by Jay Thompson


 Horse Creek
Riparian vegetation along Horse Creek. The dense vegetation has made the creek more narrow and deeper.

The Colorado Riparian Association recognized Mike Luark of the Luark Land and Cattle Company for his good stewardship of the Horse Creek Watershed in Eagle and Garfield Counties. Mike is a livestock grazing permittee in the BLM’s Glenwood Springs Resource Area in western Colorado. He manages a ranch on the Colorado River, 15 miles north of Dotsero. The Luark Land and Cattle Company is authorized to graze several BLM allotments that extend from the Colorado River to the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness north of Sweetwater Creek. One of the allotments that Mike grazes is the Horse Creek Allotment, which includes most of the Horse Creek Watershed.

 Mike Luark
Mike Luark and Ann Nelson with photos showing improvements on Horse Creek over the years

Horse Creek is a small perennial stream that flows from the eastern side of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area across U.S. Forest Service land. The lower 4 miles of Horse Creek flow across BLM land before the creek joins the Colorado River 3 miles north of Sweetwater Creek. In 1981, the entire summer flow in Horse Creek was being diverted for irrigation into another basin before the water reached the BLM land. The riparian zone along Horse Creek on BLM land was dwindling, and the trout fishery that had once existed on the BLM reach of Horse Creek was gone. Riparian conditions along Horse Creek continued to decline until 1986. At that point, BLM completed a land exchange that resulted in the acquisition of three small parcels of land intermingled with existing BLM land in the Horse Creek drainage. As part of the exchange, BLM also acquired the highest priority water right in the Horse Creek basin for 2.7 cfs of water for irrigation purposes.
BLM personnel used the newly acquired water right to begin irrigating fields in the Horse Creek drainage in 1986. Return flows from the irrigation started to recharge a four-mile long reach of Horse Creek. The riparian zone started to recover slowly. In about 1990, Mike (the grazing permittee on the Horse Creek Allotment) pointed out that BLM personnel were not very good irrigators and suggested that he could do a much better job. The BLM entered into a handshake agreement with Mike that allowed him to do the irrigating for the BLM in return for portion of the increased forage produced by the irrigation. The Glenwood Springs Resource Area Manager and Mike formalized this agreement in 1995 with a signed Cooperative Agreement.

 Horse Creek
Horse Creek upper irrigated field

Since 1990, Mike Luark, in partnership with the BLM, has relocated roads out of irrigated meadows and away from riparian zones. Some of this road work became necessary when the riparian zone expanded to include the road. BLM repaired and reconstructed irrigation ditches, and installed headgates and weirs to control water. Mike manages the timing, quantity, and location of irrigation water delivery and has done most of the construction and maintenance work. The BLM has provided materials and equipment.
Mike also manages his livestock along the Horse Creek to limit the amount of use in the riparian zone. He runs 100 cow/calf pairs during the spring and fall. The area is rested for a three-month period during the summer to allow for regrowth of riparian and upland plant species. Mike has constructed drift fences to help him better control the timing of livestock grazing. He also grazes his cattle in the irrigated meadow areas. The grazing strategy is well suited to the riparian areas of Horse Creek as they continue to expand and become more productive each year. The diversity of riparian plant species and age classes have also increased.
Since Mike started managing the BLM’s water right, the Horse Creek watershed has made a dramatic recovery. The irrigated fields comprising approximately 300 acres on two old homesteads are recovering. These high mountain meadows contain grasses, rushes, willows, and a few cottonwood trees that are rapidly increasing in cover and expanding in area. The riparian zone along Horse Creek is recovering and expanding with increased numbers of cottonwood trees, willows, and alders, plus more herbaceous riparian vegetation. In 1997, in response to the restored perennial flow, brook trout moved back downstream into the BLM reach. This 4-mile long reach of Horse Creek now supports a stable brook trout fishery. The BLM is in the process of applying for an in-stream flow water right to protect this re-established fishery. It is anticipated that beavers will soon colonize this reach of stream because of the increase in woody riparian vegetation.
For his efforts both in managing BLM’s water right on Horse Creek and his hard work in managing his livestock, the Colorado Riparian Association proudly presented Mike Luark its 2001 Award for Excellence in Riparian Management.

Colorado Riparian Association