The RGHRP has recognized the need to play a significant role in regional efforts to safeguard the Upper Rio Grande Watershed as a source of water, habitat, and extraordinary natural and cultural resources. As such, the RGHRP is working with stakeholders and partners to complete wildfire restoration and hazard mitigation projects. It is expected that this program will include future projects to improve water security through efforts to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and improve forest health.
This program was created in response to the West Fork Complex fire that burned in the summer of 2013 and severely damaged over 110,000 acres of critical natural resources in the upper watershed. To help lessen the impacts of the fire to the communities, culture heritage, and natural resources, the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT) was formed with the cooperation of over 40 entities. The RGHRP has taken the lead on coordinating RWEACT's natural resources team.
Currently, the RGHRP is monitoring the West Fork Complex Fire test plots and making final edits on the Upper Rio Grande Watershed Assessment. Over the years, we have also completed a variety of watershed management projects, which are described below.
Located in the Divide District of the Rio Grande National Forest, the Park Creek Watershed was identified by the Upper Rio Grande Watershed Assessment as a priority location for restoration. We partnered with the Forest Service to formulate solutions to the negative effects of heavy recreational usage in the area around Park Creek. Natural barriers such as boulders and split rail fences will be placed to limit motor vehicle access to damaged areas. Along with this, a designated OHV-unloading zone and hardening of other high use areas will also prevent further habitat degradation. The end result is improved water quality and riparian habitat, reduced erosion, and stabilized streambanks and roads.
The RGHRP partnered with a vast group of entities including RWEACT, Trout Unlimited, CPW, USFS, San Luis Valley Irrigation District, and Willow Creek Reclamation Committee on the Upper Rio Grande Assessment.
The Assessment provides a comprehensive document of the ecological condition of the mainstem of the Rio Grande and its major tributaries from the headwaters to the town of South Fork, identified causes of concern and developed a list of prioritized projects that improve the function of uplands, and riparian and aquatic ecosystems. Projects identified in the Upper Rio Grande Assessment address environmental, recreational, agricultural, and municipal/industrial water needs. The Assessment concurrently identifies projects that involve instream infrastructure as related to recreational, environmental, agricultural, and municipal/industrial needs in the basin. The RGHRP and other organizations use the assessment as a guidebook for future projects affecting the Rio Grande watershed. More information can be found here.
When forest fires eliminate growth in a region, noxious species have an opportunity to spread with limited competition. In 2015, the RGHRP partnered with the US Forest Service to map and treat weeds in the West Fork Complex Fire burn area. The project focused specifically on musk thistle, oxeye daisy, Canada thistle, and yellow toadflax, which are all non-native, noxious weeds. 85 miles of trails and road were mapped, and 40 acres were treated to eliminate the weeds.
The RGHRP received funding through the Colorado Wildfire Risk Reduction Program to create a Fire-Adapted Community through the creation of a fuelbreak surrounding Ptarmigan Meadows subdivision. The project objective was to improve forest health and to reduce fire risk through reduced fuel loading. The project treated 24 acres of private land through intensive thinning with a focus on aspen regeneration. The fuelbreak was designed to reduce the severity, intensity, and duration of a fire burning into it.
The RGHRP designed 10 experimental plots within the burned area of the West Fork Complex Fire to investigate different methods that provide ground cover and increase soil water holding capacity in order to improve vegetative cover and reduce hillslope erosion. Five treatments were used at two different sites; the sites had different gradient slopes, and one site had livestock grazing. Long-term data are being collected from these plots, and the results will influence the methods used in future wildfire restoration projects. The implementation of this project was made possible through the donation of several mulch materials and the help of volunteers.
The RGHRP has worked in collaboration with RWEACT and Colorado School of Mines to deploy 6 water quality monitoring probes throughout the watershed. Data from the water quality monitoring probes and supplemental sampling will be used to study the impact of the West Fork Complex Fire on water quality. This date will also help examine the opportunity to protect fish and wildlife habitat through strategic releases from reservoirs located upstream of the burned area. Probes were deployed in Spring 2014 and data can be found on Colorado Division of Water Resources website. A link to each probe can be found below: