For the love of beavers

Beavers are in the news these days—and for good reason. According to recent research, their dam-building skills could be key to helping our rivers and watersheds become more climate resilient. It may be strange to think about one of the world’s largest rodents as a working-class superhero. But, the fact is, this keystone species is a hardworking ecosystem engineer. 

Before the 1600s, the United States had approximately 221 million acres of wetlands and beavers roamed in almost every region that had streams and creeks. After the Europeans settled in North America, rivers were channelized by canals and dams, drying wetlands for  agriculture, utilities and homes. At the same time, beavers were trapped for their valuable pelts. The landscape began to dry dramatically and beavers were almost driven to extinction. In the 1980s the United States was down to 103 million acres of wetlands, which has only continued to decline.  

Wetlands are critically important because they improve water quality and supply by filtering contaminants, enhancing soil moisture and recharging groundwater. Beavers enhance wetlands by building dams, which slow water flow across floodplains, reducing the likelihood of flooding and helping landscapes survive forest fires. Who knew that was another one of their superhero abilities? 

Fire can not spread easily on land filled with water, mud or well-hydrated vegetation. Past studies have shown that after large wildfires most of the large beaver wetlands were still green and healthy. Areas without beavers averaged three times more damage than those with beavers present. It’s pretty amazing and beneficial for other wildlife that can’t outrun the flames. 

Fortunately, humans can help beavers make a comeback by creating beaver dam analogs on relic wetlands. This is especially important in the West as the climate warms and dries. These simple dam analogs have proven effective in slowing flows and enticing beavers back to historic wetlands. Given enough time, the beavers create lush riparian habitat ideal for fish, deer, elk, moose, swans and other birds.

In 2022, Forever Our Rivers helped fund a transformative project at Trail Creek, the headwaters of the Gunnison River—a tributary to the Colorado River. Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Alliance partnered with the USFS and the National Forest Foundation to build more than 150 beaver dams at Trail Creek using willows, conifer and mud. The dams began to rewet 30 acres of historic wetlands. The bonus of this hard work was that two beavers found their way back to the area, finding it suitable for residence. The best ending to the story will be watching these beavers as they work, maintaining the wetlands for years to come.

While the beaver’s work can be a nuisance to some humans, the benefits of beavers are substantial. The love for beavers is continuing to grow nationwide as more people become aware of the need for their partnership. 

Plus, they are cute, right? Even with their orange teeth. 

Endangered but oh so loved

The Colorado River provides water to more than forty million people in two countries, seven states, and twenty-nine Native American tribes. Even though it’s endangered, it is still one of the nation’s most beloved and relied-upon rivers. 

Want to know more? 

Check out these 17 interesting facts by Inspirich and then tell us what you found most fascinating—we’d love to know! 

Atmospheric rivers keeping Western U.S. wet

A Pineapple Express deluges California with wind and rain while abundant snowfall accumulates throughout the upper Colorado River Basin.

Over the last several weeks, a series of atmospheric rivers have battered California. These storms ultimately reach the high country, bringing much-needed snow to mountain peaks. 

Like a river moving water over land, these long, flowing streams of water vapor are transported by atmospheric winds. An important component of the global water cycle, they are typically between 250 and 375 miles wide and more than 1,000 miles long. “Pineapple Express is a specific type of atmospheric river—one that builds up in the Pacific near Hawaii.

These systems of concentrated moisture typically form over tropical regions, where warm temperatures cause ocean water to evaporate and rise into the atmosphere. As the water vapor blows over land, it rises and cools, turning into beneficial rain or snow. Just a few atmospheric rivers each year can contribute up to half of the annual precipitation along the coast.

Because atmospheric rivers can be slow-moving, they can cause heavy flooding and mudslides when stalled over vulnerable watersheds, as is playing out in California this month. On average, these systems transport about 27 times the amount of water flowing through the Mississippi River (Ralph et. al. 2017). However, not all atmospheric rivers cause damage; most are weak and welcome. In fact, they are credited for ending up to 40% of California’s droughts between 1950 and 2010. Whether as snow or rain, these systems are an essential contribution of fresh water.

New year, new goals, right?

We love the fresh feeling a new year can bring. While we believe in being grateful for each day we have, we also understand the importance of goal setting and the sense of accomplishment when achieved. 

Our corporate partnerships manager, Amy, has a lot of goals for 2023. And we mean, a lot. Here are just a few off her long list:

  • Read 23 books
  • Be more active while good health is present
  • Travel to a new place

And, because she’s a river conservation advocate she’s also focused on buying a water-saving toilet, watering plants with vegetable-steamed water (cooled, of course), and planting native vegetation in her yard.

Our executive director, Ann, took her goals in a different direction. She’s enjoying a 23-day yoga challenge and chose the word “enjoy” as her year-long theme versus a long list. She plans to enjoy biking, skiing, and of course recreating on the rivers across the West

Like Amy,  she continues a focus on native plantings. This Native Plants Finder is a great tool.

What is an aquatic macroinvertebrate, anyway?

dragonfly pic
Photo by Katie Burandt

As you probably know, “aquatic” means water and “macro” means big—at least big enough for you to see without a microscope. “Invertebrate” means without a backbone. 

Macroinvertebrates are excellent indicators of water quality. They also play a key role in nutrient cycling. Studies suggest they are responsible for processing a whopping 73% of riparian leaf and litter in streams. They also serve as food for fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

A simpler term for a macroinvertebrate is either macro, or water bug. Some of the most well-known macros are dragonflies and caddisflies.

Water bugs thrive in different types of aquatic habitat, like swift running streams, wider, slower rivers or shallow ponds. Some live in the soft sediments of deeper lakes and ponds.  While many eat leaves and twigs, others feast on algae or insects.

Numerous macros live their entire lives in water. Others hatch or spend their youth in water, then live on land as adults.  For many macros, their adulthood lasts a very limited time. Take the mayfly, for example. Their fleeting adult life lasts as little as 24-48 hours.  

Some of the most popular macros are dragonflies. These water bugs are aquatic or semi-aquatic as juveniles for up to six years. As adults, they leave the water to forage for insects, their primary food choice, often several miles from water. That is why you see dragonflies along cliff bands and in forests and pastures.  

Dragonflies are exceptional migrants—with the longest nonstop multi-generational migration of 11,000 miles—across oceans. Yes, the small but mighty globe skimmer dragonfly (Pantala flavescens) is not deterred from crossing large bodies of water. By utilizing favorable tailwinds, and with lumps and bumps on its corrugated wings that counteract turbulence and facilitate lift, this remarkable macro is hypothesized to migrate from India across the Indian Ocean to East Africa each fall, with the next generation returning to India the following spring. 

You can read more about this fantastic journey here.

Recovering with rivers

Photo courtesy of Casting for Recovery

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, please meet one of our river partners, Casting for Recovery. This incredible organization helps breast cancer survivors enjoy authentic, therapeutic connections with nature. Breast cancer has an impact on us all—our mothers, sisters, wives, partners and pals! It’s beautiful to see that rivers can help them both physically and mentally.

Our initial round of community grants helped support Casting For Recovery’s 2.5 day retreats designed to help survivors facing new challenges. Did you know that many women who undergo diagnosis and treatment experience symptoms of PTSD? Or that the gentle motion of casting is helpful for increasing mobility in the arm and upper body?

Many worthy causes apply for our community grants. Sadly, more than we’ve been able to fund. You can help us grow our capacity to help important organizations like Casting for Recovery by donating here.

Rafting, hiking and happiness go hand in hand

Photo courtesy of Partners West

Sadly, kids are spending much less time in nature than their parents did in their youth, mostly thanks to technology. According to the Child Mind Institute, the average American child spends just four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outside, and over seven hours a day in front of a screen.

Fortunately, our river partner and 2022 grantee Colorado Canyons Association helps thousands of kids and adults connect with nature—in part with funds donated by Forever Our Rivers. Focused on McInnis Canyons, Dominguez-Escalante and Gunnison George National Conservation Areas in western Colorado, their impact is impressive. For more than a decade, they’ve used these stunning landscapes as outdoor classrooms. One program is called Nature Knowledge Days and is aligned with Colorado’s curriculum standards. Another offers full day and overnight rafting trips, many of which serve students at Diné College, a public tribal land-grant college. For some, it is their first-time rafting. For others, the educational component strengthens their knowledge of rivers and the challenges they face.

One interesting study quantified that one must spend at least two hours in nature to receive its benefits. However, those 120 minutes could be accumulated all at once or over several visits. But you don’t need studies to tell you how nature can make you happier and healthier— get out while the leaves are turning and discover it yourself! The next time you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, go take a hike! You’ll see firsthand that even a little time in nature can give you a big dose of happiness.

Rivers vital for self-care

Encouraging self-care is all the rage these days and for good reason—we need it. Self-care doesn’t need to be expensive. The answer can be simple. Visit the river. 

Most of us can recognize the calming effect of a walk by the river. While being near water  promotes physical activity, it also reduces stress hormones and boosts mental health. Birds chirping, a gurgling river or even the sounds of leaves falling will improve your outlook and increase relaxation and happiness. While scientists continue to study this effect, we’re just happy that it happens.

Self-care ideas:

  1. Hike along a river. A few of our favorite hikes this time of year include Avalanche Creek Trail and Mill Creek Trail.
  2. Canyoneer. Visit the Escalante River and admire the successful work our river partner Grand Staircase Escalante Partners have done to restore native vegetation.
  3. Volunteer for our river partner, the Gila Watershed Partnership. It makes you feel so good—right? 

Go enjoy the healing power of rivers!

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.