Kremmling area ranchers prepare for Colorado River restoration projects

A fly fisherman wets his line in the Colorado River below Hot Sulphur Springs in this May 2016 file photo not far from where the ILVK will be conducting irrigation and river restoration projects next year.
Lance Maggart / Sky-Hi News |

From Fraser to Grand Lake to Kremmling, water projects and studies are in the works or already underway on multiple stretches of our vast network of water bodies and tributaries. In mid-December, the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) informed the Colorado River Headwaters Project they would be receiving a $7.75 million grant for river restoration and conservation in Middle Park.

Those funds are being divided between several different projects and areas, including a group called the Irrigators in Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK). The group will use the earmarked grant money for a series of river restoration and irrigation system improvements over the next few years. Paul Bruchez is a member of the Irrigators and has helped to spearhead the group’s efforts at securing funding for those projects.

Bruchez is a fifth generation Colorado rancher. His family owns a ranch that is located about six miles up the Colorado River from Kremmling. For him and many other ranchers in the area, the health of the Colorado River is both an ecological and economic issue. The project the group is planning to begin work on later this year is being called the ILVK Upper Colorado River Irrigation and Restoration Project.

The project is part of the larger Colorado River Headwaters Project, which includes the Windy Gap Bypass project and other conservation work. Bruchez said when the conservation service approved the grant money to the Headwaters Project, it allocated funding for the Windy Gap Bypass project. That means money is directly available for that project, but funds have only been earmarked for the ILVK project. As a result, landowners in the group will need to submit specific applications for their individual improvement plans before they will receive any grant money.

As Bruchez explained the Irrigators anticipate completing contracting with the State Conservationist and the federal NRCS team by around June and hopes to complete contracting for individual projects by the fall. “The pool of funds is handed to the State Conservationist and his staff,” Bruchez said. “This is to ensure we are being efficient and effective with those fund and that we are fulfilling what was envisioned. It is a checks-and-balances system.”

The work the ILVK members will do is intended to address two primary obstacles to their irrigation practices and overall river health. First, landowners are trying to address problems created by decreased flow levels resulting from trans-mountain diversions that are now standard practice for the Colorado. Second they are trying to elevate the existing river channel for purposes of elevating the underlying water table.

“In a riparian corridor, the level of the water is at is the level of the water table,” he said. “When the water table is deeper we have a challenge as irrigators. We have to keep chasing the water down. But the land from the surface of a meadow down is like a sponge.”

Bruchez said this means irrigators lose a portion of their water as it leeches into the surrounding soil each year and pointed out the amount of leeching can be reduced by raising the water table.

Under the project, group members will be working to recreate and mimic the natural network of riffles and pools that would naturally exist in the river. That work will help elevate the river’s water table to its historic levels and create a healthier riparian corridor with increases in bug life, fish life and other species of wildlife that rely on the natural environment of the river bottom.

“This is about the health of the entire riparian corridor,” Bruchez said. “There will be a number of projects. We are trying to pinpoint and target locations.”

Bruchez said the group is currently working on a series of projects made possible by a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board of $465,000 that was in turn matched by the ILVK. “We will have a very busy 2017,” he said.

Bruchez said he expects to see some activity such as material hauling on the ILVK Irrigation and Restoration Project next winter after local landowners complete their applications and receive some funding. The earnest work of completing the project is likely to get underway next spring and continue through the summer of 2018.

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