Healthier habitat in Eagle County
Eagle Valley Enterprise
EAGLE – It’s not often that everybody wins.
However, that seems to be the case with the Adam’s Rib Ranch Brush Creek stream enhancements, which are being completed this fall.
The ranch improved its fishing opportunities and in the process Brush Creek became a healthier habitat. That means everything downstream benefits, both in terms of water quality and the abundance of fish, which have been stocked since June 2010.
“The reality was, fishing wasn’t very good here when we started,” said Joe Cranston, the general manager of Adam’s Rib.
So in 2008 the ranch hired Flywater Inc., a Fort Collins firm, to figure out how to remedy the situation.
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“What we needed and have now is a self-sustaining ecosystem,” said Brynly Marsh, the Adam’s Rib Golf Course superintendent. “We needed things like spawning beds, places for little fish to hide from the bigger ones and deeper pools.”
Brush Creek now has more macro and micro-organisms. In this case, macro-organisms are basically insects, or any living thing that can be seen by the naked eye. Micro-organisms are living things that can’t be seen by the naked eye. When all those organisms flourish, so do fish.
“The hawks and eagles are also happier,” Cranston said.
When the improvement project started, part of the problem was cattle grazing that harmed the riparian habitat. The first step was to end the grazing along the 3.6 miles of Brush Creek owned by Adam’s Rib before Flywater even came into the picture.
“That area has been in much better shape since the cattle have been gone,” said Ray Merry, the Eagle County environmental health director.
For its small size, Brush Creek is of particular importance because it’s near the top of a significant watershed – the Colorado River basin.
“This creek is important because it flows into the Eagle River, which flows into the Colorado,” Cranston said. “It impacts a lot of people.”
That’s why one project to improve fish habitat in Brush Creek can have much wider implications.
Twenty years ago, golf courses were vilified by environmentalists because of their use of water, pesticides and fertilizers, Merry said. That has been changing. Golf courses are becoming very careful about their practices, especially in this area.
“The golf course superintendents in this region are probably among the cream of the crop,” Merry said.
One way that courses such as Adam’s Rib actually help make improvements to the environment is by tracking water quality.
Merry said the Colorado River watershed is arguably the most studied in the state. Yet widespread baseline data obtained in specific, standardized ways has lacked until more recently.
Since Adam’s Rib was approved for development, it has been required to take scientific measurements of the habitat and water quality before, during and after development.
“The ‘after’ will take years to know, as it hasn’t been built out yet,” Merry said.
Nonetheless, Adam’s Rib has been keeping rigorous records.
“The amount of data they’ve collected is really impressive,” said Kirby Wynn, an environmental consultant to the Eagle River Watershed Council.
Something of a relationship has begun between the ERWC and Adam’s Rib, and Cranston takes it as a compliment.
“I like that the watershed council likes what we are doing enough to get involved with us,” he said.
Working in the water
With the cattle gone and Flywater on board, Adam’s Rib developers set to work on their stretch of Brush Creek. They built a total of 66 “structures” in the last two fall seasons. A “structure” is a stream enhancement, which could refer to a reinforced bank or man-made pools, among other things.
Adam’s Rib chose to build the structures in house, as opposed to hiring Flywater for that work. So Marsh learned how to build them himself. It was slow going at first.
“Initially we were only able to build one structure a day but by the end we were doing three a day,” Marsh said. “It was fun.”
The work could only be done during a very specific time of year in order to minimize environmental impacts such as fish spawning.
“Brown and rainbow trout have different spawning seasons, which made the work a little harder to coordinate,” Cranston said.
Brush Creek has wetland areas around it that also demanded protective measures during construction.
“The heavy equipment we used to make the structures seldom came out of the stream for that reason,” Marsh said.
The main goal of the in-stream structures is to slow the creek down and create pools for fish to congregate.
Boulders were purchased from local excavators to make the structures, so the rock is basically native, Cranston said.
Some of the structures are reinforced banks to stave off erosion. Others are more like shallow dams that cover the width of the creek and some entail a grouping of rocks to make a small pool. As many as three structures can be found in one short stretch of the creek.
“Flywater had a formula based on depth and width for what and how many structures were needed in a given distance,” Marsh said.
Severe spring runoffs in the last two years altered some of the structures but they stayed mostly intact.
“I’m amazed the work survived,” Marsh said.
Cranston said they anticipate the structures to shift around over time.
“You can’t stop Mother Nature,” Marsh said.
Another part of the structures isn’t as obvious as the rocks.
“We didn’t clear cut the vegetation on the banks because that helps prevent erosion,” Cranston said.
The ranch’s initial stocking of Brush Creek and the ranch’s entry pond included over 300 pounds of rainbow trout. Each fish measured 8 to 15 inches. To the developers’ delight, many stayed in the area instead of migrating to better conditions. The second stocking, in August, included 750 pounds of rainbow trout measuring 10 to 15 inches.
Much of Brush Creek along the Adam’s Rib property is pretty difficult to fish. The thick vegetation left along the banks makes access and fly casting considerably more challenging.
That’s partly by design. Some areas along the creek have been made more accessible, but people who want easy pickings can hit up ponds on the ranch.
“Flywater did a good job outlining a variety of fishing difficulties,” Marsh said.
Cranston declined to give a specific cost for the project but it was high and will take years to recoup.
“It’s pretty rare that you can improve both business and the environment,” he said.
Now, many people will be watching and waiting to see what happens into the future.
“The development is only a shadow of what is intended,” Wynn said. “We’ll see what happens when the other houses are built.”
Merry underlined that mines and urban development are constant threats to riparian habitat.
“Every person plays a role,” he said. “Lawnmowers, automobiles, pets – they all add up.”