It can take a vil­lage to re­store a river

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Paul Bruchez Paul Bruchez is a con­trib­u­tor to Writ­ers on the Range, the opin­ion ser­vice of High Coun­try News.

The Colorado River runs through the heart of my fam­ily’s ranch near Kremm­ling, where I live and work, so we have first­hand knowl­edge of the im­por­tance of wa­ter. Our fam­ily’s ir­ri­gated mead­ows and live­stock op­er­a­tion de­pend on it, and it’s the com­mon cur­rency of both our lo­cal agri­cul­ture and re­cre­ation econ­omy.

That’s why, over the years, it’s been so hard for me to see the river sharply de­cline. For decades, wa­ter util­i­ties on the Front Range have been pump­ing wa­ter from the Up­per Colorado, lead­ing to dev­as­tat­ing im­pacts on the health of the river. Lower flows spiked wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and silted in the river bot­tom. This smoth­ered in­sect life, dam­ag­ing the river ecosys­tem and what had been a world­class trout fish­ery. Agri­cul­ture also suf­fered as river lev­els dropped. My fam­ily and other ranch­ers in the val­ley saw ir­ri­ga­tion pumps left high and dry as our op­er­a­tions be­came un­sus­tain­able.

Re­cre­ation is an­other im­por­tant part of our lo­cal econ­omy. Be­sides help­ing on the fam­ily ranch, I’m also a fly-fish­ing guide here in the val­ley, and it be­came clear to me that a re­stored river could be a much more valu­able as­set for our com­mu­nity and state.

A few years ago, I saw an op­por­tu­nity to fix our ir­ri­ga­tion prob­lems while also im­prov­ing river and wildlife habi­tat. My fam­ily’s ranch is in one of the most in­tact tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties re­main­ing in Colorado. Like most ranch­ers, we’re in­de­pen­dent folks. In a pinch, though, we know we can count on each other, so when those of us on the land got to­gether to talk about the river, we agreed on the need for ac­tion, and we started look­ing for part­ners.

We ap­plied for some grants, and 11 pri­vate ranches along with the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment and a group called Ir­ri­ga­tors of Lands in the Vicin­ity of Kremm­ling, or ILVK for short, re­ceived fund­ing for a pi­lot project to re­store a rif­fle-pool struc­ture on a stretch of the river. It was an ex­cit­ing start. But given the scale of the prob­lems, we needed to think big­ger.

We grad­u­ally added a va­ri­ety of part­ners, in­clud­ing Trout Un­lim­ited, Amer­i­can Rivers, the Colorado Basin Round­table and the Colorado Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Board, Grand County Gov­ern­ment, North­ern Wa­ter, Den­ver Wa­ter, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Up­per Colorado River Al­liance, the Colorado River District and other river stake­hold­ers.

All of them helped us to see new op­por­tu­ni­ties and think big­ger.

These part­ners were work­ing to build the Windy Gap reser­voir by­pass and re­store habi­tat im­me­di­ately down­stream of the reser­voir. For our part, the ILVK part­ners put to­gether an am­bi­tious pro­posal for restor­ing a sig­nif­i­cant stretch of the Up­per Colorado River in our val­ley. All of these were pieces in the larger puz­zle of restor­ing the Up­per Colorado River.

Last De­cem­ber, the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Nat­u­ral Re­sources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice rec­og­nized that big vi­sion, award­ing the part­ners $7.75 mil­lion un­der its Re­gional Con­ser­va­tion Part­ner­ship Pro­gram. That money will help build the by­pass and move for­ward with the ILVK project, im­prov­ing ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems and re­vers­ing the de­cline in wa­ter qual­ity and fish habi­tat in the head­wa­ters of the Colorado River.

Un­der the plan, the ILVK group will in­stall sev­eral in­no­va­tive in-stream struc­tures de­signed to im­prove wa­ter lev­els for ir­ri­ga­tion while en­hanc­ing crit­i­cal river habi­tat by re­build­ing rif­fles and pool struc­ture. Our ef­forts will have greater im­pact in con­cert with our part­ners’ river projects up­stream. A cru­cial piece will in­volve restor­ing ap­prox­i­mately 1 mile of the Colorado River’s former chan­nel cur­rently in­un­dated by Windy Gap Reser­voir. This am­bi­tious by­pass project will re­con­nect the river — for the first time in decades — and im­prove ri­par­ian habi­tat in the head­wa­ters area. An ad­di­tional project, the Colorado River Habi­tat Restora­tion Project, will im­prove the river chan­nel down­stream of the reser­voir.

To­gether with our ILVK Project, these projects, when fully im­ple­mented, will di­rectly ben­e­fit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of ir­ri­gated lands. They will also make avail­able up to 11,000 acre-feet of wa­ter to im­prove the river dur­ing low-flow con­di­tions.

The Colorado River flows through all of our lives. By work­ing to­gether, we can find smart, cre­ative so­lu­tions that keep the Colorado healthy and work­ing for all

of us.

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