Colorado Partners for Fish and Wildlife
Project Profile: Augmentation and Groundwater Recharge - Water Benefitting Wildlife and People
Contact: Bill Noonan, (303) 969-7322 x272
The South Platte River is an incredible, yet heavily utilized resource. It originates high in the majestic Rocky Mountains near the town of Fairplay, Colorado. At its headwaters, the river is cold, clear, and supports a world-class fishery. Descending east of the Rockies it flows through the Greater Denver Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous regions of the American West. After passing through Denver, the South Platte continues its way across the plains of Colorado into Nebraska. It is along this course that an opportunity developed for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) program.
Water is critical to a number of economic and recreational functions throughout Colorado. Beginning in the mid-1800s, South Platte farmers and ranchers relied on surface water. An intricate network of irrigation ditches were carved throughout the landscape that enabled agricultural production of cereal grain crops and livestock-supporting forage, such as alfalfa. This was the sole method of irrigation for nearly a century until the advent of pumping systems in the 1960s, which enabled farmers and ranchers to extract underground water from the tributary tables.
Unfortunately, quickly after the development of the well pumping systems, the basin was determined to be over-appropriated, meaning there were more rights than available water at certain times of the year.
Although the science behind groundwater recharge is complex, the concept is relatively simple. Place water in wetlands at a predetermined distance from the river and when the water seeps into the ground, it will follow underground geological paths, providing base flows back to the river system. On the South Platte, this water supports a number of human users, as well as a variety of threatened and endangered species, including: whooping crane, interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon.
Initially, many of these augmentation and recharge wetland basins were designed as deep-holding impoundments with little surface acreage. Water was being recharged, but there were few on-site benefits for federal trust species (threatened, endangered, or other species of concern). PFW has been able to assist in designing the wetlands, resulting in numerous gains for wildlife along the South Platte. The program has accomplished this by developing a technique to distribute the water in a functional manner, resulting in a wetland with a large surface area and shallow depth. By keeping the depth at two feet or less, it has become a great draw for a suite of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. Water control structures were also installed to maintain full-flexibility in managing levels. Management plans were developed to coincide with migratory periods of targeted species. Monitoring has been completed on a series of these sites, and the data is encouraging. Species richness and diversity numbers are relatively high and attest to the productivity of the design techniques implemented by PFW.
Finding common-sense solutions to complex ecological problems is a trademark of the PFW program. Together with numerous landowners and irrigation companies like the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP), the PFW program is leading the way for species recovery. Through projects such as these PFW is keeping American families on working landscapes while preserving their farms and ranches for future generations.