Group continues scientific monitoring of West Creek

Mary and Bill Graham of Grand Junction take careful notes of the data collected during a day of monitoring West Creek. Photo by Pat Oglesby.

GATEWAY — Don’t search for West Creek on Google. You won’t find it.

Which is good, because this tiny creek that splits off the west side of Unaweep Divide (yes, there is an East Creek that falls off the other side toward Whitewater) probably couldn’t handle a World Wide Web of attention.

What it could handle is a bit more water at times and a lot less livestock grazing.

Colorado Highway 141 parallels West Creek from the unseen place where the nascent creek appears near Thimble Rock and the once-stately Driggs Mansion, bubbling out of the complex geologic remains of what is thought to be the former beds of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers and wending its path across lush meadows.

The road comes nearly within arm’s reach when the creek tumbles headlong through a narrow gorge and past the Unaweep Seep and a much-used picnic area and then loses the creek for good as it slips through Gateway and into the Dolores River.

The brushy creek harbors a healthy population of wild brown trout, which are gifted with the ability to survive the warm water temperatures of summer and early fall.

All that brush makes West Creek challenging to fish, which is why you don’t see a whole lot of cars parked along the road.

What you might see, once or twice a year, are members of the Grand Valley Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited continuing a creek-monitoring project begun 13 years ago.

While there’s no doubt this long-lived project is volunteer citizen science at its best, please don’t think that “citizen” means unscientific.

If anything, the project might be one of the most scientific undertakings a volunteer group can take on.

The West Creek project started and continues thanks to the innate scientific curiosity of geologists John Trammell and the late Dan Powell, whose love of knowledge and all things in nature might have made him the complete naturalist.

From the start, the project coordinators kept exacting records of things such as water flows and temperatures, presence of contaminants and even the level of brush along the creek, since that has a large impact on the creek habitat in general.

The monitoring has been adopted by the Grand Valley Anglers as a twice-yearly event, with the latest round two weeks ago led by Bill and Mary Graham of Grand Junction.

This year’s participants included Larry Ball, Charlie Hensel, Lew and Tilda Evans, Kevin Matthews, Chuck Walker, Larry Pulliam, Jake Borden, Mary and Bill Graham, Pat and Carol Oglesby and Nate Dieterich of the Bureau of Land Management.

Those angler/scientists gathered the data and sent them on to Trammell, who will collate and interpret the data later this winter.

“I won’t be able to say anything about changes identified until I review all the subsequent data, and write an update to the report,” Trammell wrote in an e-mail last week.

Those early years of monitoring revealed what Trammell and Powell suspected: that the drought and cattle grazing were the creek’s greatest threats.

While ranchers were content to see the cattle chew down the creekside brush, that clearing, plus the muddy, beaten-down banks, left the creek hot and murky, something not conducive to viable trout populations.

Trammell said that once the drought forced ranchers to cut back cattle grazing (the BLM still allows one grazing permit for the area), the stream’s trout habitat improved quickly.

“The brush (willows, alders and a variety of forbs) rebounded dramatically,” Trammell wrote. “In recent years, we’ve seen cattle return, but I’ve not yet tried to quantify their effect.”

Other questions the monitoring examines include the possibility of pollution from increased development upstream as well as impacts on streamflow from increased domestic use of groundwater that feeds the creek.

It’s an exacting day’s labor, but at the end, a few hours fishing for wild trout is a just reward.

Call it a memorial to Dan Powell, whose legacy survives in a pocket-sized creek in western Colorado.


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