If you think about it, rarely does a perfectly straight line occur in nature. When a man bends, or in this case straightens, elements of nature to suit his purpose, it can result in negative consequences.
Approximately 50 years ago, a creek blew out during a storm on a Colorado man’s property in the San Luis Valley, just south of Poncha Pass, and started to realign itself. At the time, the landowner saw an opportunity to straighten about a mile of the creek, and he intervened. However, in a few years, the creek turned into a ditch and remained that way until recently.
The straightening removed two thirds of the creek’s meandering, which sped up the water, causing the creek to become incised (cut downward) and lose all contact with the floodplain. The vegetation surrounding the creek had relied on the creek’s flooding, so it dried up on either side.
About two years ago, individuals from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife conducted surveying and monitoring of Gunnison Sage Grouse in the landowner’s area, as the property is adjacent to state-owned land.
The state employees witnessed the troubled creek and damaged grouse habitat and contacted the
United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USWFS) and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation
Service (NRCS) to see if something could be done to restore the creek’s curves. They also approached the landowner to discuss programs that would cost-share the work and to explain why the work would result in improvements to his grazing areas.
The federal agencies came to the Corps to ask for regulatory assistance. They knew a “dredge and fill” permit would be required from the Corps to change the creek, as well as technical advice on the best way to do so.
“The Corps is responsible for implementing Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which includes issuing dredge and fill permits in situations affecting ‘waters of the U.S.,’ said Regulatory Project Manager Hildreth “Coop” Cooper in the Albuquerque District’s Durango Regulatory Office.
“I reviewed the plans to relocate the creek’s channel. They included forming two earthen embankments, re-excavating the old channel and re-establishing native vegetation. I made some modifications to avoid and minimize impacts. For example, the plan called for creating a pond and excavating in wetlands adjacent to the creek, and it wasn’t necessary. It would amount to removing wetlands and valuable feeding habitat for the sage grouse.”
Obtaining permits for work of this kind is a legal requirement. The responsibility for enforcing this law fell to the Corps when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, because the Corps already had authority under the Rivers and Harbors Act to keep certain waterways navigable for commerce and national security. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency retains ultimate oversight of the Clean Water Act.
“Permits do not cost anything,” Cooper said. “NRCS applied for the permit in the landowner’s name, and this permit fell under a category of permits called ‘nationwide permits.’ They are relatively easy to obtain because the work results in minor negative impacts.”
Last year, most of the work on the creek took place, except for the restoration of a small area of disturbed wetland that will be addressed this spring. Also, due to last year’s drought, the replanting of the vegetative component of the project couldn’t be finished.
Cooper said he has done one compliance inspection, but the ground was frozen and snow-covered. He said he will go back in the spring or midsummer to do another.
“I will look at the amount of bare ground that was created during the project, because I want to make sure it gets replanted,” he said. “Also, I need to look at the best way to restore the small damage that was done to the wetlands. Monitoring is an important component of any stream restoration project. We will continue monitoring the vegetation and the response of the new channel and propose adjustments to ensure the stream continues to develop as designed.”
Ultimately, the project will help the landowner by allowing more moisture to reach his soil, and it will give him the ability to fence off areas and rotate his cattle, making for better herds.
It will also enhance the habitat of the sage grouse, considered by the USWFS to be “warranted but precluded” from listing under the Endangered Species Act.
“All the data says the sage grouse is warranted for listing, but it is precluded because of priority actions to get other species listed,” Cooper said.
“In the meantime, the grouse’s status will remain a ‘candidate’ for listing. However, as demonstrated by this project, the USWFS will continue doing good things for the species in hopes that future listing can be avoided.”