The U.S. Forest Service has put the final touches on a project that effectively restores an almost 20-acre wetland in Falls Creek, adding a rich biodiverse area to the lush green valley northwest of Durango.
“The life wetlands support are phenomenal,” said district ranger Matt Janowiak. “Our water rights are big enough here to expand that area, and we decided let’s do that.”
In the 1990s, it was discovered that the land in Falls Creek, at the north end of County Road 205, was for sale. Rumors circulated that the owner at the time, Utah Power and Light, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp Utility Co., was in talks with developers that were interested in constructing several hundred homes in the tucked-away valley.
Fearing the archaeologically rich area would be developed, a grass-roots movement lobbied for almost two years to save the open meadow, surrounded by white sandstone cliffs and ponderosa forests.
In 1992, Congress allocated about $1.9 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, securing the 53-acre tract from development. On March 31 of that year, the area, also known as Hidden Valley, was officially turned over to the Forest Service. And as part of the deal, the Forest Service received long-held water rights from Falls Creek.
To retain water rights in the state of Colorado, an entity must prove the water is going to “beneficial use” every 10 years or they run the risk of losing the allocation.
Rob Genualdi, an engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Division 7, said water courts officially recognize the creation of wetlands from water rights as a “beneficial use,” although it’s generally a rare occurrence an owner would chose to do so.
“I would say it’s a much, much smaller use (of water rights),” Genualdi said. “Probably just a few dozen, if that.”
Yet for the Forest Service’s Columbine District, the determination to use about 420 gallons a minute from Falls Creek was an easy, logical decision. Wetlands would not only enrich the ecosystem with minimal effort, it would preserve the popular hiking area, follow the wishes of adjacent neighbors and be flexible to other water users of the creek.
Using a ditch constructed in the late 1880s to divert water for irrigation, the Forest Service made some improvements, and releases water from Falls Creek into the meadow to the south. For the most part, nature takes care of the rest.
Already, the area is lush with plant life, a variety of birds, and swarms of small mammals. The final piece of work completed last week, which expanded an earthen dam, will allow Forest Service officials to sit back and watch wildlife take control.
All over Colorado, there’s a growing movement to restore and create wetlands, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s wetland ecologist Joanna Lemly said.
Lemly said best estimates show there were probably 2 million acres of wetlands before Westerners settled in Colorado. Now, that number has been effectively cut in half because of development and other human impacts.
And while wetlands account for a very small portion of the landscape – about 1 percent to 1.5 percent – it’s estimated that 75 percent of all wildlife in the state depend on the habitat.
“Even though they are small pockets, they’re hugely important because they are resources for biodiversity,” Lemly said.
Lemly said the growing appreciation for wetlands can be traced to two factors. One, is George H. W. Bush’s no net loss policy in the Clean Water Act, which requires an entity to create or restore a wetland if a development destroys one.
The other reason, Lemly said, are volunteer restoration projects.
“Wetlands are just amazingly important in Colorado,” she said. “Wildlife, of course, gets a huge benefit. But they also help filter water pollutants and retain excess storm water in case of a flood.”
Durango resident Ed Zink, who owns even older water rights on Falls Creek, is not only in support of the Forest Service’s project, he’s creating a wetland of his own on his property in the Animas Valley.
For 10 years, Zink has been self-funding an effort to restore 75 acres of his property, which has been in the Zink family for 99 years, from its historic use for growing crops back to wetlands.
“It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the wildlife, and it improves water quality. It seemed liked win-win-win,” Zink said. “There were no downsides, and it was a way to prevent it from being developed and having houses or condominiums built on it.”
And for any residents in the area fearing an invasion of a certain despised blood-sucking insect, the Animas Valley Mosquito District’s manager Joe Kuefler said not to worry: The district used its organic abatement product in April, and will continue to apply it occasionally throughout the summer.
“We’ve been aware of the plan to increase that wetland, so we took that into consideration this year when we distributed the product,” Kuefler said. “If residents in the area are getting mosquito populations, we’d ask that they call us.”
Janowiak said it should take only a year or two for the vegetation to find its balance, and none of the hiking trails in the area would be affected.