Colorado River restoration offers a lesson in collaboration 

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 the local agricultural and recreational economies.

That's why, over the years, it's been so hard for me to see the river so 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.

Besides helping on the family ranch, I'm also a fly-fishing guide here in the valley, and over time it became clear to me that a restored river would be a valuable asset for our community and state.

A few years ago, I saw an opportunity to fix our own irrigation problems while also improving the river as a wildlife habitat. My family's ranch is in one of the few traditional agricultural communities remaining in Colorado. Like most ranchers, we're independent folks. In a pinch, though, we know we can count on one another, so when the community members got together to talk about the river, we agreed on the need for action, and we started looking for partners and applying for grants.

Eventually, 11 private ranches along with the Bureau of Land Management and a group I belong to called Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling, or ILVK, received funding for a pilot project to restore a riffle-pool structure on one 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, 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.

click to enlarge opinion_coloradoriver.jpg

The partners made plans to build the Windy Gap reservoir bypass and restore habitat immediately downstream of the reservoir. For our part, the ILVK put together an ambitious proposal for restoring a significant stretch of the Upper Colorado River in our valley. All of these were pieces of the larger puzzle of restoring the Upper Colorado.

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 the ILVK project forward, which will improve local irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado.

Under the plan, the ILVK will install several innovative in-stream structures designed to improve water levels for irrigation as well as rebuild riffles and pools to enhance critical river habitat. Our efforts will have greater impact in concert with our partners' river projects upstream. A crucial piece involves restoring approximately one mile of the Colorado River's former channel, which is 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 during low-flow conditions.

Restoring part of the river is a long haul. I've been attending river-related meetings for 17 years and have been involved with improvement projects for four so far. The ILVK project combines two of my greatest passions—agriculture sustainability and river health. It is true that we've already had moments of struggle over design issues, dealing with early frost during construction, and timing the work and funding to accommodate the needs of area landowners. Somehow, though, we always find a way forward.

What I've learned from this work is 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.

Paul Bruchez is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a rancher near Kremmling, Colorado.

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