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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

A Community River—The North Fork of the Gunnison

River restoration is more than just placing boulders in the river or putting a trail alongside the creek. It has to be. It originates with a community's desire to manage rivers better. On the North Fork of the Gunnison, regional involvement is slowly remaking this hard-working Western river into a public amenity.

The North Fork River Improvement Association was established in 1996 with the modest goal of researching alternative methods to reduce bank erosion along the river. But other issues soon came to light. Many sections of the river were only ankle-deep during the Fall, and fish habitat was suffering. Other sections dried up completely. And although the river plays a vital role in the agricultural and mining economy of the area, almost no public access was available. These concerns and others prompted the North Fork River Improvement Association to get its start.

‘We were trying to meet the goals of the community: Streambank stabilization, habitat improvement, irrigation diversion,’ says Jeff Crane, NFRIA's original executive director. ‘Call it river restoration. Call it mucking in the river. Whatever you want. It's what people asked for. We're a community group.’

Crane attributes NFRIA's success to its broad-based coalition. A combination of riverfront landowners, farmers and ranchers, irrigation companies, gravel companies and environmental groups, they agreed to look at how to restore the vitality of the North Fork and help support the economy of the area.

Delta County got their first bulldozer in 1946 from the War Department. In an effort to control erosion and assist agriculture, every year on a regular basis they fired up the bulldozer and used it to straighten the river. Their strategy was based on old Army Corps of Engineers guidelines which calculated that to control erosion the best policy was to turn the curvy flood-prone river into a straight trapezoidal channel that could contain floods in one small area.

To make that happen, each year they would take river gravel and push up big gravel dikes along the sides of the river. Then spring floods would wash out the gravel, and the river bank would cave in on itself, creating braided channels that carried the river off in different directions—and often into nearby fields and orchards. Then the next year they would repeat the same story.

‘Rivers want to meander. That's what they didn't understand,’ says Crane. Meandering rivers are better than straight, he explains. A gently curving, meandering stream is going to move water more slowly, with less gradient and therefore less erosion. A single-thread meandering river also balances the movement of sediment throughout system, depositing sediment at same rate that it is eroded.

A concrete channel like the Los Angeles Wash is one option, with concrete walls and no function other than to move water. Another option is a natural river channel with meanders, aquatic habitat and manageable rates of change and channel movement—instead of out-of-control accelerated erosion.

People have been trying to protect rivers banks from erosion since white settlers first arrived. Bulldozing was a technique picked up from the Army Corps of Engineers early on. But according to Crane, people are slowly learning from their mistakes, and finding out that a river needs to be a river. Safe overbank flooding is a major component of floodplain rehabilitation. You have to give flood waters a place to dissipate their energy and deposit seeds. It helps keep the general ecological cycle intact.

Detailed studies of the morphology (evolution and configuration) of the North Fork and long-range planning efforts led to restoration of 1.5 river miles near the Town of Hotchkiss in 1999. The project put curving river meanders back into floodplain, planted willows and cottonwoods, and stabilized the outside river bends with in-channel rock structures. It also reconstructed several irrigation diversions to deliver a full decree of reliable low-maintenance irrigation water while providing for fish passage and safe recreational boating.

At first, some of the local ditch companies were skeptical. Their traditional method of bulldozing temporary diversion dams—while not pretty—was a time-tested way to ensure their farmers got the irrigation water they needed.
‘I convinced them to let me do a project based on what their needs were, while improving the natural habitat of the stream. You have to identify the problem, and what their perception of the problem is. These are simple irrigation structures, we just had to raise the funds to install them,’ explains Crane.

And the structures have been successful. Even in the extreme drought year of 2002, irrigators were able to divert water. A combination of improved diversion structures and a consolidated river channel left more water in the river. Locals reported that in 2002 there was water in the river in places that used to dry up even in average years.
Since that first 1.5 miles, NFRIA has widened its scope. Currently it conducts a water quality monitoring program and hosts a river awareness float annually. NFRIA also just recently assisted in the stocking of 7,500 brown and rainbow trout in the river, most notably in sections that used to be completely dry during the Fall.

In 2006 the association is slated to tap $2.2 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding to continue doing exactly what it did for the river near Hotchkiss. The project has identified eight individual restoration sites along the river, including two bank stabilization projects, two rehabilitations of instream gravel mines, two irrigation diversion reconstructions, and two revegetation and channel stabilization projects.

One of the gravel mine rehabilitation projects will result in the first river park in valley. Delta Sand and Gravel donated 19 acres on both sides of the river that previously were part of an instream gravel mine. Army Corps money will restore the area and open it up for public access.

‘We started the process to get Army Corps funding in 1998,’ says NFRIA Executive Director Teresa Steeley. ‘And currently we have money for our final engineering and construction plans. Senator (Wayne) Allard and his staff, as well as former Congressman Scott McInnis were instrumental in getting funds appropriated for the first phases of construction.’

And even if it does take years for funding to come together, there will always be community issues, and a need for adaptive management of the river. ‘A cottonwood tree landed on one of our structures this year, and wiped it out. Now we have to replace that,’ Crane relates. ‘You can't do anything about that, it's part of river morphology.’


The North Fork of the Gunnison River watershed drains approximately 986 square miles from the Gunnison National Forest and the West Elk Wilderness. It is located in northwestern Gunnison and eastern Delta counties in the semi-arid west central region of Colorado. The river flows through the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss before converging with the mainstem of the Gunnison River north of the Gunnison Gorge and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Much of the rural ambiance of the North Fork Valley can be attributed to agricultural land, which comprises over 80 percent of all privately owned lands. Land use consists primarily of cattle and sheep ranches, fruit orchards and cropland. Extractive industries include underground coal mining, gravel mining and logging. The rich fish and wildlife resources in the watershed supplement the general economy with tourism and outdoor recreation. Sustainable agriculture and maintaining the existing rural quality of life are the top priorities for this typically under-served community.

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