Tributaries to the Colorado River get a funding boost 

Photo by Omar Salmon

Forever Our Rivers is excited to announce grants totaling $169,591 to support the restoration efforts in the Dolores, Escalante, Verde and Gila rivers spanning Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Restoration will focus on removing thick stands of invasive trees and bushes.

Invasive species wreak havoc on river systems. Some plants, like tamarisk, form dense thickets and grow to 20 feet. They bring fire danger to the river because their growth includes high levels of dead leaves and branches. And that’s not all! They make themselves at home by aggressively colonizing. Their leaves deposit salt above and below the soil, making it difficult for native species to survive. 

Tamarisk is not the only problem; Russian olive, tree of heaven, Siberian elm and many more species absorb large amounts of water, create dams that block water flow and destroy native vegetation. Plus, thickets of invasives make it difficult for recreationists to access the river.

Without native species, a river runs down a slippery, unhealthy slope that reduces its ability to function and deliver ecosystem services properly. What does that mean? Well, to start, both water quality and quantity decline.

Plus, native species, from bugs to butterflies, fish and frogs, even elk and beaver cannot survive or breed without their appropriate, native food and nesting sites. 

More than 4,988 acres across these Colorado River tributaries have been treated and thousands of the nasty invasive plants have been destroyed due to a long-standing partnership between Forever Our Rivers, the Walton Family Foundation and Conservation Legacy. 

Ann Johnston, the executive director of Forever Our Rivers Foundation, aptly observed, “Restoration is a process that happens over time, almost always extending beyond the timelines of individual projects. That is one reason this award is so important”. 

Included in the grant award are funds for strike teams. These teams check out the four river areas annually to see how things are going. “One of the most important tasks for strike teams is to collect data about previous years’ noxious plant treatments and native regrowth,” said Johnston. “Think of the strike teams as nature detectives, collecting the past data, identifying which treatments are most successful and altering processes going forward to reflect that.” 

On-the-ground restoration is accomplished by RiversEdge West of Grand Junction, CO, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners of Escalante, Utah, and in Arizona, the Friends of the Verde River and Gila Watershed Partnership.

$158,000 grant improves river health in the Colorado River basin

With a $158,000 grant awarded by Forever Our Rivers Foundation, conservation crews have a head start on their annual quest to improve the health of the Colorado River basin.

Crew members will monitor, treat and prevent non-native species like tamarisk—one of the most invasive plants in the Colorado River basin—and nurture native species in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

When harmful invasives are removed and replaced with native plants, the resulting increased biodiversity allows ecosystems to thrive and become more resilient to a changing climate.

“Combating invasive species is essential, and not only for protecting our unsurpassed hiking, fishing and boating experiences,” said Ann Johnston, executive director of Forever Our Rivers. “Rivers and streams are far more important than the water running through them.”

Conservation Legacy of Durango, Colorado, will lead the crews in partnership with watershed groups in the Dolores, Escalante, Verde and Gila Rivers of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Their Southwest Conservation Crews will work directly with local nonprofits in the individual watersheds.

“The funding not only progresses the vital restoration efforts of the watershed partnerships, it educates youth by engaging them directly with the work and helps build the next generation of land stewards,” said Nate Peters, Conservation Legacy’s watershed programs manager.

Healthy rivers provide clean water, store carbon, and serve as a buttress against the impacts of climate change. Introduced in the 1950s, Russian olive and tamarisk quickly choked waterways with dense growth that outcompeted native vegetation such as cottonwoods and willows, leading to severe channel narrowing. Preliminary research shows a significant decrease in channel width following the Russian Olive and tamarisk invasions, and a beneficial increase in width after treatment. In other words, treatment not only allows for the recovery of native vegetation but also restores more natural river geomorphology and meander. It also lowers fire danger and improves river access. 

Conservation Legacy and the Southwest Conservation Crews will continue this important work throughout the summer and fall of 2023.

Veterans Help the Verde Restoration Coalition Track Success and Fix Failures

Friends of the Verde River secured a Forever Our Rivers grant to help the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition monitor 40 acres of past restoration projects.

Verde river monitoring crews learn valuable plant identification, scientific monitoring, and communication skills.

The Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition is restoring habitat along the Verde River while building an innovative restoration economy and helping recent war vets find fulfilling employment. Since 2012, the Coalition has removed invasive species on 9,000 acres along their namesake River. To make sure beneficial habitat takes over once the weeds are gone, the Coalition always looks in on past projects. 

Friends of the Verde River, a member of the Coalition, hires a crew each year to monitor past project sites. Half the team is staffed by recent-era veterans through Vets4Hire, a central Arizona nonprofit that helps vets build a professional community and marketable skill sets. 

The Coalition trains all crew members to identify native and nonnative plants and to use scientific survey methods. The job also requires crew members to work with public and private landowners in the watershed, creating valuable local connections. The Coalition works with Vets4Hire to build out the work crews that remove invasive plants during initial treatments as well.

The work is good for veterans, and veterans are great for the Coalition. Many become powerful supporters of conservation. “Hiring local, recent-era veterans to complete the surveys involves them in habitat restoration,” says Tracy Stephens, Habitat Restoration Manager for Friends of the Verde River. “They become advocates for a healthy Verde River watershed.” 

This veteran crew cuts and treats invasives species in the initial restoration phase. Monitoring crews start checking in a year later. 

Monitoring Their Efforts

The most problematic nonnative and invasive plants on the Verde are tamarisk, Russian olive, giant reed, and tree of heaven. These species crowd out native species and alter habitat structure along the Verde. Removing them gives local plants a chance to compete, grow, and ultimately thrive. 

After restoration crews remove the unwanted plants and, in some cases, treat them with herbicide, monitoring crews keep tabs on whether or not they are growing back. They also take stock of overall restoration progress, checking on how well native plants are responding to the reduced competition. If the monitoring crew sees a project area that’s struggling to succeed, the Coalition plans a follow-up treatment. The check-ins don’t stop until the landowner’s goals are met. 

These photos are of the same location before treatment (top) and after the Coalition removed invasive species (bottom). Monitoring crews revisit all project sites until they are well on the road to recovery.

In the summer of 2019, the Coalition’s monitoring team surveyed more than 1,500 acres in eight weeks. “Monitoring areas where we’ve removed invasive plants ensures the continued health of the area and protects our investments,” says Stephens. The work also helps the Coalition refine their understanding of what it takes for an invasive species removal project to succeed. 

Finding Funding

In Forever Our Rivers’ first-ever funding cycle, the Foundation awarded Friends of the Verde River a grant to monitor 40 acres of private land. Finding funds to do follow-up monitoring and maintenance work on private lands is extremely challenging. The group of restoration professionals who created Forever Our Rivers Foundation is well aware of this. They created Forever Our Rivers to close such funding gaps and to grow the amount of funds available for river restoration in general.

The free-flowing Verde River is an important ecological, cultural and agricultural resource in Central Arizona. Nonnative plants, such as tamarisk and giant reed, threaten its health. 

The Verde and Its Friends 

The Verde is free-flowing and one of the few perennial waterways in Arizona. Its watershed contains all 57.3 of Arizona’s Wild and Scenic river miles — a 40-mile stretch of the Lower Verde and 17.3 miles of Fossil Creek. With around 90,373 river miles in the state, less of a tenth of a percent of Arizona’s rivers are designated as Wild and Scenic. The Verde and many of the springs that feed it are also culturally integral to the Yavapai, Hopi, Apache, and Zuni tribes, among others. 

Friends of the Verde River work within the watershed to maintain flows, restore native vegetation and wildlife habitat, and to connect locals to the stunning landscape and resources the river supports. Restoring habitat along the Verde River is a big job, which is why the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition exists. Led by Friends of the Verde River, the Coalition is made up of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, local towns, state and federal agencies, river restoration nonprofits, and private landowners.