As I sit at home, readying myself to write the introduction to our newsletter, I’m watching our skies darken and listening to the thunder as the clouds slowly begin to release their water. What a blessing these July monsoon rains have been! I hope that all our Upper Gunnison basin water users are taking advantage of the rains and skipping your lawn irrigation.
In this summer’s edition of the UGRWCD newsletter, we wanted to highlight our Upper Gunnison Basin Water Heroes who are passionate about educating our water community about how easy and enjoyable it can be to practice water conservation, and who work tirelessly every day to ensure that we are protecting, preserving and improving our natural environment.
Our first Water Hero is UGRWCD Board of Director, Julie Nania. Julie is the Water Program Director for High Country Conservation Advocates. She is a highly respected technical expert and someone who works hard every day to protect and bring balance to all water uses within our basin.
Then there’s the Gunnison Conservation District (GCD). A local agency working hard to educate our community about the benefits, beauty, and ease of xeriscaping and what can happen when you take that technical expertise, seed and put it to use. Enjoy our article highlighting our staff visit to Mark Tardiff and Terre Mercier’s xeriscape garden in Crested Butte South that literally blossomed out of a visit to the GCD. So beautiful and oh, by the way, no irrigation needed! Way to go Mark and Terre!
Finally, we also wanted to shed a spotlight on our Wet Meadow & Riparian Restoration Program and why this program is so important to addressing impacts of climate change and aridification and how that work has the awesome benefit of also protecting the threatened Gunnison Sage Grouse.
In the meantime, we encourage each of you individually to consider what you can do inside and outside your homes to use water responsibly.
Enjoy the newsletter and what’s left of summer!
And please join me for the Crested Butte Public Policy Forum on Tuesday, August 16 at 7 PM for “The Years of Living Dangerously on the Colorado River” by Anne Castle!
On June 8, 2022, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed House Bill 22-1151 which allocates $2 million for a Turf Replacement Program in the state during fiscal year 2022-2023. In a nutshell, the program will pay individual and corporate property owners to replace irrigated turf with drought-resistant flowers, shrubs and grasses, known as “xeriscaping.” The purpose behind the program is to promote the efficient use of and maximum utilization of Colorado’s water resources by decreasing the amount of irrigated turf across the state. While the specific parameters of the program are still being rolled out, it is expected that the state will pay out between $1 and $3 per square foot of irrigated grass that is removed/replaced.
While both the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) and the Gunnison Conservation District (GCD) are hoping the new program will incentivize property owners to consider more drought efficient landscaping, the idea of xeriscaping is nothing new to the GCD. As Aleshia Rummel, the local GCD technician, points out, the GCD has been providing and promoting custom seed mixes of wildflowers and native grasses to property owners in the Gunnison River basin for years. In fact, on June 17, 2022, the GCD along with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies hosted the “Water Wise Pollinators Gardening Workshop” to educate area residents on the benefits of xeriscaping, not only for the conservation of water, but also for the benefit of pollinators like hummingbirds and bees. GCD received funding and/or assistance for the workshop from Western Colorado University, Xerces Society, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, UGRWCD and the National Garden Club.
At the workshop, participants enjoyed presentations on why native plants are important to native pollinators, why pollinators are important to ecosystems, which native pollinators we have here in the Gunnison basin, best practices for pollinator habitat, and how native plants can contribute to xeriscaping and water savings. Following the presentations, participants visited a native plant garden to see the diversity of plants and pollinators in the area. Then participants visited the Gunnison Gardens where they helped with soil preparation and planting of native seeds at the site.
While Aleshia noted that the GCD Board (and likewise the UGRWCD Board of Directors) are awaiting more specifics from the state on how the Turf Replacement Program will pay property owners, as there is a 50 percent match currently required as part of the payment program, she said there was no reason for area property owners to wait if they are considering xeriscaping.
“Through the Gunnison Conservation District, we have a variety of packages of native grasses and wildflower seed mixes that should do well in our climate and elevation,” said Aleshia. “We can also provide technical advice and a mix of custom seeds to landowners best suited for their particular property.”
Aleshia explained that the mixture of seeds is determined by what they are able to get from their seed distributor in the state. This seed mixture is also affected both in its make-up and price by wildfires or drought during the growing season. Aleshia said that although her position and a portion of the District Manager’s position is paid for through state and federal grants, the sale of seeds and other products helps support their programming, technical assistance and educational seminars.
“In addition to offering seed mixes, the GCD also offers herbicides for sales and technical assistance for treating noxious weeds or making improvements to properties,” said Aleshia. “We even offer some targeted programs such as free herbicides for treating cheatgrass.”
Since 1956, the GCD has helped landowners, agricultural producers and partner agencies improve their lands and waters for wildlife, water security and agricultural productivity. Aleshia said she was drawn to the position because she enjoys working on challenges like eradicating noxious weeds in the valley, improving habitat for sage-grouse and other wildlife and developing ways to improve irrigation efficiency.
“It’s been really interesting and rewarding to work with landowners to come up with ways to better manage our lands and natural resources,” said Aleshia. “I see first-hand the difference a single landowner can make in preserving habitat and water and I am looking forward to more individuals in our area jumping on board to xeriscape and find other creative ways to conserve our natural resources. Together, we all can make a difference!”
For questions about seed mixes, noxious weeds and other issues with your personal property, please call the GCD at (970)707-3047 or email District Manager Caroline Czenkusch at email@example.com. You can also visit the GCD’s website to read their latest newsletter The Range Rider and learn more about their programming at: https://www.gunnisonconservationdistrict.info/
In the early morning light, the rolling sagebrush landscape is a soft green and grey against the pale blue of the sky. “Here’s some more Cheetos!” says restoration expert, Shawn Conner, using a colloquial term for the Gunnison sage-grouse roost pellets, which, indeed, resemble white cheddar Cheetos (though some people prefer calling them “dried dates”). All morning, we have been seeing Gunnison sage-grouse signs – pellets, tracks, feathers, and traces of dust baths.
The Gunnison sage-grouse, a medium-sized bird whose striking males have a bustle of long tailfeathers, a black mohawk, and a brilliant white chest with drooping yellow air-sacks; is federally listed as a threatened species. The Gunnison Basin is home to more than 85 percent of the species. To recover the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed improving habitat quality and quantity as a priority one action. The Wet Meadows & Riparian Restoration Collaborative Program (Program) has been preserving, restoring, and protecting brood-rearing habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse since 2012 using Zeedyk-style headcut and erosion control rock structures. U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist, Darren Long, shared a fun fact with us: Gunnison sage-grouse practice geophagy, the practice of ingesting dirt. While earth-eating might work some of the time, wet meadows provide important food sources, like insects and herbaceous plants, for the chicks as they are growing. These mesic areas are also important to other migratory birds, big game, insects, other terrestrial and aquatic species, as well as to livestock for forage and private landowners for water resources.
Wet meadow and Gunnison sage-grouse habitat restoration has been happening at the U.S. Forest Service managed land on Flat Top Mountain since nearly the beginning of the Program – and it shows. The Gunnison sage-grouse are leaving their appreciation in the form of “Cheetos” all over the area. As Shawn, Darren, and myself walk the area to assess the restoration treatments, we come across several stock water ponds in other drainages. Most of them are dry. “Never seen that one dry before,” comments Shawn. With temperatures warming earlier and dust on snow contributing to sublimation, snowpack runoff in 2022 was not its best, leaving many pond and tank systems dry. Wet meadow systems help keep the sagebrush ecosystem resilient to drought – meaning floodplain connectivity, soil moisture retention, reduced erosion, and vegetation productivity.
Quantification research done by the United States Geological Survey has shown that natural rock detention infrastructure installed in eroded dryland stream beds in southeastern Arizona readily adapt to climate related stress. The study showed that these rock structures resulted in a 50 percent reduced average rate of flow especially in flash flood events, can sequester carbon at a rate of around 200-250 metric tons per hectare which is similar to coastal wetlands! These structures also extend the timing of summer base flows by 3 to 4 weeks, sequester soil at over 200 tons/year improving downstream water quality, support riparian vegetation and result in 28% more water flowing downstream compared to the control site, which means more water is kept in the system by developing a perched water table above bedrock .
The Upper Gunnison District hopes to conduct local research on improved base flows associated with wet meadow restoration in the near future. Flows that help wildlife leave more ‘Cheetos’ and over time hopefully help fill some of those empty stock water ponds.
If you would like to volunteer and for more information about the program, please contact Watershed Program Coordinator, Cheryl Cwelich: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the monsoon clouds softly release some light raindrops, a hillside of colorful patches of Blue Flax, Showy Goldeneye, Yarrow, Scarlet Gilia, Showy Fleabane, Rocky Mountain Penstemon, and a wealth of other wildflowers sparkle in the cool morning. Intermixed with them are tall shoots of Western Wheatgrass, Slender Wheatgrass, and Smooth Brome in blues, greens, and browns. The display is rounded out with aromatic Big Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, and Snowberry.
Tourists from all over the world travel to the Upper Gunnison River Basin to witness such beauty firsthand each summer, but all Mark Tardiff and Terre Mercier have to do is glance out their windows in Crested Butte South. When they built their home in 2017, they used the excavated rocks and small boulders that were dug up for their foundation to line the sides of their driveway creating retaining walls. On the hillside above these walls, they planted a mixture of wildflower seeds and native grasses for their landscaping.
“I’ve been interested in water since I was a small child playing in puddles, ponds and creeks, much to my mother’s dismay when I came home soaked and covered in mud,” said Mark Tardiff, now retired from working for over 40 years as a research scientist, mostly at the Department of Energy National Laboratories in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state. “As stewards, we need to be a part of this landscape and not just on it. Over the last few decades, more people are awakening to the reality that climate change is real, and we all have a responsibility for conserving water, especially during our persistent drought.”
For his landscape, Mark researched drought resistant flowers and grasses and enlisted the advice of the Gunnison Conservation District to purchase a custom mix of native wildflower seeds and grass seeds from them which he sowed by hand on his property.
“I spent some time hand raking the construction scars and packed soil to loosen it up a bit and then sprinkled the seed by hand over all our areas of bare soil,” said Mark. “I used a rolled straw mulch product to help hold the seeds and soil in place and to absorb and hold water. I watered the seeds maybe once every three or four days for about three to four weeks just to get them to set in the ground and start germinating.”
Mark said that he planted the seeds in the fall so that they could soak up the moisture from the melting winter snowpack to start growing the following spring. Since their initial planting, Mark said he has never watered his property since, and that the xeriscaping requires almost no maintenance.
“In the spring, I take a weed whacker and spend maybe an hour total just cutting back the taller grasses and growth that have died over the winter and that’s it,” said Mark. “There’s no mowing, no weeding and no watering.” There’s also no fertilizers or herbicides, with the exception of Milestone to remove Canada Thistle which is an aggressive invasive plant that is almost impossible to remove otherwise.
Mark noted that it’s been really interesting to see the varying types and sizes of wildflowers and grasses that sprout up each year depending on how much snowpack accumulated over the winter and the prevalence of spring rains. Every year has been different. Patience is definitely a virtue when developing a natural landscape. It takes about five years for most of the plants to get established.
“Mother Nature knows how to adapt to drought conditions and temperatures,” said Mark. “Native plants and grasses tend to be very resilient as they’ve grown here for thousands of years. We just need to learn to work with Mother Nature to not obstruct her natural processes and protections.”
In addition to the drought resiliency qualities of his xeriscaping, Mark said it has also been a sanctuary for pollinators in the area, particularly hummingbirds and bees. Mark pointed out that the trumpet like blooms on the Scarlet Gilia are the perfect size and shape to fit the hummingbirds’ tiny beaks. Bees are especially attracted to Penstemons and the bright red Indian paintbrush, which Mark noted is a “hemiparasite” meaning that although it can photosynthesize, it also draws nutrients from other organisms, in this case, from the neighboring perennial grasses or Sagebrush. Like the pollinators, Mark said that deer and other wildlife are drawn to the xeriscaping.
On the opposite side of the Tardiff/Mercier property there is a small wetland area including an ephemeral small creek that runs through it in the early spring as the snow melts. In this area, there is a tall stand of aspen, Corn Lilies, Cow Parsnip and a variety of other wetland native plants and shrubs. Mark notes that with the steeper slope of this area, Mother Nature is again using the native flora to store water as long as possible throughout the warm, dry summer months. According to the US Forest Service, since aspen have moist green leaves and thick twigs, they do not burn easily, unlike conifers which have dry needles and may use three to seven inches more water per year than aspen.
“Water and elevation are everything in the West,” said Mark. This is why he encourages property owners to do some research and carefully consider what they plant on their property for the best resiliency and impact on the environment. “I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other property owners considering xeriscaping. I also highly recommend visiting the Gunnison Conservation District office. They have lots of experience with vegetating natural landscapes and are pleased to help you with seed selections and methods”
During Mark’s career as a research scientist, he studied first-hand how contaminants from historic land disposals can degrade groundwater and surface water quality and how these hazardous environments can affect our well-being and impact our natural resources. Because of this, he has made a commitment to conserve water, reduce carbon emissions, and participate in initiatives to become a community in a carbon neutral county, state, and nation.
Mark is currently running for a seat on the Crested Butte South Property Owners Association (POA) where he seeks to preserve “a weird and wild rural Rocky Mountain lifestyle.” Mark intends to keep environmental issues in the discussion mix as the POA makes decisions that influence future development.
“I will be a voice for the values we share that drew us here,” said Mark. “While the forces of change for both the environment and our built human communities are daunting, we need to remember who we are.”
As such, Mark will just keep sowing the seeds of resiliency for the beauty and protection of our basin.
Julie Nania was appointed to the UGRWCD Board of Directors in June 2017 representing Division 5, Crested Butte. Her current term, her second, expires in 2025. Julie serves as the High Country Conversation Advocates water director, a position she has held since 2014 when she relocated to Crested Butte. Prior to her move, Julie spent three years as faculty at the University of Colorado through appointments with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and Colorado Law’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. Her work at the University involved collaborating with a range of local communities to address natural resources and climate issues. She graduated from University of Colorado School of Law in 2011 and received her B.A. in International Studies from the University of Washington in 2007.
Julie said she was “strongly encouraged” to pursue a seat on the District’s Board of Directors by former Board member Steve Glazer. “At first, my interest in serving was piqued by a remarkable representation of folks in water that I really respect and wanted to learn from,” said Julie. “Steve Glazer was on the District Board at the time and lectured me on the important role the District has in managing water resources for the water users of this valley…He was a fascinating force of nature!” Sadly, Steve passed away in 2016 after serving 17 years on the District Board.
As the water program director at High Country Conservation Advocates, Julie works to protect the state’s rivers by identifying and advocating for designation as “outstanding natural resource waters” and recommending rivers for protection through the forest planning process. She also directs stewardship projects to improve watershed health and restore riparian habitats. Finally, she consults with municipalities to advance water efficiency, water quality and conservation efforts.
“My goal is to maintain, and if at all possible, improve the health of our ecosystems while continuing to protect our watershed for all water users,” said Julie. “I realize this is a lofty goal as with an increase in population, there comes a set of sacrifices for us all to be able to continue to live, play and sustain a livelihood in our valley.”
Julie noted that the District Board is at a critical crossroads of planning watershed management strategies for a future of continuing drought conditions, more extreme temperatures and weather, earlier snowmelt, dust on snow and increased development in the Gunnison River Basin. In spite of these challenges, Julie said she is excited about the opportunity to work within the legal system and come up with creative solutions to address how to effectively manage the needs of conflicting users competing for the same resource.
“I think we will need to grow our lens from just looking at traditional water uses to zoom out to the bigger picture of all ecosystems and how we need to adapt to ensure their survival for the future,” said Julie.
Julie said she is proud that the District has been proactive, especially in the last few years, about assessing watershed health and how that impacts our water users. “It’s not just about who is using what water, it is about how the system works as a whole and how changes in our climate and environment impact the system as a whole.”
When Julie is not on the river studying its ecosystems, she and her husband, Dan Loftus, who were just married this spring, love to be on any river just relaxing and enjoying the beauty and life force of the water. “Dan is a wonderful husband who is a huge river enthusiast,” said Julie. “In fact, one of our first dates was on the Taylor River for a Taylor Tuesday event. We also have two wild rescue dogs who join us on our adventures and love to shred and ski with us on the frozen form of our water.”
UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez noted that Julie has played such an important role on the District Board in helping the District understand and stay abreast of conservation and water issues in the basin. “Julie has been an invaluable asset to the District,” said Sonja. “With her legal background in big river issues and federal reserve water rights and the fact that she has her boots on the ground on a daily basis observing our watershed and ecosystems, she comes to the Board with a wealth of knowledge and experience that is so important and helpful in meeting the District’s mission.”
UGRWCD RECEIVES FUNDING FROM BUREAU OF RECLAMATION FOR DROUGHT PLANNING
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) has been awarded funding from the Bureau of Reclamation for the development of a drought contingency plan. UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez said, “Being at the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin, we see and feel first-hand, the pain of the effects of on-going drought on all our water users. We look forward to working proactively with our community to come up with a drought response program plan that when implemented, increases our water supply reliability and resiliency to drought.”
Reclamation approves $865,480 to five western states for drought contingency planning grants to improve long-term drought resiliency
As the western United States faces unprecedented severe drought conditions, the Bureau of Reclamation is announcing the award of six drought planning activities for 2022 WaterSMART: Drought Contingency Planning grants. This program provides federal cost-share funds for entities to develop and update comprehensive drought plans, employing a proactive approach to build long-term resiliency to drought.
“The American West is experiencing a historic drought, fueled by climate change,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “These projects are part of the Department’s strategy to tackle the long-term challenge of climate change – while we take emergency actions to address immediate challenges, we are investing in our communities to develop measures to improve long-term drought resiliency”
“Supporting drought planning efforts is an essential part of maintaining and modernizing our nation’s water infrastructure and promoting drought resiliency, water security, and climate change adaptation,” said Deputy Commissioner of Operations David Palumbo. “With the current state of persistent drought in the West, these grants will help support communities in planning for their future water use.”
The selected projects support drought planning development and updates to help meet the unprecedented drought conditions in the West. These projects will support these communities in building drought resiliency by planning for and preparing for drought through monitoring and prioritization of mitigation and response actions to protect vulnerable resources during times of drought.
City of Kingman, located in Mohave County, Arizona, will use $100,000 in federal funds to develop a new drought contingency plan. The plan will improve water supply reliability for the City of Kingman that currently utilizes groundwater from the Hualapai Basin and is experiencing exceptional and unprecedented drought conditions. Total Project Cost is $200,000
Three Valleys Water Municipal District, in Eastern Los Angeles County, will use $200,000 in federal funds to develop a new drought contingency plan. Three Valleys Water Municipal District has had severe restrictions to portions of its service area. The new Drought Contingency Plan will address the region’s concerns with drought and leverage existing and in-progress member agency planning efforts. Total Project Cost is $400,000
Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, in Montrose, Colorado will use $200,000 in federal funds to develop a new drought contingency plan to evaluate new approaches for water shortage contingency plan actions, review climate conditions, and develop a response framework for irrigation and municipal deliveries during future drought conditions. Total Project Cost is $400,000
Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, in Gunnison, Colorado will use $140,480 in federal funds to develop a new drought contingency plan to address extended drought, build long-term resilience in the basin, and provide a framework for sustainable water management. Total Project Cost: $306,620
City of Roswell, located in Chaves County, New Mexico, will use $200,000 in federal funds to develop a new drought contingency plan to increase their water reliability and improve water management through conservation, expanded technologies, and improved modeling capabilities. This planning effort will work in tandem with Roswell’s 2021 Water Conservation Plan. Total Project Cost: $400,000
Santiam Water Control District in Stayton, Oregon will use $25,000 in federal funds to update their existing drought contingency plan to address emerging concerns, improve the drought monitoring process, incorporate new mitigation actions, and streamline the operational and administrative framework and plan update process. Total Project Cost: $50,000
For more than 100 years, Reclamation and its partners have developed sustainable water and power solutions for the West. These grants are part of the Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART Program which focuses on collaborative efforts to plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability. Reclamation continues focus on short- and long-term actions to respond to the historic drought conditions across the West, using existing authorities and partnerships to provide immediate relief while investing in infrastructure and research opportunities to build climate resiliency and find innovative strategies to address future hydrologic changes due to climate change.
If you would rather not receive future communications from Bureau of Reclamation, let us know by clicking here. Bureau of Reclamation, Denver Federal Center, Alameda & Kipling Street PO Box 25007, Denver, CO 80225 United States