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In the Summer 2010 issue of Headwaters, Water Education Colorado explores the world of volunteerism and grassroots river protection. There are over 80 community watershed groups in Colorado. Their purposes are as varied as the environments they are working to study, restore and protect. Watershed groups provide so many services: they bring our communities together through promoting volunteerism; they provide data on water quality, habitat integrity and recreational use that is needed by state and federal agencies to make informed decisions; and they work collaboratively to achieve land and water protections that can be embraced by stakeholders of many different viewpoints. Read on to learn more about the work of these committed individuals. Read featured articles below, or view the magazine online.


The Grassroots: A homegrown approach to healthy watersheds

By George Sibley

Mount Emmons is probably the closest thing to a holy mountain that the people of Crested Butte, Colo., would acknowledge. It rises 3,000 vertical feet in long, gentle slopes from the western edge of town to an abrupt, glaciated bowl called The Red Lady, named for the early sun that lights her face while the town still lies in night’s shadow.
Draining the west and south slopes of Mount Emmons is Coal Creek, a modest headwaters tributary of the Gunnison River that flows through downtown Crested Butte and provides the town’s water supply. Its name reflects its path, which cuts a narrow valley through a layer of coal. The mountain sitting atop that layer of coal contains rich, if geologically jumbled, lodes of silver and all the heavy metals—lead and zinc among them—that are typically found near silver.

Historically, Mount Emmons was a central element in the town’s economic as well as its spiritual life. Coal mines there and in adjacent mountains were Crested Butte’s economic mainstay for its first 75 years, until the mid-1950s. Hardrock metal mines also operated on and off, corresponding to fluctuating markets.
In 2003, the High Country Citizens Alliance, an organization initially formed in 1977 to oppose molybdenum mining on Mount Emmons, initiated a water quality study of Coal Creek. The study found parts of the stream were contaminated enough with heavy metals, some naturally occurring but most from mine drainage, to warrant designating them as “impaired stream segments,” giving them priority for federal and state mitigation funding. The long-abandoned Standard Mine on Mount Emmons was designated as a Superfund site, being placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority list.

Read more: The Grassroots: A homegrown approach to healthy watersheds

Citizen Water Brigade: Non-profits are mobilizing volunteer armies to protect water quality and restore degraded streams

By Laurie J. Schmidt

On a breezy April day last year, a group of hardy volunteers battled the chill in their efforts to restore a riparian corridor on Little Owl Creek, located in the Pawnee National Grasslands of northeastern Colorado. The Wildlands Restoration Volunteers crew spent the morning planting cottonwood cuttings in holes adjacent to the stream, which they intended to backfill after lunch. As the trees leaned in their unfilled holes, the lunchtime chatter suddenly quieted: Red-winged blackbirds were perched and singing on almost every new cottonwood. “Everyone just stood and watched,” says volunteer Jonathan Stauffer. “In that moment, we saw that the work we were doing was not only providing future habitat—it was immediately beneficial.”

It’s rewarding experiences like these that motivate volunteers to donate their time, expertise, and enthusiasm each year to the collective goal of protecting Colorado’s waters. With 100,000 miles of stream, a swelling population, and a landscape that attracts upwards of 20 million visitors each year, the state relies on volunteers—whether they’re collecting data or shoveling dirt—to protect and maintain watershed health.

Read more: Citizen Water Brigade: Non-profits are mobilizing volunteer armies to protect water quality and...

Case for the Private Partner: Landowners ease into conservation

By Cally Carswell

On a bluebird spring day, Jeff Crane stands beside Highway 92 where it crosses the North Fork of the Gunnison River just outside of Hotchkiss, a small town on Colorado’s Western Slope. With his hands tucked in the pockets of comfortably-worn Levis, Crane looks up and down the river, surveying the results of his handiwork.
Eleven years ago, Crane began giving this mile-and-a-half stretch of river, coursing through at least nine private properties, a makeover. He replaced a bulldozed diversion with an inconspicuous, permanent headgate. He carved out a gently meandering channel, stabilized the curves with strategically placed boulders, and planted willows along the river’s banks and wetland grasses beyond those. “We wanted to build a natural river system here,” he says. “And let [the North Fork] be a river again.”  

Re-imagining the river this way would be a dramatic departure for many landowners. The farmers and ranchers who made their livelihood on the river’s edge had taken a heavy hand with the river for years, using plows, bulldozers, even dynamite to tame its flow.

Read more: Case for the Private Partner: Landowners ease into conservation

Wildlands Restoration Volunteers

By Laurie J. Schmidt

Rounding up enough participants for volunteer work days can be on an ongoing struggle for watershed groups. Even for some conservation-minded people, the thought of shoveling sediment or weed-whacking after a long week of work or school just doesn’t conjure up images of a relaxing Saturday. But Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, headquartered in Boulder, has a down-to-earth approach to getting conservation work done: make volunteering fun.

With an active volunteer base of 3,000 and total volunteer hours between 1999 and 2009 valued at $2.7 million, the group’s approach is obviously working. “We honestly embrace the idea of building a community and having a good time,” says projects director John Giordanengo. WRV provides food, with trained cooks accompanying volunteer groups on multi-day projects. It also holds “social events,” such as potlucks and its fundraising event Wildlands Jam, which features local bands and a showcase of projects and trainings.

Read more: Wildlands Restoration Volunteers

Fire Away: Why watershed groups are focusing on forest recovery and fire risk-reduction

By Abigail Eagye

In the summer of 2002, the Hayman Fire burned across nearly 140,000 acres, securing legendary status as the largest fire in Colorado’s history. It took nearly a month to control the fire, and 132 homes were lost in the blaze.

Hayman’s indirect effects are still being measured, as government agencies, public utilities, nonprofits and private landowners continue efforts to repair the landscape. Denuded hillsides require extensive replanting to combat ongoing erosion into critical watersheds. And while the forest slowly regenerates, massive amounts of sediment continue sliding into waterways, upsetting the balance of river-dependent ecosystems and choking some of the state’s major water supply reservoirs.

State and federal agencies, naturally, have a hand in the cleanup, but they are limited by geographical and topical jurisdictions. Hayman burned across four counties, three U.S. Forest Service ranger districts, three Colorado State Forest Service ranger districts and three different conservation districts, making the coordination of restoration efforts a veritable nightmare.

Watershed groups however, have stepped up to organize across such geopolitical boundaries. Unrestrained by ecologically arbitrary delineations, they work throughout entire watersheds and have played pivotal leadership roles in the rehabilitation that follows devastating fires like Hayman—and in efforts to prevent future catastrophic fires—for the sake of their watersheds.

Read more: Fire Away: Why watershed groups are focusing on forest recovery and fire risk-reduction

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