Pair of beavers return to headwaters

Photo courtesy of Eli Smith

Mimicking beaver activity, volunteers have been working for weeks in Colorado’s high country. A grant from Forever Our Rivers helped Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Advocates recruit 55 energetic volunteers who helped wetland ecologists build more than 70 beaver mimicry structures at the headwaters of the Taylor River.

Students from Western Colorado University joined as well to participate in academic workshops centered around low-tech process-based restoration methods. Using sod, willows and conifers sourced on-site, these natural dams attenuate spring runoff which can contribute to later season flows. This was the second year of a multi-year collaborative effort located in the headwaters of the Gunnison River along Trail Creek in Taylor Park. The team, which includes the US Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the National Forest Foundation and Gunnison County, was very pleased to see that two beavers have already returned to the valley, improving upon human-built beaver mimicry structures that were constructed last season. 

By partnering with beaver to restore these natural ecosystems, the project aims to improve watershed and landscape-scale resilience to drought, flood and wildfire in the face of climate change. Beaver ponds not only store carbon and recharge the aquifer, they provide critical habitat for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. “This project has had an immediate, positive impact”, said Eli Smith, stewardship director. Due to the effective impact of volunteers, restoration goals were met before the anticipated end date.


The Colorado River: Struggling to Keep the Lifeline Flowing

drying river near lake mead
Drying Colorado River

Everyone needs fresh waterand rivers are the lifeline to thriving communities. That’s why the Colorado River is in the spotlight. With all of its water fully allocated, it is one of the most controlled and litigated rivers in the world.

While the nightly news focuses mostly on the Colorado River compact, which affects water usage in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, there is another intriguing story developing along the river’s delta.

Prior to the building of dams, the Colorado River flowed into the Sea of Cortez. The interaction of the river’s flow and the ocean’s tide created a very dynamic environment that supported a diversity of habitats, including marshes and mudflats. There were wet forests with cypress trees, cottonwoods and willows, and sandy beaches. The delta was a key stopover for hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway.  

Historically, the estuary received about 14 million acre-feet of water each year. Now, on a good day, the estuary receives less than one percent of that. On a bad day, it receives none. 

The very first dam on the Colorado was the Laguna Dam, completed in 1909. In total, there are now 15 dams on the main stem of the Colorado River and hundreds more on tributaries. The Colorado delta in Mexico is now a mostly dry stream, due in part to water diversion, higher temperatures and the spread of invasive plants. Many species that depended on the delta’s wetlands are now listed as endangered, including the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the razorback suckers. Local children no longer swim in the river and tribes, such as the Cucapá tribe, travel further to fish which is their primary source of food and income.

But there is good news.

Conservationists, ecologists and river champions in the U.S. and Mexico are restoring a portion of the wetlands and riparian forests along the path where the Colorado River once flowed. And, they’re seeing success.

Negotiations between binational leaders, individual farmers and nonprofits resulted in lower levels of diversion so that more water stays in the rivers. Nonprofits like the Sonoran Institute have acquired water rights, which they too keep instream. Cottonwoods and willows are coming back, birds are returning and fish are spawning. Southwestern Willow Flycatchers have been found again within the newly grown cottonwoods. Endangered fish, like the pupfish, razorback suckers and the bonytail are beginning to be restocked.  And groups throughout the upper and lower basins, including Forever Our Rivers, are working hard to remove widespread invasive plants like the tamarisk, which uses an extraordinary amount of water, adds salt to the soil, and increases fire danger.

This video shot by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year demonstrates some of the delta’s successes.  “We are showing people it’s possible to restore nature with a lot of will, a lot of work from scientists and the community”, said Gabriela Gonzalez-Olimon, environmental education coordinator for the Sonoran Institute. 

There is hope.

You can help Forever Our Rivers work in many tributaries of the Colorado River, including the Gunnison and Dolores rivers of Colorado, the Escalante River in Utah, and the Gila and Verde Rivers in Arizona. Support the work here.

Switching crops, saving rivers

Photo courtesy of Chip Norton

Chip Norton is happiest when he is out on the river. While his passion for kayaking has taken him throughout the western US and Alaska, he is the first to admit that it is the Verde River, his home river, that remains his favorite.

The Verde is one of Arizona’s few remaining perennial rivers. It is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife, including at least 270 species of birds. The willows and cottonwoods, Arizona’s rarest forest type, give way to the pale-colored sandstone.

Chip Norton enjoying time on the river

Spending time on the river navigating the spring run-off energizes Chip. Floating past the lush expanse of plants and spotting bobcat, deer and bald eagles inspires him with awe.

He remembers one summer day back in 1990—when the water level was so low that he could not go for a paddle. “Plus, the water smelled like sewage,” he said. He could not ignore his concern that the river might eventually dry up. That day, he did the only thing that made sense from his perspective. He decided to act.

Doing something so few do, Chip retired at the age of 58 to begin his second career as a full-time community volunteer inspired to conserve rivers.

Chip is not a river ecologist, and he did not have a background in conservation. Yet he is a diligent problem solver and a man who likes to think big. The Verde River could not have asked for a more committed river champion.

He started by founding Friends of Verde River Greenway, a non-profit that brings people together to restore riparian habitat. Friends of Verde Greenway evolved into Friends of the Verde River, working at a watershed scale on river conservation including flow restoration, sustainable river recreation and groundwater issues.

After a decade focusing on restoration, Chip became interested in irrigation practices that used less water. In 2016, he collaborated with The Nature Conservancy and Hauser & Hauser Farms on a pilot project to improve summer river flow by switching to crops that used less water in the summer.

That is when the idea for Sinagua Malt was born. Chip consulted his friend Steve Ayers on the feasibility of a malting operation, and Steve immediately joined him as a founding director. Local conservationist Bob Rothrock soon joined them.

Using barley for malting has two significant benefits over traditional crops like corn and alfalfa. First, it consumes less water. Second, the highest water need for growing barley occurs in March, when the Verde experiences peak flow. “Barley doesn’t need any water after Memorial Day,” said Chip. “With drought and climate change, that’s just as important as using less water.”

Chip then boldly dipped into his retirement savings to build a small-scale malt house that processed locally grown two-row barley into malted barley. He also had to step up to the plate and learn to malt himself. Several craft brewers declared the malt tasty and became his first customers.

Sinagua Malt has been successful and recently expanded its operations. When asked about the key to project success, Chip said simply, “There was always a time when any one of us working on this project could have quit. But we just didn’t quit.”

Today, Sinagua Malt is a benefit corporation committed to distributing at least 5% of its profits to support river conservation. Hauser and Hauser Farms has converted more acreage to barley, as have other farmers in the watershed. This expansion of crop conversion acreage is largely the work of The Nature Conservancy, without whom this project could not have happened.

Chip’s quest to save his local river led him to a team effort that has saved and will continue to save, millions of gallons of water for the Verde River.

“Seeing improved summer flow through Camp Verde is immensely rewarding,” said Chip. “Despite extreme drought conditions, the Verde River in Camp Verde has enough flow this summer to support farmers and recreationists.”

Interested in learning more? Watch this video.

Giant reed a massive menace along the Verde River

“Before” – Friends of the Verde River

One of Arizona’s few remaining perennial rivers, the Verde, is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife. Nearly half of the state’s bald eagle nest territories are located along the river. Roughly 10 percent of Arizona’s rarest forest type—the species-rich Fremont Cottonwood/Goodding Willow habitat—can be found along its banks.

The upper Verde is still relatively remote and isolated. As is flows south, it winds its way through the beautiful and arid landscape southwest of Sedona, Arizona. Its flow provides a lush, green corridor of plants and is home to at least 270 species of birds, 94 species of mammals and 76 species of native amphibians and reptiles. Over 60 miles of the river is federally protected under the Wild & Scenic Act.

Yet the Verde River is in danger of running dry.

For the second year in a row, Forever Our Rivers provided a grant to Friends of the Verde River to help them remove giant reed (Arundo donax), along Oak Creek, which flows into the middle Verde from the east.

One of the fastest-growing terrestrial plants in the world, giant reed competes with native cottonwood and willow for moisture, suppressing the success of native seedlings. Giant reed’s stem and leaves contain a variety of nasty chemicals, rendering it unsuitable as food or nesting habitat for wildlife. It offers less shade than cottonwood and willows, contributing to higher water temperatures. And even worse, dense, woody stands of giant reed are very susceptible to high-intensity wildfire.

“Wildfire is typically rare along rivers. However, it is becoming more common around the state,” said Willie Sommers, invasive plant program coordinator of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, who partners with Friends of the Verde. “Removing giant reed checks a lot of boxes—improved wildlife habitat, reduced risk of wildfire and improved access for recreation,” Sommers said.

Neighboring landowner Dean Bowen agrees. “We had a fire across the creek in Cornville that exploded to about 1,500 acres in a matter of three or four hours,” said Bowen. Shortly thereafter, he and his neighbors instituted a community evacuation call system, just in case.

Friends of the Verde collaborates with the department and Arizona Conservation Corps, Verde Earth Technologies and Conservation Legacy field crews. Together they monitor previously infested areas of the watershed and treat any resprouts, leveraging previous investments of $4.5 million and months of efforts on more than 10,500 riparian acres.

Forever Our Rivers funding will support treatments on 15 river miles of Oak Creek. “There is very limited water—and every drop is important,” said Tracy Stephens, program director for Friends of the Verde River. “There is no room for noxious plants.”

“Removal of Giant Reed” – Friends of the Verde River

Collaboration Creates Big Win for Rivers

Photo by Alex Cogbill @local_color_studio_gallery

River enthusiasts across Colorado celebrated National River’s month with an “Outstanding Waters” protection for the headwaters of Taylor River and lower Soap Creek, which feeds into Blue Mesa Reservoir.  

The designation was awarded by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in June, following a rigorous three-year process. The Southwest Colorado Outstanding Waters Coalition put forth the proposal, in collaboration with local, state and national water conservationists.  

An impressive total of 520 river miles in the Gunnison, Upper Dolores, San Juan, San Miguel and Animas watersheds were permanently protected.

The Outstanding Waters award is focused on water quality. Among other criteria, water must be of “exceptional recreational or ecological significance”. While downstream users benefit from the high-quality water, the designation does not affect their water rights.    

More information can be found in this article published by the Gunnison Country Times.

Forever Our Rivers grants $200,000 to key tributaries of the Colorado

Rivers are easy to exploit and it’s not just plastic and fertilizers that are damaging rivers across the Southwest. Invasive species are also particularly troublesome. 

One path to keep our rivers flowing is to remove invasive species and nurture native species back to their home.

Burn, cut. Poison. Dig and pull. Repeat. If only it was that easy.

Forever Our Rivers is pleased to announce its spring grant awards of $200,000 given to four nonprofits hard at work removing invasive plants in key tributaries to the Colorado: the Dolores, Verde, Gila and Escalante rivers that flow through Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

The invasive tamarisk tree is one of the biggest challenges to healthy rivers. Native to Europe and Asia, this ornamental was brought to the US in the 1800s, valued for its pretty, delicate flowers and the filtering shade it brings on a hot afternoon in the desert. Today, it has taken over nearly one million acres in the Southwest.

Crews of youth and veterans spend long days in rugged terrain under the hot desert sun working to eradicate invasives. Burn, cut. Poison. Dig and pull. Repeat—for years.

Tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, is problematic because it pushes out native species like cottonwood trees, which have palatable seeds and thick limbs which are perfect for large birds like raptors and woodpeckers.

Tamarisk poisons the soil with salt which accumulates in its tissues and then seeps into the ground, so even after it is removed, native plants have trouble getting re-established. And, tamarisk uses more water per acre than the natives, dwindling surface- and ground-water along rivers and wetlands.

The consequences of not protecting rivers are very real and challenging—polluted waters, lack of protection from floods and less flows for wildlife and household use.

Fortunately, Forever Our Rivers and our partners are dedicated to making a difference. Through grants from our Southwest River Stewardship Fund we amplify the work of RiversEdge West, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, Gila Watershed Partnership and Friends of the Verde River.   

Crews are making progress removing invasive species and, in conjunction with the University of Utah, we’re collecting and analyzing data to help determine, and share, the most effective treatments. This not only helps with future efforts but leverages the tens of millions of dollars already spent on river restoration in the Southwest.

Costs to monitor and maintain native species have escalated significantly this year. If you’d like to help us get this important work accomplished, donate here or contact Ann Johnston, executive director of Forever Our Rivers, for more information.

Why do native species matter?

Along the lower Colorado, thickets of invasive species have crowded out native trees including one of the rarest and most threatened forests in the US—the cottonwood/Gooding willow forest.

Cottonwood-willow habitat is species rich—meaning that hundreds of birds, mammals and amphibians rely on it for food, shelter and breeding. Without it, many of these species may not survive.

Birds, including the Gila woodpecker, rely on the dense, high foliage of cottonwoods and willows for food and breeding, neither of which is provided by the tamarisk.

A medium-sized noisy extrovert, the Gila’s flight is typical of most woodpeckers, with bursts of quick flapping followed by short glides. In flight, you can identify them by an obvious white patch on their wings. Their bellies are a beautiful golden yellow and the males sport a delightful bright red cap.

Cottonwood-willow forests are also a key source of food for beavers. Known as ecosystem engineers, they increase biological diversity where they live. For example, using willow branches they build dams to spread and direct water. They also clear obstacles and create trails, which helps them transport materials to their lodges or escape from predators.

Congratulations Erica Nelson!

Erica Nelson in one of her happy places, on the river.

We’d like to congratulate Erica Nelson on her recent feature in The New York Times! Erica is a fly fishing guide, diversity and inclusivity consultant, and host of the Awkward Angler Podcast. She’s also an ambassador for one of our nonprofit partners and 2020 grantees, Brown Folks Fishing.

The first episode of the Our Rivers Podcast features Erica’s work to improve equity in the fishing industry with the Angling for All Pledge, as described in the article. We highly recommend learning more about Erica and checking out the New York Times article, which includes gems like:

In Diné culture, there’s a concept called “living in Hohzo,” a philosophy of striving for a balance that encompasses beauty, order and harmony.

I try to have a reciprocal relationship with fly fishing. 

I see a lot of people in the sport and industry wanting to take. When I’m on the water, I want to show up as my full self and maybe give back too. I want that for everyone.

Erica Nelson

A Fly Fishing Rod and Reel For Rivers

If you’re going to invest in fly fishing, shouldn’t you invest in rivers? We’ve collaborated with SaraBella Fishing and Abel Reels to build a Forever Our Rivers fly rod and reel combo. For every package sold, over $650 goes back to rivers.

The rod is a 9’5 weight with a medium-fast action. It’s metallic charcoal gray with gold, deep blue and white threads that are hand-wrapped in Colorado by veterans and survivors. The reel seat is hand-lathed, locally sourced Russian olive, an invasive tree that plagues the west. And the Abel reel is a deep metallic blue with a golden drag knob and our signature wave in white. 

You can visit SaraBella’s website to customize your rod, or pass the word along to your favorite fishing buddies.