The Roaring Fork Watershed Plan: Identifying and Addressing Riparian Area Issues and Data Gaps

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by Sharon Clarke, Land and Water Conservation Specialist, Roaring Fork Conservancy

Roaring Fork Watershed Plan

Tim O'Keefe, Roaring Fork Conservancy's education director conducting adult training on riparian areas with the Forest Conservancy.

Riparian areas protect the life force of a watershed. Recognizing this, one of the Roaring Fork Watersheds Plan’s Goals is to: To protect and restore the functions of riparian and instream areas. The Roaring Fork Watershed Plan (Plan) had its origins in the work of the Water Committee of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, an informal galthering of local officials, planners, resource managers, and interested citizens.

The first phase of the planning process was fostering stakeholder involvement and gathering and synthesizing water resource data. In 2006 the Ruedi Water and Power Authority (RWAPA), a consortium of local governments, became involved as the official sponsor of the Plan. RWAPA engaged Roaring Fork Conservancy as the lead consutant. The culmination of Phase I was the “State of the Roaring Fork Watershed Report 2008”1. The riparian area section of the report discussed the types of information available to evaluate these areas in the watershed. Foremost was a comprehensive assessment completed by the Stream Health Initiative2. Also addressed in the report were data and knowledge gaps, functions of riparian areas, factors that affect riparian areas, and federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and policies pertaining to riparian areas.

Phase II, the completion of the “Roaring Fork Watershed Plan”3 addresses the issues and data gaps identified in Phase I. The goals, objectives, and recommended actions for the five broad topic areas: Regional Water Management, Surface Water, Groundwater, Water Quality, and Riparian and Instream Areas were crafted using significant input from entities involved in water resource management, the public, and technical advisors. The Riparian and Instream Area’s Objectives are:

  1. Assess the condition of riparian and instream habitat for all major streams in the watershed.
  2. Enhance and preserve native riparian and instream flora and fauna including wild, naturally reproducing fish communities.
  3. Minimize the impact of development and other activities in riparian and instream areas.
  4. Improve understanding of the importance of riparian and instream areas.
  5. Eradicate/control invasive species in riparian and instream areas.

Implementation of the Plan is a long-term enterprise, one that must rely on partnership and persistence by those who are committed to a healthier watershed. The sponsors of this Plan were fortunate to have the assistance of a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment who chose a study of the Roaring Fork Watershed’s implementation options as a project. The study, “Fostering Implementation of the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan”4, provides a wealth of examples, resources and insight and provides an invaluable starting point for discussing the practical aspects of implementation. The last section of the plan identifies potential grant and other opportunities for funding implementation of the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan’s recommended actions.

A handful of actions from each of the broad water topics are suggested for immediate implementation. These actions were selected based on a combination of factors, including the environmental and economic value of the resource to be protected or restored, the threat of future impacts, their ability to be successfully completed in the near-term and potential to offer significant opportunities for collaboration and education. Some of these actions are opportunistic, in that they build upon ongoing work and take advantage of current political will and public enthusiasm. Successful implementation of these actions will provide momentum for accomplishing the over 200 actions identified in the Plan. Two of these urgent actions specifically pertain to riparian areas:

  1. Working with landowners, resource experts, and other interested parties, plan and implement riparian and instream protection and restoration projects.
  2. Provide education to the public about the important functions of riparian areas, development and other threats to riparian areas, what can be done to protect and restore riparian areas, and potential sources of funding for riparian projects.

Roaring Fork Conservancy is working on several efforts to address these two objectives. To address the first objective four areas were identified that have high visibility and are ecologically significant. To varying degrees they provide opportunities for collaboration, take advantage of ongoing project/program support, and offer relatively uncomplicated access to the riparian and instream area. For the second objective, we are developing innovative ways to reach riverfront property owners building on our extensive education efforts including our “Citizen’s Guide to Riverfront Property”5. Reaching individual riverfront property owners is difficult and effecting change in how they manage their property can be more challenging. Taking advantage of the excitement of buying new property and the relationship between realtors and home buyers, this project seeks to educate riverfront property owners through an information brochure and in the course of their relationship with realtors. The two components of this project are:

1) An updated informative brochure that describes the importance of riparian areas, what landowners can and cannot do, and offering free consultations. The update will include information such as options for protecting the property through conservation easements, applicable local regulations guiding activities in these areas, and attractive landscaping ideas that protect or restore riparian areas.

2) Roaring Fork Conservancy Staff and the River Stewards (an outreach group of young professionals 25-40 years old) will put together a targeted educational campaign for local realtors, land planners, landscape architects, architects, engineering firms and others such as golf course managers. Targeting each of the disciplines involved with riverfront real estate offers a forum for discussion on the importance of riparian areas for improving both the quality of the real estate, and the quality and amount of water in our watershed. This campaign will include local riparian experts. The messages will convey that healthy riparian areas can be attractive and are critical to a healthy watershed. Messages will be crafted to specifically address the questions “why should I care?” and “what can I do?” Information that will be communicated includes:

  1. In Colorado, riparian habitat represents about one percent of the land but has the highest species richness with 75 – 80% of wildlife species using riparian habitat during some part of their life.
  2. Almost 140 of 185 miles of streams surveyed in the Roaring Fork Watershed have moderately modified to severely degraded riparian habitat.
  3. Functioning riparian areas reduce the risk of flooding and increase stream base flows.
  4. Healthy riparian areas stabilize stream channels and creates rich instream habitat that supports many different aquatic organisms and fish species.
  5. Riparian areas provide aesthetically and naturally rich places for human use.

Notes:
1 Clarke, S., K. Crandall, J. Emerick, M. Fuller, J. Katzenberger, D. Malone, M. Masone, A. Slap, and J. Thomas. 2008. State of the Roaring Fork Watershed report 2008. Sponsor: Ruedi Water and Power Authority. Lead Consultant: Roaring Fork Conservancy. http://www.roaringfork.org/watershedplan.

2 Malone, D.G. and J.C. Emerick. 2007. Catalog of stream and riparian habitat quality for the Roaring Fork River and tributaries, Central Colorado. Roaring Fork Stream Health Initiative. www.roaringfork.org/collaborative/shi.

3 Clarke, S, M. Fuller, and R. Sullivan. 2011. Draft Roaring Fork Watershed Plan. Sponsor: Ruedi Water and Power Authority. Lead Consultant: Roaring Fork Conservancy. http://www.roaringfork.org/watershedplan.

4 Barker, A., B. Hellman, A. Kohl, K. McIntyre, and A. Michalek. 2010. Fostering implementation of the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan. University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment. www.roaringfork.org/watershedplan.

5 Citizen’s Guide to Riverfront Property http://www.roaringfork.org/pub/education/What_You_Can_Do_-_RiverfrontProperty.pdf