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Restoring Colorado wetlands one rock at a time

In 2012 work crews place Zeedyk structures in a stream to restore wetlands in Gunnison County.
Renée Rondeau
In 2012 work crews place Zeedyk structures in a stream to restore wetlands in Gunnison County.

According to a recent article in the Fence Post, Colorado State University along with several partners are utilizing a low-tech method to help ranchers restore degraded meadows and ranchlands in Colorado.

CSU researcher Renée Rondeau, who works with Colorado Natural Heritage Program, has spent the past decade documenting how strategically placing rocks and wooden poles in the meadows of Gunnison County’s sagebrush hills can slow down waterflow, reconnect the floodplain, and increase wetland plant cover … sometimes as much as 40%.

“This first site we worked on we had, for example, almost 60 structures that we put in in about one mile,” said Rondeau.

The research team monitored every fourth or fifth structure to determine what plant species were thriving or declining.

Rondeau says the goal was to increase the amount of wetland plants in the area while also hoping to see a decrease in invasive plant species.

"And if it’s working, if these structures are really holding the water, wetland plants should increase in cover…and that’s exactly what we saw,” she said.

While Rondeau admits the technique isn’t right for every stream bed and won’t solve the overwhelming magnitude of climate change, the technique does show promise for the future.

“Anything we can do to improve the resiliency to drought is the best thing we can do to adapt to a hotter and drier climate,” she said.

The technique of placing rock structures and wooden poles into streams was used by Native Americans and adapted by renowned environmentalist Bill Zeedyk, head of Zeedyk Ecological Consulting and a former U.S. Forest Service employee.

“If you were talking to Bill he’d say, ‘this isn’t like a true science.' There’s some art associated with it and the people that build these structures are almost all volunteers. It’s amazing, they can become very artistic in how they place the rocks, where they place them.”

As we think about the ongoing super drought in the West and the increasing shadow of climate change, Rondaeu says taking every opportunity, no matter how small, to become more drought resilient is a must.

“That’s what I like about this, is that it is simple and while it may seem small, it has a big impact. Once you’ve built some of these structures and you’ve really looked at these things you will never look at a stream bed the same way again.”

Copyright 2023 KVNF - Mountain Grown Community Radio. To see more, visit KVNF - Mountain Grown Community Radio.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Lisa Young is a multimedia journalist living on the Western Slope of Colorado. She currently works as a freelance reporter for KVNF "Mountain Grown Community Radio" in Paonia, Colorado.