Arkansas River: Restoration of Giant salmonflies (Pteronarcys californica) hasn’t had the hoped for results — yet

Giant salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10470719
Giant salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10470719

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Lance Benzel):

…on the Arkansas River, Pteronarcys californica has been missing from the menu for upwards of a century, the casualty of a toxic past.

One state aquatic biologist hypothesizes they suffered a localized extinction, or extirpation, during an era when Leadville mine waste flowed unchecked into the Arkansas. That was before new water treatment measures initiated a turnaround that began in the early 1990s and eventually spawned one of the state’s most popular fisheries.

Now an effort to re-establish the bug, also known as the giant stonefly, seeks to add a fresh chapter to the unfolding success story. It has anglers sitting up and taking notice, even as it puts the river’s vaunted recovery to the test.

In 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched a three-year effort that scooped up an estimated 135,000 giant salmonfly nymphs from the Colorado River near Kremmling and deposited them at eight test sites near Salida.

After mounting what the agency calls the largest insect transplantation on record, a problem emerged at a critical juncture.

In 2015, a year after the last of the salmonfly deliveries to the Arkansas, state wildlife workers went back to the test areas to gauge their progress, searching the riverbank in 100-foot swaths, from the water’s edge to the willows.

After 58 man hours, they found no evidence that transplanted salmonflies had crawled out of the river to shed their exoskeletons and sprout wings, the culminating change in their roughly three-year lifecycle.

Further searches this spring and summer turned up no adults and little more than a “handful” of exoskeletal chucks, said Greg Policky, the state aquatic biologist who devised the experiment…

After mining came to Leadville in 1859, heavy metals began filtering into the Arkansas and ravaged its ecosystem, killing all fish around Leadville. Further downstream, near Salida, trout for decades lived for no more than two to three years – long enough to spawn, but too brief to acquire significant size.

“The Arkansas was a dead river,” said Jean Van Pelt of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

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The river’s fate began to change in 1992, when two treatment facilities were constructed near Leadville to remove heavy metals like cadmium and zinc, generated on mine runoff, before they reached the river.

The effect was nearly immediate.

“It turned things around,” Policky said. “By 1994, we had a self-sustaining population of brown trout here.”

Better water quality cleared the way for two decades of piecemeal improvements, including efforts to restore the Arkansas to a natural state in areas where it had been straightened or otherwise modified, a common occurrence in the developing West.

One recent project in Hayden Flats south of Leadville, for example, created a new bend in the river by installing a subterranean structure of latticed logs and timber at the river bank, then burying it under transplanted willows. The result is a veritable “fish condo” that creates optimal flow conditions while giving trout a place to hide from predators.

Downstream near Salida, the effect of the river’s rehabilitation was profound, fattening up trout and extending their life expectancy to up to a decade.

In theory, it should have created trophy conditions for the giant salmonfly, too…

During all three years the bugs were stocked, they hatched in mid-May, fueling hopes it would be a matter of time before they took off like “gangbusters,” he said.

Back-to-back years without hatches suggest the process will be slower than expected; it could also indicate the experiment has been a failure.

Policky urges patience.

Any number of factors could explain the bugs’ apparent absence, Policky said, including competition from other bugs, or the large amount of sediment that washes into the river from the overgrown forests cloaking the Collegiate Peaks.

But he acknowledges the problem could also be environmental. For that reason, the search to explain the bugs’ failure to take wing is centered on water quality data measured by sensors by the river’s headwaters near Leadville.

So far, the data show no evidence of heavy metals in the water, but the monitoring isn’t continuous, raising the possibility that some level of contamination could be finding its way back in.

Standing at the river bank, he mulled the possibilities.

“Did heavy metals rear their ugly head again? Did we have a release that we don’t know about? This is the canary in the coal mine.

“If indeed I can track it to water quality, Pteronarcys is how I’m going to get there.”

On the other hand, fish and other bug communities appear to be thriving, an indication that perhaps some other cause is to blame. Policky chalks it up to another unknown in an unprecedented effort to revive a bug species through transplantation.

“Frankly, there’s never been anything like this, for sure not to this magnitude.”

CFWE: Collaborative Water Management Tour, Roaring Fork Watershed September 12, 2016

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

Click here for the inside skinny and to register. Draft agenda. From the website:

Join the Colorado Foundation for Water Education for a one-day tour of the Roaring Fork Watershed that will showcase exemplary collaborative water management projects. Gain an understanding of how multiple public and private entities are working together on water quality, water quantity, and riparian habitat improvement projects. The itinerary will showcase collaborative stream management plans and water management projects with municipalities, landowners, state and federal agencies, recreationists, watershed groups, and the local community. Tour attendees will get an in-depth look at how water managers and leaders are putting the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan into action.

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Teens help with river restoration project as part of North Fork flood recovery By Pamela Johnson — the Loveland Reporter-Herald

The Big Thompson River September 14, 2013 via The Denver Post
The Big Thompson River September 14, 2013 via The Denver Post

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

The project, spearheaded by Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, is wrapping up, and a crew of teens attending a fly-fishing camp this week planted trees, shrubs and grass on a section of the river about 2 miles above Drake as part of the final touches…

The Big Thompson River and the North Fork suffered severe damage during the September 2013 flood. Torrents of water wiped out homes, sheds, trees, boulders and anything else in their path and left behind destruction that, in many places, resembled a barren moonscape…

During the aftermath of the flood, Wildland Restoration Volunteers began reaching out to find ways to help restore trails, wildlands and sections of the river.

They connected with Chenoweth and other landowners and applied for state grants to redesign and rehabilitate a 2.5-mile section of the North Fork to be studied and used as an example for future projects. Most of the land in the project is owned by the Chenoweth family and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

With $360,000 in grants and $140,000 worth of donated time and supplies, crews and volunteers have realigned and regraded the river channel to make the river and surrounding habitat healthy and more able to survive a future flood.

This included specifically designing the depth of pools in the river, carefully placing rocks to create ripples in the water and to stabilize the bank and creating areas along the river that will allow water to slow down and spread out in the event of another flood.

The next step was to plant vegetation along the river to enhance habitat and to protect the banks from erosion.

The teens from the Rocky Mountain Flycasters Fly Fishing Conservation Camp worked on the planting this week, putting in willows, cottonwoods, dogwoods, chokecherry trees and native grasses.

Luke McNally, who works for Wildland Restoration Volunteers, pointed out to the teens the trees that survived the flood as well as grasses that have returned since. But, he noted, the amount of plant life is nothing compared with what was there before the flood…

The goal of the camp, which is in its seventh year, is for the teens to learn about fishing as well as ecology and conservation and to stir in them a love of the outdoors and a desire to protect the lands, noted Dennis Cook, camp director and a member of Rocky Mountain Flycasters.

Storm pattern over Colorado September 2013 -- Graphic/NWS via USA Today
Storm pattern over Colorado September 2013 — Graphic/NWS via USA Today

Removing Tamarisk on the San Miguel River — The Nature Conservancy

From the Nature Conservancy:

How an ambitious tamarisk removal project on the San Miguel River set the precedent for future restoration work.

TAMARISK: A THREAT TO THE RIVER
The free-flowing San Miguel River extends for 80 miles from high-alpine headwaters above Telluride, to a desert confluence with the Dolores River near the Utah border. The area is marked by Cottonwood forests with understory of willows and skunkbrush sumac and supports an array of wildlife such as great blue heron, American dipper, black swift, river otter, beaver, black bear, and mountain lion.

In 2005, a watershed-scale conservation plan developed by the Conservancy and partners identified the invasion of non-native species specifically tamarisk, Russian olive, and Chinese elm as the highest threat to the riparian vegetation along the San Miguel River.

Tamarisk replaces native vegetation, and accumulates high concentrations of salts in the soil, threatening plant and animal species and local economy dependent on the river and riparian systems. Removing tamarisk and other nonnative woody plants from riparian corridors improves water quantity and quality, and restores the health of native vegetation.

AN AMBITIOUS GOAL
In response to this, the Conservancy designed a restoration plan and set an ambitious goal of making the San Miguel the first tamarisk-free river system in the Western United States, something that had never been tried before. Working with community members, landowners, the Bureau of Land Management and local government officials, the Conservancy educated stakeholders on the benefits of the project for the river ecosystem and garnered support from almost everyone in the watershed.

Starting in 2007, the project took seven years to complete. While not reaching the goal of a fully tamarisk-free river system, the woody invasive species abundance is drastically reduced in all of the areas that were treated. Analysis done in 2014 has shown that the removal work was a success and minimal continued management is needed.

A MODEL FOR RIPARIAN RESTORATION
“This comprehensive project was a first of its kind in the western United States and has become a model for large scale riparian restoration,” said Terri Schulz, director of landscape science and management for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

Efforts have expanded to projects on the Dolores River and prompted the establishment and expansion of groups such as the Tamarisk Coalition. By thinking about this work in the context of the whole watershed, the Conservancy was able to reach out to a wide variety of partners to provide leadership and manpower to the project and to grow the capacity for this work moving beyond the San Miguel watershed.

As the Conservancy plans for future restoration efforts, the tamarisk removal project on the San Miguel River provides an outline for how to successfully work together with communities, landowners and the government to complete projects and reach largescale conservation goals.

The #ColoradoRiver’s unexpected carbon footprint — The High Country News #COriver

Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute
Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute

From The High Country News (Lyndsey Gilpin):

…a new study by University of Florida, University of Arizona, Yale University and University of Washington researchers shows the water [from the 2014 pulse flow] also caused the ground to rapidly emit carbon stored for years beneath the riverbeds, which could have an impact on the global carbon cycle and affect future river restoration.

“It’s still a big unknown on the true magnitude of these fluxes, but these large river(beds) are turning out to have really high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane,” says David Butman, an environmental science and engineering professor at the University of Washington who worked on the study. “Looking at the exchanges of carbon gasses between landscapes, the atmosphere, and water as we look to restore these disturbed ecosystems may be important.”

The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is a step toward understanding carbon balance in water systems and the impact it could have on carbon levels on land and in the ocean. It’s still unclear why carbon was released, but the study documented that 30 percent more greenhouse gases came out of the riverbed and dissolved into the water at one site during the Minute 319 flow than before it (they’re still working to determine how much was released into the atmosphere). Several researchers who worked on this study say most of the gas was stored underground in sediment, and sand-dwelling microbes created the rest when the water reached them. The riverbed normally releases greenhouse gases gradually as part of the typical carbon cycle, but the Delta released a significant amount in a matter of just eight weeks during the pulse flow, though the researchers aren’t yet sure exactly how much.

The consequences of that are still tough to quantify, says Karl Flessa, a co-author of the study and co-chief scientist of Minute 319, but he doesn’t think the risks of emitting greenhouse gases outweigh the benefits of watering a parched ecosystem and growing new plant life. Since the pulse flow event, vegetation has thrived in the riparian zone where the land meets the river in the Colorado River Delta – cottonwoods and willows have turned the space greener than it had been in years.

The U.S. and Mexico are currently in negotiations about more restoration efforts when this one expires in 2017. And now, the researchers plan to look into how the duration of floods like this one affects water chemistry, how controlled flooding could support coastal stability, and how the consequences of flood pulses compare to a steady, minimum water flow in rivers like the Colorado.

This study may actually strengthen the case for consistent flow of the Colorado River.

Forest Service restores wetlands in Falls Creek — The Durango Herald

The north part of the valley floor area includes a wetlands area. The interpretive sign at the trail head mentions that the Basketmakers grew corn and squash in addition to hunting deer, rabbits, turkeys, and porcupine, and gathering. Photo via 4CornersHikes.blogspot.com.
The north part of the valley floor area includes a wetlands area. The interpretive sign at the trail head mentions that the Basketmakers grew corn and squash in addition to hunting deer, rabbits, turkeys, and porcupine, and gathering. Photo via 4CornersHikes.blogspot.com.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The U.S. Forest Service has put the final touches on a project that effectively restores an almost 20-acre wetland in Falls Creek, adding a rich biodiverse area to the lush green valley northwest of Durango.

In the 1990s, it was discovered that the land in Falls Creek, at the north end of County Road 205, was for sale. Rumors circulated that the owner at the time, Utah Power and Light, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp Utility Co., was in talks with developers that were interested in constructing several hundred homes in the tucked-away valley.

Fearing the archaeologically rich area would be developed, a grass-roots movement lobbied for almost two years to save the open meadow, surrounded by white sandstone cliffs and ponderosa forests.

In 1992, Congress allocated about $1.9 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, securing the 53-acre tract from development. On March 31 of that year, the area, also known as Hidden Valley, was officially turned over to the Forest Service. And as part of the deal, the Forest Service received long-held water rights from Falls Creek.

To retain water rights in the state of Colorado, an entity must prove the water is going to “beneficial use” every 10 years or they run the risk of losing the allocation.

Rob Genualdi, an engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Division 7, said water courts officially recognize the creation of wetlands from water rights as a “beneficial use,” although it’s generally a rare occurrence an owner would chose to do so.

“I would say it’s a much, much smaller use (of water rights),” Genualdi said. “Probably just a few dozen, if that.”

Yet for the Forest Service’s Columbine District, the determination to use about 420 gallons a minute from Falls Creek was an easy, logical decision. Wetlands would not only enrich the ecosystem with minimal effort, it would preserve the popular hiking area, follow the wishes of adjacent neighbors and be flexible to other water users of the creek.

Using a ditch constructed in the late 1880s to divert water for irrigation, the Forest Service made some improvements, and releases water from Falls Creek into the meadow to the south. For the most part, nature takes care of the rest.

Already, the area is lush with plant life, a variety of birds, and swarms of small mammals. The final piece of work completed last week, which expanded an earthen dam, will allow Forest Service officials to sit back and watch wildlife take control.

Bugs offer clues on #AnimasRiver health — #Colorado @TroutUnlimited

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

If you want some good clues about river health, check out the bug life.

Trout Unlimited, Mountain Studies Institute and partners today announced plans for a multi-year monitoring of the Animas River in southwest Colorado to gauge the overall health of the Animas River and whether the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is impacting aquatic health in the world-class trout waters through Durango.

“We’re lucky that our community’s Gold Medal trout fishery wasn’t immediately damaged by the Gold King spill,” said Ty Churchwell, TU’s San Juan Mountains coordinator, in a release. “But long-term, it’s unclear what the effects of the spill might be. Trout Unlimited wants to make sure the aquatic health of the river—and specifically, its bug life—is closely monitored in coming months and years.”

Why look at bugs? Scott Roberts, aquatic biologist with MSI, pointed out that aquatic macroinvertebrate orders—such as mayflies, caddis and stoneflies—provide the foundation of the aquatic food chain, not just for trout but for a range of wildlife, from birds to mammals.

“Aquatic bugs are widely considered an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Roberts. “That’s because they live in the water column as well as river sediment. We’re going to learn a lot by seeing which bugs are doing well and which aren’t.”

Salmonflies (Pteronarcys), for instance, are present in the lower Animas watershed—a good sign because they are considered sensitive to pollution.

TU is committed to following up on the Animas spill in coming months and years and making sure the EPA and others in charge of cleanup don’t lose sight of the health of this amazing recreational fishery.

For more info, check out http://www.WeAreTheAnimas.com.