The river wilder

by Jodi Peterson

Just about every watershed in the West has streams and rivers in need of restoration. Both rural and urban waterways are damaged -- dried by drought, plugged by dams, polluted by livestock or factories, channeled off to farms and cities, or diverted into culverts and covered by cement.

Here in western Colorado, the Gunnison River flows through a 2,000-foot-deep canyon on its way to join the Colorado River. The Gunnison once carved the smoky-gray cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with a peak flow of 13,000 cubic feet per second. In 1965, though, the last of three dams reduced it to about 10 percent of that. But last fall, a long-awaited settlement between the Park Service, the state, and Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups gave the river rights to a big spring flood -- 6,000 to 7,000 cfs, plus 85 days of high flow -- to help restore its natural state, not to mention its top-notch trout fishery.

On a mid-May morning, a dozen of us launched rafts into the lower river, just downstream of the park's boundary. At 3,000 cfs, it was at the tail end of its spring scouring. We floated past plentiful proof of the flood's benefits -- chocolate-colored water bearing nutrients from upstream; a gravel bottom washed free of sediment and ready for spawning trout; beaches swept free of weeds and debris and replenished with silt.

Clearly, all the Gunnison needed to start healing was more water. But in other areas, especially urban ones, damaged streams need more aggressive help. In this issue, writer Jeremy Miller traces the waterways of California's East Bay, where dozens of creeks have vanished, routed into culverts and even piped into sewers. Many of the communities atop those former streams are industrialized, polluted and impoverished. But a grassroots watershed movement is trying to resurrect both local waterways and local jobs.

There's another movement to restore watersheds in the West. Instead of urban activists and community leaders, though, this rural effort involves -- giant rodents. We noted traces of them along the Gunnison: chisel-pointed tree stumps, the slap of a broad, flat tail. Although beaver don't build dams in fast rivers like the Gunnison, they still help riparian health. In shallow streams, however, where their dams create big spreading ponds, they have a dramatic effect on habitat. Kevin Taylor takes us to a "beaver restoration" conference in Washington, where we discover how beaver dams can delay the release of snowmelt, rebuild wetlands and raise the water table. And he introduces us to some "beaver believers" who want to restore the animal throughout the West. 

Not that it's always easy. Farther down the Gunnison, we noticed one unfortunate side effect of beavers -- a line of cottonwood saplings planted by the Bureau of Land Management, now reduced to bleached, pointy sticks. Apparently, one river restorationist can easily undo the work of another. Does that mean you can't always leave it to beaver?

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