How collaboration can save the Colorado River

Different interests must align for a successful restoration.

 

Paul Bruchez is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a rancher who lives near Kremmling, Colorado.


The Colorado River runs through the heart of my family’s ranch near Kremmling, Colorado, 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 world-class 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.

Ranchers near Kremmling, Colorado, say they saw irrigation pumps dry out as their operations became unsustainable.
Russ Schnitzer

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.

Paul Bruchez on his ranch that depends on the Upper Colorado River.
Russ Schnitzer

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 one 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.

Repairing part of a river has been a long haul. I’ve been attending river-related meetings for 17 years and have been part of habitat improvements and pilot projects for four years. The ILVK Project has combined two of my greatest passions — agriculture sustainability and river health. It is true that we’ve had moments of struggle about design issues, dealing with early frost when we’re still building, and timing the contract work and funding to the immediate needs of landowners. Somehow, though, we’ve always found a way to move forward.

What have I learned from this project? That the interests of ranchers and farmers can align with the interests of conservation groups, state agencies, water providers and other river users. 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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.