If you've floated and camped Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, just downstream from the Grand Valley, or recreated along River Road on the way to Moab in recent years, then you've likely enjoyed the work of river restoration specialists.
Both of these areas were choked with invasive tamarisk before dedicated land managers began the painstaking work of removing the woody thickets and replacing them with native vegetation. As a result of restoration work, fire danger has been reduced, river access has improved, and native vegetation thrives.
These stories and many more were exchanged March 11-14 at Colorado Mesa University, during the River Crossings Conference and Workshop co-sponsored by the Tamarisk Coalition, River Management Society, International Submerged Lands Conference, Bureau of Land Management at the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. The conference and workshop focused on recent advances and emerging issues in riparian restoration and river management practices.
Many of the presentations considered efforts to remove tamarisk, an alien invasive plant that has choked large swaths of stream bank, cutting off access to streams, crowding out native vegetation and creating fire hazards. Generally considered undesirable, it is nonetheless not a simple thing to eradicate, and eradication does not automatically lead to reestablishment of healthy native vegetation and wildlife habitat. The results of restoration work depend on many factors, including the methods used, surrounding conditions, groundwater levels and river flows. Many research projects are attempting to understand the interactions between these variables to maximize success in future restoration efforts.
The spread of the tamarisk leaf beetle, which gradually kills tamarisk by feeding on its leaves, is another hot topic for researchers, since it is leading to tamarisk mortality in places where no systematic restoration effort is yet in place. The beetle was released in Moab and Grand Junction in 2004 and 2005. Research efforts are underway to understand the spread of this beetle and its impacts on the health of riparian areas.
Researchers also exchanged information on their work to understand the impact of altered river flows due to dams and diversions on sediment distribution, river channels and riparian vegetation. Understanding these dynamics can inform decision-making about dam releases as well as restoration efforts in areas impacted by altered flows.
In addition to scientific research, conference participants also exchanged information about their experiences in actually carrying out river restoration efforts: What tools they used, how they brought partners together, and how projects were funded. One featured project was the decades-long riverfront cleanup and trail-building project in the Grand Valley. Several sessions also focused on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
If you are interested in viewing slides presented at the conference, go to the Tamarisk Coalition website, at www.tamariskcoalition.org. If the presentations aren't up already, they will be soon. And next time you are enjoying time on or along a Western river, consider how it came to be the way it is - that Cottonwood you are standing under just might not have planted itself.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.