Think big on Colorado River restoration
February 4, 2017
The Colorado River runs through the heart of my family's ranch near Kremmling, where I live and work, so we have firsthand knowledge of the importance of water to the state. Our family's irrigated meadows and livestock operation depend on it, and it's the common currency of our local agriculture and recreation economy.
That's why, through the years, it's been so hard for me to see the river in sharp decline. For decades, Front Range water utilities have been pumping water from the Upper Colorado, with devastating impacts on river health, including lower flows, spiked water temperature and silt in the river bottom, smothering insect life and damaging the river ecosystem and this world-class trout fishery.
Agriculture suffered, too. As river levels dropped, my family and other ranchers in the valley saw our irrigation pumps left high and dry and our operations unsustainable. Another important part of our economy is recreation. Besides helping on the family ranch, I'm also a fly-fishing guide here in the valley, and it became clear to me that a restored river could be a much more valuable asset for our community and state.
In short, our future here in the valley depends on a healthy river.
A few years ago, I saw an opportunity to fix the irrigation problems while also improving river and wildlife habitat. My family's ranch is in one of the most intact traditional agricultural communities remaining in Colorado. Like most ranchers, we're independent folks — but in a pinch, we know we can count on each other.
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Our neighbors came together and agreed on the need for action. Our group of 11 private ranches and the Bureau of Land Management, the irrigators of lands in the vicinity of Kremmling, received a couple of grants for a pilot project to restore a riffle/pool structure on a stretch of the river. It was an exciting start.
But I quickly realized that, given the scale of the problems, we needed to think bigger.
We worked with a variety of partners — 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 — to put together an ambitious proposal for restoring a significant stretch of the Upper Colorado River.
In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service recognized that big vision, awarding ILVK and our partners $7.75 million under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to improve irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.
This funding is an amazing win for all Coloradans, because a healthy Colorado River sustains all our lives.
The Colorado River Headwaters Project will install several innovative instream structures designed to improve water levels for irrigation, while enhancing critical river habitat by rebuilding riffles and pool structure. A crucial piece will be restoring approximately one mile of the Colorado River's former channel, currently inundated by Windy Gap Reservoir. This ambitious bypass project will reconnect the river — for the first time in decades — and improve river habitat in the headwaters area.
When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.
What have I learned from this project? That the interests of agriculture producers can align with the interests of conservation groups, state agencies, water providers and other river users. It's not just the waters of the Colorado River that are connected — so are the people who depend on it.
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 rancher who lives near Kremmling.