Grand County rivers experience impacts from human activity from both sides of the Continental Divide. But thanks to agreements between East Slope water diverters and West Slope environmental interest groups, an adaptive management approach to solving issues that impact the rivers in Grand County, called Learning By Doing, is in place. This approach pays no attention to who is impacting our rivers, but instead focuses on the science of where our rivers show the most stress and what science-based solutions we can use to address those problems.
Learning by Doing (LBD) couldn’t have a more appropriate name. It takes a lot of learning to do what is right for a river system. LBD is comprised of representatives from seven organizations from both sides of the Divide. Partners in LBD include Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservation District (both utilities supply water from Grand County to the East Slope), the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Middle Park Water Conservancy District, Grand County and Trout Unlimited. LBD meetings are also attended by non-voting members like the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and Grand County Water Users.
The goal of LBD is to maintain and, where possible, restore and enhance the health of the rivers in Grand County. One way that it achieves this is through weekly communication with the water diverters from spring through fall. The Operations Subcommittee of LBD takes on this responsibility. In the three years that LBD has been in operation, both Northern Water and Denver Water have altered how and when they divert water to help with stream temperature problems on the Colorado and Fraser Rivers, as well as on tributaries, such as Ranch Creek. In 2017, no water was diverted from Ranch Creek during peak runoff so that it could receive a healthy flushing flow. This flush removed sediments that settle on the streambed during low flows and impact trout spawning areas.
Another important subcommittee of LBD prepares and implements an annual monitoring program. LBD spends thousands of dollars to monitor many aspects of river health. Some of the most telling tests for stream health include water temperature, sediment transport and fish and bug counts. It takes serious dedication from knowledgeable scientists to design and implement the stream monitoring program. Without good data, LBD would not have the information needed to improve the health of our rivers.
It is this science that led to the stream restoration work done on a 1-mile section of the Fraser River in the flat, open-meadow section just above the Devils Thumb Road. LBD monitoring now tells us that the bug life just downstream of LBD’s Fraser Flats River Habitat Project is the healthiest on the Fraser River. These bugs are drifting downstream from the improved section. Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish counts also confirm a 400-percent increase in fish biomass in this area. This project also included an extensive willow planting project to help re-establish a healthy riparian filter and shade for the river.
As part of Denver Water’s financial commitments to Grand County and LBD, Denver Water completed the first phase of its Williams Fork River Restoration Project in 2018 on a 0.88-mile section of river located below the Williams Fork Reservoir Dam. Future phases of this project include restoration near the inlet of the reservoir.
LBD has several river improvement projects in the planning stage now. One of these projects is the replacement of a leaky head gate on an irrigation ditch with a new head gate that has a fish screen. Hundreds of fish are presently getting caught in this ditch and dying when the ditch is shut off. This project also includes some work in the river to ensure fish passage.
Another project moving forward will improve cutthroat trout habitat up Cabin Creek. This project will connect and extend habitat, and allow fish to migrate upstream more easily.
Yet another project in the works is a stream restoration project on a combined section of BLM land and private property where the Fraser River becomes wide and shallow just below the Fraser Canyon.
This summer, LBD and our TU Colorado River Headwaters chapter will continue planting willows on a section of Ranch Creek that was impacted by poor ranching practices to provide bank stability and shade. Volunteers from the community will be needed on this river improvement project. We will harvest willow stakes on May 4th and plant them on May 18th and 19th. To volunteer to help with this project go to coheadwaters.org.