Learning by doing on Fraser Flats

By Jeff Florence

Even by TU standards, the volunteer turnout was impressive: on a recent May morning, more than 50 volunteers from Grand County and the Front Range of Colorado gathered to harvest and replant willows along nearly a mile of the Fraser River.

But even more impressive than the show of volunteer force is what this Fraser Flats project represents: a new, collaborative way of managing water in the Upper Colorado Basin that emphasizes cooperation, not conflict.

For years, there was wrangling and outright hostility among water users, with Trout Unlimited fighting Denver Water over its diversion plan to take additional water to the Front Range. But in 2014, TU helped broker a cooperative agreement that, among other things, pledged the parties to work together to protect and restore the watershed of the Upper Colorado River.

The collaborative agreement is coined Learning by Doing (LBD). LBD is an adaptive management initiative comprised of river stakeholders that meet regularly to monitor river health and undertake projects that safeguard Grand County’s home waters. This requires regular monitoring of stream temperature, riparian vegetation, and aquatic macro-invertebrates. If an environmental problem is detected, LBD will find the source of the issue and act accordingly. This includes providing the flushing flows that the river needs in the spring to clean sediment build up.

After years of coordination and planning, the Fraser Flats Habitat Project, the first boots-on-the-ground project of LBD, took place this May when volunteers planted willows along the Fraser River.

The Fraser Flats project is conducted by the Colorado Headwaters Chapter of TU in conjunction with Learning by Doing (LBD). The willows were harvested from nearby Devil’s Thumb Ranch and planted along the Fraser River just outside of Tabernash, Colorado. These willows will help stabilize the stream bank, provide shade, and offer sustainable trout habitat. The project will also open up public access to roughly a half mile of the Fraser for fishing opportunities.

"The Fraser Flats project is what the Fraser Valley has been waiting for," said Anna Drexler-Dreis, board member of the local Colorado River Headwaters TU chapter and vegetation coordinator for the project, "The Fraser is beloved in Grand County for its fly fishing and paddling opportunities, but also because we've witnessed its degradation. We've seen stream temperatures so hot trout begin to die, and we've seen it reduced to a trickle. Thanks to Learning by Doing and the east and west slopes' commitment to working together, we have the opportunity to get out there and heal the Fraser River. "

In fall 2017, the Headwaters chapter will conduct the final stage of the project--constructing an instream channel on the same stretch of river. By creating the smaller stream bed, water at lower flow periods will be routed into the narrower channel to produce faster flows and lower temperatures as well as holding pools for trout. Then during the winter and spring months, when flow rates are naturally higher, the river can spread out again into the natural, wider streambed.

LBD is still in the fledgling state, but in coming years the groundbreaking program will launch more projects like Fraser Flats that conserve and restore the Upper Colorado watershed by bringing together stakeholders who rely on the West’s most precious resource.

Jeff Florence is a communications assistant for Colorado Trout Unlimited. 


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