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Willows help restore Rio Grande stream banks

Posted: Friday, Apr 26th, 2013

Willow clumps were carried across the Rio Grande River to stabilize the banks. Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — Healing stream banks is slow, steady and, ultimately, hardcore work.

This month, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) realized the fourth phase of its Rio Grande Riparian Stabilization Project along the Rio Grande’s ever improving eastern Alamosa stretch behind Wal Mart on Highway 160. Fighting chilling winds, cool spring temperatures and pelting sand, over 550 willow clumps were planted, but not by hands or with shovels. Heavy equipment rolled through the low Rio Grande waters to remove willows bunches from their natural habitat and then place them in holes deep as the water table. The technique increased both the planting’s efficiency and the probability that the trees will take root and begin to combat the erosion enabling the ecosystem’s deterioration while meeting ongoing project goals.

“They will anchor the stream banks, which protects against future erosion during high water events,” explained RGHRP coordinator Heather Dutton. “They will also provide excellent habitat for upland wildlife, birds and bugs. This is really important because it supports species of concern such as the Southwest Willow Flycatcher.”

RGHRP has been working to restore the river since the turn of the century. In 2001, a study identified sediment input as one of the primary threats to the river’s health. The diagnosis prompted a series of project phases to make the river stronger that, in turn, have reached far beyond its sandy banks. Various cost-sharing partnerships over the years have provided RGHRP the opportunity to bring landowners like Alamosa County’s Regas Chefas, Greg Hrehovcsik and Judy Luckhart and Ken Colwell into the restoration equation. Such endeavors have also made economic contributions that often go unnoticed in environmentally based projects.

“This project (Phase Four) spent $550,000 locally,” Dutton said. “The economics of river restoration is really interesting. We think so much about how it benefits non-consumptive uses. It is benefiting the habitat and the river, and that has intrinsic worth and you can put a monetary value on it.”

The improved river system also benefits agricultural and recreation users through increased efficiency, quality and accessibility while meeting well-defined ecosystem restoration objectives, she said.

“A great externality of our project is to the locals,” Dutton said. “And when it’s all finished, you can’t even see where we have been.”

With the environmentally considerate work of Pagosa Springs-based Riverbend Engineering, the project designers, and Antonito-based Robins Construction, the area from where the willow bunches were removed shows no signs of disturbance nor does the terrain from where the heavy equipment treaded.

“We are not hauling in any material,” Dutton said. “The goal is that you don’t know we have stolen a bunch of willows.”

The next step for the RGHRP is Phase Five, which will require additional funding resources for high priority restoration areas flanking the Phase Four river stretch.

“We have a long way to go to be finished with stream bank stabilization and riparian restoration on the Rio Grande,” Dutton said.

In 2012, the RGHRP received grants from Xcel Energy and the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) for the Alamosa County Improvement Project to complete riparian revegetation and noxious weed removal on Alamosa County riparian areas. In October 2012, a group of 51 volunteers from the Alamosa Boy Scouts planted 50 willow bundles on a City of Alamosa river site. The Southwest Conservation Corps was hired in addition to compost and reseed areas with low vegetation cover and plant willows on stream banks. The crew spread 38 tons of donated local compost, reseeded seven acres of riparian areas and planted 291 willow bundles.

“Through that work, we did additional improvements to vegetation on the sites where we’d already done construction,” Dutton said. “Phase Four comes right into two sites, which includes the Alamosa Ranch. I’m very excited about this because it results in over two restored river miles right above town.”

Matching funds from the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and in-kind contributions from local, state, and federal partners will permit noxious weed removal to continue this year. The rehabilitation work, according to the RGHRP, is an asset to the local community because it encourages engaged community participation, employs young adults and improves the condition of stream banks, riparian vegetation and wildlife habitat for the enjoyment of all.

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