Reclaiming the Rivers
Tamarisk Coalition Restores Western Shores to Natural Habitat
At a Tamarisk Coalition presentation years ago, recalls former coalition director Tim Carlson, an 85-year-old mentioned how he earned his Eagle Scout badge planting tamarisk shrubs along the Arkansas River. After learning more about the invasive species the old-timer quipped, “I’d get another Eagle Scout badge for cutting it all down.”
The tall, flowering, shrubby tree is ubiquitous along western rivers, where it crowds out native plants like cottonwood trees, willows, and grasses. Brought to the United States from Eurasia for use as an ornamental in the 1800s, tamarisk also proved useful for erosion control along streams and rivers — hence the Boy Scout badge.
As the plant spread, however, its harmful impacts on wildlife habitat, agriculture, and recreation became more evident. This led a group of locals to tackle a problem that had become widespread throughout the West and in drier Plains states.
Grand Junction civic leaders and other community members founded the Colorado Riverfront Commission in 1987 to clean up what had become the city’s neglected and trashed riverfront. On either side of the Fifth Street Bridge — in the heart of the city — uranium mill tailings, rusted cars, and scrap metal littered the area. The riverfront commission purchased the property just south of the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens — known as Watson Island — and the Jarvis property west of the bridge, and initiated a cleanup to take back the riverfront.
Once the mill tailings and junk were removed, another problem remained: Thick stands of tamarisk infested the riverside, blocking access and views of the river, and competing with cottonwoods and other native plants. Tamarisk’s deep root system allows it to tap into water tables from places where native plants can’t reach. Plus, each tamarisk shrub consumes 20 gallons of water daily. While cottonwoods typically grow in groups of 10 or 15, tamarisks cluster in the hundreds, using that much more water.
Tamarisk also poses wildfire risks. There are volatile oils in its leaves, and the wood burns “hot and fast,” says Tamarisk Coalition executive director Stacy Beaugh. After a fire, tamarisk grows back “with even more vigor, while other plants just die,” she adds.
In addition to its other undesirable traits, tamarisk (also known as saltcedar) adds salt to the soil. “The big thing with this work, it takes five to ten years to see restoration happen,” says Cara Kukuraitis, Tamarisk Coalition outreach coordinator. “It doesn’t happen overnight. The soil needs to heal so the native plants can come back.”
Thus, the improvements we enjoy today are due to early efforts of the Tamarisk Coalition, which began as a subcommittee of the riverfront commission. It became its own nonprofit in 2002, thanks to local visionaries John Heideman, Kacey Conway, Carlson, and other community members, including local weed and land managers.
By 2010, the Tamarisk Coalition was partnering with the Colorado National Guard, the city of Grand Junction, professional contractors, and a team of volunteers to remove invasive species, protect existing cottonwood trees, and revegetate areas with native plants. Two years later the Tamarisk Coalition formed the Desert Rivers Collaborative, a partnership of numerous local governments, agencies, and private organizations.
Visiting Watson Island today you’d never imagine the area once earned Grand Junction the moniker of “Junk Town.” These days the landscape is lovely, with paved pathways that wind around shady cottonwoods and native grasses. Tamarisks no longer clog access to the river. People of all ages visit the area daily to stroll, bicycle, walk their dogs, or fish and play on the riverbank.
A lush pollinator garden now grows in the former dumping ground, providing a sanctuary for our oh-so-important pollinators. More than a thousand plants of 50 different native species currently grow in the field. “The idea was to have something blooming throughout the season,” says Tamarisk Coalition restoration coordinator Shannon Hatch. “When we first started it was nothing but a barren field,” except for the invasive and allergenic kosha weed.
Regional and Local Partnerships
Carlson, who has worked on environmental river issues for 45 years, says tamarisk was the “best environmental problem he’d ever run across,” because “nobody had an answer to it or was approaching the solution on a large scale, a regional approach.”
As its executive director for six years, Carlson quickly saw the need to make the Tamarisk Coalition a regional effort. “People were getting grants to do five acres, or half a mile,” of tamarisk removal, he says. “That wasn’t going to solve the problem. We started off with a bold approach. If we were going to solve this problem it’s got to be a regional solution.” Seven western states hired the Tamarisk Coalition to conduct assessments of tamarisk and Russian olive impacts on their river riparian areas.
Today, representatives from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Mexico attend annual Tamarisk Coalition conferences. These events bring various stakeholders together with scientists and agencies such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management to share knowledge and report on what’s happening in their respective areas. Representatives from 14 states attended last year’s meeting. The 2018 conference will take place in Grand Junction in February at Colorado Mesa University.
“The big thing with this work, it takes five to ten years to see restoration happen. It doesn’t happen overnight. The soil needs to heal so the native plants can come back.”
In addition to state and federal land managers, the Tamarisk Coalition also partners with private landowners who have property along the river. “We don’t own any land,” Kukuraitis says. “We work throughout the West, with individuals and established watershed groups,” including the Gila and Verde Rivers in Arizona, and the Escalante Watershed group in southeast Utah. “We do a good job connecting the dots — researchers and scientists with folks on the ground. We act as an umbrella for whatever organization needs assistance. We can help apply for funding.”
In 2016, the Tamarisk Coalition kicked off a campaign to raise $2.42 million to assist nine watershed partnerships working to restore six rivers located throughout the southwest. By the end of 2017, more than half of that goal had been reached.
In the Grand Valley, the Tamarisk Coalition has directed and funded the restoration of numerous areas — Ruby Horsethief Canyon; Snooks Bottom in Fruita; state wildlife areas and parks, including Highland Lake, James M. Robb, Walter Walker, Corn Lake, and Island Acres; county and city property along the Riverfront Trail; Palisade’s Riverbend Park; and the Tillman Bishop State Wildlife Area.
As one success story, Beaugh points to the Connected Lakes section of the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park. She never used to take her family there because she considered it not family-friendly. Now, after five years of restoration work, she says it’s one of her favorite places to go. “It’s cool to see how open and used it is now. People are paddle boarding on the lake. You see kids on scooters. There’s more access for fishing. Before, you couldn’t see the river from the Connected Lakes trail,” due to the overgrown tamarisk and other invasive weeds.
Western Colorado Conservation Corps
Members of the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program for men and women ages 17 to 25, were busy last fall revegetating and building pathways at Las Colonias Park — city-owned land east of Watson Island — where the crew had earlier engineered a slough to bring the river closer to the Riverfront Trail. In another part of town, the conservation corps worked to restore Matchett Park’s Indian Wash, which had become heavily infested with tamarisk and Russian olive.
Hundreds of youths have found employment and learned valuable skills while working on Tamarisk Coalition projects, says WCCC associate director Matt Jennings, who first worked with tamarisk as a WCCC crew member while attending Fruita Monument High School.
After college, Jennings returned to the Grand Valley to become a WCCC crew leader.
Conservation corps members learn to use chainsaws to cut the tamarisk as close to the ground as possible. The stump is then spot-treated with an herbicide to kill the roots. With their chainsaw skills, many youths become wildland firefighters, Jennings says. Additionally, crew members undergo 36 hours of training to become certified herbicide applicators, which often leads to local government jobs spraying for weeds, he adds.
Where the Colorado River cuts through Ruby-Horsethief Canyon in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, cottonwoods are coming back where tamarisks used to choke them out. By floating into the canyon on rafts, “We’re able to get into areas where big machinery can’t,” Jennings says. “It’s really cool. We do a good job of getting rid of the tamarisk, and it’s good for the kids. It introduces them to the issues and the geography of western Colorado.”
The Tamarisk Coalition considers WCCC a “huge partner,” Beaugh says. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Community Engagement and Efforts
If you want to see restored riparian areas firsthand, consider joining the Tamarisk Coalition’s Raft a River event, held in August. The 90-minute trip puts in at Rim Rock Adventures in Fruita and takes out in Loma. It includes music, expert speakers, dinner served on the shore, and beer donated by Fruita’s Copper Club Brewing Company. All proceeds go toward continued restoration programs. “We’ve had people who have lived in the Grand Valley their whole lives and never been on the river before,” Kukuraitis says. “It’s a way to experience the river in our own backyard. People get a behind-the-scenes look at the restoration going on and the people involved.”
Kukuraitis also promotes future land stewardship by delivering interactive presentations to schoolchildren. Students attend field trips where they plant trees and learn about revegetation.
The Tamarisk Coalition is supported in part through memberships. A $50 “seedling” membership gets you discounts for the annual Raft the River trip and other special events, including the annual conference and workshops. To receive a free monthly newsletter visit tamariskcoalition.org.
As it heads into the future, the Tamarisk Coalition is adopting a new name. As of March 1, it will officially be called RiversEdge West, in order to better reflect the organization’s values and the evolution and expansion of its efforts. While its focus remains on the American West, the group’s work today addresses many other invasive riverside plants, challenges associated with climate change and habitat fragmentation, and myriad issues on behalf of riparian areas and restoration professionals. The new title reinforces what the coalition’s efforts have shown all along — that it is committed to doing far more for western rivers than simply killing tamarisk.