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Environment and Ecology of the Colorado River Basin

Environment and Ecology of the Colorado River Basin By Natalie Triedman Key Findings: -Human needs have historically taken precedence over environmental concerns when man- aging Colorado River water and other natural resources. -The diversity of local habitats and the demand for unique management approaches com- plicates how we manage environmental concerns on the Colorado . -The riparian zone is deteriorating, which is negatively impacting native plant and animal species that rely on this unique habitat. -To this day, no specific water quantity on the main stem of the Colorado River is designat- ed for environmental needs. The threat of endangered species and degraded water quality are both amplified by the fact that we do not allocate a significant quantity of water exclu- sively for environmental needs.

The 2012 State of the Rockies Reort Card nironent and cology 89 About the Author: Natalie Triedman (Colorado College class of ‘12) is a 2011-12 Student Researcher for the State of the Rockies Project. “Ultimately, the condition of our forests, and the ability of these forests to respond to climate

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Transcription of Environment and Ecology of the Colorado River Basin

1 Environment and Ecology of the Colorado River Basin By Natalie Triedman Key Findings: -Human needs have historically taken precedence over environmental concerns when man- aging Colorado River water and other natural resources. -The diversity of local habitats and the demand for unique management approaches com- plicates how we manage environmental concerns on the Colorado . -The riparian zone is deteriorating, which is negatively impacting native plant and animal species that rely on this unique habitat. -To this day, no specific water quantity on the main stem of the Colorado River is designat- ed for environmental needs. The threat of endangered species and degraded water quality are both amplified by the fact that we do not allocate a significant quantity of water exclu- sively for environmental needs.

2 The 2012 Colorado college State of the Rockies Report Card The Colorado River Basin : Agenda for Use, Restoration, and Sustainability for the Next Generation About the Author: Natalie Triedman ( Colorado college class of 12) is a 2011-12 Student Researcher for the State of the Rockies Project. Brendan Boepple The 2012 State of the Rockies Report Card Environment and Ecology 89. Ultimately, the condition of our forests, and the ability of these forests to respond to climate change, disease, development, and wild fires will help to shape the future of the Colorado River , and its role as the lifeblood of the arid ability to protect this incredible green infra- structure is every bit as important as our ability to build dams, canals, waste treatment plants, and other bricks-and-mortar type of solutions.

3 -Harris Sherman, the Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment for the Department of Agriculture, speaking at the Colorado college , on February 6th, 2012 as part of the State of the Rockies Project Speakers Series Introduction are one example of a policy intervention that causes myriad The Colorado River Basin is an environmental trea- changes that upset the natural habitat along the River ; by sure that is an increasingly fragile system due to complex and regulating the quantity of flows, dams threaten water quality diverse pressures. Human needs have historically taken pre- and native species. Dams and diversions cause a reduction cedence over environmental concerns when managing water of downstream flows on the Colorado River , transforming and other natural resources.

4 Natural organisms do not follow riparian habitats that are essential for plant and animal devel- political boundaries, so laws and other policy actions are not opment. Dams also trap sediment and nutrients essential to always aligned with the specific needs of plants, animals, downstream Ecology and release water that is colder than wa- and water. The diversity of local habitats and the demand for ters upstream. Deprived of adequate flows and water quality, unique management approaches also complicates how we species are then faced with the challenge of quickly adapting manage such environmental concerns. to a new habitat, and some do not survive. How do we assess the health of the Colorado River The Colorado River Basin is threatened.

5 To this day, Basin ? Biodiversity, water quality, and water quantity are key no specific water quantity on the main stem of the Colorado indicators of a River system's The zone adjacent to a River is designated for environmental needs. Environmental River , called the riparian zone, is critical for River health and issues, such as water quantity and quality, are also linked to biodiversity. The good news is that the banks lining the Colo- important economic and social issues. By taking initiative rado foster impressive ecological diversity, supporting 65% of to create a healthy River ecosystem, we will be addressing the species in the West, even though it comprises a mere 5% human needs in this expansive region as well.

6 We are all of actual land The concern is that the riparian zone is stakeholders, and the stakes are high. deteriorating, which is negatively impacting the plants and an- imals that rely on this unique habitat. Equally concerning, as populations of some plant and animal species decline, are the implications of why these populations are being threatened. Species declines are indicators that we should not ignore because they tell a story about the deteriorating environmental conditions that may affect other species. It is easy to overlook these environmental threats considering the ecological beauty throughout the Colorado River Basin , which includes some spectacular natural won- ders ranging from the Rocky Mountain National Park to the Grand Canyon.

7 People who live and visit the region may be deceived by the array of colorful flora and impressive wild- life, potentially obscuring environmental threats not apparent to the casual observer. Not only are a number of species at risk rising and the natural habitat becoming degraded, but the quality of water is also threatened. The factors affecting water quality along the 1,450 miles of the River are varied and cause many different types of complications for species and the Environment . Primary among these water quality issues are salinity, sediment, and metals. The threat of endangered species and degraded water quality are both amplified by the fact that we do not allocate a significant quantity of water exclusively for environmental needs.

8 For many decades water quantity along the River has been determined by legal mechanisms, which have consistent- ly prioritized human needs over natural requirements. Dams Brendan Boepple Ecology of the Basin : Diversity in Geography with unique ecological profiles and threats that are specific to The 242,000 square miles of the Colorado River ex- that region. Thus, it is impossible to summarize the biologi- tend across many different eco-regions with distinct environ- cal makeup of the Basin as a whole. It is helpful to have an mental profiles. Despite the variation in climate, hydrology overview of this diversity as a context for understanding the and Ecology , these diverse habitats are united by the fact that environmental challenges in more detail.

9 They all rely on a healthy riparian Environment - the transition The Colorado River starts at the headwaters on the zone between land and River , as seen in Figure As natural continental divide, the geological boundary separating the buffer zones, riparian areas support flora and fauna native Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. At an elevation of over to both upland and wetland This explains why the 10,000 feet, the River flows down La Poudre Pass and through riparian Environment throughout the Colorado River Basin is the Rocky Mountains as it is fed by melting snowpack that home to a high percentage of plants and wildlife, despite the contributes 85% of the River 's Flora and fauna native small percentage of land that actually comprises the riparian to this section of the Colorado River have adapted to the vari- The powerful and erratic River flows that are charac- ability and intensity of the high elevation weather patterns.

10 Teristic of riparian environments also contribute to the health as well as the rugged topography characteristic of the steep- and diversity of the ecosystem by transporting nutrients and est habitat in the United In spite of more than sediment during flood Plants and animals in the Colo- million visitors annually to Rocky Mountain National Park, rado River Basin are dependent on this resource-rich buffer water quality is adequate to support the growth and survival zone, which is becoming increasingly threatened by dams and of plants and Alpine plants, such as the columbine, diversions, invasive species, pollution, and water bloom in April and color the landscape through September. An impressive 139 confirmed butterfly species make the park Figure 1: Image of a Riparian Environment a popular location for butterfly research.


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