Environmentally, sustaining upper-headwater health through private-lands projects like these provides groundwater recharge and the late-season return flows important to downstream users. From the business side of things, using agricultural infrastructure projects to increase operational efficiency makes it easier and less costly in the long term for farmers and ranchers to do their jobs. That efficiency could mean the difference between staying in and going out of business, especially as Colorado River Basin water users assess the feasibility of options like demand management in the face of long-term drought.
Despite the economic and ecological resiliency these projects provide, Sally Ross, the Restoration and Resiliency Program Director for CCALT, said landowners often struggle with their cost—and having the capacity to implement them. Few funding mechanisms exist in the form of grants from agencies or private foundations. In part, she noted, that that’s because it’s hard for people to make the link between replacing a leaky culvert in someone’s private pasture and increasing return flows to the river.
“If we can spread the message that these small private projects are critical to the bigger ecological picture—that the new culvert is improving water quality and keeping more water in the river than a leaky one would—then we could really make a difference,” she said.
Operational resiliency has become increasingly important as weather patterns become more unstable due to climate change. For Knott Land and Livestock, for instance, there’s been a trend toward less snowpack and drier and hotter summers, which has direct effects on the water they depend on for growing hay for their cattle. On a more immediate basis, the family is facing another challenge posed by Mother Nature: the threat that Trout Creek will erode its way into an access road and irrigation ditch. The road serves as a route to move cattle to a higher-elevation pasture and, if nothing changes, the creek could erode the bank away entirely and cut off that critical grazing access.
To address these site-specific issues, and to generally improve river health in the intervening miles, the Knotts are collaborating with Trout Unlimited (TU) to install a combination of low-tech and more traditional instream structures. Brian Hodge, a biologist for TU who is working on the project alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said that the low-tech, process-based work could involve anything from installing log structures to using woody vegetation and cobbles to raise channel bed elevation. The low-tech structures will be temporary and designed to work with and without beavers.
Besides reducing pressure on ranch infrastructure, low-tech solutions will reduce stream power, reconnect the stream with its floodplain, and promote riparian health. Doing so will reduce solar and sediment inputs into the creek’s otherwise clear, trout-inhabited waters. It will also enhance the floodplain’s ability to hold and slowly release water, which could be a boon for the Knotts—and their neighbors downstream—in a low snow year. Hodge said the overall effect will be an increase in the innate resilience of the Trout Creek corridor.
“We’re going to use a low-tech, process-based approach where we can, because it’s cost effective and adaptable”, he said. “If we can help [the Knotts] protect ranch infrastructure and improve river health, that’s a win-win.”