Thinking like a watershed
Ryan Summerlin May 28, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second in a monthly series of stories about the National Forest Foundation and restoring Colorado’s forests.
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Fresh water is a finite global resource becoming scarcer with increasing human population and consumptive water uses. At the same time, global climate is becoming less predictable and traditional water sources may be less reliable. In the Eagle River Valley, during one of the driest years in recorded history, it’s worth taking stock of the local watershed and what can be done to help protect it into the future.
One of the main reasons political leaders established National Forests more than a century ago was to protect and enhance water supplies. The 1897 Organic Act cites “securing favorable conditions of water flows,” or watershed protection, as a primary function of forest reserves.
Thinking in terms of watersheds is helpful because watersheds are finite places, bounded by higher elevation topography on all sides, where water inputs and outputs can be measured and water quality can be monitored. Imagine the Eagle River watershed, generally bounded to the southwest by the Sawatch Range and to the northeast by the Gore Range. Every little rivulet and creek, and all of the snow that falls within these boundaries, contributes to the overall watershed.
The Eagle River headwaters begin near Tennessee Pass above Red Cliff and flow downhill through Minturn, Avon, Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum before the river joins the Colorado River at the confluence at Dotsero. This is a 77-mile river journey, and nearly 75 percent of the watershed land surrounding the Eagle River is on public land managed mostly by the U.S. Forest Service and also by the Bureau of Land Management. Much of the water in the upper Eagle River watershed is diverted across the Continental Divide to support people living along the Front Range.
Colorado has played a significant role in the history of watershed studies across the nation. The first U.S. Forest Service study site to learn about the relationship between forests and watersheds was established at Wagon Wheel Gap between South Fork and Creede in 1909. The idea was to study two contiguous watersheds for a few years and then harvest the forest in one of the watersheds and compare the timing and amount of streamflow, erosion and sediment transported in the stream before and after the removal of the forest.
Later, in 1937 during the Dust Bowl era, the Fraser Experimental Forest was established specifically to study the effects of forest manipulations on water storage and yield. This was one of the first study areas to look at how timber harvesting and roads related to erosion. Studies at Wagon Wheel ended in 1926 due to lack of funding, but research at the Fraser experimental forest continues today.
National forests contain more than 1,000 municipal watersheds, and about 20 percent of the nation’s fresh-water sources originate on national forest land. In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service manages more than 14.5 million acres and nearly 90 percent of these lands contribute to public water supplies. Much of this land is in need of ecological restoration due to historic land uses, past management practices, insect infestations and climate change.
Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service launched the Watershed Condition Framework program in order to classify all forest watersheds and prioritize them for restoration and monitoring. The Framework is a new science-based rating approach that helps field staff develop outcome-based performance measures for watershed restoration. Much work has already been done to classify watersheds, and there is a website with a national map that highlights watersheds most at risk.
The overall need for watershed restoration far outweighs the financial resources available, and new public-private partnerships are emerging to accomplish watershed restoration. One example is the restoration of the upper South Platte watershed at the site of the 2002 Hayman wildfire. The South Platte provides water for 75 percent of Colorado’s residents living along the Front Range.
With financial leadership from Vail Resorts and the city of Aurora, the National Forest Foundation has joined with the U.S. Forest Service and local conservation organizations to restore some of the most severely burned and eroding sub-watersheds. The end result of the restoration will be to reduce the amount of sediment flowing into the South Platte by more than 8,000 cubic tons annually. The significant investment of money, time and energy toward this project will pay off in terms of long-term natural watershed benefits to many of Colorado’s residents.
Smaller scale public-private watershed restoration projects also are happening locally along the Eagle River and its tributaries. The Vail Resorts Ski Conservation Fund and the National Forest Foundation help catalyze these projects and engage the community by partnering with the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Eagle-Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest. There also are ways each person, neighborhood and community can “think like a watershed” and take an active role in community-based watershed restoration. Here are some of the ways:
• Protect and enhance open spaces where natural vegetation acts like a sponge to absorb and clean fresh water.
• Stay on designated open forest roads and trails to prevent soil compaction and erosion.
• Enhance and protect stream banks from erosion by planting native trees and shrubs.
• Reclaim drained wetlands and encourage beavers in select areas.
• Replace old culverts with newer ones that connect aquatic habitat for fish and other wildlife.
The next time you fill your glass with cool water from the faucet or turn on the dishwasher or washing machine, think about your public forests and what you can do to play your part in protecting and restoring your watershed.
Kim Langmaid, Ph.D., lives in Vail and is the director of Colorado programs for the National Forest Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.nationalforests.org.