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Improvements to Butcherknife Creek to boost ecosystem, learning opportunities

The Steamboat Springs School Board signaled approval for the project on Monday, May 2

This stretch of Butcherknife Creek used to be lined with trees, but those blew into powerlines during a wind storm in September 2020 and we cut down. A new project hopes to revitalize the creek and increase learning opportunities for students in Steamboat schools.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Last week, Bennet Colvin took his middle school students to Butcherknife Creek, which runs through the Steamboat Springs School District’s Strawberry Park campus before it snakes through Old Town.

What the students found wasn’t promising.

On Monday, May 2, as part of a growing effort to restore the creek’s ecosystem, the Steamboat Springs School Board signaled approval for a project that would work to improve the creek and make it a space the whole district could use for scientific study.



Colvin’s class collected insects — or tried to — along the creek, which helps them study the health of the waterway.

“It’s like collecting them out of an irrigation ditch,” Colvin said. “There’s no rocks at the bottom. Where we removed trees, there’s nothing. When we went further down, the second you hit trees, we collected a whole bunch of great insects.”



Colvin said problems started after a wind storm in September 2020 blew cottonwood trees along the creek into power lines. To restore power, the trees had to go. What used to be 90% shade is now 100% sun, Colvin said.

Since the trees were cut down, the creek has also straightened out. Instead of high flows from runoff being forced to wind around root systems, that pressure has carved a straighter channel. That has led to fewer rocks, warmer water and less life in the creek in general.

“We can do better,” Colvin said.

Jeff Ruff, a former teacher who now sits on the board of the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust, said the group has been working on projects locally since 1986. They are responsible for multi-million dollar improvements through Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area and they just wrapped up a project on the main stem of the Yampa River through Pleasant Valley last fall.

“We want to be involved and essentially pay for this project,” Ruff said.

A figure presented Monday, May 2, shows what kinds of stream improvements could be made at Butcherknife Creek near the Steamboat Springs School District’s Strawberry Park Campus.
Jeff Ruff/Courtesy

But unlike other projects that have utilized large pieces of machinery, this one would take a lot of handwork, Ruff said. The work would require lots of volunteers and potentially students help to complete, but it would also present an opportunity to teach students what a healthy trout habitat looks like.

Next week, Colvin said the group Fly Water would come and do an assessment of the creek bed, which is the first step of a restoration project.

As part of its evaluation, Fly Water would create a plan to add structures in the creek that would promote river health. Some of it may require digging, but most of the improvements would be held in place with rebar and rocks. The whole project could be completed this fall.

For Colvin, it isn’t just about river health. It’s also about creating a prime learning space for years to come. Before the blow down, Colvin said, teachers would take students to the creek all the time, but there wasn’t a good place to gather in a group.

This project would also add some sort of rock amphitheater that wouldn’t require much maintenance if any, but would be a natural place to meet when learning around the creek.

The ecosystem itself could be a good learning tool. Colvin said he has had students participate in the River Watch program, which has students document data they collect at the standard of state water scientists.

In Colvin’s vision, students would document Butcherknife Creek going forward, creating a database that can be used to track plants, aquatic animals and insects around the waterway over time. He said principals in each of the district’s schools have expressed an interest in using the space for students.

“Next year, when I’m teaching zoology, I plan on taking kids out there birding and looking at the different fish that are in there,” Colvin said. “There’s so many things you can do, you’re really only limited by your creativity.”


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