Protecting the River’s Edge from an Invasive Threat

From The Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Cronkite News (Rae Ellen Bichell):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamarisk Program Begins Restoration Phase — The Prowers Journal

From The Prowers Journal (Russ Baldwin):

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

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

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

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

Tamarisk Coalition: Riparian Restoration Conference, February 6 and 7, 2018

Colorado National Monument from the Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

Click here to for the Inside skinny and to register:

Join Tamarisk Coalition and the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University for the 16th annual Riparian Restoration Conference in Grand Junction, Colorado, a premier destination on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Rifle “State of the River” meeting recap: We, “are all in this together” — Annie Whetzel

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, MCWC, aims to protect the stretch of Colorado River from the mouth of Glenwood Canyon to De Beque at the western edge of Garfield County. We work with everyone who uses water from the agricultural community, to city water users (including tooth-brushers and lawn-waterers), to oil and gas developers and every governmental agency in between to encourage wise water use and ensure safe water quality for everyone involved.

Working with the Colorado River District for the State of the River was a great reminder that navigating these diverse interests and subsequent water uses is a common thread for the entire river, from the headwaters of the Colorado down to the river terminus. Through education, dialog and exchange of information we have a chance to better understand and manage the finite resource.

The MCWC has a few projects on the ground and on the horizon that aim to connect our stretch of river to the larger river system. These efforts involve riparian restoration, a nice term for fighting invasive species like tamarisk and ensuring native plants have a chance to grow back, and water quality management.

Tamarisk

Tamarisk Coalition chose the MCWC as one of nine programs to join their Restore Our Rivers campaign. The campaign provides tools and funding for river restoration programs that combat tamarisk and Russian olive and more…

This summer the MCWC will begin a few restoration projects and will continue to monitor existing projects. It is our way of working along our 75 mile stretch of river and understanding how we fit into the larger picture.

As for water quality monitoring, we are undertaking a citizen science program to establish a baseline for what is in our water in the middle Colorado River and its tributaries. Upstream and downstream of us, many groups already test water quality, and therefore again, we are tasked with understanding how our section of river fits into the larger system. Our citizen science program is designed to find out what water quality looks like today, see how that compares to the past, and allows for the opportunity to evaluate trends into the future. How are we affecting water quality and are there opportunities to improve? The data we and our stakeholders collect will help us understand our basin better, but will also provide service to everyone downstream of us.

Our little, but significant, stretch of river is ours to take care of. Managing the entire Colorado River might seem like a daunting task, but we can be stewards for our stretch, from Glenwood Canyon to De Beque. The steps we take to protect our water helps our little basin, but also, we are working a much larger system throughout the west, because we are all in this together.

Annie Whetzel is community outreach coordinator at the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. To learn more about the council, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org. You can also find the council on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.

Removing Tamarisk on the San Miguel River — The Nature Conservancy

From the Nature Conservancy:

How an ambitious tamarisk removal project on the San Miguel River set the precedent for future restoration work.

TAMARISK: A THREAT TO THE RIVER
The free-flowing San Miguel River extends for 80 miles from high-alpine headwaters above Telluride, to a desert confluence with the Dolores River near the Utah border. The area is marked by Cottonwood forests with understory of willows and skunkbrush sumac and supports an array of wildlife such as great blue heron, American dipper, black swift, river otter, beaver, black bear, and mountain lion.

In 2005, a watershed-scale conservation plan developed by the Conservancy and partners identified the invasion of non-native species specifically tamarisk, Russian olive, and Chinese elm as the highest threat to the riparian vegetation along the San Miguel River.

Tamarisk replaces native vegetation, and accumulates high concentrations of salts in the soil, threatening plant and animal species and local economy dependent on the river and riparian systems. Removing tamarisk and other nonnative woody plants from riparian corridors improves water quantity and quality, and restores the health of native vegetation.

AN AMBITIOUS GOAL
In response to this, the Conservancy designed a restoration plan and set an ambitious goal of making the San Miguel the first tamarisk-free river system in the Western United States, something that had never been tried before. Working with community members, landowners, the Bureau of Land Management and local government officials, the Conservancy educated stakeholders on the benefits of the project for the river ecosystem and garnered support from almost everyone in the watershed.

Starting in 2007, the project took seven years to complete. While not reaching the goal of a fully tamarisk-free river system, the woody invasive species abundance is drastically reduced in all of the areas that were treated. Analysis done in 2014 has shown that the removal work was a success and minimal continued management is needed.

A MODEL FOR RIPARIAN RESTORATION
“This comprehensive project was a first of its kind in the western United States and has become a model for large scale riparian restoration,” said Terri Schulz, director of landscape science and management for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

Efforts have expanded to projects on the Dolores River and prompted the establishment and expansion of groups such as the Tamarisk Coalition. By thinking about this work in the context of the whole watershed, the Conservancy was able to reach out to a wide variety of partners to provide leadership and manpower to the project and to grow the capacity for this work moving beyond the San Miguel watershed.

As the Conservancy plans for future restoration efforts, the tamarisk removal project on the San Miguel River provides an outline for how to successfully work together with communities, landowners and the government to complete projects and reach largescale conservation goals.

Tamarisk Coalition Receives Funding — WesternSlopeNow.com

Colorado National Monument from the Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014
Colorado National Monument from the Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

From WesternSlopeNow.com (Andy Chilian):

The Tamarisk Coalition announces they recently received two grants on the behalf of the Desert Rivers Collaborative that will greatly help their cause. Tamarisk officials say grants from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Bacon Family Foundation, totaling more than $200 thousand, will allow the coalition to continue streamside restoration efforts in the Grand Valley.

It is projected that approximately 70 acres of additional riverside habitat will be restored, thanks to $175 thousand from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and $30 thousand from the Bacon Family Foundation. The funding will be used to pay different crews and contractors to use native plantings for re-vegetation and remove tamarisk, an invasive plant from the Eurasia region, as well as Russian olive, a thorny shrub and small tree that have overtaken a lot of riverside area.

In addition, the funding will tremendously aid in reducing wildfire risk and improving river function, soil conditions, and water quality, and ultimately improve our local habitat for fish and wildlife.

“The overall goal is to improve riparian health here in the Grand Valley, and it’s a continuation of projects that have been going on for several years,” says Shannon Hatch with the Tamarisk Coalition.

Funding from the Bacon Family Foundation will also allow the hiring of an intern to assist with project mapping, maintenance efforts, data management, technical assistance, community outreach, and engagement.