The mighty Colorado faces challenges

The Colorado River, flowing 1,450 miles and supplying water to millions of people, plants and animals, begins in our backyard. It is up to us to ensure the quality and quantity of the headwaters. The Eagle River Watershed Council is here to help the community accomplish just that. 
Special to the Daily

The mighty Colorado. Its very name makes some nostalgic, others wishful of adventure and, still others, fearful. Whatever your feelings, we are lucky to have about 55 miles of the Colorado River flowing through our county. Not to mention the Eagle River is a significant headwaters tributary to the Colorado River, and many of us recreate on and/or near the Colorado River.

However, it is not a river without challenges, as drought, aridification, climate change, and human activities reduce flows and change the timing of hydrologic events. There are images everywhere of the “bathtub rings” in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, showing how low both of these water storage areas are, despite this big water year. And newspapers throughout the west have been reporting about the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan that was created through extensive work by the seven states in the Colorado River basin and signed by the President in April.

The Audubon Society said, “The DCP and Minute 323, the companion drought agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, are both agreements that represent a bridge strategy between the old ways of doing business on the Colorado River and the new ways that water users must adopt as the drought continues and the climate warms.”

The Watershed Council participates in the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which, as stated on its website, represents “the various water interests within the Colorado River Basin so that we can work together to solve water-related needs for the future of the basin and the state.”

Here in Eagle County, we see additional and different threats for the Colorado River. These were identified in the Colorado River Inventory and Assessment that we drafted with Colorado State University in 2014. CRIA highlighted the need to improve habitat for native trout on several tributaries such as Red Dirt Creek and the Piney River.

Examples of such improvements include stream bank reconstruction, decommissioning of old roads and campsites that otherwise introduce sediment to adjacent streams, and revegetation using locally-harvested willows and trees. The Watershed Council has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and National Forest Foundation to implement these habitat improvement projects on Red Dirt Creek, and together, we will complete a similar habitat restoration project on Piney River this summer. These Colorado River tributaries have a significant impact on the river’s mainstem, as problems always flow downstream.

The vegetated area around a stream, or riparian area, plays many critical roles, including filtering pollution from the water and providing habitat. Unfortunately, human activity, such as recreation, roads, homes and more, have removed significant riparian areas. CRIA outlined a number of locations where the riparian areas should be restored along the Colorado River, and we have worked with private property owners to begin these restoration efforts and will continue to do so.

Noxious weeds and trees, particularly tamarisk and Russian olive, along our county’s portion of the Colorado River are a constant threat to habitat quality, have a voracious need for water, and out-compete our native plants. We work with the BLM to monitor for these invasive trees and will be out in the coming weeks identifying trees for removal.

The Upper Colorado River Wild & Scenic Alternative Management Plan will be fully implemented in 2020. The Watershed Council is an active stakeholder in this collaborative partnership aimed at balancing permanent protection of the Outstandingly Remarkable Values along the Upper Colorado River, while also providing flexibility for water users.

Partnerships, collaborations and an engaged community are all critical to protecting water rights, river health, recreation, agriculture, and our way of life here in Eagle County. The Watershed Council encourages you to stay in tune with national and local efforts to protect the Colorado River, which will ultimately protect the surrounding habitats, people, recreation, and economies of the western US.

Our newsletter, newspaper articles, and Watershed Wednesday series are tools available to help you stay informed, and our volunteer projects allow you to actively engage in the restoration of the Colorado and Eagle River Watersheds. Learn more at http://www.erwc.org.

Holly Loff is the executive director for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on August 21, 2019

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