you have to hold them someplace that’s protected and secure, so no predators. You have to clean them and make sure they are healthy and then move them all as a group. That’s a bit of a lift.”
But there may be a looming legal question about new ponds created by relocated beavers. This year, Colorado lawmakers rejected a version of a bill that would have made it easier for environmental groups to do stream-restoration projects that mimic beaver activities because of potential unknown impacts to downstream water rights holders. Engineers from the Division of Water Resources last year told groups proposing projects on Eagle County Open Space that would have included beaver dam analogues that they must get an augmentation plan — which are costly, require the work of attorneys and engineers, and involve a lengthy water court process — to replace the water lost to evaporation by the creation of small ponds.
Could the same thing happen if the ponds were created by actual beavers on Forest Service land?
“We have not seen any indication that there’s a substantial legal concern,” said Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Laura Makar.
That’s good news for Huber, who has such an affection for the creatures that she once tried but failed to carry a favorite stick she found on a Montana fishing trip — its ends chewed and denuded of bark by beaver incisors — through airport security.
“Let’s bring them back,” she said. “They were here first. It’s a no-brainer.”
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment, social justice and more. Visit http://aspenjournalism.org. Aspen Journalism is supported by a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund. Jennifer Craig is the daughter of Carol Craig, a long-time Aspen Journalism supporter.
The Klamath River Basin was once one of the world’s most ecologically magnificent regions, a watershed teeming with salmon, migratory birds and wildlife that thrived alongside Native American communities. The river flowed rapidly from its headwaters in southern Oregon’s high deserts into Upper Klamath Lake, collected snowmelt along a narrow gorge through the Cascades, then raced downhill to the California coast in a misty, redwood-lined finish.
For the past century, though, the Klamath – a name derived from a Native American term for swiftness – hasn’t been free-flowing or flush with salmon. Dams block fish from the upper watershed’s spawning grounds. Reservoirs host toxic algae blooms. Parasites and pathogens that can flourish when dam-regulated flows are low have wiped out salmon by the tens of thousands.
The Klamath’s ecological vitality — above and below the dams — has diminished along with longstanding tribal connections to the river.
Now, after decades of tireless negotiating among myriad parties, the Klamath is being given a chance to return to a more natural state. Construction crews this summer are taking out the first of four essentially defunct hydroelectric dams choking a 64-mile stretch, with the remaining three slated to come out by the end of 2024 in the largest dam removal project ever undertaken.
But several questions remain: Will the Klamath’s damaged ecosystem recover? How will salmon respond, and can they find their way back above the former dam sites for the first time in more than 100 years? How will the river’s food web change? Will the algae blooms disappear with the reservoirs?
Scientists aren’t exactly sure — a river restoration plan of this size has never been tried — but they are pouncing on the opportunity to find out.
Using techniques and lessons learned from previous dam removals, biologists are studying salmon ear bones to track migratory routes, charting water temperature and chemistry changes and mapping cold water pools salmon use to survive the summer heat.
Native Americans most affected by the dams are on the front lines of the research. Along the river, from its origin in Klamath Falls, Oregon to its mouth near Crescent City, California, basin tribes are tracking fish populations, monitoring water quality and gathering other data across a rugged, remote watershed larger than the states of Vermont and Connecticut combined.
Success on the Klamath River could serve as a blueprint for restoring other watersheds and, proponents say, energize a growing worldwide trend of removing obsolete or seismically unsafe dams.
“We’re now in the age of dam removal, so we’re going to learn a ton out of this,” said Robert Lusardi, a freshwater ecologist with the University of California, Davis, who is tracking watershed changes in collaboration with the Karuk and Yurok tribes. “There’s such a larger purpose here for the science and the work and understanding what dam removals mean for the ecology — and also the people of the Klamath River.”
Removing the dams won’t fully return the Klamath to its natural state. Other major dams on the 254-mile-long river will remain and growers and communities will continue to take their legal share of its flows. Also, river temperatures are bound to grow warmer with climate change and water quality problems tied to the basin’s legacy of gold mining and logging will linger.
Nevertheless, the world is paying close attention to the remote basin that straddles California and Oregon, eager to see how the dam removals will change the well-being of the river, its fish and the region’s Native Americans who see themselves as part of the Klamath’s ecosystem.
“A dam removal project of this scope is unprecedented,” said Sarah Null, a Utah State University professor who studies the effects of dams on ecosystems and fish diversity. “Everyone, I would say, is watching this.”
Nation’s Biggest Dam Removal Takes Shape
The four dams were built between 1908 and 1962 to generate electricity for the developing agricultural region, but cost concerns and political pressure from tribes and environmental groups ultimately drove the decision to remove them.
The dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, couldn’t get them relicensed in the early 2000s without spending at least $450 million on fish ladders and other renovations. Besides, there was little demand for the electricity, the reservoirs weren’t designed for irrigation or flood control, and they were slowly filling with sediment. The Berkshire Energy subsidiary decided to abandon the federal relicensing process.
A constellation of tribes, environmental groups and fishing interests blamed the dams for “cutting the river in half,” spurring algae blooms and blocking salmon from more than 400 miles of their critical spawning and rearing habitat. They used an unprecedented 2002 disease outbreak on the Klamath that killed more than 34,000 adult salmon to generate public and political support for dam removals.
The Klamath’s salmon populations were sliding toward extinction and removing the dams was the quickest way to arrest the decline of the fish and the tribes’ cultural ties, the groups argued. Since the first power dam was built more than a century ago, an entire run of chinook went extinct and other salmon species have declined by 90 percent.
“We’ve changed the ecosystem to be unfit for a lot of species,” said Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes. “We have seven species that are struggling or are extinct from here and then there’s a lot of others that are holding on but very much struggling.”
In 2016, dozens of parties signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, including the Department of the Interior, the states of Oregon and California, basin tribes and several local governments and irrigation districts.
Still, it took several years for PacifiCorp to clear regulatory hurdles and devise a plan that would limit its financial obligations. It ultimately handed control of the dam demolitions and habitat restoration to a newly created nonprofit, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which is run by a group of appointees representing Oregon and California, basin tribes and non-governmental organizations. A similar nonprofit was created a decade ago to remove two dams and build a fish bypass around a third impoundment on Maine’s Penobscot River.
Last fall, after negotiations that spanned more than 20 years, the long-held aspirations of tribes and environmentalists became reality. Federal regulators approved a sweeping dam removal plan.
“It’s not the only dam removal but it’s the biggest one so far in terms of complexity, number of dams and positive impact for rivers,” said Brian Johnson, president of the renewal corporation’s board of directors. “We think of it as the start of the biggest river restoration effort that anybody has ever seen.”
The project’s estimated $450 million cost is being covered by surcharges PacifiCorp collected over nine years from customers in Oregon and California and $250 million from Proposition 1, a sweeping water bond California voters approved in 2014.
In June, the dam removal proponents’ efforts began to pay off as heavy machinery started tearing away the gates and spillway of the smallest dam, Copco No. 2. The dam will be completely out by September and the reservoir drawdowns will begin early next year along with the demolition of the three other dams.
The combined height of the four dams is more than 400 feet and up to 15 million cubic yards of impounded sediment will wash down the river toward the ocean. Draining the reservoirs will muddy stretches of the river and may cause short-term water quality issues for fish. However, that is scheduled in the winter when salmon aren’t migrating.
Experts predict the bulk of the sediment will settle in the river system or reach the estuary after two years. This sediment removal approach has been used in other high-profile dam removals without causing major changes to river channels.
“If the experts are wrong, the habitat is degraded and anadromous fish stocks don’t recover, our concern is that the water needed to clean up the mess will come at the expense of agriculture,” said Moss Driscoll, director of water policy for the Klamath Water Users Association.
Providing Scientific Clues
Scientists and conservationists see the Klamath dam removals as a rare opportunity to chronicle a large-scale restoration of a watershed.
For the past several years, researchers with government agencies, universities, tribes and non-governmental groups have been gathering information on the river’s current state. After the dams are gone, they will use the data to detect changes in fish migration, water quality, food webs and sediment.
Salmon will be reintroduced to the formerly dam-blocked stretches of Klamath, and scientists want to make sure the river habitat has enough deep pools and vegetation to shelter juvenile fish from predators and hot temperatures. Healthy rearing habitat in the river is key to salmon survival and rebuilding the Klamath’s beleaguered native fish populations. Knowing favored salmon hideouts and rearing areas can help take the guesswork out of post-dam habitat restoration work.
One group of researchers believes clues can be culled from the salmon’s ear bones.
Ear bones, or otoliths, taken from salmon carcasses have markings that track a fish’s rate of growth, like tree rings. Researchers have long used otoliths to measure the age of fish, but now a team led by UC Davis’ Lusardi, the Yurok Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are using them to map salmon movements.
About the size of a black bean, otoliths have unique patterns that correspond to levels of strontium, a silvery earth metal that seeps into waterways naturally. Researchers measure the percentages of strontium in the otoliths and compare the data with strontium water samples collected throughout the Klamath basin.
“We can understand where salmon rear, how long they rear and what time they leave for the ocean by using this strontium identifier or geolocator,” said Lusardi, who also works for California Trout, a nonprofit group.
Lusardi called the method “pioneering” in relation to dam removal and said the results will help guide habitat restoration work in the Klamath basin and elsewhere.
Further up the river in California’s Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, Karuk Tribe biologists are working with Lusardi and Alison O’Dowd, a river ecologist at Cal Poly Humboldt, to track how salmon diets change during and after the dam removals.
Researchers are using carbon and nitrogen isotopes from fish collected by the Karuk to establish baseline salmon diets. The sampling process will continue over the next several years to gauge how a more free-flowing river affects aquatic food webs.
The Karuk Tribe has witnessed firsthand the dams’ devastating effects on salmon as its ancestral territory is just downstream of the lowest hydroelectric dam to be removed. Like the others, Iron Gate Dam was built in 1962 without a fish ladder so it became the final stopping point for sea-run fish.
Toz Soto, Karuk fisheries program manager, said Iron Gate Dam and other dams are largely to blame for the extinction of an entire run of spring-run chinook that once supported a bustling tribal fishery. He said the Karuk Tribe, California’s second largest in enrolled members, is optimistic about the possibility of resuming a salmon fishery once the dams are gone.
“The ability for Karuk tribal people to practice their ceremonies again and harvest spring-run salmon…it’s a big deal,” Soto said. “We’re hoping within a few generations of salmon returns we’ll start to see positive impacts from the dam removals.”
In addition to the dams, the Karuk are trying to document other contributing factors to the salmon decline.
Soto said the tribe has a variety of research projects in addition to food webs, including chinook genotyping, water quality on the Klamath and the Scott and Shasta river tributaries and wildfire effects on fish and hydrology. He predicts the algae blooms that have become emblematic of Klamath reservoirs will happen less frequently once the dams are gone.
The Karuk have looked to a major dam removal project in Washington state to guide their own research. The tribe has visited and held conferences with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which played a prominent role in the demolition of two salmon-blocking dams on the Elwha River more than a decade ago. Soto said the Elwha created a “proof of concept” that the Karuk and other Klamath basin tribes have tried to implement.
“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two removal efforts,” he said.
Meanwhile, upstream of the dam removals, at the top of the Klamath watershed, the Klamath Tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are releasing juvenile salmon into the upper basin for the first time since the hydroelectric dams were built.
The Klamath Tribes, whose members include the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin-Paiute, want to understand how chinook salmon will navigate stretches above the dam that have been blocked for more than 100 years. To do this, biologists implant acoustic tags in young hatchery salmon and release them strategically throughout the upper basin. The goal is to pinpoint areas the fish find hospitable for habitat restoration.
Once salmon and other native fish species like steelhead trout and Pacific lamprey can move back by themselves into the upper basin, they will face a completely altered and, in many ways, impaired ecosystem. One major hurdle is Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater body west of the Rocky Mountains where the river’s headwaters drain in southern Oregon.
Early results have been encouraging. Fish have found their way from the upper tributaries to the southern end of Upper Klamath Lake. The next test is whether fish can withstand the lake’s poor water quality and warm water during the often inhospitable summer months.
“The big question is will they survive Upper Klamath Lake?” said Gonyaw, a Klamath Tribes biologist. “We’ve added (non-native) fish species that weren’t there before, we’ve likely added diseases and we’ve altered the hydrology of the lake.”
After Upper Klamath Lake, salmon will still face a gauntlet of obstacles on their journey to the ocean, including navigating fish ladders on dams that aren’t being removed and predatory fish and birds.
Prepping the Ecosystem
Repairing ecosystem damage caused by humans is important to the ultimate success of the Klamath dam removals.
Habitat work is underway between Iron Gate and Keno dams, a severely degraded 60-mile stretch where little research or restoration work has been done compared with other parts of the watershed.
To help fill the data gaps, researchers are using helicopters equipped with thermal infrared cameras to map cold springs where salmon can still thrive in a warming climate, said Bob Pagliuco, a marine habitat specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for recovery of struggling salmon populations. Little is known about these cold springs because they have been covered by reservoirs over the last century or are on private land largely inaccessible to researchers.
On the ground, Pagliuco’s team is investigating ways to reconnect the Klamath to its floodplains, developing relationships with private landowners and evaluating whether canals and diversions need fish screens. He said more than 25 groups have expressed interest in the 82 projects ranked in a restoration guidebook his agency prepared with Trout Unlimited and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
“There hasn’t been a lot of investment here so it’s kind of fertile ground,” Pagliuco said of the stretch of the river between the four dams being removed. High on the repair list are the Klamath’s tributaries that were drowned by the dam. They must be cleared of the muck the reservoirs leave behind.
The Yurok Tribe is one of the groups restoring the landscape around Iron Gate Reservoir and has recruited an ecologist who headed the Elwha River revegetation in Washington. The tribe is clearing invasive grasses and will monitor changes in stream velocity and water quality. Billions of native plant seeds and thousands of trees such as oaks will be planted across 2,200 acres of previously submerged land.
Reintroducing native species to sites where they haven’t been for decades will deter starthistle, meadow knapweed and other non-native invasive plants from overtaking the riverbanks.
The tribe is also planning habitat work downstream of the dams on the Trinity River, the largest Klamath tributary.
Earlier this year, the Yurok received a $4 million California state grant to remove mine tailings and bring back 32 acres of degraded floodplain. The Yurok hope the Oregon Gulch Project will provide badly needed juvenile salmon and steelhead habitat and allow the approximately one-mile-long river corridor to evolve into a more natural state.
The Yurok Tribe, California’s largest by enrolled members, canceled its commercial salmon fishery in 2023 for the fifth year in a row due to dwindling salmon populations.
“I am confident that we can rebuild salmon stocks through dam removal, habitat restoration, and proper water management, to a level that would support tribal, ocean commercial and recreational fisheries,” Barry McCovey Jr., Yurok Fisheries Department director, said in a statement.
Trish Chapman, who managed the 2015 removal of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River for the California State Coastal Conservancy, said the restoration challenges will continue after the Klamath dams are gone and that planners must adapt to unforeseen changes.
“Ecological restoration, by its very nature, comes with large uncertainties. For a project to be resilient, you need to account for those uncertainties in the design,” said Chapman, whose agency is helping with the removal of the Klamath dams and Matilija Dam in Ventura County.
‘If You Unbuild it, They Will Come’
In late June, the nonprofit entity in charge of the demolitions released aerial photos showing excavators digging into the core of Copco No. 2. The photos garnered press coverage and were shared on social media, but more importantly they signaled the Klamath project had finally moved out of the planning phase.
The images of yellow heavy machinery tearing into the dam’s spillway gates prompted a cathartic release for many who have been fighting for decades to open this stretch of the Klamath.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Soto, the Karuk biologist. “This is actually happening…It’s kind of like the dog that finally caught the car, except we’re chasing dam removal.”
Old dams are coming out across the nation and in Europe more frequently than ever before: Last year, 65 U.S. dams were removed in 2022 and a total of 2,025 since 1912. In Europe, at least 325 dams or weirs came down last year alone, according to American Rivers which advocates for and tracks the removals.
Recent history has shown that aquatic species can bounce back quickly once rivers are undammed.
A pair of hydroelectric dams came out on the Elwha River in 2012 and 2014, allowing federally threatened salmon, bull trout and steelhead to approach the river’s headwaters in Washington’s Olympic Mountains for the first time in nearly a century.
Summer steelhead, chinook and coho salmon are no longer fenced out of their spawning areas and have recolonized naturally above the old dams. One species, sockeye salmon, has returned to the Elwha from as far away as Alaska.
“If you unbuild it, they will come,” said Sam Brenkman, a National Park Service chief fisheries biologist whose team is monitoring fish populations in 12 major watersheds, including the Elwha.
Brenkman also attributed the recovery to a fishing moratorium on the Elwha that has been in place since 2011.
Klamath proponents are also buoyed by a similar recovery on Maine’s Kennebec River, where large numbers of native sea-run species such as shad, salmon, sturgeon and blueback herring have returned nearly 25 years after the removal of Edwards Dam. The resurgence of the Kennebec fish populations has roundly surpassed biologists’ expectations and many credit the 1999 project with igniting the dam removal trend that continues today.
In California and Oregon, the Klamath project is setting a new bar: “Never before have so many large dams been removed from a single river at one time in the United States,” a Congressional Research Service report states. Many are interested in the project as a proof of concept for other major dam removals.”
You don’t have to look far from the Klamath basin to find other dams that have outlived their usefulness, said Soto, the Karuk fisheries manager. He noted the Wiyot Tribe and others on the nearby Eel River are pushing for the removal of two hydroelectric dams that are close to the end of their lifespans.
“We have set a good example (on the Klamath),” Soto said. “I think the biggest lesson is it takes time and persistence and I think tribes have that. They’re not going anywhere and there’s people who will fight for dam removal and when they’re gone, their kids will fight for dam removal.”
Photographer Dave Showalter had a great idea – to show the Colorado River’s promise through the life it supports and stories of people working to protect it.
Where there’s water, there’s life.
That’s what author and conservation photographer Dave Showalter wants us to know about the Colorado River. Yes, climate change and drought are creating unprecedented stress on this magnificent river. Yes, the people who depend on the river are facing a future with less water.
But that’s just part of the story. In his new book, “Living River,” Showalter tells a story of optimism that he believes can spur greater action to protect the Colorado.
“Hope and love are more powerful emotions than despair,” he writes.
The foundation supported the publication of “Living River” to help people understand the the Colorado and see it through a different lens. The river is far more than just a delivery system for water in a thirsty region.
I spoke with Showalter about his connection to the river and where he finds hope for its future.
I’ll just start by asking why did you want to do this book?
I heard an expert, who should have known better, say the Colorado River was dead. And that kind of just triggered something in me. I thought, “You know what, that’s just not my experience. My experience is where there’s water, there’s life.” We need to change the narrative about how we talk about these rivers if we want to save them.
Why call the book “Living River?”
Right now, we’re focused a lot on the river’s plumbing system, and rightfully so, because of systemic water shortages exacerbated by climate change, and our commitments to agriculture and downstream communities. But the fact of the matter is the river must continue to flow to reach those big users at the bottom of the watershed. And where rivers flow, there is life. And there is ample opportunity to protect that life. So why not tell that story? Why not take people to the river? I feel strongly that nobody’s going to care unless they go to the river – physically or through story – to see what’s at stake and how incredibly diverse and beautiful and wild it can be.
Who do you hope to reach in telling the story of the Colorado as a “living river?” What do you hope they take away from the book?
I think you’re always assessing, “Who is my audience?” For the people making decisions about water allocations, I think this story serves to remind them that we still have a river to protect. We have a watershed, and all the rivers that feed into the big river are worth protecting, too.
And for everyone who isn’t in those rooms making decisions about water, I hope they come away with a better understanding of how we need to change our relationship to water in the West during the driest period in 1,200 years. How we relate to water and how we interact with rivers is critically important right now. For me, it’s visceral, it’s personal. I want people to feel that sense of what it’s like to be standing in the waters of a wild river, to feel the pulse and the energy and that deep connection. I want us to reach a point, culturally, where we see no separation between us and the rivers that flow through us.
In what way do you want folks to change their relationship to the river and the water that they use?
There’s a process that happens when we ask the question, “Where does my water come from?” We realize it’s not the tap. And it’s not the reservoir. Maybe it’s a place atop the Rocky Mountains somewhere. And if we go there, either virtually or in person, and then we start asking the questions like, “How’s the water used? Where does it go?”
Then we feel compelled to engage. Culturally, if we do that at scale, we start to become the river and we begin talking about water in the West in a different way. It’s not a resource, but it’s a life force. I want to show what it is to be part of a larger watershed community. Maybe that helps us find solutions. Every one of us is going to share in the cuts that are coming. We are only going to be able to absorb those cuts if we feel a sense of community.
What do you say to people who might see the images of drought and depleted reservoirs and think it’s maybe already too late for the Colorado?
The approach I took with this story is to tell it through people who are doing good work. We call them river keepers. No matter where you go in the watershed, whether it’s the top of the watershed or in the Colorado River Delta, you find people who are doing conservation in communities.
They’re working for decades of their lives to protect a particular reach of a river. I wanted people to see these hopeful signals of what happens when we come together as a watershed community. We’re not going to save all of it, but there’s a whole lot of the watershed where there’s really strong signs of hope and great work happening. We need to draw upon that for inspiration.
You obviously made a very deliberate choice here to make this a story about people, as well as the river.
If we want to bring people to these issues and compel them to engage in some way, they need to see themselves through the good work of others. When we see these river keepers, that’s an invitation for all of us to say, “You know what? You can join in this work at any level that you want to.
What’s your favorite place on the river or in its watershed?
It depends on the season and there are many favorite places. I love going into the headwaters, above timber line, roaming the alpine tundra. It’s spectacular. But it is also amazing to visit the wild Upper Gila River, go anywhere in the Grand Canyon region, see the restoration in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, and travel to Bears Ears National Monument to be with Indigenous folks who don’t even have access to clean water and to experience their own sacred connection to the land and the water. It’s soul stirring. You get a sense of how we need to be present for each other in this moment and not let lack of water divide us, but let it bring us together.
Regaining functionality in Colorado’s headwaters systems by restoring nature’s design
Most of Colorado’s source streams are changing rapidly and look nothing like they did a couple hundred years ago. With climate change impacting headwater areas, we’re learning to appreciate what was lost—and what can be regained.
Intrepid though they were, the first European explorers and settlers along the West’s various river systems did a lot of complaining. Pioneers groused about downed trees blocking their path and waterlogged ground that made footing treacherous. Mosquitoes, debris jams, underwater snags, and a confusing network of secondary streams thwarted humans’ attempts at efficient travel.
Intrepid though they were, the first European explorers and settlers along the West’s various river systems did a lot of complaining. Pioneers groused about downed trees blocking their path and waterlogged ground that made footing treacherous. Mosquitoes, debris jams, underwater snags, and a confusing network of secondary streams thwarted humans’ attempts at efficient travel.
“It was hard to boat, hard to hike,” explains Ellen Wohl, an author and geosciences professor at Colorado State University who has researched written accounts of early exploration–along with virtually every other aspect of changing stream structure and ecology. A self-professed fast-talker and a preeminent expert on how rivers interact with the land over time, she rattles off terms such as “spatially heterogeneous” and “morphological influences” with the casual ease of someone ordering a pizza. Yet she also translates fluvial geomorphology into blessedly common language: In their natural state, says Wohl, streams are messy. “They’ve got pools, riffles, constrictions and expansions, logjams, beaver dams, and wetlands that spread across the valley floor.”
Such tangles were particularly thick at headwaters—the source streams feeding into the larger rivers that we know by name, such as the Colorado and South Platte rivers. Beavers typically turned these smaller waterways into a vexing labyrinth of dammed pools and wetlands choked with water-loving willows and trees.
And so, feeling antagonized by the headwaters’ soggy, messy terrain, Colorado’s early European settlers devoted their energies to tidying up. They extirpated the beavers and demolished their dams; settlers also straightened and diverted the streams to irrigate crops and fill miners’ rocker boxes. Human engineering replaced nature’s infrastructure across most of the state’s headwater systems. Consequently, neat channels surrounded by pliant grasses replaced the jumble of wetlands that once characterized source streams from the Eastern Plains to high-alpine valleys.
Fast forward almost 200 years and Colorado communities are facing new threats. Catastrophic wildfires, enduring drought, and waterborne pollutants endanger the many cities that developed downstream of headwater systems. Experts now believe that the swampy ecosystems that once tormented early explorers may actually become allies in weathering and adapting to these new threats. Restoring natural infrastructure, such as beaver habitat and the wetlands it creates, could shield communities from damaging floods, purify water of toxins and high sediment loads, and reduce the apocalyptic effects of megafires. Such benefits become possible when people appreciate the genius of headwaters’ natural state—but only if people can learn to live with their mess.
The Big Thompson River headwaters flow through Moraine Park, which doesn’t appear to be degraded—at least not to most observers. They see a simple ribbon of water snaking among grasses that allow for unobstructed views of the surrounding summits as well as the valley’s resident elk—making this one of the best-loved areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even anglers flock here to cast for Big Thompson trout without worrying about tangling their lines in trees or shrubs, both of which are largely absent.
However, this kind of naked channel isn’t natural, explains Mark Beardsley of EcoMetrics, a collective of scientists that analyzes and restores headwaters. The Big Thompson’s ribbon-like stream resulted from previous generations’ attempts to impose order on what was once a jumbled, waterlogged valley. Before, willows and trees slowed the water’s flow and created sanctuaries for juvenile members of many wildlife species. The slower water also would let woody debris like leaf litter, branches and roots settle out of the flow, keeping downstream rivers cleaner.
But in its current state, says Wohl, “Big Thompson in Moraine Park provides less attenuation of water, solutes [such as nitrate], and sediment moving downstream, and less diverse and abundant aquatic and riparian habitat than it provided when the beavers were more active there.” And across Colorado, many headwater streams now look as stripped-down as the Big Thompson. “We have simplified our headwaters into ditches,” says Wohl. “Like a tree that’s had all its branches cut off, but actually, all those branches are really important to the health of the tree.”
Changes began with the fur trade in the early 1800s, when trappers all but eliminated beavers from Colorado. By some estimates, today’s beaver population represents just 10% of historical numbers. Without those dam-builders, many headwaters lost the ponds and waterlogged uplands that once filled valleys such as Moraine Park. Where wetlands persisted, settlers drained them to establish streamside homesteads and ranches.
Scientists define streams by numerical order: A first-order stream has no tributaries, and a second-order stream is created at the confluence of two first-order drainages. Headwater streams are typically first- and second-order streams. They can be found at various elevations, from mountain valleys to the plains, and their characteristic plants vary by ecosystem. Regardless of where they’re located, headwaters often take on tangled shapes that slow the water’s progress and distribute it across meandering oxbows and liquid fingers that look more like wet webs than streamlined ribbons. Though some Colorado headwaters stop flowing during dry seasons, historically they’re moist, soggy places that keep water on the landscape, like sponges.
And headwater streams are often so small that they could be plowed over or piped underground, explains Wohl. Many were diverted to run mines and ranches. Others served as flumes conveying felled timber, and, says Wohl, as those logs rode snowmelt rushing downstream “it was like taking a scouring brush to the channel.”
Over time, as headwater streams lost their “branches” and became a single trunk of water, they began to act like irrigation ditches that accelerate water, and everything in it, to locations downstream. With climate change intensifying both storms and droughts, the canal-like efficiency of modified headwaters is proving to be a detriment for communities across Colorado. “Floods get bigger, with a higher peak flow for a shorter time,” Wohl says. Researchers are only now beginning to measure the flood-intensifying impact of channelized headwaters and every site is different, but according to unpublished modeling studies conducted by Nicholas Christenden, a PhD student at CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, one Front Range site demonstrated that restored beaver structures and associated vegetation might attenuate peak flow by 26%.
Faster, stronger floodwaters pose many long-term threats to stream and community health. They threaten bridges and riverside roads, and pollutants—including everything from sediment to agricultural chemicals—get funneled into municipal water sources.
Biodiversity also suffers from this channelization, because without complex wetlands and floodplains, streams support a less diverse population of insects, fish, amphibians, plants, birds and even bacteria.
Yet Colorado has managed to preserve a limited number (about 20% of the state’s total headwaters mileage, estimates Wohl) of “stage-zero” headwater streams that still function as nature designed. On this scale developed a decade ago and commonly used by stream health practitioners, stage zero refers to these unaltered systems. As streams degrade they can go from stage zero up to stage four before they start to recover. The scale maxes out with stage-eight streams, which have recovered to near pre-disturbance levels. Stage-zero systems demonstrate remarkable resiliency during extreme weather events, and they’ve persuaded some experts that we need to up our investment in preserving and restoring headwaters, not as we made them, but as they were.
Should you hike up to the uppermost reaches of Cochetopa Creek, within La Garita Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, you will find a waterlogged, willow-choked valley that Wohl adores. “Oh it’s beautiful,” she croons of this stage-zero gem.
With its beaver ponds and meandering secondary channels where juvenile amphibians and fish can take shelter and grow, the Cochetopa Creek headwaters is a de facto sponge that slows and retains water passing through. Floods are dispersed across its many inlets, which trap pollutants and suspend sediment and return clear water to the flow downstream, just as a water treatment plant might do, but without the multi-million-dollar price tag. Thus the chain-of-ponds system also reduces the impact of high-energy surges. That water-purifying capability also traps atmospherically deposited nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals, which would otherwise concentrate in downstream water bodies where they trigger toxic algae blooms, says Wohl, who published her findings in a 2018 paper for Biochemistry.
“Certainly we see significant benefits downstream,” explains Dan Brauch, a Gunnison-area fisheries biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Cochetopa’s stage-zero beaver complexes store water that’s slowly released during late summer’s hot, dry periods, which improves water quality and quantity for downstream trout, Brauch says. “That water retention is also important to this area’s agricultural properties, because it means that more water is likely to reach those irrigators for a longer portion of the season,” he continues. Of course not all stream systems react to beaver activity in the same way. A 2015 study looking at the impacts of beaver dams on streamflow and temperature in Utah found that beavers don’t have consistent results on streamflow. During the study period, beaver development caused more variability in stream systems but, the report says, continued study is needed to better predict and understand beavers’ impacts.
The complex of wetlands found in intact headwater systems, such as at Cochetopa Creek, also can serve as a fire break and refuge for the area’s animals during wildfire. “Every living thing that can get there will,” attests Beardsley. After widespread fires, waterlogged headwater systems remain as a “big green patch,” he continues, from which repopulation efforts take hold in the surrounding burn.
These wetlands even sequester carbon in the floodplain to counterbalance the factors fueling climate change. Wohl’s study of North St. Vrain Creek concluded that while its broad, sponge-like floodplains represent just 25% of the total channel length within the river network, they store 75% of its organic carbon. “Headwaters that remain in their original condition provide a lot of ecosystem services,” Wohl says.
Residents of Glenwood Springs, for example, enjoy lower water costs because several of their headwater systems retain many of their natural processes. “Bison Lake Basin, No Name Creek and Grizzly Creek watersheds are [considered] stage-one watersheds exhibiting high geomorphic, hydrologic, and biotic integrity,” says David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, where these headwaters are located. That’s advantageous to the city’s water treatment, explains Matt Langhorst, Glenwood Springs’ public works director. “The water that comes out doesn’t have a lot of sediment, so it costs us a little less money to put it through the treatment process, and we pass that savings along to residents of Glenwood Springs,” he continues.
What’s more, these headwater wetlands also support a boggling diversity of flora and fauna, says Sarah Marshall, a wetland ecologist with CSU’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “The most intact systems just have more species,” she explains. “Birds, mammals, bugs, bats—all of it,” she continues. “Between the sights and also the sounds, it’s a very rich sensory experience to be in a diverse wetland.”
Headwaters’ power is their complexity, says Marshall. “When you take water out of that system,” as has happened at the Big Thompson and so many Colorado headwater streams, “You take away that complexity piece.” It’s like trying to support a reef ecosystem without the coral. Headwater wetlands, like coral reefs, “Provide a structure or a home for a lot of living species, and is itself a living thing, with fungi and bacteria that live in the soil,” Marshall explains. Trout, for example, depend on the deep pools that beavers create to survive the cold Colorado winters, because only those pockets stay warm enough to keep fish alive, whereas most headwater streams are so shallow that they freeze solid.
Yet defining what “healthy” means when describing headwater streams remains challenging, says Marshall. Health isn’t based on easily definable traits and each system is unique. Still, says Wohl, there are certain markers that generally point to “healthy” headwater systems. “Natural systems are not static, so there should be a range of variability,” she continues. Water flows will vary greatly between peaks and lows; water temperature will differ by location; species’ numbers may also fluctuate. Healthy headwaters, says Wohl, “have the ability to sustain their natural communities.” Thus native migratory birds and wild trout should be able to live, season to season, without replenishment or support from human agencies.
Beardsley, meanwhile, defines a healthy headwater system as one that’s preserved its natural processes. “In human health, we’d say that the person can still perform their vital functions,” he explains. Yes, scientists can measure water quality and use that to indicate something about purity, but “health is broader than that,” Beardsley explains. “It’s about physical and biological integrity, where plants, animals and abiotic parts all depend on one another.” In other words, he concludes, health is something that’s challenging to define or measure, but “defining and measuring it is something we can and must do to restore healthy watersheds.”
For all their planetary and human benefits, healthy headwaters come with tradeoffs that people sometimes find hard to accept. Hikers don’t like soaking their boots amidst flooded willows that stymy progress. In their natural state, headwaters are jumbled, cluttered places that frustrate our preference for efficiency.
But the biggest concern comes from downstream water users, including some water providers, municipalities, agricultural producers and others who raise concerns about the potential implications of holding water on the floodplain. These water rights holders worry that water retained upstream in headwaters areas—whether in wetlands or behind beaver dams—might alter or limit the amount of flows or timing of runoff, impacting the water that they legally have a right to use.
But, says Marshall, “If you want to catch fish and you want clean water to drink, you really need the mess upstream.”
When land and water managers or property owners seek to rehabilitate headwater streams that have suffered decades of replumbing and degradation, they can follow a surprising number of clues that indicate how the waterway once functioned.
Some glimpses remain in the written records that settlers left. “There are general land office descriptions, when people surveyed, that document what they saw,” says Marshall. “They are sometimes very descriptive, especially with the acres that were difficult to cross,” she jokes. In their snarled, labyrinthian state, headwaters have never facilitated easy passage for humans’ preferred forms of travel.
Technological imaging can also provide sketches of headwaters’ former shapes, sizes, and historical footprint. “Aerial photography lets us see evidence of where rivers used to be,” notes Marshall. Imprints from former beaver ponds and wetlands often remain on the land and suggest the paths that water used to take through valleys that now evidence a single stream among stark grasses.
LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, is yet another way that researchers discern evidence of past water patterns. LiDAR has helped water managers assess snowpack depth across various headwaters in Colorado, and the data can also guide practitioners who want to understand what a particular stream looked like before human re-engineering.
“Aerial imagery of the Big Thompson in Moraine Park, as in a lot of mountain parks, shows broad floodplains that used to be a mix of meadows and wet places, with meandering, multi-threaded sliver channels that historically had beavers and large wood,” Marshall explains. But as elk replaced beavers in Moraine Park, the woody vegetation all but disappeared, either because it was browsed by ungulates or didn’t find sufficient water, and the simplified stream dug into the floodplain, losing its connection to the surrounding ecosystem.
Sometimes, Wohl and other researchers look at data, such as streams’ hydrographs, to determine the threshold requirements for sustaining key ecological functions. “Fish spawning, for example, might require a certain minimum flow and distribution,” Wohl explains. Managers can aim for those targets, rather than trying to restore working waterways to their pristine conditions.
Indeed, it’s not always easy—or desirable—to try to recreate the past with today’s streams. After all, they’re living, dynamic systems, not museum artifacts, and they’re healthiest when they have the freedom to change and adapt. “You could pick a point in history to return to,” says Beardsley, “But these ecosystems are always changing and evolving. So there’s no point in trying to create a static system.” The idea is to restore streams’ multi-faceted functionality, so earth, water, rock, chemical and biological elements all work together—and then let the system run itself.
In fact, headwaters’ adaptability is precisely what makes them such valuable assets for human communities looking to boost their resiliency in the face of climate change. “We want systems that can react and adapt to future pressures,” Beardsley continues. When torrential rains fall on mountainsides that have been denuded by wildfire, headwater systems can slow the flooding and filter the water before it arrives at municipal infrastructure—but only if these streams retain some version of their original, natural processes.
That’s why the Mile High Flood District (MHFD) recently helped a landowner in Parker to create a development plan that restored Stroh Gulch, a headwater stream that feeds Cherry Creek. Not that Stroh Gulch was pristine: Located on a cattle ranch, it includes reaches that have lost their native scrub oak and have become channelized. But as the landowner prepared to offer the property to housing developers, the MHFD collaborated on a vision for the project that would revive the headwater stream’s health and meet builders’ economic needs. Three years ago, E5X Management and Muller Engineering Company accepted the project parameters, and this year, construction begins on the 1,200-acre Tanterra development.
Instead of lining Stroh Gulch with concrete and reducing it to nothing more than a ditch, developers are planting grasses, shrubs and trees that restore the stream’s heterogeneity. “We look at them as infrastructure,” explains Barbara Chongtua, MHFD’s development services director. “One benefit to homeowners is the aesthetic component, that these become places to walk, meditate and play,” she continues. “But the natural system—we refer to it as nature-based solutions—also slows the water down and prevents erosion,” she explains. The water infiltrates the ground closer to its source, so it doesn’t all dump into the active channel. According to simulations conducted by Muller Engineering, the interplay of rocks, shrubs, and trees “really beat down the peak and the frequency of runoff,” says Chongtua.
“The Mile High Flood District is dedicated to protecting people, property, and our environment, and we used to do that with a lot of concrete and rock, to contain [flooding],” Chongtua continues. “But now we’re realizing that we can achieve that protection by working with nature, by working with its living systems, which are a lot more cost-effective and get stronger over time.” Tanterra is just the beginning. Says Chongtua, “This gives us a pilot project that we can scale up.”
Improving the health of Stroh Gulch makes a positive difference, even though the stream isn’t likely to achieve stage zero status. Because, experts agree, headwaters health isn’t an all-or-nothing game: Degrees matter. The rehabilitation efforts that are most likely to succeed also work by degrees, so that the best candidates for restoration typically retain some of their defining characteristics, says Beardsley. For example, it’s hard to relocate beavers to a zone where they have no food, habitat, or building materials.
It’s difficult to relocate beavers, period, says Beardsley. They’re natural forces that humans can’t readily control. So at Trail Creek, located within the Taylor River headwaters between Gunnison and Crested Butte, efforts merely invited beavers onto the mile-long segment. Wanting to improve water quality above Taylor Park Reservoir, local land managers worked with funding partners that included the National Forest Foundation and the Coca-Cola Corporation to restore water-holding wetlands. Beginning in 2021, volunteers sunk wooden posts into the stream banks and wove willows between them to create artificial beaver dams that, they hoped, would attract beavers from the surrounding forests.
It worked: By the following summer, beavers had returned to the valley after a 20-year absence and had constructed a dam and lodge that had begun to saturate the once-parched riparian zone. Retained water nourished the 200-plus willows that teams had planted, and the revived interaction between plants, water and wildlife promises to reverse the encroachment of sagebrush that had replaced riparian plants throughout the corridor.
“The big benefit is that water remains on the landscape,” says Beardsley. “That provides a big resiliency factor in times of drought.”
Coloradans have different needs and face a fresh set of threats that didn’t bear on those European settlers 200 years ago. “We’ve traded away a lot of those functions and benefits [of headwaters] by some of our past land uses,” says Beardsley. “But we can trade back, which is exciting.” Trail Creek and related projects indicate that headwater streams can indeed heal, when humans set them up to self-adapt.
“We don’t know how they should respond to a lesser snowpack or drier conditions or wildfire,” admits Beardsley. But he trusts nature to figure it out. “We ha
A freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, Kelly Bastone covers water, conservation and the outdoors for publications including Outside, AFAR, 5280, Backpacker, Field & Stream, and others.
We spoke with Senator Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, for the summer 2023 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Healthy Headwaters Issue” about healthy riparian systems and Senate Bill 23-270, signed into law in early June. Sen. Roberts sponsored this bill on Projects to Restore Natural Stream Systems and continues to work on next steps related to restoration. Sen. Roberts is a member of the WEco Board of Trustees and chair of the Colorado Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, he serves Colorado’s Eighth Senate District.
Can you speak to the importance of Colorado’s headwater systems, and what you hear from constituents about healthy streams and riparian areas?
So this is an issue that’s incredibly important here on the Western Slope and here in the headwaters area of the Colorado River, or any river system. Having healthy watersheds is vital for the entire river system. I’ve heard of and personally seen many great stream restoration projects across my district and across the state and have been able to see the value of them and the way they preserve our environment and protect our watersheds. So that is one of the reasons why I was very enthusiastic to sponsor the stream restoration legislation last session.
It was building off of some of the great work that we’ve seen with stream restoration projects across the state but also hearing from local governments and nonprofit groups and organizations that wanted to do more [restoration work] but were running into legislative hurdles or cost burdens preventing those projects from happening. So the reason for that legislation was to reduce some of the barriers getting in the way of these important projects.
And it sounds like the focus of that bill was significantly narrowed before it was passed, can you talk about what happened there? Is there an impact?
So we had been working with stakeholders and [the Colorado Department of Natural Resources] (DNR) for many months prior to the introduction of that bill and then the work continued after the introduction and we heard some very valid concerns from folks in the water community that the threat in the way the bill was introduced could have unintended consequences … so we worked with them through amendment and committee processes and narrowed the scope of the bill. So the bill [that passed] this year was focused on minor restoration projects and we’re going to continue the conversation this summer and fall and into the next [session] about tackling bigger restoration projects … ultimately the legislation that passed is going to be very impactful and is ultimately going to help us set up a conversation [around bigger restoration projects] moving forward.
What comes next? Is there ongoing work and study to see if some of the gray areas around restoration can be cleared up through legislation in the future?
I was just speaking with DNR about this and we are currently planning a field trip for the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee to go down to the San Luis Valley in July to look at some stream restoration projects that have happened down there … Then I plan to have the stream restoration topic as part of our committee agenda during our fall meeting and hope to engage all of the relevant stakeholders if we decide to move forward [with reintroducing legislation] in the next session.
For folks on the committee and the broader water community, to make sure they’re comfortable with the bill we need to figure out the size of projects or the scope of projects that would be acceptable to move forward outside of the water court process. The big concern that we heard before the bill was amended this year was that there were projects that were too big to move forward without going through the water court process which would have put some downstream users at risk without having a forum to object to that.
We need to find what is the acceptable size of a project that we can put in statute that doesn’t need to go through the water court process, and what size of project should still need to go through that [water court] process so it’s finding that delineation point.
Ideas in water take a lot of time to discuss and we don’t want to rush into anything and have things result in unintended consequences. So just having the stream restoration concept top of mind for folks in Colorado in a multi-year process will get everyone comfortable with the process, get everyone an opportunity to engage, and make sure we’re not rushing through legislation.
I’ve heard that everyone thinks stream restoration projects are a good thing but it was a new thing for a lot of people to see legislation that would have expanded [the scope of which projects can proceed without going through water court]. But the fact that we’re just keeping it at the top of everybody’s radar will help a lot to make folks more comfortable.
Is there anything else in the works or that you’re thinking about related to the restoration and preservation of stream systems?
On the restoration front, one of the other reasons why we passed the bill this year and something I’m going to stay in touch with DNR on is there is a historic amount of funding available from the federal government through some of the legislation that Congress passed over the last couple of years that can be accessed through these projects. So that’s the other hurdle is having the approval and funding to [proceed with these projects and implement them]. So I want to continue following how does Colorado maximize the federal funding for these projects.
Us passing that bill and getting it signed into law is a huge step because now Colorado can say we’ve cut down some barriers. We want to maximize federal funding to get as many of these projects off the ground as possible.
And as a Water Education Colorado (WEco) board member, anything to say about your time on the board or our work?
I am thrilled and honored to be on the WEco board. I just became the chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee over the past year so that’s how I’m able to be on that board [one seat on the WEco board is reserved for the Senate committee chair and one seat is reserved for the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee chair] but I’ve been involved with WEco during my time on the legislature, and value the things that WEco does.
I think us working on stream restoration and WEco’s work more broadly couldn’t come at a more important time. We know Colorado’s water future is top of mind for many people and a lot of people are worried about our state’s water future. The work that WEco does and the work the legislature is doing could not be more important. There are a ton of opportunities and exciting things happening with WEco and the state so I’m excited about the work ahead.
Looking to oversee hundreds of streams and wetlands left unprotected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Colorado water quality officials have taken emergency action to provide at least temporary protections while a more permanent program can be set up.
The move comes just weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court decision sharply reduced the number of wetlands and streams protected under the Clean Water Act.
“We will rely on this temporary policy while we work out something longer term,” said Nicole Rowan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Water Quality Control Division.
Under the new policy, the CDPHE is requiring notice of discharge into state waters and it will use its new authority to guide its enforcement actions when unpermitted dredge and fill materials are discharged into state waters, according to Kaitlyn Beekman, a CDPHE spokesperson.
Members of a working group, which includes environmental and agricultural interests, as well as water utilities and mining companies, have been working with the state to explore how to create a permanent mechanism to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands in the future.
At issue is how the U.S. EPA defines so-called Waters of the United States (WOTUS), which determines which waterways and wetlands are protected under the federal Clean Water Act. The definition has been heavily litigated in the nation’s lower courts since the 1980s and has changed dramatically under different presidential administrations.
But on May 25 in Sackett v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, among other things, that the WOTUS definition that included wetlands adjacent to streams, was too broad.
In its ruling, the court said only those wetlands with a direct surface connection to a stream or permanent body of water, for instance, should be protected.
The court decision has far-ranging implications for the environment, as well as agriculture, construction and mining, all major parts of Colorado’s economy, officials said.
The decision may also have more impact in semi-arid Western states, where streams don’t run year round and wetlands often don’t have a direct surface connection to a stream.
“Although the court’s decision directly addresses only the scope of ‘adjacent wetlands,’ its description of ‘waters of the United States’ as including only relatively permanent bodies of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters will likely result in ephemeral and intermittent waters, which constitute the majority of Colorado’s stream miles, being outside the scope of federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction,” the CDPHE said in a statement on its website.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuing permits and enforcing violations when dredge and fill activities associated with construction and road projects, among others, harm wetlands and waters considered to be waters of the United States.
Right now, though, as a result of the new Supreme Court decision, no agency has the authority to issue a permit or take enforcement action on these newly unprotected wetlands, according to Trisha Oeth, CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection programs.
“There are waters that used to be protected under federal law and you used to be able to get a permit [for dredge and fill work]. Now there is no protection and no way to get a permit,” Oeth said.
Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he was pleased the state was moving quickly to fill in the regulatory gap.
“We were not excited about Sackett,” Funk said. “But we’re glad Colorado is doing something about it.”
Funk is hopeful that the CDPHE and lawmakers will move to introduce legislation next year that will create a wetlands law specific to Colorado that will offer broad, lasting protections. Funk said a handful of states, including Ohio and New York, have taken similar action to address the changes to the Waters of the U.S. rule.
Agricultural interests have long been worried about the WOTUS rule, because irrigators routinely work with streams and irrigation systems on their lands, where wetlands also exist.
Austin Vincent, general counsel and policy director for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said his members are comfortable with the approach the CDPHE is taking in part because there are critical exemptions for on-farm work, such as irrigating, plowing and irrigation system maintenance.
Part of the problem in the past is that the law changed so frequently, that it was difficult to know with certainty where and when permits were needed, Vincent said.
“It’s a big, big issue,” he said. “We want to make sure that the definition the state comes up with doesn’t encompass an overly broad number of waterways … Certainty is difficult in water. But we want as much certainty as we can get from the regulatory community.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Click the link to access the article on the Science Direct website (Joel B. Sankey, Amy East, Helen C. Fairley, Joshua Caster, Jennifer Dierker, Ellen Brennan, Lonnie Pilkington, Nathaniel Bransky, Alan Kasprak). Here’s the abstract and highlights:
•Integrity of 362 Colorado River archaeological sites assessed 60 years after damming.
•River-sourced aeolian sand decreased since 1973, making most sites more erosion-prone.
•Proportion of sites eroding by gully processes has increased since 2000.
•Erosion limits management goal to maintain or improve site integrity in situ.
The archaeological record documenting human history in deserts is commonly concentrated along rivers in terraces or other landforms built by river sediment deposits. Today that record is at risk in many river valleys owing to human resource and infrastructure development activities, including the construction and operation of dams. We assessed the effects of the operations of Glen Canyon Dam – which, since its closure in 1963, has imposed drastic changes to flow, sediment supply and distribution, and riparian vegetation – on a population of 362 archaeological sites in the Colorado River corridor through Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. We leverage 50 years of evidence from aerial photographs and more than 30 years of field observations and measurements of archaeological-site topography and wind patterns to evaluate changes in the physical integrity of archaeological sites using two geomorphology-based site classification systems. We find that most archaeological sites are eroding; moreover, most are at increased risk of continuing to erode, due to six decades of operations of Glen Canyon Dam. Results show that the wind-driven (aeolian) supply of river-sourced sand, essential for covering archaeological sites and protecting them from erosion, has decreased for most sites since 1973 owing to effects of long-term dam operations on river sediment supply and riparian vegetation expansion on sandbars. Results show that the proportion of sites affected by erosion from gullies controlled by the local base-level of the Colorado River has increased since 2000. These changes to landscape processes affecting archaeological site integrity limit the ability of the National Park Service and Grand Canyon-affiliated Native American Tribes to achieve environmental management goals to maintain or improve site integrity in situ. We identify three environmental management opportunities that could be used to a greater extent to decrease the risk of erosion and increase the potential for in-situ preservation of archaeological sites. Environmental management opportunities are: 1) sediment-rich controlled river floods to increase the aeolian supply of river-sourced sand, 2) extended periods of low river flow to increase the aeolian supply of river-sourced sand, 3) the removal of riparian vegetation barriers to the aeolian transport of river-sourced sand.
Some people call the Great Plains “flyover country.” Outdoor enthusiasts sail above it on the way to the mountains of Acadia, California’s redwoods or Utah’s red rock. Conservationists, too, have bypassed the region. Few big public preserves or parks exist there.
Some of that work is already underway. In 2002 Freese helped launch the nonprofit American Prairie, which aims to establish a preserve of 3.2 million acres in northeast Montana where the mixed-grass prairie has escaped the wrath of the plow that uprooted many other areas of the Great Plains. The group’s about halfway to its goal, with nearly 600,000 acres of deeded lands or leased public lands, along with 1.1 million acres of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
“The region offers our best chance to reassemble the native wildlife community within a vast reserve large enough to preserve the ecosystem to its fullest potential,” he writes in the book.
The Revelator spoke with Freese about the biodiversity of the northern Great Plains, what it would take to restore native wildlife, and what obstacles remain.
Why do you think the Great Plains is often neglected when it comes to conservation?
I think there’s two main reasons. One was that compared to wetlands or forests or mountains, agriculture could simply get a quick jump on colonizing the Great Plains. You didn’t have to drain the wetlands, you didn’t have to clear the forest, you just opened the gates and let the cows out. It was all right there, ready to eat or plow.
Secondly, the turnover from 1870 to 1895 was dramatic. There had never been such a big change in the world so quickly — from an ecosystem where there was nothing but wild ungulates, to one that virtually eliminated all the ungulates and you had nothing but livestock. Because it was eliminated so quickly, there wasn’t a chance for the public to appreciate what had been — to say, “We need a big Great Plains park like Yellowstone.” We never had the chance.
What was the biodiversity of the region like before European colonization brought plows and cows? And how does that compare with what’s there now?
This was one wild, rambunctious system that went through a lot of ups and downs. We had glaciers covering it just 12,000 years ago. In the mixed-grass prairie it’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and sometimes it’s -50 degrees in the winter, so you’ve got to be tough to live there. Prairie wildlife exhibits that. Bison don’t need to go to water nearly as much as cows do.
When Lewis and Clark went through eastern Montana [in 1805-1806] they saw more wildlife than any other place in their trip — either to the east or to the west of the Rocky Mountains — all the way to the coast. It was just a remarkable ecosystem that we once had.
Now most of the species are either [greatly diminished] or not there at all, such as the wolf. Wolves now are in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, but back in the 1880s and 1890s, the state put a bounty on them, and every year roughly 4,000 to 6,000 wolves were killed, mostly in the plains of eastern Montana.
Today we’ve got relatively good numbers of deer because people like to hunt deer and they’re not quite so threatening to agriculture. But the elk numbers are highly suppressed because of depredation concerns about crop land, and pronghorn numbers are still down. The bison is simply a fraction of 1% of what it once was.
What’s the potential to be able to restore some of these populations of native wildlife?
What I see in northeast Montana — and what’s great about this ecosystem — is its diversity of habitat. You’ve got the Missouri River running through it. Then you’ve got floodplains and the rugged Badlands-like environment as you come out of the floodplain up into the rolling prairie. And then there are these isolated mountain ranges, like the Little Rocky Mountains, with pine forests. You have this wonderful cross section of habitats that support a great diversity of species. Some only live down in those floodplains. Some live in the rolling prairie, like the swift fox, and others live in the more mountainous and forested areas, like mountain lions.
The diversity of habitat is there, and much of it’s intact, but there’s still a threat of prairie being plowed up and put into wheat and barley. Once you plow it up, that’s the killer threat. Nothing survives very well in a wheat field.
Put bison out there [instead], they’ll double the population every three or four years, no problem. Three of the Indian reservations in the region have bison. Grasslands National Park just across the border in Saskatchewan has bison. But we need to create much bigger herds of bison to mimic what they once did to that ecosystem and support the diversity of grassland habitat by their grazing. So there’s a long way to go in terms of building back the wildlife numbers.
Some, like the black-footed ferret, have a real challenge ahead of them because prairie dogs, which are their main source of food, continue to be poisoned and shot. Another threat is an introduced disease that came decades ago from Asia and is highly lethal to prairie dogs, as well as ferrets.
Others are also going to take some extraordinary effort to bring back. With wolves and grizzly bears, the problem isn’t a lack of food — or as we say, the “ecological carrying capacity” of the environment. It’s the social carrying capacity — people’s tolerance for big predators. We need to have some innovative approaches to enabling these big predators.
What does recovery look like for native grassland birds, many of whom are also declining?
Ecologist Andy Boyce said that recovering birds should be the easiest. They don’t threaten anybody. They move around to find the best habitat. And yet we still have declining bird populations because of three main threats.
One is the ongoing conversion of grasslands to cropland. The problem there as much as anything is the huge farm subsidies that lead to more plow-up and conversion of prairie to cropland.
The second is homogeneous grazing. In rangeland management the idea is to have the cows eat half the grass and leave half the grass everywhere. Uniform grazing. Well, to a lot of birds, that’s the worst outcome because some birds like it grazed down to the ground. Other birds like it not grazed at all. If you’re a five-inch-tall bird, that difference in grass height is like the difference for us of walking through a forest versus the shrubland.
So we need bison, and sometimes fire, to go back and recreate that diversity of grassland habitat, which birds depend upon.
The third one that’s an increasing threat are the new neonicotinoid insecticides, which are shown to be highly toxic to migratory birds and pollinators like butterflies and bees.
What’s needed to boost conservation in the region?
There are three pillars of conservation in the Great Plains. The first is no more sod busting, no more conversion of grassland to cropland.
Number two is the ranching community needs to be much more friendly to prairie wildlife. A lot of ranchers do a good job. There’s a lot of good ranch management going on, but a lot of them don’t. For example, prairie dogs are still much maligned and not tolerated, and they don’t create that much of a problem for ranching. And we also still see bison as belonging behind a fence, which is nuts.
We need to have a new kind of approach to ranching that realizes wildlife like bison, big predators, and small animals like prairie dogs, all have a place. Ranching can provide corridors and safe passage between parks, refuges and reserves for wildlife to move through.
Then third, we’ve got to have big protected areas of a million acres or more. Those are the cornerstone of wildlife conservation, whether you’re in the Great Plains, the Amazon or the Arctic. So we need more places like American Prairie and the Charles M. Russell Refuge across the Great Plains if we want to restore and conserve everything from prairie birds to ferrets to large predators and ungulates.
We’ve got a lot of public lands in the Bureau of Land Management lands and National Grasslands, which are managed by the Forest Service. An act of Congress could convert those into more protected status.
Those places have a multiple-use mandate that includes biodiversity conservation. I think we simply have to provide greater weight to the biodiversity benefits of these public lands that belong to all the public, not just to the ranching communities that graze them. I think we need to have a shift in attitudes about what the best use of these lands is. And I think in a lot of cases, these public lands, the best use is for wildlife biodiversity conservation.
In just the Great Plains alone, we’re spending $10 billion a year to subsidize farming. What if we just took 10% or 20% of that and we apply it to buying and conserving grasslands?
Private lands have got to be part of the solution too, because especially in the southern Plains, almost all the lands are private lands.
A third part of the solution is Tribes. Indian reservations are engaging in wildlife restoration as well.
American Prairie, working with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, can serve as a place where the American public can visit a landscape of an endless sky and wildlife with no fences, the likes of which you won’t see unless you go to the African Serengeti now. It used to be the African Serengeti in the Great Plains. Once people experience that, it’s going to be a revelation of, “Yes, we could have this, we could restore it.”
Click the link to read the article on the Taos News website (Idone Rhodes). Here’s an excerpt:
More than three decades of ongoing work to restore Rio Grande sucker, Rio Grande chub and, most importantly, Rio Grande cutthroat trout — New Mexico’s state fish — to their native environment culminated with a celebration last weekend (July 1) in the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest, hosted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Forest Service.
Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout are the southernmost subspecies of cutthroat trout and are native to Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Once abundant in these waters, the subspecies’ population has been severely diminished by a variety of factors, including competition or breeding with non-native species, such as brook, brown and rainbow trout, as well as habitat loss. Rio Grande cutthroat and Rainbow spawn at the same time and can interbreed to produce hybrid “cutbow” trout.
The project restored Rio Grande cutthroat trout to 120 miles of their historic range in the Rio Costilla watershed, as well as 16 lakes and one reservoir. Teams worked tirelessly to remove native fish from waterways before treating the waters with the piscicide rotenone to kill off non-native fish.
Since 2002, the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery in Jemez Springs has raised over 72,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout using pure trout taken from streams and other water sources. These fish are then used to restore wild populations and provide angling opportunities. It’s an ongoing collaboration between the Forest Service, which manages the land, and Game and Fish, which manages the subspecies, explained Carson National Forest Biologist Alyssa Radcliff. Some of the restored waterways are also on private land. As waterways were restored, fish barriers were built to keep non-native species from moving back up stream. In 2016, a permanent barrier was constructed in the Valle Vidal Unit to maintain the restored area.
The initial goal of the project was much smaller, with a focus on specific segments of waterways upstream. Eventually, however,“We’re like, ‘Why don’t we just do the whole basin?” Francisco Cortez, the program manager for fisheries on the Carson, said. Cortez has been working on the project since the early 1990s and watched it grow from habitat and population surveys to the large-scale restoration operation it is today.
Driving back to Colorado State University with a van full of students after a day of working to heal some beat-up land north of Fort Collins, I wondered: Could ecological restoration be a new form of outdoor recreation?
We’d spent the day building a sawbuck fence around a spring. From the spring, gravity would carry the water through a pipe to a stock tank in the middle of the pasture.
On this land protected by a conservation easement, cows would no longer drink, pee and poop while trampling the spring’s vegetation. The spring could recover while the cattle drank clean water elsewhere.
My students had spent the day outdoors in the company of their classmates doing challenging physical work. At the moment, though, the young people were trying not to fall asleep as we neared town.
Yet all day I’d seen the light in their eyes, and I could tell they felt pride in learning and exercising skills they hadn’t had before. They also clearly liked the idea of giving something back to land that would never be developed.
This kind of volunteer work — The Nature Conservancy got us involved — addresses many problems today that we’ve come to call crises: species extinction, climate change, soil loss, and the decline of both water quantity and quality. Fortunately, many nonprofit groups, along with some owners of private lands that are protected by conservation easements, offer people an opportunity to improve damaged lands.
In my home watershed of northern Colorado, we often work with the nonprofit Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, a statewide grassroots group established in 1999. To date, it has completed over 1,000 projects on public lands assisted by more than 40,000 volunteers, who have contributed over $10 million in time and expertise.
Wildlands Restoration Volunteers includes people from both cities and rural areas who agree with what Wendell Berry wrote: “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
At the end of the 20th century, scientists from around the world got together to measure our planet’s health. Shockingly, they reported that three out of every four acres of the Earth’s surface were in a degraded state.
The urgent global need to restore our damaged lands and waters has also caused the United Nations to name this the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/). It’s clear that we have yet to locate the sweet spot of a sustainable relationship with our world.
For humans to have a future on Earth, we need to reverse the erosion of soils, pollution of air and water, and weakening of the natural ecosystems that support us. Ecological restoration can attack those problems while also playing a critical role in the drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide, sending it back into the plants and soils where it belongs.
Although restoration and recreation have much in common, there is a major difference between the two. While outdoor recreation fulfills oneself, ecological restoration gives back to the land. Not that benefiting oneself is bad; one of the reasons we recreate is for the regenerative powers of spending time in nature.
But adding restoration into the domain of outdoor recreation could go a long way to enhance our time outdoors. I’ve found that when a group acts to restore the health of soil, land, plants and animals, the people involved always feel better about themselves.
As author Robin Wall Kimmerer put it in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” “…as we care for the land, it can once again care for us.” By restoring damaged lands and waters, we still find joy in the outdoors, but we also give back to the home planet that sustains us.
Let’s seek out that work, turning it into something we do outdoors together, restoring lands and water while at the same re-creating ourselves.
Rick Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is professor emeritus of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University.
Our decisions about the health and functioning of our streams and rivers reflect our priorities and values and influence all areas of life for people, birds, and nature. This legislative session, SB23-270, Projects To Restore Natural Stream Systems, was passed by the Senate, then the House, and then signed into law on June 5, 2023, by Governor Polis. SB23-270 is a solid win for Colorado’s streams and a good first-step opportunity to steward our rivers back into health. The bill was led by the Department of Natural Resources staff and sponsored by Senators Dylan Roberts and Cleave Simpson, along with Representatives Karen McCormick and Marc Catlin.
Through numerous meetings, outreach events, and late-night (or early morning?) committee hearings, SB23-270 moved through substantial changes from when it was first introduced. Audubon Rockies, Colorado Healthy Headwater Working Group, and Water for Colorado partners worked with agencies, lawmakers, water conservation districts, and other partners for the best possible outcome for healthy, functioning, and resilient river systems for people and birds—the natural water systems that we all depend upon.
Why the Need for Stream Restoration Legislation in 2023?
The need for stream restoration clarity around water rights administration is mainly three-fold.
First, existing Colorado water administration creates substantial regional variability, uncertainty, and even barriers to restoring the valuable natural processes of stream corridors. Legal clarity for stream restoration can reduce barriers for these important projects to get off the ground.
Second, the majority of our stream corridors have been degraded by more than two centuries of hydrologic modification, agricultural land use practices, roads and development, channelization, mining, and climate-driven disasters. The good news is that case studies of Colorado and other Western states’ stream restoration projects have proven successful in improving human and environmental health and reducing vulnerability to fire, flood, and drought. Thus, it was critical to provide clarity on how stream restoration could be done without needing to obtain a water right. The uncertainty around water rights was causing many projects to be put on hold.
Third, the timing of the currently available once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive funding from federal programs for stream and watershed restoration is critical so that we can have healthy streams and rivers for decades into the future.
The Evolution of the Bill
The bill moved through significant water community dialogue, education, and input throughout the arc of the legislative session. Significant amendments during the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing resulted in unanimous support and forward movement through the General Assembly for the final version that passed.
The original bill draft was based on the science of utilizing the “historic footprint”* for where stream restoration could take place without enforcement actions. The historical footprint is how stream restoration has operated in Colorado for more than 30 years. However, that was not a concept that many legislators and water stakeholders were familiar with, so the language evolved to things they were familiar with.
The final bill defines a set of minor stream restoration activities that are not subject to water rights administration. These include stabilizing the banks or substrate of a natural stream with bioengineered or natural materials, installing porous structures in ephemeral or intermittent streams to stop degradation from erosional gullies and headcuts, and installing structures in stream systems to help recover from and mitigate the tremendous impacts that occur to water supplies from wildfires and floods. The language in SB23-270 provides clarity for project proponents and the water rights community. It also provides protections for completed stream restoration projects and those that have secured permits before August 1, 2023.
While this bill is an important step forward in facilitating stream restoration activities that improve the health and resilience of our streams and landscapes, Audubon and our partners will continue to work with stakeholders and regulators to clarify a path forward for stream restoration projects that do not fit within the minor stream activity categories.
Senator Roberts remarked at the SB23-270 bill signing on June 5th, 2023, “This bill is taking away the red tape that has gotten in the way of some of these projects and costs barriers that have gotten in the way of these projects. We can do this type of work in so many parts of our state. That’s so important right now, as we know as we try to do everything we can to conserve and protect our water. This bill started off with a very contentious idea. We made some amendments that made it a little less contentious. We know we will continue to work on this issue as it goes forward. But we are making major progress here today.”
In the coming months, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources will work closely with the Division of Water Resources to interpret the language signed into law. Following this, Audubon and the Healthy Headwaters Working group will facilitate outreach and training events on SB23-270 for stream restoration practitioners and interested organizations. And most importantly, we will continue to educate decision-makers on the evolving state of river restoration science and the benefits of healthy functioning floodplains and river corridors for birds and people.
Thank you for your interest and engagement during the 2023 Colorado legislative session on stream restoration! More than 300 people attended the live Audubon-Colorado Department of Natural Resources stream restoration webinars, part 1 and part 2. And 1,266 Audubon members sent supportive comments to legislators. Canyon Wrens, Yellow Warblers, and Belted Kingfishers depend on you to support our healthy rivers, wetlands, and watersheds for all of us. Audubon will continue working with agencies, lawmakers, and partners to prioritize water security for people, birds, and the healthy freshwater ecosystems we all depend upon.
*Historic footprint references the historic riverine footprint encompassing the stream channel, associated riparian zones, and floodplain.
Click the link to read the article on the Montrose Daily Press website (Kylea Henseler). Here’s an excerpt:
Agricultural users, who grow our very food, depend on the health of the river, soil and habitat around it, while recreational users take advantage of opportunities for activities like fishing and surfing. In this sense, the river boosts the economy and literally helps put food on the table…Multiple local and nearby groups have organized around this river and other Western Slope water resources, and yesterday, June 15, 2023, four met up at the Montrose Library to introduce themselves and explain their mission and current efforts. Most have educational opportunities available and are seeking volunteers, and all are focused on protecting watershed health for all kinds of users for years to come…
Friends of the River Uncompahgre
The mission of this Montrose-based group is “restoring, enhancing and protecting the Uncompahgre River through stewardship efficacy, partnerships and education,” according to Board President Melanie Rees. Its biggest immediate focus is on restoration, as the group is working with Grand Junction-based RiversEdge West on a project to remove invasive species from areas of the river in the city of Montrose and revegetate them with native plants…
Shavano Conservation District
This special government district covers parts of Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, Ouray and San Miguel counties and has been around since the Dust Bowl era focusing on providing conservation resources for agricultural producers. ..
Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership
The Ouray County-based Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership focuses on protecting the upper Uncompahgre River Watershed, but since the water flows toward Montrose, their work impacts us all. According to Executive Director Tanya Ishikawa, the group was founded in 2007, when local residents were concerned that state officials couldn’t monitor the water quality within the watershed closely enough…
Gunnison Gorge Anglers
A chapter of the national organization Trout Unlimited, Gunnison Gorge Anglers serves parts of Montrose, Delta, Hotchkiss, Paonia, and Telluride. While “Anglers” is right in the name, President Joel Evans said: “We’re talking about a lot more than fishing. We’re talking about the river and how to take care of things.”
…in recent years, the countries’ relationship, when it comes to the river at least, has entered a new era of agreement and mutual advancement, as both countries face unprecedented drought and a need to revamp water systems.
“On earlier occasions, what I’ve seen is two countries that had a bilateral water management agreement where the gains from one country would equal the losses of the other country,” Carlos de la Parra, who leads Restauremos El Colorado, an environmental nonprofit, tells TIME. “They’ve migrated into a regional approach, realizing that it’s the same river, it’s the same basin and investments on one side of the border will benefit both sides of the border.”
Under a 1944 treaty established between the U.S. and Mexican governments, Mexico was allotted a guaranteed annual quantity of water. The agreement had flaws though. It didn’t mention water quality, and in the 1960s when the river’s salinity rose dramatically, the water directed to Mexico was too salty for human consumption or agriculture. Following farmer protests and threats from the Mexican government to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice, the U.S. agreed to an updated treaty in 1973 that ensured equal water quality. Most recently in 2017, the two governments revisited the negotiating table to strike Minute 323, a nine-year deal that set standards for how water should be allocated during surpluses and reduced during droughts. It also committed both countries to pledge resources and funding for environmental restoration. John Shepard, senior advisor at the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit that advocates for Colorado River restoration, notes that a new deal could be on the horizon. “If the lower basins agreed to cuts as they’re being articulated in this agreement, then Mexico will likely agree to a proportional share of cuts.”
Keeping the river and its ecosystems healthy has been a source of argument over the years. In the U.S. the prevailing view has been that it’s Mexico’s responsibility to protect and restore the delta because it’s chiefly located in Mexico, where it then flows into the Gulf of California. Mexico has argued that the U.S. should take responsibility because the country’s management and control of the river caused poor water quality and decimated habitats. Now, experts on both sides of the border are working to find a more collaborative way forward.
“There’s a saying that, ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ In many ways, that’s how I’m approaching this,” De la Parra says. “Many people like myself are hard at work, thinking about how we can capitalize the crisis and move the irrigation district and other water uses into a more productive, more sustainable model.”
RiversEdge West, a Grand Junction-based nonprofit, received $22,035 from the Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership and $34,433 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to restore two river sites owned by the city of Montrose.
According to RiversEdge West Restoration Coordinator Montana Cohn, the two sites together total around 70 acres, and the project will allow the group to remove about 8 acres worth of invasive tamarisk and Russian olive plants and replace them with native species…One site is off Mayfly Drive, and the other is near Home Depot off Ogden Road. Cohn said restoration efforts at these sites have yielded positive results before, and the new project will expand on previous work. He explained invasive thorns and plants like Russian olive and tamarisk crowd out native vegetation, degrade soil quality and, since some are thorny, block access to the river for wildlife, livestock and recreationists…
The project will go down in phases, starting with volunteer efforts this summer. Then in the fall, paid crews from the Americorps program Western Colorado Conservation Corps will come in with herbicides and chainsaws and remove as many of the invasive plants as possible. Efforts, including volunteer replanting efforts of native plants, will continue into 2024.
As western mountain snowpacks diminish and wildfires race across parched landscapes, appreciation has grown for the moist mountain meadows and wetlands that hold water up high, feeding streams throughout the summer and providing fire-resistant refuges for wildlife. Before beavers and their dams were largely eliminated by the fur trade, these natural water storage features and refuges were common across western states’ mountain landscapes.
The removal of beavers and other land disturbances have led many creeks to cut deeper into their valleys and detach from their floodplains, dropping the water table and drying out the landscape. A growing field of stream restoration, known as low-tech process-based restoration (LTPBR), seeks to reverse these changes through methods that mimic beaver activity in hopes of enticing them to return.
Projects across the west have demonstrated the benefits of LTPBR on the landscape. Projects have improved water quality, provided important habitat, trapped sediment, increased riparian vegetation and forage, and bolstered resilience against drought, fire, and floods. These benefits are achieved by installing low-tech, hand-built structures, creating “speedbumbs” that enable water from snowmelt and storms to spread across the riparian area, slowing peak flows and recharging groundwater. The rewetted soil “sponge” supports healthy riparian vegetation and reduces wildfire risks.
As LTPBR projects have proliferated across western states, both excitement about their benefits and questions about potential impacts have grown. A new report from American Rivers reviews the published science and case study information on LTPBR to better understand the full range of benefits these projects can provide, and provides scientific evidence to address potential concerns. The report finds ample evidence for LTPBR benefiting habitat and buffering the impacts of droughts, floods, and wildfires, but concludes that more research is needed to better understand the full suite of ecosystem service benefits. It also provides insights on how to address human and social factors related to LTPBR projects, such as mitigating beaver dam impacts to infrastructure.
“This Supreme Court ruling weakens our federal standards for clean water, threatening our ability to protect ecosystems and landscapes needed for birds and communities across the country,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon’s Vice President for Water Conservation.
“Federal experts will no longer be able to require certain development permits in America’s decimated wetlands. This decision undermines Clean Water Act protections for many types of waterways that birds and people need, all while birds are telling us that more action is needed to protect their future.”
In today’s [May 25, 2023] ruling, the United States Supreme Court curtailed the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to regulate “waters of the United States”. While the Clean Water Act includes regulatory definitions for most large bodies of water and rivers, smaller waterways which may be seasonal or disconnected are not as clearly defined. Today’s ruling limits the ability of the agencies to permit activities on many of these smaller waterways and means that unregulated development can occur in many of these areas.
With the loss of 3 billion birds in the past 50 years—in part due to dwindling wetlands and significant development of natural spaces—and Audubon science showing that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change, action is needed to protect the water bodies and habitat that birds need to survive. Waters throughout the United States like seasonal streams and isolated wetlands serve as essential habitat for birds and other wildlife. These water bodies provide crucial sources of drinking water, food, and nutrition for birds. Birds also uses lakes, streams, and wetlands for breeding and nesting, as well as for rest stops during long migratory journeys.
Wetlands and seasonal streams provide more than just critical bird habitat—they also provide us with nature’s filters to clean our drinking water and protect us from storms, floods, and other climatic stressors. Too many low-income communities, Tribal communities, and communities of color do not have consistent access to safe, affordable drinking water and strong protections under the Clean Water Act are needed to support these communities.
“More than fifty years ago, Congress came together in a bipartisan manner to pass the Clean Water Act,” said Hill-Gabriel. “We all need clean water to survive and thrive and this ruling means that there are now fewer tools in the toolbox for our federal agencies to protect vital habitats and waterways for birds and people.”
Audubon will continue working with state and local decision-makers to strengthen protections for waterways that birds need.
Tucked away in Rabbit Valley, a rare native plant called the Dolores River Skeleton Plant has been spotted. Very little is known about it, but Colorado Canyons Association and the Bureau of Land Management are hoping to learn more with the help of some local volunteers and a smartphone app. On Thursday, June 1, 2023, the Colorado Canyons Association is hosting an event for volunteers to come and gather data on the plant with the help of BLM ecologists. Plant location, population and even what bloom stage the flowers are in are some of the things the volunteers will record, CCA Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator Morgan Rossway said…
“It has such a brief window when it blooms to be able to identify it,” Rossway said. “We’re hoping that we can catch that window and with the help of the BLM ecologists that are going to come to the event they’ll help our volunteers (identify the plant).”
Volunteers will enter the data into the iNaturalist app. The app is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, which allows users to enter observations of plants into the app and share it with other users. In this case it will be shared with BLM ecologists, rather than the general public…
The CCA is still accepting volunteers to help with the Dolores River Skeleton Plant Survey. If you are interested in taking part you need to register for the event online at coloradocanyonsassociation.org.
RiversEdge West (REW) is pleased to accept a $48,788 grant award from the Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership to continue important riverside (riparian) restoration work along the White River in Rio Blanco County.
REW leads the White River Partnership (WRP), a group committed to restoring and maintaining healthy riparian areas along the White River in northwest Colorado and northeast Utah through collaboration among public, private, and non-profit entities. REW works with WRP partners to prioritize and plan restoration sites, coordinate invasive plant removal with contractors and youth corps, and to monitor restoration sites after invasive plant removal.
This project will remove invasive plant species, like tamarisk and Russian olive, from the White River corridor on public and private lands. Removing these invasive plants will enhance public access to river recreation areas and improve wildlife habitat and agricultural productivity on nearby privately-owned property. To complete this work, REW will partner with Western Colorado Conservation Corps, based in Grand Junction, which engages young adults on the Western Slope in conservation and restoration work by training them for careers in land management.
“The Community Funding Partnership is a solution-driven funding program to ensure our communities thrive in a hotter, drier future. Riparian restoration projects, such as the White River Project, are critical to West Slope rivers by protecting water quality, improving habitat, and moderating high flow events,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships with the Colorado River District.
In addition to the award from the River District, this project is also supported by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Bureau of Land Management.
A few months ago a reader and Western water expert clued me in on recent developments related to the Low Flow Conveyance Channel. Had she told me this in person I probably would have blushed and fumbled around for an intelligent response before finally resigning and asking:
Because, well, I had no friggin’ idea what she was talking about.
And yet, I should have known, because the Low Flow Conveyance Channel — or LFCC — is a classic example of how folks in the West try to engineer their way out of the region’s aridity and, ultimately, fail.
The LFCC might be considered the infrastructure love-child from the coupling of the Rio Grande Compact and, well, silt — a lot of it. The compact, signed in 1938, divided the waters of the Rio Grande between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Whereas the Colorado River Compact allocates a set amount of water to each group of states, the Rio Grande Compact uses a more complicated distribution formula based on flows at specific river gages.
Among other things, it requires New Mexico to deliver a certain percentage of the Rio Grande’s flow to Elephant Butte Reservoir, where it is stored for Texas. This is strange, I know, because the reservoir is in New Mexico, not Texas, and not even that close to the latter state. But these water compacts can be like that. New Mexico can accrue up to 200,000 acre feet of water debt to Texas and still be in compact compliance, giving the upstreamers some breathing room during dry years.
The Compact went into effect in 1939, a dry year on the Rio Grande; 1940 was similarly meagre, with a peak streamflow under 3,000 cfs at the Otowi Bridge gage. But the Rio flooded, big time, in 1941 and 1942, peaking above 22,000 cfs at Otowi. That kind of big water tends to pick up big silt — especially from the Rio Puerco, a Rio Grande tributary — and when the river started losing energy at the slackwater above Elephant Butte Reservoir, the sediment fell out of the flow, accumulating on the river bed. If you’ve ever rafted the lower San Juan River, you’ve experienced a similarly silty phenomenon below Slickhorn Canyon.
The silt filled in and plugged the existing river channel, sending the water out across a much wider, shallower plain, and forced the railroad to raise its tracks repeatedly along a section that crosses the river. During ensuing low-water years, the river was so spread out that most of it evaporated or seeped into the silt or was sucked up by encroaching tamarisk before reaching the reservoir. Before long, New Mexico was deep in water-debt to Texas, and in 1951 owed the downstream state 325,000 acre-feet, putting New Mexico out of compliance with the compact.
This is where the engineers come in. In order to get the river to Texas they would divert it around the river bed, kind of like providing fish passage around dams for salmon. And they would do this by building a deep, narrow, 75-mile long ditch from San Acacia to the reservoir that would carry water and silt more efficiently and result in less evaporation. It would be called the Low Flow Conveyance Channel because it would convey the river during low flow. Construction began in 1951 and the LFCC went into operation in 1959.
For the next two decades, the LFCC did what it was supposed to do: Carry up to 2,000 cfs of the river’s flow around the river, itself, and deposit it in Elephant Butte Reservoir, where it was stored for Texas. New Mexico’s substantial water debt slowly shrank, finally disappearing in 1972. Despite the channel’s name, during this time it carried most of the river’s water during high flows and low, thus depriving the riparian zone of its life-giving river and altering the ecosystem.
The 1980s were notoriously wet years for most of the Southwest and somewhat perilous times for the infrastructure built to help states comply with water compacts. Glen Canyon Dam, constructed primarily to allow Upper Colorado River Basin states to deliver the obligated amount of water to the Lower Basin, was pushed to the brink by massive snowmelt in 1983 and, to a lesser extent, in 1984.
The Rio Grande ran large during those years, too. Elephant Butte Reservoir filled up completely, inundating the lower reaches of the LFCC. Silt happens, it turns out. When the reservoir levels declined several years later, the last 15 miles of the channel had essentially disappeared under a thick layer of sediment. No longer able to carry water to the reservoir, the LFCC was shut down in 1985 and hasn’t been used to convey the Rio Grande since.
But the first 60 miles or so of the LFCC remains, running alongside the Rio Grande like its more linear twin, separated by an earthen levee built to keep a flooding river from inundating and wrecking the canal. Bizarrely, the river channel is about 10 feet or more above the canal, due to all of that sedimentation over the years, making flooding more likely. And that means more engineering, and maintenance dollars, are required to protect the engineered canal. In a weird Anthropocene-esque twist, the canal now serves an environmental purpose: It catches and conveys irrigation runoff and groundwater to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, keeping the wetlands there wet.
As Rio Grande flows continue to decline and New Mexico piles up water debts to Texas, the possibility of reopening the LFCC grows. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which acquired the northern end of the channel from the feds, has talked about using it again to get more river water downstream to Texas (thereby freeing up more Rio Grande water for New Mexico irrigators). And the state engineer’s office asked lawmakers to budget $30 million for the LFCC.
But it would take far more than that to clean out, rehabilitate, and extend the lower section so it could reach the shrinking reservoir. And even then, it could only be used on a limited basis, since diverting the entire flow of the river would run up against endangered species laws and other environmental concerns. Elizabeth Miller wrote a strong piece for NM In Depth about efforts to reopen the channel and environmentalists’ concerns. It’s well worth a read.
For now, however, the Low Flow Conveyance Channel will stand as a reminder that while engineering our way out of a short-term drought may be somewhat effective, it usually doesn’t work in the long-term. To survive ongoing aridification we must dispense with dams and canals and rethink our relationship to this landscape and overhaul the way we use diminishing amounts of water.
Spring is planting time for home gardeners, landscapers and public works agencies across the U.S. And there’s rising demand for native plants – species that are genetically adapted to the specific regions where they are used.
Native plants have evolved with local climates and soil conditions. As a result, they generally require less maintenance, such as watering and fertilizing, after they become established, and they are hardier than non-native species.
But there’s one big problem: There aren’t enough native seeds. This issue is so serious that it was the subject of a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The study found an urgent need to build a native seed supply.
Ecological restoration aims to bring back degraded lands’ native biological diversity and the ecological functions that these areas provided, such as sheltering wildlife and soaking up floodwater. In 2021, the United Nations launched the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to promote such efforts worldwide.
Native plants have many features that make them an essential part of healthy ecosystems. For example, they provide long-term defense against invasive and noxious weeds; shelter local pollinators and wildlife; and have roots that stabilize soil, which helps reduce erosion.
Restoration projects require vast quantities of native seeds – but commercial supplies fall far short of what’s needed. Developing a batch of seeds for a specific species takes skill and several years of lead time to either collect native seeds in the wild or grow plants to produce them. Suppliers say one of their biggest obstacles is unpredictable demand from large-scale customers, such as government and tribal agencies, that don’t plan far enough ahead for producers to have stocks ready.
Restoring roadsides in New England
Most drivers give little thought to what grows next to highways, but the wrong plants in these areas can cause serious problems. Roadsides that aren’t replanted using ecological restoration methods may erode and be taken over by invasive weeds. Ecological restoration provides effective erosion control and better habitat habitats for wildlife and pollinators. It’s also more attractive.
For decades, state transportation departments across the U.S. used non-native cool-season turfgrasses, such as fescue and ryegrass, to restore roadsides. The main benefits of using these species, which grow well during the cooler months of spring and fall, were that they grew fast and provided a quick cover.
We recommended using warm-season grasses that are native to the region, such as little bluestem, purple lovegrass, switchgrass and purpletop. These species required less long-term maintenance and less-frequent mowing than the cool-season species that agencies had previously used.
To ensure sound conservation practices, we wanted to use seeds produced locally. Seeds sourced from other locations would produce grasses that would interbreed with local ecotypes – grasses adapted to New England – and disrupt the local grasses’ gene complexes.
At that time, however, there was no reliable seed supply for local ecotypes in New England. Only a few sources offered an incomplete selection of small quantities of local seeds, at prices that were too expensive for large-scale restoration projects. Most organizations carrying out ecological restoration projects purchased their bulk seeds mainly from large wholesale producers in the Midwest, which introduced non-local genetic material to the restoration sites.
Improving native seed supply chains
Many agencies are concerned that lack of a local seed supply could limit restoration efforts in New England. To tackle this problem, our team launched a project in 2022 with funding from the New England Transportation Consortium. Our goals are to increase native plantings and pollinator habitats with seeds from local ecotypes, and to make our previous recommendations for roadside restoration with native grasses more feasible.
As we were analyzing ways to obtain affordable native seeds for these roadside projects, we learned about work by Eve Allen, a master’s degree student in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her thesis, Allen used supply chain management and social network analysis to identify the best methods to strengthen the native seed supply chain network.
Her research showed that developing native seed supplies would require cooperative partnerships that included federal, state and local government agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors. Allen reached out to many of these organizations’ stakeholders and established a broad network. This led to the launch of the regional Northeast Seed Network, which will be hosted by the Massachusetts-based Native Plant Trust, a nonprofit that works to conserve New England’s native plants.
We expect this network will promote all aspects of native seed production in the region, from collecting seeds in the wild to cultivating plants for seed production, developing regional seed markets and carrying out related research. In the meantime, we are developing a road map for new revegetation practices in New England.
We aim to build greater coordination between these agencies and seed producers to promote expanded selections of affordable native seeds and make demand more predictable. Our ultimate goal is to help native plants, bees and butterflies thrive along roads throughout New England.
Colorado lawmakers approved seven major new water bills this year, including one that approves millions in more funding for the Colorado Water Plan, another that makes restoring streams easier, and a third that creates a high-profile Colorado River task force.
The 2023 General Assembly, which adjourned May 8, also approved four others that address water wise landscaping, water use in oil fields, “don’t flush” labels for the disposable wipes that plague water systems, and one giving more muscle to an interim legislative committee whose job is to evaluate water problems and propose laws to fix them.
Two of the bills, the labeling requirement, as well as the legislative committee changes, have been signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis. The five remaining bills await his signature.
Funding Water Projects
Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) “projects bill,” which this year—Senate Bill 177—appropriates $95 million from three sources: CWCB’s construction fund, severance taxes on oil and gas production, and sports betting revenue. No general fund tax dollars are used. An important part of the funding goes to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan.
A major difference in this year’s bill is the amount of money coming from sports betting. Last year’s bill appropriated $8.2 million from that source, the first time since the passage of Proposition DD in 2019, which legalized sports betting and authorized the state to collect up to $29 million in taxes on gambling proceeds, with over 90% of that going for water. SB 177 triples that amount, appropriating $25.2 million to fund projects that help implement the state water plan. Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, a bill sponsor, noted that sports betting revenue provides critical funding “that never existed before for water.” As he pointed out, “that number keeps growing every year which is positive for our water future.”
Senate Bill 270 allows minor stream restoration activities to proceed without having to secure a water right. Its intent is to promote the benefits natural stream systems provide—clean water, forest and watershed health, riparian and aquatic habitat protection—by mitigating damages caused by mining, erosion, flooding and wildfires. Minor stream restoration activities include stabilizing stream banks and beds, installing porous structures that slow down water flow and temporarily increase surface water area, and rechanneling streams to recover from wildfire and flood impacts.
At the bill’s initial hearing in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Roberts, committee chair and a bill cosponsor, emphasized that stream restoration activities “help promote recovery from natural disasters like fires and floods.” He also noted the bill could “help access federal dollars that are available in sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now that could be used for these very valuable projects.”
Another bill cosponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a water right holder and water conservation district manager, recognized “the value and importance of healthy rivers and streams and what it means to all water users.”
As introduced, SB 270 would have created a “rebuttable presumption” that a stream restoration project does not cause material injury to a vested water right. It was amended in committee after testimony by several witnesses who expressed concern over the bill’s potential impacts on water rights—loss of water due to evaporation and infiltration into soils, and delayed timing of delivery downstream. They all expressed support for the concept of stream restoration and with the amendments adopted, pledged to work together in the future to strike a balance between stream restoration benefits and protecting water rights.
Colorado River Drought Task Force
Faced with two decades of drought in the Colorado River Basin, Senate Bill 295 creates a task force to make legislative recommendations that will help water users most directly affected by drought and aid the state in meeting its commitments under the Colorado River Compact. The task force’s focus is on reducing water demand and on ensuring that any effort to achieve that goal by fallowing irrigated farmland must be done on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis.
The task force is made up of 17 voting members representing agricultural, municipal, industrial, conservation, environmental and tribal stakeholders from across the state, with the state engineer serving in an advisory capacity. It includes a sub-task force to study and make recommendations on tribal matters comprised of five members, including representatives from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The task force and sub-task force must report any recommendations, which are to be made by majority vote, to the General Assembly’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee by Dec. 15, 2023.
Testimony in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee raised concern with the bill’s timing. Several Front Range municipal water providers said the state’s primary focus should be on supporting federal efforts to force lower basin states—primarily California and Arizona—to reduce their river use since they have consistently exceeded their compact allocations while the Upper Basin states have never fully utilized theirs. Sen. Roberts, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that but emphasized “There is drought happening in Colorado right now … The purpose of the task force isn’t just to consider interstate obligations, it’s also to make recommendations surrounding drought mitigation and drought security.”
Others worried that the bill might split the state’s West Slope and East Slope water users, but lawmakers pledged the task force would seek cooperative solutions. “This bill is going to codify a collaborative path forward on some difficult issues facing the Western Slope and the entire state,” said Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose.
Senate Bill 178 is designed to reduce barriers to residents in homeowner association (HOA)-governed communities (roughly half the state’s population) who want to plant landscapes that use less water than bluegrass lawns. To encourage HOAs and owners of single-family detached homes to work together in planting landscapes that conserve water, improve biodiversity, and expand the amount of food grown in private gardens, SB 178 requires HOAs to adopt three pre-planned water-wise landscape designs that homeowners can install if they want to replace non-native turf. It doesn’t preclude other designs with HOA approval. Although the bill removes some aesthetic discretion, HOAs retain the authority to reject designs for safety, fire or drainage concerns.
Water Conservation in Oil and Gas Operations
House Bill 1242 seeks to reduce freshwater use in oil and gas operations and increase recycling and reuse of produced water, which is water in or injected into the ground and coproduced with oil or natural gas extraction. It is often disposed off-site but can be recycled and reused if properly treated.
The bill requires oil and gas well operators to report periodically to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on the volume of freshwater and recycled or reused produced water used, produced water removed for disposal, and produced water recycled or reused in another well and removed for recycling or reuse at a different location. The commission will use this data in adopting rules by July 1, 2024 to require a statewide reduction in freshwater use and a corresponding increase in recycled or reused produced water in oil and gas operations.
The bill also creates the Colorado Produced Water Consortium in the Department of Natural Resources to make recommendations to the General Assembly and state agencies by Nov. 1, 2024 on legislation or rules necessary to remove barriers to recycling and reuse of produced water. The consortium consists of 28 members that will work with state and federal agencies, research institutions, colleges and universities, non-government organizations, local governments, industries, environmental justice organizations and members of disproportionately impacted communities in conducting its work and making recommendations.
Disposable Wipes and Water Quality
Aimed at reducing sewer backups and water pollution in Colorado, Senate Bill 150 requires a manufacturer of disposable wipes sold or offered for sale in the state, and a wholesaler, supplier or retailor responsible for labeling or packaging those products to label them “Do Not Flush.” Disposable wipes include baby, cleaning and hand sanitizing wipes made of materials that do not break down like toilet paper when flushed. They end up clogging pipes and releasing plastics into waterways, costing water utilities a lot of money to fix.
Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee
Senate Bill 10 turns the interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee into a year-round committee. The committee will meet at the call of the chair, conduct hearings and vet issues as they come up instead of having to wait until after each session adjourns. It will not duplicate the functions of existing standing committees, but will continue to recommend bills to the Legislative Council, which will refer them to relevant committees for action.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colorado lawmakers may pass a stream-restoration bill this session, but it won’t be the one proponents and environmental groups were hoping for.
A bill aimed at making it easier for stream-restoration projects that mimic beaver activity to take place has been gutted after stakeholders couldn’t reach an agreement, underscoring how difficult it is for environmental interests to gain a toehold under Colorado’s system of water law.
An original draft of Senate Bill 270 clarified that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam; are presumed to not injure downstream water rights; and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water-court process to secure a water right or augmentation plan.
Project proponents would have had to file an information form with the Division of Water Resources (DWR) showing that projects would stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and didn’t create new wetlands. Anyone, including downstream water users who believed the project would injure their water rights, could then challenge the project plans by filing a complaint.
The types of projects that the original bill aimed to address are known as low-tech, process-based restoration and include things such as beaver-dam analogs (BDAs). These temporary wood structures consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts.
By pooling water on small tributaries in the headwaters, these process-based restoration projects act as if rehydrating a dry sponge and restore watersheds to a more natural condition before they were degraded by human activities. These projects can improve water quality, raise the water table, and create a buffer against wildfires, drought and climate change. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.
But the watered-down version of the bill that made it out of committee and is up for a second reading in the House on May 3 no longer addresses these types of projects. After amendments removed language referring to these projects, the bill now only includes minor stream-restoration activities such as bank stabilization or restructuring a channel to recover from wildfire or flood impacts.
“The stuff that got taken out was the projects that would reconnect the channel and the floodplains and push water out of the channel in a way that would saturate the meadow and potentially change the hydrology,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, assistant director for water policy at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Those projects are very much intended to maximize the ecological uplift from a stream restoration project. They are also the projects that gave the most heartburn to the water community.”
DNR staff and environmental groups were the proponents of the original legislation. If stream-restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions that it causes, it could discourage these types of projects. Currently, proposals are evaluated by division engineers, who determine whether an augmentation plan is needed.
Some agricultural water users were concerned that keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially injure their downstream water rights by slowing the rate of runoff and creating more surface area for evaporation.
“Any time you’re talking about water and changing things in the water system, you run the risk of impacting water rights and the doctrine of prior appropriation, which is my guiding star when it comes to water issues,” state Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican, said at a Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing April 13. Simpson, a sponsor of the bill, is a rancher who represents District 6.
Prior appropriation is the cornerstone of Colorado water law in which the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
Austin Vincent, general counsel and director of public policy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the original bill would have placed an unfair and expensive burden on water rights holders to file a complaint and prove they were being injured by a stream-restoration project.
“It takes money to get an attorney and an engineer to prove your water right was injured,” he said. “The Farm Bureau is happy we are having this conversation, but we need to make sure this policy is done right. With the prior appropriation system being the law of the land here in Colorado, we need to make sure that’s not eroded.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury testified at the committee hearing, expressing the county’s strong support for the original draft of the bill.
“Our western rivers are the lifeblood of our state and they are in crisis,” she said. “We should all be committed to restoring our rivers to a healthy and thriving state.”
Pitkin County has funded a summer program with the U.S. Forest Service for a beaver inventory in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which could be the first step toward reintroducing the animals.
During negotiations on bill amendments, some groups had floated the idea of a cap that would place a limit on how much new surface area of water that restoration projects were allowed to create. But a too-small cap didn’t appeal to environmental groups.
“The cap became the dynamite stick in the water community dialogue,” said Abby Burk, western rivers region program manager for Audubon Rockies. “If we had gone forward with these caps, we would have caged stream restoration, so it was better to pause.”
Legislators have said they plan to revisit the issue in the interim committee and perhaps again next session with a new bill addressing process-based restoration projects.
Eagle County project
Staff from Eagle County Open Space learned firsthand the issues that can arise with stream-restoration projects, when they planned for 13 beaver-dam analogs to restore a half-mile section of Brush Creek that had seen intense ranching and grazing. The creek had been straightened and disconnected from its floodplain, and the riparian and aquatic habitat was impaired.
County staff submitted their plans to DWR, which told them they would have to get a plan for water replacement, or augmentation, to replace the water that would be evaporated from the small ponds created by the project.
“It appears the BDAs associated with this project will result in a series of impoundments in ponds/pools that will result in additional evaporation from increased surface area that will injure downstream water rights,” the response from DWR reads.
Getting an engineer to model the amount of water lost, then implementing a plan to replace that water was cost-prohibitive for the county, said Peter Suneson, open-space manager for Eagle County.
“Modeling a leaky beaver dam is doable, but you’re going to end up throwing a lot of money at it and you still have to find water to put back in the creek,” he said.
Instead of the BDAs, Eagle County instead moved forward with another low-tech, process-based project that DWR did not have a problem with: post-assisted log structures (PALS). These mimic large woody debris — a downed cottonwood tree, for example — that is affixed to a streambank and extends into the channel but does not span the entire waterway.
According to DWR, as long as PALS do not funnel water away from a diversion structure such as an irrigation headgate and do not impound water, they will not injure downstream users.
“We got 13 PALS in last fall and we are going to do that again this fall,” Suneson said.
It was exactly these types of projects that drafters of the original bill were hoping to make exempt from the water-court process, but which remain evaluated on a case-by-case basis by division engineers. But as drought and climate change have tightened their grip on Colorado, resulting in less water to go around, even restoration projects that everyone agrees are beneficial to the environment can be contentious.
“The entrenched interests like to see the status quo protected and preserved and those newer types of water uses, whether it be recreational or environmental, are at the end of the line,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Program. “It’s a tough uphill battle to pass legislation that allows water to be used for those newer values.”
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization that covers water, environment and social justice.
One day about a decade ago, professional tracker and cougar researcher Michelle Peziol took a group of graduate students from Teton Science School on a walk through an aspen grove near Jackson. GPS in hand, Peziol led the class to an area where a collared mountain lion had been spending time.
As the bright sun illuminated the early summer grass at the site, Peziol noticed an almost perfect circle of darker-green grass. She looked around. Nothing obvious would have caused the grass in that precise location to be richer and more robust. Then she remembered: A lion had killed a deer in that spot the prior year. Could the remains of that deer kill have fertilized the soil?
Ten years later, Peziol and four other researchers published the answer: Yes, it could.
A new paper in the journal Springer Nature outlines how mountain lions in the Tetons create areas with more protein-rich grasses that nourish big game when the leftovers of carcasses they kill and consume decompose. Lion researcher Mark Elbroch calls it a version of “gardening to hunt,” but to Wyoming Game and Fish large carnivore section supervisor, Dan Thompson, the results further illustrate just how connected every species — from lions to deer to beetles to grass — are to one another.
“As far as mountain lion management, [this research] reinforces their role in the ecosystem,” Thompson said. “It’s important because we’re one of the few places in North America where it’s still occurring like it used to.”
As hunters and outfitters fret about predators killing big game like mule deer after a particularly harsh winter, researchers say projects like this highlight how much more there is to learn from the role each species — predators included — play on the landscape.
Killing, eating and stealing
Each of Wyoming’s large carnivores come with a buffet of preconceived notions about how it kills, what it eats and its role on the mountains and plains of Wyoming. Some generalities prove true: Wolves tend to kill in packs while mountain lions and grizzly bears, for example, are solo hunters. But while many assume the large predators kill and eat only live, big game, science is increasingly proving otherwise.
Of the meals that lions kill, they share (often not willingly) with hundreds of other species on the landscape.
“Everything from weird things like flying squirrels and mice to the usual suspects, like bears and eagles and turkey vultures,” said Elbroch, one of the paper’s co-authors and the Puma Program director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. “What that really speaks to is how energy moves in the system and how it strengthens an ecosystem by creating all these new links and food webs.”
This doesn’t mean cougars kill game and simply move along, Thompson said. Lions will eat as much as they can.
“There’s no evolutionary benefit of killing for fun,” Thompson said. “There’s no benefit in wasting food.”
But the research shows that even goopy bits of carcasses that seep into the earth before they are consumed can produce surprising results years later. After years of mapping GPS location data and collecting soil samples, Peziol’s team began to piece together a picture of how those carcasses influence the quality of the soil itself.
Connections from the ground up
Finding answers to big ecological questions requires more than a field season or two, Peziol said. It takes years of collecting information from the same locations and, in the case of this study, returning to the University of Washington with a U-Haul full of dirt.
Once Peziol and Elbroch decided to investigate the connections between lions and vegetation, Peziol began the long process of collecting thousands of samples from the Wyoming mountains.
The work began with lion collars, which sent location points to a satellite every one to two hours. If a lion stayed in a location for more than four hours, it could mean it was eating or napping. So Peziol started trekking to those locations to find out. If it had killed and cached an animal, Peziol took soil samples from directly underneath the carcass as well as 10 feet away in areas with the same conditions like sunlight and slope.
She repeated the process every three months for a year, then twice a year for three years. When vegetation began to grow at the carcass site, she plucked samples of those plants and samples from the same nearby species, again growing in similar conditions.
A U-Haul of dirt, thousands of individual samples and 13 undergraduate students analyzing soil and plant quality later, she could prove that plants growing where carcasses decomposed had higher quantities of protein.
While the same benefits may arrive from species hunted by humans — if the carcasses remain in the woods and aren’t schlepped to a landfill — the lion affected areas tended to be located in certain zones where mountain lions preferred to hunt.
That means pockets of better-quality vegetation proliferate in select areas on the landscape, Elbroch said, potentially drawing even more big game to those areas.
“To use trendy science language, we were able to definitively show that mountain lions were ecosystem engineers, and that they were creating habitat for other species,” Elbroch said.
However, knowing if, in fact, deer and elk return to those areas because of the better vegetation would entail more research not of lions, but of deer and elk themselves.
The study results remind Thompson of migrating salmon and how their decomposing bodies change water pH and add to soil nutrients, which then boosts vegetation growth that attracts more grazing animals that then bring more predators.
“It’s more than lions killing deer,” Thompson said. “It’s very easy to try to simplify the reality of what’s happening on the landscape, and by doing so we don’t give credit to these very intricately woven natural occurrences happening around us.”Tagged:WyoFile App
Christine Peterson has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade for various publications including the Casper Star-Tribune, National Geographic and Outdoor… More by Christine Peterson
That number grabbed most of the headlines, but there was more troublesome data below the fold. The magic number in beekeeping is 18.7 percent. Population losses below that level are sustainable; lose any more, though, and the colony is heading toward zero. A startling two-thirds of beekeepers in the USDA survey reported losses above the threshold, suggesting that the pollination industry is in trouble.
For the first time, the USDA reported more losses in summer than winter. Experts can’t explain the reversal—especially since the colony collapse disorder epidemic that peaked several years ago seems to have abated. The summer losses may have a single, unknown cause, or a group of known and intensifying causes, such as pesticides or mites.
Today the White House followed the USDA’s report with its long-awaited plan to help maintain and grow the pollinator population, including building pollinator gardens near federal buildings and restoring government-owned lands in ways that support bees. It’s a good first step.
Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” It’s highly unlikely that Einstein said that. For one thing, there’s no evidence of him saying it. For another, the statement is hyperbolic and wrong (and Einstein was rarely wrong). But there is a kernel of truth in the famous misquote.
Bees and Agriculture
Bees and humans have been through a lot together. People began keeping bees as early as 20,000 BCE, according to the late and eminent melittologist Eva Crane. (Yes, someone who studies bees is a melittologist.) To put that length of time into perspective, the average global temperature 22,000 years ago was more than 35 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, and ice sheets covered large parts of North America. Beekeeping probably predates the dawn of agriculture, which occurred about 12,000 years ago, and likely made farming possible.
How important are bees to farming today? If you ask 10 reporters that question, you’ll get 11 answers. Some stories say that bees pollinate more than two-thirds of our most important crops, while others say it’s closer to one-third. A spread of that size indicates a lack of authoritative scholarship on the subject. My review of the literature suggests the same.
The most thorough and informative study came back in 2007, when an international team of agricultural scholars reviewed the importance of animal pollinators, including bees, to farming. Their results could encourage both the alarmists and the minimizers in the world of bee observation. The group found that 87 crops worldwide employ animal pollinators, compared to only 28 that can survive without such assistance. Since honeybees are by consensus the most important animal pollinators, those are scary numbers.
Look at the data differently, though, and it’s clear why the misattributed Einstein quote is a bit of an exaggeration. Approximately 60 percent of the total volume of food grown worldwide does not require animal pollination. Many staple foods, such as wheat, rice, and corn, are among those 28 crops that require no help from bees. They either self-pollinate or get help from the wind. Those foods make up a tremendous proportion of human calorie intake worldwide.
Even among the 87 crops that use animal pollinators, there are varying degrees of how much the plants need them. Only 13 absolutely require animal pollination, while 30 more are “highly dependent” on it. Production of the remaining crops would likely continue without bees with only slightly lower yields.
OK, So Can We Live Without Bees?
The truth is, if honeybees did disappear for good, humans would probably not go extinct (at least not solely for that reason). But our diets would still suffer tremendously. The variety of foods available would diminish, and the cost of certain products would surge. The California Almond Board, for example, has been campaigning to save bees for years. Without bees and their ilk, the group says, almonds “simply wouldn’t exist.” We’d still have coffee without bees, but it would become expensive and rare. The coffee flower is only open for pollination for three or four days. If no insect happens by in that short window, the plant won’t be pollinated.
There are plenty of other examples: apples, avocados, onions, and several types of berries rely heavily on bees for pollination. The disappearance of honeybees, or even a substantial drop in their population, would make those foods scarce. Humanity would survive—but our dinners would get a lot less interesting.
Yes, that diagram again. I was chastised by readers last week for using it – partly for the ‘Antique’ in the diagram’s title, but also for not adequately explaining what the diagram shows. I apologize for the latter. These posts tend to run long and demand a lot more of readers than the 15-second attention span for which Americans are derided. But just to keep them down to a couple thousand words or so, I find myself having to go through some things too quickly in order to get to whatever point I was aiming for. Brevity unfortunately is not the soul of my wit.
But having a sense of the structure and infrastructure of our big dams is critical to understanding what is going on along the Colorado River these days, where it is easy to confuse the river itself (which is experiencing chronic low flows but is not ‘drying up’) with the ‘river management system’ (which really could dry up critical stretches of the river under the current management regime). The ‘river management system’ is the integrated set of physical structures along the river for storing the river’s water and distributing it to users – and the operating systems whereby those structures are managed.
The ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study’ the Bureau of Reclamation is doing now is basically an analysis of its own operating systems for the big structures on the Colorado River, and how those systems might be radically changed with an equitable distribution of impacts on humans – systems that could have been changed gradually over the past several decades, the past century even, to reflect undeniable evolving realities, both natural and cultural, but now must be done with radical surgery – the call for an almost-immediate reduction in Lower Basin uses of two million acre-feet.
This might be what life in the Anthropocene will mostly be on many fronts: learning how to live well enough with the world we have imposed on the world we found here. A recreated world where some cultural works were done naively and maybe profligately, under assumptions now needing correction – which one might hope we will learn to begin sooner rather than later – or too late, period.
So it is fitting to look critically at what we’ve done along the ‘First River of the Anthropocene’ – trying not to fall into hypocritical analysis, gnawing on the hands that feed us. And on that spectrum of critical analysis, I do need to explain, if not defend, using a diagram that calls the ‘plumbing’ of a major element in the management system we’ve imposed on the Colorado River ‘antique.’
I will say first that I do not necessarily think of ‘antique’ as a derogatory term (although that was probably intended by the creators of this diagram). If an automobile is fifty years old and still running, it qualifies for an ‘antique’ license plate; that’s cool, an achievement for those who kept the car functional. I think of the word as more descriptive than judgmental: an antique is an artifact whose time is past but which reflects that time, something old but with an element of class, something that summons memories of a previous time, a time we want to remember but not necessarily carry forward.
So, being more than 50 years old at this point – is Glen Canyon Dam an antique? We can start with an examination of its ‘plumbing,’ which says something about its life and times. (My doctor uses colonoscopies for a similar analysis.)
One piece of plumbing not shown on the diagram is the dam’s spillways – two huge ‘drains’ up at the 3,700-foot elevation, near the dam’s 3,715-foot crest (for context, 583 feet above the original streambed). The purpose of the spillways is to keep the reservoir from filling to the point where it would go over the crest. Glen Canyon’s spillways have only been used once, in 1983, when a very wet May and hot June caught the dam managers unaware, with the reservoir already too full to perform its flood-control function. The spillways proved to be not up to the task of getting the flood waters past the dam; the water pouring down them caused a cavitation problem – a million tiny ‘air-hammers’ beating on the concrete with enough cumulative force to break it up. The managers knew there was a problem when large chunks of concrete, then sandstone, started washing out the bottom of the spillway outlets. That threatened the integrity of the dam itself; it was necessary to close off the spillways, lining the top of them with sheets of plywood four feet high and praying that the water would stop rising before it topped the plywood. It did stop in time, and the dam was saved. The spillways were rebuilt, hopefully resolving the cavitation problem, and have not been used since – and at this point, given the projections about climate change, it is hard to imagine the reservoir ever being that full again. The spillways alone might qualify as ‘antiques,’ built for a river that needed them (once) but may no longer exist. (Oh great river gods, please make me eat my words!)
For the dam managers, however, to ‘spill’ water at all is a mark of bad management; their ideal is for every gallon of water contained by the dam to be released through openings 210 feet below the spillways, at hydropower generation level, the 3,490-foot elevation (see diagram). Those openings into the dam drop the water through pentstocks a couple hundred vertical feet to turbines in generators the size of small houses; on its way to its designated use downstream, the water generates electricity. The higher the reservoir level, the more pressure the water’s weight exerts in pushing the water through the turbines; with the reservoir at high levels, the Glen Canyon generators can produce annually up to five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 2022, however, with the reservoir level only around 35 feet above the pentstock inlets, it only produced 2.6 kilowatt-hours. (Bureau figures)
The Bureau’s semi-panicky call in 2022 for massive reductions in use basin-wide was based on projections forward of another couple water years like the 2020-22 period; under the current river management regime, the level of the reservoir would have dropped below the level of the pentstock intakes in a couple years, and year-round power generation would have been impossible.
Even if that were to happen, however, it would still be possible to move water downstream from Powell Reservoir, through river outlet works with intakes 120 feet lower down in the dam, at the 3,370-foot elevation. The river outlets there are four big pipes, each eight feet in diameter, with a total flow capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second – when there’s a lot of water in the reservoir to push water through them. If the water pressure stayed at that level, and all four tubes worked 24/7/365, it would be possible to move around 10 million acre-feet (maf) through the dam annually and down to Mead Reservoir, roughly the amount the Bureau has been releasing from Mead for Lower Basin and Mexican use – plus the system losses for which no one has wanted to claim responsibility.
That 10 maf leaving the system at the lower end obviously becomes problematic if only 6-8 maf are flowing into the system at the upper end, as has been the recent situation. For one thing, the Bureau is not sure the outlet works can stand that kind of constant use; they are getting old, and may not have been built for constant use anyway. So if the Bureau were able to keep only three tubes running all the time, with one in maintenance mode, the amount of water that could be moved at full pressure would drop to just about the Upper Basin’s Colorado River Compact commitment – 7.5 maf plus the Upper Basin’s share of the Mexican obligation (750,000 af).
But as the water level in the reservoir dropped closer to the outlet works intakes – 6-7 maf inflow minus 8 maf outflow equals a storage decrease of 1-2 maf/year – the water pressure through the tubes would also drop, and below the 3,430-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to push the full Upper Basin commitment to the Lower Basin and Mexico through the tubes.
Worst case – if the reservoir level dropped below the 3,370-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to move any water at all past the dam, even though there would still be just under two million acre-feet left in storage – the ‘dead pool.’ At that point, the Lower Basin states would either have to do something completely nonconstructive like sue somebody (Upper Basin states? Interior Department? The Bureau?), or argue about which states should pay how much to Upper Basin water users to let their water (not federally controlled) flow to Powell to try to raise the level back above the 3,370-foot elevation. And most of the Upper Basin water rights junior to the Compact are not a bunch of rugged individualist farmers and ranchers; they are the big transmountain diverters – Colorado’s Front Range cities, the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Salt Lake basin, who are already ‘lawyered up.’
The ramshackle ‘Law of the River,’ grounded in appropriation law and followed to the letter of the laws, would have nothing to offer to relieve that situation; it is easier to imagine Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Water Knife’ war commencing.
That is an overview of Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing – pretty standard for a big 20th century dam, designed to operate optimally when the reservoir is more than two-thirds full and able to maintain a full power head in releasing water through the turbines for – oh yeah, not primarily power generation, but the dam’s main job of providing dependable water for agricultural and domestic users downstream. A specific warning in the Colorado River Compact (IV(b)).
Now to the question: is Glen Canyon Dam an ‘antique’? I think, at this point, given the prognostications for the future of the regional water supply, we could truly say that the dam was built for a different era, a different river – some of which river may have existed only in the minds of the dam builders. The ‘Hassayampa romance,’ carried along, like Deacon Holmes’ wonderful one-hoss shay, ‘for a century to the day’ – the day the Bureau finally abandoned its paper surplus calculations and called a shortage.
In addition to working on new river operation protocols, the Bureau now has a team working on ways to possibly modify the dam, undoubtedly at considerable cost, maybe enlarging the outlet works, maybe generating some flow of electricity through openings lower in the dam, and maybe constructing tunnels to bypass the dam entirely, leaving Mead Reservoir as the river’s major storage.
The latter concept could relieve a problem that the dam has created for ‘today’s river’ through the Grand Canyon: the beaches and sandbars that are essential as night stops for the billion-dollar Grand Canyon recreational boating industry are eroding away, with no replacement sand and silt getting past the dam. This is being dealt with now by occasional staged ‘floods’ like the one just recently: pouring 200,000-plus acre feet of water over 2-3 days down through the Grand Canyon to stir up sediment that has slumped from the beaches down into the riverbed, in hopes that it will be redeposited on a beach downstream. Ultimately this mostly just escalates the passage downstream of all the beach material with only irregular and inadequate deposits of new material from side streams. That this ultimate losing effort was done in April 2023, with Powell Reservoir under 30 percent full, but anticipating a runoff that might get it all the way up to half-full or only half-empty, depending on your psychological inclination…. There’s an underlying desperation there that is not goimng to let us look back on this period with any pleasant sense of nostalgia. But we might look back on antiquities like Glen Canyon Dam as a reminder of the consequences of operating on assumptions and standards not fully grounded in demonstrable reality.
A problem with this analysis, however, is that for better or worse, it evaluates Glen Canyon Dam out of context. To really understand why we have Glen Canyon Dam at all, it is necessary to see our river’s physical structures in the larger context of the less visible political and legal infrastructure that led us to pile five million yards of concrete (with internal plumbing) in the river’s path in that particular place. That is another great story in the evolution of this mixed bag we call America. Up next in a couple weeks; stay tuned.
Hi all, and thank you for joining Audubon Rockies and conservation photographer Dave Showalter for his multimedia journey through the living Colorado River! In his new book, Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado, Dave shares the beauty of the watershed and a story of resiliency and resolution to continue the work for healthy watersheds. You can watch last week’s virtual book launch event recording here.
The Colorado River existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future. The use of the river will be renegotiated amid climate change, reduced snowpack, and water shortages, presenting an opportunity to ensure universal access to clean water for more than 30 federally-recognized Native tribes and make the allocation of the Colorado equitable as well as sustainable.
This May is a critical time to be a voice for the river, as the United States Bureau of Reclamation seeks public comment on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to the 2007 Interim Guidelines. This SEIS evaluates different scenarios to better balance water supply in the Colorado River watershed, which will impact ecosystem health in the Grand Canyon and other areas.
The stories, art, and lifeways that deepen our relationships to water are what build the collective voice for healthy rivers that benefit wildlife and people. The Mighty Colorado changes everything it touches, including us. Here are a few ways you can join the Living River conversation:
Take action by May 30 and urge the Bureau of Reclamation to recognize the important links between human health, stable communities, and the environment and also implement measures that better balance water supply and protect the Grand Canyon ecosystem.
Presently, there is less water in the Colorado River system than at any time in recorded history, threatening the vitality of its ecosystem. But wherever there is water, there is abundant, dynamic life. As Dave Showalter says: “The river is not dying. She flows with the same pure purpose as before we arrived.”
There’s no giving up on the Colorado for riverkeepers engaged in riparian restoration. The hard work ahead requires widespread engagement in our future, which begins with all of us asking: Where does our water come from, and who does it connect us to?
In the first official scorecard of Yampa River system health, the middle section of the Yampa earned an overall score of B. That B means the middle Yampa River from Pump Station boat launch east of Hayden to South Beach about 2 miles south of Craig is a “highly functional river where some stressors are present but in general it remains largely resilient to disturbances and may rely on limited management,” said Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager with Friends of the Yampa, which is managing the scorecard project. Within the overall score of B as part of the Yampa River Scorecard Project, the middle Yampa earns an A for dissolved oxygen, PH levels and metals in the water, “the only ecological indicators that got an A,” Frithsen reported.
The first results of the long-term scorecard project will be released fully in early May with information available at YampaScorecard.org. Data collection started in the middle Yampa in summer 2022, and the overall project will include five river sections.
During summer 2023, data collection will focus on the stretch starting from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the Pump Station boat launch.
The river scorecard is derived via approximately 45 different indicators in and around the Yampa River that fall under three main areas: ecological health and function, river uses and management, and people and community benefits.
“By seeing what areas are a C, D or F, we can now focus on action and how to improve these numbers,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director for Friends of the Yampa. “We now have a template to start conversations with people in this basin about the health of the river and its ecosystem services.”
Marlow said another key finding that stands out is riverscape connectivity, or a measurement of the ease in which a river can move around such as a connected flood plain and river channel.
“There are areas that score so well at 95% and others that need help at 65%, and now we get to embark on the exciting task of figuring out how to improve floodplain connectivity,” Marlow said.
The water gushing out of dam jets this week normally would have flowed gradually over the month of April out of Lake Powell into the river. Eventually, the water will end up in Lake Mead, the key supply for Arizona, California and Nevada. Federal officials based their recent decision to allow the simulated floods on the relatively heavy high mountain snowpack this year along headwaters of the Colorado River, which begins west of Denver near Grand Lake…
Federal hydrologists have estimated 14.7 million acre-feet of water this summer will flow from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah into Lake Powell. Since 2018, federal dam operators have declined to release water for simulated flood surges due to long-term drought and anxieties around record-low reservoir water levels, linked by scientists to climate warming and aridification of the Southwest — transformations that have left Lake Powell and Lake Mead less than a quarter full. Yet the nation’s 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act requires efforts to ensure ecological health in the canyon, and officials established a program that includes simulated floods…
Denver Water “is supportive of the environmental flow program” in the Grand Canyon, utility manager Jim Lochhead said, lauding the effort by multiple agencies that “come together to shift water releases — not increase overall releases — in order to mimic spring hydrology through the basin, which helps to improve beaches, sandbars and aquatic habitats.”
In 1963, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam atop the Grand Canyon disrupted essential natural processes and created Lake Powell. Sand and other sediments that for centuries moved downriver, scouring surfaces and creating beaches, suddenly were backed up on the reservoir side of that dam. And the regularized, steady flows of clear water, devoid of sediment, gradually are transforming the canyon.