Community Agriculture Alliance: Mitigation erosion on Elkhead Creek
Elkhead Creek is a large tributary to the Yampa River upstream from Craig, and its adjacent valley floor has been used for grazing and hay production since the late 19th century. Over the last several decades, due to various factors, Elkhead Creek has transitioned from a healthy floodplain-connected creek to a highly incised one.
This incision is evident by deeply eroded, vertical banks and a water table that is 3 to 5 feet lower than it used to be. The ongoing erosion poses problems for local agriculture. To combat it, Elkhead Creek landowners are actively seeking assistance and solutions to improve the creek ecosystem and maintain agricultural ways of life.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service and Trout Unlimited, as well as other groups, are working with interested landowners on Elkhead Creek to come up with solutions to reduce bank erosion and improve the creek.
The Conservation Service has a long history of providing technical and financial assistance to producers to help them put conservation on the ground, and Trout Unlimited — with its mission of conserving cold-water fisheries — also partners with landowners interested in improving agricultural operations and aquatic habitat.
As restoration options are discussed for Elkhead Creek, one element that will be addressed is the re-establishment of a riparian buffer, particularly along outer bends of the creek when erosion is the greatest.
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A riparian buffer is important for a healthy river ecosystem. Riparian plants, such as willows and cottonwoods, are adapted to grow near water and have substantial root systems. Once established along a creek, riparian plants increase bank stability, provide habitat for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and filter nutrients and contaminants out of the soil and water.
A riparian buffer is especially important during high water events or flooding because the vegetation acts to slow down the water, dissipate its energy and protect the banks from being washed away.
Since a riparian buffer is often the first line of defense against bank erosion, in areas where it needs to be reestablished, reducing agricultural pressure along stream banks is strongly encouraged. Keeping livestock and hay production away from the banks for some time enables riparian plants to grow back and hold the soil in place, which ultimately improves the health and resilience of both the stream and adjacent land.
Concerns about Elkhead Creek have been voiced for a long time, and effort is being made to address these concerns. With the ongoing collaboration between landowners, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Trout Unlimited and others, it is everyone’s hope that Elkhead Creek will become a healthier ecosystem and agriculture will be able to continue there for generations to come.
Kaitlyn Vaux is an aquatic biologist with Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, working across Northwest Colorado to assist private landowners with implementing projects that benefit local agriculture and fisheries. For more information about TU and NRCS projects, contact Vaux at 970-879-3225 x 100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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