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Rebuilding the Dolores River Riparian Corridor with Native Plants

March 25th, 2019
By David Varner, Restoration Coordinator with RiversEdge West
 
 
Although the focus of my work is environmental conservation, there are only a couple days out of the year I can actually get paid to install a native plant- I relish them. So I considered myself pretty lucky, last month when I got down on my knees to demonstrate how to take a young shadscale out of its plastic pot and put it in the recently watered hole without breaking off the top.
 
So lucky, in fact, that I waxed a bit too eloquently, relishing the moment the root ball touched the moist soil at the bottom of the hole, declaring this would be the plant’s new home, forever. Too eloquently, apparently, because after relishing that moment I looked up to my audience to see some high schoolers rolling their eyes. I don’t take it personally- I know my passion for native plants and high-quality riparian habitat are outside the bell curve when it comes to amusement. But I know feedback when I see it, so I moved on to the next step in the process- pushing all the dirt back in the hole, anchoring our sapling shrub’s rootball in its new geography.
 
David kneels along the banks of the Dolores River to demonstrate how to properly plant native plants.
 
Atriplex confertifolia, you say, riparian? Well sort of, right? If you’re confused then it might help to learn something about the Dolores River and the effects of decades of reduced flows into it. Without getting too controversial, a dam was constructed in the 1980s where the Dolores River transitions from a steep, headwaters stream in the Colorado Rockies, to a low-gradient desert river. A substantial portion of the water collected by that dam is diverted out of the watershed for agriculture and other needs, and in-stream flows, for the actual river channel, were overlooked.
 
If the tamarisk infestation was not significant prior to the 1980s, the new conditions created by the water management were ideal for the invasive phreatophyte, further outcompeting the willow and cottonwood for space and moisture. Add to the recipe a lack of hydrologic disturbance over several decades, and the result is a fixed river channel with dense tamarisk infestations armoring the banks. The Dolores River Canyon was always beautiful, but the riparian corridor became inaccessible as native vegetation cover and riparian habitat quality declined.
 
The Dolores River at dusk.
 
The Dolores River Restoration Partnership started in 2009 as a way to reverse the degradation of the riparian corridor of the river, in the service of ecological as well as social and economic objectives. Private funders pumped resources into the partnership’s efforts, and a lot of headway was made removing tamarisk infestations from the river banks and floodplains over several years. In some places native plants recolonized sites, but at many locations, native riparian plants did not fare well; these sites eventually became infested with Russian knapweed or other invasive plants with the ability to take advantage of the harsh conditions. Partnership efforts to perform active revegetation, arguably under-emphasized, yielded mixed results.
 
The result of this history is a 200+ mile river corridor with a desiccating, hydrologically disconnected, and disturbed floodplain, river banks armored with native and non-native shrubs, and undersized flows in the channel. While tamarisk infestations persist in difficult-to-reach and challenging-to-treat areas, it has been all-but eradicated from some reaches, a result of multi-layered, integrated pest management approach. DRRP continues to address tamarisk where it’s reasonably feasible, and now it’s turning more attention to areas where tamarisk has been removed, but a (relatively) stable native vegetation community has not been achieved. Revegetation of the Gateway Canyons Restoration Site is one such effort. DRRP has been actively stewarding the site since 2016, with annual revegetation efforts and seasonal weed treatments.
 
So, on a Friday in November, carefully scheduled as late in the fall as possible to guarantee winter moisture while still accommodating Gateway School curriculum, community members and other partners gathered to plant several hundred native plants at three sites on a broad floodplain of the Dolores River downstream of Gateway, Colorado. With resources provided by Bureau of Land Management, National Wild Turkey Federation, Mesa County, Gateway Canyons Resort, and RiversEdge West, students and volunteers installed one-gallon container plants, grown expressly for the site, reflecting a range of moisture associations, from mesic to xeric. Project managers may not know exactly what the future hydrologic regime of the Dolores River will be, but they are confident it’s likely to be drier than the past and are selecting plants that can take advantage of such conditions: such as Great Plains false willow
(Baccharis salicina), fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), rabbitbrush (Ericameria sp.), and others.
 
A student from the Gateway School in Gateway, CO, inspects the roots of a native plant before she puts it into the ground.
 
With many of the holes pre-dug by Gateway Canyons Resort’s landscaping crew, volunteers and students learned the protocol and put it into action: pre-water the hole, make sure the hole is deep enough and pre-water it; remove the plant’s pot without breaking off the tip and place it in the hole; tamp down the fill dirt when it’s half-full and then again when it’s full to make sure all the air pockets are collapsed; form a mounded ring around the drip-line to capture future precipitation, and then water, and water again…. Conversations, demonstrations, and competitions ensued, time flew by, and by early afternoon our work was done. Many hands made light work of clean up, and three sites, newly planted with native vegetation, were added to the three-year maintenance schedule for DRRP habitat restoration crews- who will make seasonal weed treatments and irrigate the plant during dry periods.
 
Students from the Gateway School plant and deeply water native plants in an effort to revegetate and restore habitat along the Dolores River.
 
If degradation of our environment has happened in thousands of ways, big and small, at millions of locations over the vast landscape of the American West, then it stands to reason that restoration needs to happen in that same manner. These sites on the Dolores River are some of those efforts and locations- being set on a new ecological trajectory: one that can withstand changing environmental conditions, providing wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and pride in the communities it supports.
 
For our part, this project’s leaders, partners, and volunteers- we’re the community that’s investing in the resource, and working hard for the day with this shared vision is gratifying. To top it off, Gateway Canyons offered everyone at the event a tour of their jaw-dropping auto museum, making for a fun, social, and cleaner way to end the day.
 
 
Partners in this project include our major funders, National Wild Turkey Federation and Bureau of Land Management, as well as the myriad others without whom this project would not have been possible: Gateway Canyons Resort provides site access and labor- their landscape crew donates invaluable efforts maintaining the sites; Gateway School and Mesa County Valley School District 51 contribute student participation and curriculum integration; Mesa County Weed & Pest provides labor and technical support; community volunteers from Grand Junction, Whitewater, and Gateway do the bulk of the sweating on planting days(!). 
 
RiversEdge West coordinates the Dolores River Restoration Partnership.
 
Want to Learn More or Get Involved?
  • Volunteer with us and Wildlands Restoration Volunteers on October 19th and 20th, 2019, to cut small tamarisk trees and regrowth of previously cut larger trees as well as cage cottonwoods to protect them from marauding beavers. View volunteer event details here.
  • Become a member and support restoration of the Dolores River!
  • Watch the 2-minute Riverside Stories video featuring Emily Kasyon, who is helping put the 241-mile-long Dolores River on a healthier trajectory – one that benefits both wildlife and creates more economic opportunity for communities along its course.
 
Plants Used in This Restoration Project
  • Alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides)
  • Fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens)
  • Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii)
  • Gardner's saltbush (Atriplex gardneri)
  • Great Plains false willow (Baccharis salicina)
  • New Mexico privet aka desert olive (Forestiera pubescens)
  • Rabbitbrush (Ericameria sp. or Chrysothamnus sp.)
  • Sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus)
  • Shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia)
  • Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)
  • Three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata)
  • Winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata)
 
David Varner works in applied ecological restoration on Colorado’s West Slope. With experience on river restoration projects throughout the western U.S, he works with RiversEdge West in Grand Junction to design and implement sustainable riparian conservation projects. David received a B.S. from Montana State University and worked as a seasonal field biologist before returning to school to study coastal stream restoration at Humboldt State University. Since then, he has worked in a variety of freshwater habitats in the Great Basin and Pacific Northwest. Having worked on numerous natural resource conservation efforts over the past twenty-plus years, David recognizes the vital contribution that planting and fostering native plants in suitable locations (ideally on protected land!) is toward environmental restoration. His current focus on the intersection of native plant landscaping and wildland restoration informs that strategy. 
 
An avid recreationist, David loves to explore Western Colorado and beyond- by bike, hike, ski, boat, and book. His latest favorite outdoor pastime, though, is sharing it all with his toddler daughter. You can contact him at dvarner@riversedgewest.org.

 

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