The Florida River starts in the pristine waters of the high country of the Weminuche Wilderness, but throughout its nearly 62-mile-long journey to the Animas River, it picks up enough E. coli to exceed state standards.
From 2013 to 2015, the Animas Watershed Partnership tested for sources of bacteria in the Animas and San Juan rivers to pinpoint signs of nutrient contamination.
Part of that study, said Ann Oliver, coordinator of the Animas Watershed Partnership, included samples collected further upstream in the Florida River, a relatively low-flow tributary of the Animas River.
The study found bacteria from animals, such as cattle, goats, elk and deer, in 90 percent of samples, as well as bacteria from humans in 80 percent of samples, in the Animas River and further down in the San Juan River.
And the study showed evidence that the Florida River can contribute as much as a quarter of the E. coli and nutrients that dump into the Animas River about three miles north of the New Mexico-Colorado state line, Oliver said.
As a result, the Animas Watershed Partnership applied for and was awarded funding from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as well as Colorado Water Conservation Board, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Trout Unlimited, to implement a project aimed at reducing nutrient and sediment loading into the waterways.
“We knew we wanted to focus on the Florida River,” Oliver said “It was a good start to this project.”
The goal, Oliver said, is to install fencing along the river to limit access to livestock, which are partly responsible – along with wildlife – for defecating into waterways and destroying native riparian vegetation.
“Livestock love rivers, and we were able to partner with landowners who were interested in fencing off their corridor,” Oliver said. “If we can get the banks stable and more woody/grass areas within the fenced areas, that can help filter out runoff that’s coming off surrounding pastures.”
The project has effectively cordoned off 2.2 miles of the Florida River to livestock across four private properties – which includes residents Keith Fassbender and Carolyn Watson, as well as the Durango-La Plata County Airport and Durango Commercial Development LLC – where landowners agreed to uphold the arrangement for five years.
Fassbender, who ranched on his property west of the Durango-La Plata County Airport since 1980, said he now leases pasture for 100 or so cattle that have access to the Florida River at certain points, but do not have free range to graze up and down the river corridor.
“Ranchers and farmers are probably the No. 1 environmentalists because we have to take care of the properties,” Fassbender said. “If we overuse it, we lose production and it’s not beneficial to us. We want to be good stewards.”
Oliver hopes during the five-year period property owners will see the marked improvement of water quality in the Florida River and regeneration of native vegetation along the banks.
“After that five-year period, they could allow livestock back in, but we’re hopeful they’ll continue to value the riparian corridor,” she said. “The maximum benefit for water quality and stream health is to keep livestock out.”
Oliver said monitoring will continue to see the effects of cordoning off portions of the river to livestock. She said already the project has seen native willows regenerate.
The Animas Watershed Partnership has also hosted volunteer days to plant willows along stream banks to help hold the soil and shape of the river, allowing the plants to absorb nutrients and promote a diverse ecosystem. The willows also are effective at absorbing runoff from pastures above the rivers, she said.
Oliver said the group wants to continue to add fencing along the Florida River, where landowners consent, but she realizes the difficulty that poses to local ranchers.
“It’s not a small thing for a landowner to have no access to water,” she said. ”They do have to adjust their operation.”
Barbara Jefferies, a rancher who runs about 65 to 70 cattle on the Florida River, said it wouldn’t be financially possible to block off her cattle from access to the river.
“The reasons you buy these river ranches is to provide water for your livestock,” she said. “If you fence it off, you have defeated your purpose.”
Jefferies, the first female president of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association, was unsure of the total amount of livestock that rely on the Florida River, but she said on her property, native vegetation thrives.
“We have noticed when big herds of elk come in during the winter, they do destroy the habitat. But ours is very well protected and in good shape,” she said.
For the landowners where fencing off the waterway makes sense, Oliver said the service can be offered at a low cost. She hopes that the Florida River, with little to no recreational fishing to speak of, will one day support trout.