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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 Cutthroat Business

By Paul Formisano

Restoring the Little Snake River

The individual nature of river restoration projects is nowhere more evident than in the Little Snake River Valley of northwestern Colorado.
Until the largest ranch in the valley decided to undertake one of the most elaborate and extensive river restoration projects in the nation, comprehensive restoration of the Little Snake—hard hit by floods in the mid-1980s—did not seem a realistic possibility. Then in 1999, flexing its financial muscle, Three Forks Ranch initiated a chain reaction of restoration efforts that has resonated down the entire valley. Now some six years after the first plans were drawn up, the progress of restoration has both exceeded some expectations and disappointed others.

Three Forks Ranch
North of Steamboat Springs, the North, Middle, South and Roaring forks converge to form the Little Snake River, site of one the largest privately-funded river restoration projects in U.S. history.

In 1999, David Pratt beat out land developers to buy the property consolidated under the Three Forks Ranch name. Almost immediately, Pratt and his manager Jay Linderman turned their attentions to a watershed in need of serious rehabilitation. More than a century of irrigation diversion and sheep and cattle grazing had changed the structure of the Little Snake and its tributaries, creating extensive bank erosion and an ever-wider, shallower and warmer river. Once a vibrant fishery rich with Colorado River cutthroat trout, river conditions were stressing Colorado's only native trout species which is also listed by the state as a ‘species of concern.’

According to Linderman, Three Forks' goals were far-reaching. Not only were they looking to create the premiere fly-fishing destination in the United States, but with an eye on the struggling cutthroat trout population, they were committed ‘to becoming a leader in conservation efforts that would keep this river alive,’ he explained.

Pratt and Linderman enlisted the services of David Rosgen, a hydrologist some consider to be one of the foremost experts on river restoration, to design and implement the necessary river structures. They also donated $35,000 to fund the design of a Little Snake River Master Plan, outlining a full restoration strategy for an additional 22 miles of river downstream.

Rehabilitation on the scale of Three Forks can take years to implement, but Rosgen and his crew completed the project in only seven months. Using a combination of cross-vanes, W and V weirs and J hook-vanes, they placed an amazing 22,000 rocks to create 2,000 structures along 16 miles of the Little Snake River and its four headwater streams.

Yet despite their remarkable progress, the project was not without its skeptics. As heavy machinery churned up the river from May to November, neighboring ranchers, representatives from various federal land agencies and interested onlookers visited the construction site to see whether such elaborate plans would live up to expectations.

Six years has now passed since Rosgen's group ‘remade’ stretches of the Little Snake and its tributaries. The South Fork, a stream that once resembled what some called a ‘dirty irrigation ditch,’ now supplies noticeably clearer water to merge with the Little Snake. Where cattle once mucked along the creek and depleted its banks of willows, the ranch now applies an intensive rotational grazing plan, leaving cattle along the stream only for short periods before they are moved to higher pastures.

In addition to vanes, weirs and hooks to slow and deepen the channel, the ranch has also constructed 30 oxbow lakes in the old river channel, creating prime trout habitat. Transferring water rights from agricultural irrigation to fish habitat (piscatorial rights), river oxbows now act as trout hatcheries.

In these placid lakes where monster trout flourish, to the swifter waters of the river and its tributaries, Three Forks offers anglers a once-in-a-life-time fishing experience. It was a $100 million investment to get the river to this point. But the ranch is seeing positive returns. According to Linderman, revenues from fly-fishing guests have now outstripped revenues from both their cattle and big-game hunting operations combined.

The Rest of the River
Even with a restoration master plan in hand, for the 22 ranches operating along the Little Snake, establishing consensus on how best to manage and restore the river downstream of Three Forks has been a long-term proposition. ‘I was positive for six years,’ says Terry Reidy, owner and operator of Focus Ranch, who with his wife Maureen first organized their neighbors to restore the river some seven years ago. ‘Now, who knows.’

Believing that federal water quality regulations and endangered species concerns might one day force him and his neighbors to drastically alter their ranching practices, Reidy felt it was time to improve the health of the river and help restore the fishery. It's an important part of his business, he explains. ‘Fishing is a part of every guy's operation.’

It's a $5 million proposition to restore 22 miles of river with improved irrigation diversions and in-channel structures, they estimate. But after years of applying for grants through private foundations and government agencies, no funds have come through. Some of the problem involves the source of the funding. It is difficult to find a funding agency that can handle this size of a project, as well as coordinate with 22 different landowners and their individual concerns. Federal grants generally come with regulations or requirements to fence-out riparian areas or allow public access for example—restrictions that may be palatable to some, but not all.

A piece-meal answer might be more feasible, Reidy muses, potentially working on just a few structures at a time. Perhaps they can find enough money to rent a D-6 CAT, hire an operator and pay for rock—one of the most expensive parts of the project. Perhaps some volunteers can be recruited to help plant willows.

But at the end of the day, it's been six years with no solution in sight. Waiting on results from their latest grant submission, the question of how to find blanket funding for 22 individual landowners on 22 unique miles of river, remains unanswered.

Restoring a Tributary
With Battle Mountain as its backdrop, the Ladder Ranch is a family owned and operated reminder of the long tradition of ranching in the Little Snake River Valley. Founder A.W. Salisbury homesteaded near the confluence of the Little Snake River and Battle Creek in 1881. Five generations later, George Salisbury and his son-in-law Pat O'Toole, continue to manage the family business. Primarily a sheep and cattle operation, their ranch combines thousands of acres of deeded and leased land throughout south-central Wyoming. Battle Creek, a tributary to the Little Snake, runs through the main ranch property.

In the past, every spring the Salisburys undertook the common practice of constructing temporary ‘push-up’ type diversions in Battle Creek to support irrigation ditches flowing to adjacent hay and alfalfa fields. Every year, after the creek's runoff barreled down the valley, the family would bring heavy machinery into the creek to build up the failed diversion structures.

Bank erosion and increased sediment loads were the unavoidable consequence, gradually making the river shallower and warmer over time. The dynamic nature of Battle Creek with its steep gradient further exacerbated the creek's shift from a narrow, deep channel to one characterized by highly incised banks, little sinuosity, and a slowly widening river bed.

Bank erosion and loss of willows to shade and cool the creek were degrading the vibrant fishery that could exist in the creek's high quality waters. Irrigation diversion structures posed barriers to the movement of brook, brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout.

Responding to these conditions, George, Pat and his wife Sharon approached a number of local government agencies. Larry Hicks, resource coordinator with the Little Snake River Conservation District, and Mark Hogan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assisted the Salisburys in developing a plan to best meet the needs of Battle Creek and the ranch.

Using in-kind matching grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Fish Passage programs, the Little Snake River Conservation District, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, Battle Creek was ready for a renovation.

‘It was a combination of things that came together so that we could do this,’ says Sharon O'Toole. ‘We had some really knowledgeable, committed guys working to help us navigate these programs. I also think the government agencies liked the fact they only had to work with one landowner. It makes things a lot easier.’

For three weeks in November 2000, heavy machinery rumbled up and down Battle Creek placing enough boulders to create 19 different restoration structures. ‘These guys really tried to do it right,’ Pat relates. ‘One time, the Forest Service put in some structures further upstream, but those eventually blew out completely. These guys knew what they were doing, took their time and placed each rock.’

And the benefits to the creek from all their hard work are noticeable. The mile and a half of restored creek has since narrowed and deepened, resulting in less erosion, a thriving fish population, and irrigation structures that require less yearly maintenance and disturbance in the river.

To support the creek and riparian zone, the Salisburys continue to practice a rotational grazing regime that moves the cattle through a number of different fenced pastures along the creek over short amounts of time each spring.

‘We're not trying to prevent cattle from getting to the river,’ says Hogan. ‘But we do need to see what the land will allow. [Fences] buy time for Mother Nature to respond.’

Because of the success of their initial efforts, the Salisburys hope to continue restoration work on other stretches of Battle Creek. Having recently received an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, another five structures will be sketched out this fall for construction in 2006.

River restoration plans for the Little Snake River and its tributaries are ambitious and take on very different forms—from a privately funded mega-restoration, to a family-led initiative and a community coalition approach. But here in this small remote valley, each effort to improve the numerous values of the Little Snake River has a similar underlying theme. This river is one of our most valuable renewable resources. We know how to revive it. Why wait?

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