River management workshop highlights ways and means for improving river health

The river trailer, demonstrating how water flows in rivers. Showcases where the main energy is, how water is highly erosive, how energy can be dissipated, and the importance of vegetation and roots. Kaitlyn Vaux, TU/NRCS Partner biologist explaining how to determine where the main flow of water, carrying the most energy, is located in rivers. TIFFANY JEHOREK | HERALD TIMES

RBC | Rivers wind their way across our landscape, a delivery system for inland water, irrigation water for the food our farmers grow, drinking water for humans and animals, and habitat for wildlife.

“Ninety percent of the riparian areas have been lost in the west in the last 300 years,” commented Drew Varner of RiversEdge West during last week’s river management workshop in Meeker. “Only one percent of western lands are considered riparian,” he continued.
In Rio Blanco County the water flows to three different drainages: the Yampa River, the Colorado River, but primarily the White River. The workshop, framed as an educational and informational seminar on western river systems and specifically the White, was the first of many the organization hopes to conduct in the White River watershed. The focus of the workshop was invasives management, tamarisk beetle as an effective control, grazing and riparian area management, White River updates, and landowner funding and technical resources.
Varner, the workshop facilitator, opened the day discussing the importance of invasives management to riparian restoration. Healthy ecosystems have vegetative diversity that creates stability both horizontally and vertically in riparian areas. The height, structure and density of the vegetation and its roots allows for sediment and nutrients carried in overland flow to be trapped, acting as a filtration system for water quality. That vegetation can withstand the erosive forces of water, and holds the soil in place. Varner discussed the response of riparian systems to invasive species. “The loss of diversity narrows and deepens [water] channels,” he said. When this happens the water no longer has access to its floodplain, energy cannot be dissipated and a cycle of erosion ensues.
Controlling invasives at the onset, when the overall composition is low, is key to both financial feasibility and to retaining a functioning system. Dan Bean and Nina Louden with the Palisade Insectary presented information on the Tamarisk Beetle and tamarisk (an invasive plant) control methodologies, and releases that have been conducted in Rio Blanco County. “A tool among many tools,” said Louden, “the beetles are episodic but working well on Douglas Creek.” The beetles typically remove 50 percent of the total canopy of the plant; while this does not kill the plant, flowering declines which decreases the spread and depletes the root system which improves the habitat of the valuable fungi in the soil so the desired plants can thrive.
The discussion on managing proper riparian vegetation continued with “Grazing and Riparian Area Management” by Paul Meiman with Colorado State University Extension. Meiman provided information on the importance of proper management of grazers in riparian areas. He focused on the “time and timing,” of grazing and how monitoring is necessary to ensure the plants have ample opportunity to regrow; that while riparian systems and vegetation are resilient, every time it is grazed the root system decreases, thus decreasing its ability to be effective in holding the soil and acting as a filtration system.
There were two hands-on representations and demonstrations, presented by Kaitlyn Vaux, a partner biologist with Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, that tied the vegetative discussions together by depicting the function and importance of vegetation in riparian systems. The rainfall simulator and river trailer showcased how root systems are effective at improving infiltration rates, cover is important for surface water filtration, and bare soil is highly erosive and soil detaches readily. The river trailer demonstrated the interaction between soil, water and vegetation, the flows of water and its associated energy, and how management decisions affect both upstream and downstream riparian corridors.
Management decisions and changes are sometimes not sufficient for riparian restoration. A panel of speakers consisting of Chris Sturm with the Colorado Conservation Board, Tawny Halandras with Colorado Cattleman’s Agriculture Land Trust, Tiffany Jehorek with Natural Resources Conservation Service, Hal Pearce with Rio Blanco County Weed and Pest Control, Bob Timberman with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Wildlife Program and Aaron True with Trout Unlimited focused on funding sources that each had to offer. A wide variety of grants and easements available to assist with local riparian management and restoration, which can be some of the costliest land management to conduct.
Shifting the focus to local management, Alden Vanden Brink with the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District discussed the management of the White River watershed. The White River and Rio Blanco County are unique in that the primary source of underground water is from alluvial flow, or the underground return flows to the river. Areas along the White River that flatten out have pools of water under them and are a source of domestic water. Irrigation ditch systems, some of which have been in place since 1876, augment the alluvium.
“We are surviving on return flows,” commented Vanden Brink, “there is no additional water available to develop.” Irrigation efficiency improvements without proper assessment to the impacts of alluvial flow have the potential to be detrimental to late season flows, fish habitat and domestic water sources, specifically the Town of Rangely. He stressed the importance of knowing what effect actions have on return flows before implementation. Vanden Brink presented a “short” list of 20 studies completed on the White River and discussed the new White River Management Plan. The plan will utilize some of the existing studies, as well as the algae study and others to assist riparian and water managers with decisions that impact the White River.
“If we don’t do something, someone will do it for us,” Vanden Brink said.
The White River is not a Colorado centric river, it flows many miles in Utah before it reaches the confluence of the Green River. The fisheries downstream of Kenney Reservoir have a significant population of endangered fish, while the fisheries upstream of Kenney are unique because of the native whitefish. Mike Fiorelli with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and David Graf with Colorado Parks and Wildlife discussed these differences and the importance of management of the riparian corridor on their habitat.
Continuing in Utah and discussing successes, Jerrad Goodell with the Green River District BLM and Dave Bastian with the Utah Conservation Corps presented how vegetation management and monitoring is being conducted in the lower White River corridor to determine invasive species control effectiveness. Followed by Wally Macfarlane of Utah State University and Justin Jiminez with Utah BLM who discussed how to prioritize stream and riparian restoration at the watershed scale and current projects in Utah.
Varner wrapped up the day with a proposal on the formation of the Lower White River Watershed Group, a collaboration across state lines. A mechanism for restoration, partnership, structure, funding, setting goals and tracking progress, the group would consist of stakeholders on the lower White River. Once organized it would determine where to start invasive control, build trust and relationships, and foster collaboration. For more information on RiversEdge West, or the Lower White River Watershed, including contact information, please visit riversedgewest.org. Partners, helping to set the agenda for the River Management Workshop, were the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and Douglas Creek and White River Conservation Districts. Sponsors of the workshop were Colorado Water Conservation Board, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado State University.

By Tiffany Jehorek | Special to the Herald Times

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