North Fork River Improvement Association

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by Jeff Crane, North Fork River Improvement Association

 
Newly created wetland one year after construction.

The North Fork River Improvement Association (NFRIA) was established early in 1996 as a grassroots community coalition of landowners along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The organization grew out of the increasingly frustrating problem of bank erosion along the river and the determination to research new and innovative solutions. The North Fork of the Gunnison River is located in northwestern Gunnison and eastern Delta counties and flows through the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss before converging with the main stem of the Gunnison River north of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The group empowers a broad-based network of riverfront landowners, farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, in-stream gravel mining companies, sportsmen and boaters, irrigation companies, and concerned members of the community. This “solution-focused” organization is a unique collaboration of diverse community interests and government agencies brought together to develop solutions to the common problems associated with the valley’s most valuable resource — the river. NFRIA is a membership organization originally designed as an alternative to traditional “top-down” government regulatory approaches and has approximately 450 members.

In 1882, the North Fork of the Gunnison River Valley was officially opened to settlement by the US government following the relocation of the Ute Indians. The valley was immediately recognized for its agricultural potential and soon farms and orchards sprung up along the river. According to the 1882 manuscript of Ezra Wade, one of the first homesteaders, the river was very “crooked” and spread out across a large and thickly vegetated floodplain. But soon meanders were being taken out and the river was straightened to maximize productive farmland.

Mesa State College students install a willow brush mattress.

The settlers’ well-intentioned but misguided efforts to straighten the river had some unseemly consequences. The meanders kept the river flowing slowly through the valley. Without them, the faster river eroded banks and flooded un-vegetated fields. Soon dikes were being built to protect the farms while the river attempted to reclaim its floodplain. This fight with nature was carried out with teams of horses, dynamite, and hard work until Delta County received its first surplus bulldozer from the War Department in 1948. Then bulldozing of the channel became an annual event until 1980, when the Clean Water Act started to regulate in-channel activities.

Consequently, the river had lost most of its function. Channelization practices promoted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Soil Conservation Service between the 30’s and the 70’s proved to be a failure. Bank erosion rates were as high as ever, riparian buffers along the now braided channel were nearly non-existent, water quality decreased considerably, bridge and irrigation structures were in constant need of repair, and fish and wildlife habitat was practically destroyed.

Today, NFRIA is working together with the community to restore function to the river while protecting agricultural sustainability and the rural quality of life. One of the first tasks undertaken was to obtain funding for a study to identify and quantify the specific problems associated with the river and develop conclusions and recommendations for its restoration. NFRIA was awarded a Community Based Assistance Grant from the EPA late in 1996 and a morphological assessment of the river commenced in January 1997. The report, completed in September 1997, concluded that channelization was the primary cause for the destabilization of the riverbanks and the degradation of the riparian vegetation along the banks.

A site was then selected to develop an on-the-ground demonstration of various techniques available to improve stream function. The demonstration site, located between the two bridges in Hotchkiss, was selected because of its visibility to the public, increased potential for cooperating partners, and enthusiastic landowners. This site also had a diverse array of problems and therefore offered a broader range of possible solutions. This site also has the advantage of bringing more partners together than other sites such as the Colorado Dept. of Transportation and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

NFRIA used the combined resources of 24 different cooperating government agencies, private foundations, corporations, and local in-kind donations of services, materials and volunteers to plan, design, and construct their first project. The objective was to incorporate new and innovative technologies to reduce erosion, stabilize the channel, increase the density and diversity of the riparian vegetation, improve fish and wildlife habitat, and improve water quality. A major component of the project was also to construct a reliable, safe, and efficient irrigation diversion capable of delivering a full decree of water to the ditch while eliminating the need for an annual “push-up” gravel dam and remove impediments to fish migration and safe recreational boating.

This highly visible project restored 1.5 miles of the North Fork and was judged a great success by government agencies, the association, and most importantly the local community. The $410,000 project was completed within budget and ahead of schedule in February 2000 and illustrated available innovative technologies for natural floodplain rehabilitation, water conservation, habitat enhancement, and channel stabilization.

Since then NFRIA has collaborated with over 60 different partners to restore 6 miles of heavily impacted stream and floodplain and reconstructed four irrigation diversions. NFRIA now holds annual “River Awareness Floats” every May to showcase its restoration work to the community and demonstrate new recreational potential on what used to be an unrunnable river.

NFRIA bases its success upon its ability to build consensus among all interests involved and create win-win solutions. Dozens of government agencies, private foundations, corporations, local businesses, farmers and ranchers, and citizens have been brought together to develop successful cost-effective projects on what is typically a very contentious issue. The University of Colorado honored NFRIA with the Wirth Chair in Environmental and Community Development Policy for collaborative restoration work on the North Fork. The US Environmental Protection Agency awarded an Environmental Achievement Award for outstanding leadership in building a watershed partnership and the NPR radio show E-Town has presented the group with an E-chievement award. Trout Unlimited highlighted NFRIA’s Midway Enhancement Project in their 2003 Dry Legacy II report as the success story of the year.

NFRIA has several more projects in various stages of design and completion. Next month they will remove an old abandoned concrete dam in the river that has become nothing more than a safety hazard. A local gravel mining company has donated 19 acres of a previous in-stream mine to NFRIA for a community river park. Efforts are currently underway to raise funds for the restoration. There are also five more irrigation diversions planned for reconstruction as funding becomes available.

In addition to its restoration work, NFRIA manages the North Fork Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Network, which provides data about the health of the river to local residents, decision-makers, and government agencies. The River Outreach and Education Program informs valley youth and adults about the value of water resources and methods for protection and conservation through newsletters, interpretive signs along the river, school and civic group presentations and information posted on its website at www.nfria.paonia.com.