State of the River Part 4: Elk Creek Ranch develops best management practices for river health

RBC | “We care greatly about the river, and the entire valley. We feel like we’re good stewards of it,” said Brett Harvey, manager of Elk Creek Ranch (ECR) last week when discussing the health of the White River, and the persistent algae blooms of the last seven years. Having grown up in Meeker, and spending multiple decades as a dedicated angler, Harvey wanted to share his own perspective on the health of the river, along with more information about habitat enhancement work ECR has performed over the past 10 or so years.

“We’re good on summer habitat. We lack in overwintering deep water areas,” he said when discussing some of the reasoning behind the pool, riffle and tail-out structures built on the upper White river, the most recent of which were constructed in 2020.

Harvey explained that similar projects have been occurring in the White River and other rivers in an effort to improve fish habitat, though he noted that construction methods have been updated and refined over time. For example, the Elk Creek Ranch once had a total of 80 “cross-stream log structures” meant to impound water and create depth for fish to live in.

Many of these types of structures still exist in the river, including approximately 20 upriver from Elk Creek Ranch, in the Westland’s Ranch area.

“That is what we thought back then was what you needed, you’re increasing habitat by increasing depth.” said Harvey, adding that depth helps fish in various ways, especially lowering temperatures and providing a safe place during low streamflows. Over time however, cross stream log structures can become “inundated with silt,” and require some level of maintenance to keep functioning as intended. Impounding or “backing up” the natural flow of the stream can also slow down the water, potentially diminishing a “scouring” effect that takes place during runoff and other high-streamflow events. This scouring event has been identified as a potential mitigation event for algae, as it causes rock “tumbling” which can scrape existing algae from the streambed in the spring.

For these and other reasons, efforts have been made in recent years to remove many of the older cross-stream structures, especially at Elk Creek, but habitat improvement efforts as a whole haven’t stopped. Instead they have changed to reflect a more “natural, holistic approach.” Harvey referenced work since 2014 as examples of newer construction methods for fish habitat in the river.

Instead of putting logs across the river to impound water and establish pools, excavators instead dig out a section of the streambed to create depth. Dredged materials are then utilized to create “tail outs” which can also be beneficial for fish, especially during low streamflow conditions as they work to promote bug life and oxygenate the water. According to Harvey, fish this year have been seen occupying the tail-out areas just downstream from artificially dredged pools. He noted that ideally fish would be moving all around the habitat, but said they were able to make use of the tail-outs during the exceptionally low flows. The White River has been flowing below the 25th percentile historic flow for the last year.

Dredged materials are also used to construct “bars” along the streambank, which aside from providing a surface for anglers to stand on also contribute to the effort to maintain the natural geomorphology of the water channel. Since digging pools adds depth to the channel, artificially constructed bars on the bank are meant to reduce the width in an effort to maintain the natural, consistent flow of the river.

“Whether we create it or nature does, at any level it’s gonna channel that river there to where it’s naturally scouring. So it’s basically maintaining the sediment transport downstream, not filling in, and everything just works like a natural river,” said Harvey. He admitted that the pools may still contribute to reducing flow velocity, but said not nearly as much as older cross-stream structures. He also emphasized that the newer structures themselves were engineered to reflect natural features that would be created by natural processes, such as deposits created during major runoff/flood events.

Newer structures, like those built in the fall of 2020 are easy to notice, however those constructed in 2014 don’t stand out as much, such as one “bar,” which after six seasons of streamflow is now growing with small willows. The attached pool and riffle, however, can still be clearly observed in the water for those who look closely.

Though structures have been designed to reflect natural features created by high streamflow events, some still question how much they might contribute to the algae blooms. Harvey said he sees low stream flows and nutrients as more likely potential causes of blooms. “The river is warmer than it ever used to be, and for longer periods of time,” he explained, describing how heavy runoff events that used to take place in early June started occurring in April, and more recently in March. He says the early melting of a portion of the snowpack means more significant flow events are less likely to occur.

Referencing the presence of algae on the streambed, he said, “Maybe it’s always been there, and we had often-enough high flow events that scoured the river that kept it free of the bank-to-bank impact of algae.”

Harvey also talked about the efforts ECR takes to be aware of and mitigate its own impacts on the river. For example, they purchased a monitoring device known as a “SONDE,” to keep track of nutrients, temperatures and other metrics related to pond runoff flows which have been identified as a potential concern. According to Harvey, pond runoff is not contributing a significant amount of nutrients to the river, and he said ponds only heat up diverted water “a degree or two” before it re-enters the river. ECR has also discontinued the practice of aerial insecticide spraying, regardless of its impact on algae, since Harvey noted either way, “It can’t be good.” In general, he said Elk Creek has done their best to develop their own best management practices (BMPs).

“Fertilizer application around here we try to do it as minimally as possible, and do soil samples and pay attention to our own footprint, and we encourage everybody to. I think we should all go down that road,” said Harvey, though he acknowledged that not all landowners might be in the position to fully vet their own impacts on the health of the river. “Maybe the commissioners is where that should start, and maybe with the USGS information to back that up, we can initiate that after this fall, everybody doing a little bit more,” said Harvey.

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As part of this ongoing series we will look into more of the impacts of algae blooms in western Rio Blanco county, speaking with USGS scientists, examining the extent of river hydrological changes on the upper White River, and more.
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This reporting is partially funded by a grant from the CU Water Desk.