by Denis Hall
From the air, it looked like western Colorado’s largest Detroit rip-rap showcase. Hundreds of junked automobiles were piled in the floodplain along the northern banks of the Colorado River. Situated near downtown Grand Junction, the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers had become the repository for everything from junk cars to toxic waste. It was riparian, but it wasn’t wildlife habitat.
Degradation of the site began in the early 1950s when a northern side-channel of the Colorado River was diked and mined for gravel. The resulting hole served the City of Grand Junction as municipal dump and, conveniently, as a dump site for uranium tailings from the mill just down the road. The municipal waste and tailings were layered until the hole filled. Once the hole was filled, a new landowner acquired the property and turned it into an auto salvage yard. For years the land accumulated automobile carcasses until, in the late 1980s, the City of Grand Junction made the decision to clean up this highly visible site at the entrance to the city.
Things began to look up for what was now called the Jarvis property. The city bought the site and removed the cars. They went looking for partners. The Department of Energy joined to excavate the mill tailings. The Bureau of Reclamation partnered up to map and engineer the site. The Grand Junction-Mesa County Riverfront Commission, Mesa Soil Conservation District, Colorado Soil Conservation Board, Environmental Protection Agency, and Central Utah Project were also involved.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came on board in 1996. According to Patty Schrader-Gelatt, fish and wildlife biologist for the Service in Grand Junction, “the City of Grand Junction and the Fish and Wildlife Service were looking for property on which to restore riparian habitat. We looked at the Jarvis site and realized that by breaching the existing dike we could restore about nine acres of habitat.” Schrader-Gelatt said her agency and the partnership’s goal is to allow the site to flood during spring runoff and drain during low-water periods later in the year. A setback dike on the north edge of the site was constructed to prevent other properties from flooding, and the floodplain was minimally re-contoured to allow drainage. Construction was completed last October.
Revegetation of the property has also begun. “Native wetland and riparian species are being planted in the floodplain,” said Schrader-Gelatt, adding that appropriate native species are also being planted in nearby upland sites. “Since we only recently completed construction,” she said, “we haven’t gone through a spring run-off yet so we don’t know what it will look like.”
Schrader-Gelatt said one of the best experiences of the project was working with the other involved groups and agencies. “Working on the Jarvis property was a great example of partnering,” she said, and suggested the project could be used as a template for future riparian restoration and enhancement partnerships. “We haven’t yet been approached,” continued Schrader-Gelatt, “and there are no specific projects in the works. But we’re definitely interested in working on similar projects in the future.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Grand Junction-Mesa County Riverfront Commission to ensure the trail being constructed in Grand Valley riverfront areas between Fruita and Palisades doesn’t impact critical habitat for endangered fish. The Service’s recovery program for endangered fish includes an easement and land acquisition program to help protect and restore floodplain habitat.
In 1998 Colorado Riparian Association member Carl Zimmerman nominated the Jarvis project for the association’s Agency of the Year Award, which was presented to the City of Grand Junction. “The project will return the Colorado River to a more natural system flooding and ebbing with seasonal fluctuations of water,” said Carl. “It will provide habitat for endangered fish and improve water quality through wetlands development. Flood control and benefits from flooding, recreation opportunities and aesthetic values will all be enhanced by the cooperative effort from all partners.” Carl praised the partnership aspect of the project as a positive benefit: “I’m very pleased with the cooperative spirit involved with bringing this project to fruition,” said Carl. “The partnership uses funding and cooperation from a variety of sources, and is accomplishing everybody’s interests. Since the project will be highly visible it can serve as a model for future efforts. We will take full advantage of educational values it provides.”
Another project Carl hopes will benefit from the Grand Junction effort is taking place on the North Fork of the Gunnison River between Hotchkiss and Paonia. Local land owners and the 50-member North Fork River Improvement Association are organizing to address streambank erosion and associated water quality issues in the river basin. The group is currently studying watershed impacts, has completed an assessment and is seeking funding for design and installation of several demonstration projects.