Collaboration is critical for sustaining healthy rivers

By Stacy Kolegas

June has been designated Great Outdoors Month by presidential proclamation since 2004. This year, the president has been joined by the governors of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and a dozen other states in encouraging Americans this June to renew our commitment to protecting our water, air, and majestic landscapes for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Here in the Colorado River basin, a tremendous collaborative effort to address invasive species and restore riparian lands demonstrates that working together, we can do just that.

In his proclamation of Great Outdoors Month, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter highlighted the Colorado River as one of the state’s natural wonders. But this treasure also belongs to residents of all seven basin states, and is deserving of the attention and stewardship of all of us. Preserving the Colorado and the rivers and streams that feed into it also preserves the myriad environmental, recreational, health, cultural, and economic benefits that our Western waterways provide.

One pervasive threat in the Colorado River watershed is invasive plants, including tamarisk, commonly known as salt cedar, and Russian olive. Cornell University researchers in 2004 estimated that “invading alien species in the United States cause major environmental damages and losses adding up to almost $120 billion per year.”

Tamarisk was first introduced in the United States in the early 1800s as an ornamental plant from Eurasia and Africa. Today, it has taken over more than 1.6 million acres land across the American West. In addition to water usage, the trees have been identified as crowding out beneficial native plants, increasing wildfire risk, and restricting flood control channels.

Russian olive also was introduced in the United States as an ornamental plant and for windbreaks, but has since spread across 17 Western states. It is now a major problem in riparian woodlands, constricting native plants and affecting food sources for wildlife.

Partnership is essential to the survival and success of local efforts to manage tamarisk and protect our rivers in perpetuity. Watershed restoration efforts have included numerous cities and counties throughout the West, state agencies, American Indian tribes, landowners, farmers and ranchers, universities, water conservation districts, private companies and environmental organizations.

Our elected officials and federal agencies have also rolled up their sleeves to help address this threat to our waterways; their leadership is essential to inspiring effective public-private partnerships in the basin.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Colorado native, has long been a champion for efforts to address invasive species in the basin; Interior agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, have been involved in active restoration efforts.

In Congress, nearly unanimous bipartisan support helped pass the Salt Cedar and Russian Olive Control Demonstration Act in 2006, which funded a study by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop effective methods, through demonstration projects, to control tamarisk and Russian olive.

The Western Governors Association helped to advocate for using farm-bill funding for woody invasive control and riparian restoration. Several states, including Colorado and Wyoming, have launched a matching grant program for riparian restoration.

Going forward, the Tamarisk Coalition encourages that this multi-stakeholder collaboration continue in the basin. We need to empower land and water managers with the latest science to inform effective management and decision-making for riparian systems.

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of our cities, towns, farms and environment. With the leadership of Interior Secretary Salazar and our elected officials, and continued collaboration among all stakeholders, we can conserve and sustain the Colorado River and our Western waterways to meet the needs of all of us for generations to come.

As watershed partnerships have demonstrated throughout the West, it can be done when we work together.

Stacy Kolegas is executive director of the Tamarisk Coalition. Based in Grand Junction, the nonprofit organization provides technical assistance and education in support of restoring riparian lands in 17 Western states. Learn more at http://www.tamariskcoalition.org.


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