The river wilder

 

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?

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921