Water Lines: Restoring habitat along rivers & streams in western Colorado is a long-term project
Free Press Opinion Columnist
Have you noticed anything missing in the Grand Valley lately? Perhaps you’ve been out biking on the Colorado Riverfront Trail, walking along Connected Lakes, playing disc golf at Matchett Park, rafting the Colorado River, or driving along Monument Road and thought — hmmm — something is different here. I think there used to be more trees. Why did someone remove them? Is something going to take their place?
Recently, a number of organizations and individuals, including Colorado Parks & Wildlife, City of Grand Junction, Mesa County, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Tamarisk Coalition, and various private landowners have been undertaking a variety of riverside restoration projects along the Colorado River and its associated washes, from Palisade to Fruita. Much of this work is being completed under the umbrella of the Desert Rivers Collaborative (DRC), a public-private partnership dedicated to improving habitat along the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers in Mesa and Delta counties.
One of the main focal points of the DRC is the management of invasive plant species, including tamarisk (also known as salt cedar) and Russian olive, which can degrade the ability of areas along rivers and streams to provide essential habitat and resources for humans and wildlife alike. Tamarisk and Russian olive’s dense growth patterns can block access for recreation and agriculture, create hazards for river runners, invade popular campsites, channelize waterways, and, in the case of tamarisk, facilitate increased wildfires. Both species displace native vegetation, which negatively impacts fish and wildlife habitat, and water usage by these plants can also be substantial, most notably in areas where these species displace less thirsty plants, such as sagebrush and rabbitbrush.
Visually, as many of you may have noticed, initial removal of tamarisk and Russian olive can be quite dramatic. Due to the scope and densities of infestations, heavy equipment is often utilized to mulch trees across large acreages, leaving behind areas that some have likened to a “bomb blast” zone. And then there’s the issue of secondary weeds: some of our valley’s finest — including kochia, whitetop, Russian thistle, cheatgrass and perennial pepperweed — take a liking to these recently disturbed sites, often setting up shop in high-density.
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Restoring habitat along rivers and streams is typically a multi-staged event, with initial removal merely the first act. In addition to on-going monitoring and maintenance, treatment of tamarisk and Russian olive resprouts, secondary weed spraying, and revegetation with native plants are also key components, and ones that often require a phased approach. For example, in order to avoid damage to desired plant species, revegetation activities may need to be put on hold until completion of herbaceous weed spraying, a process that can last several growing seasons.
Fortunately, landowners and managers in the Grand Valley are no strangers to the hard work and ongoing attention that these projects require. And thanks to more flexible grant funding, managers are now able to better plan for the myriad steps, often required over a multi-year time frame, needed to achieve restoration success. ˆ
As an example, 24 acres of tamarisk and Russian olive were treated at the Connected Lakes Section of James M. Robb Colorado River State Park in the winter of 2013. Resprouts and secondary weeds were sprayed at various stages in 2014. Revegetation with native plants, including grasses, forbs, cottonwoods, willows, and various shrubs, occurred earlier this year, with monitoring and maintenance an ongoing priority. In a testament to the importance of monitoring, Pete Firmin, park manager, noted that 15 cottonwood trees were lost in a single weekend to beaver activity, prompting changes in how the trees were protected. Pete also noted that “patience and planning are important in restoration work. Throughout the process we encourage the public to visit these sites and talk with the area manager about the ongoing plans for the land.”
While some of your favorite areas in town may currently be looking a bit bare, rest assured that restoration actions to improve these riparian habitats for the betterment of the community are underway. The legacy of invasive species impacts can’t be erased overnight, but with time, great improvements in the structure, function, accessibility, and enjoyment of these areas can be realized.
If you are interested in touring local restoration sites up-close and personal, consider joining Tamarisk Coalition on their annual Raft-the-River trip on Aug. 23. Rimrock Adventure guides and hand-picked local river experts will provide an informative, fun float down the Colorado River with après dinner, drinks, live music, and prizes to boot. For more information on the raft trip or to learn more about local restoration projects, please contact Tamarisk Coalition at 970-256-7400 or visit http://www.tamariskcoalition.org.
Shannon Hatch is restoration coordinator for the Tamarisk Coalition. 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 http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center at http://www.Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or http://www.Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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