In rural Colorado, valuing water - and neighbors

Growing up in the rural West is a sure-fire way to gain a strong appreciation for the value of water. One of my earliest memories is of our local community getting together every spring to repair the rudimentary dam — resembling something built by beavers more than a work of modern engineering—that diverted water from the creek to the irrigation ditch that we all drew our water from.

My family lived next to that small creek, too warm for trout but with plenty of minnows, suckers, crawdads, and the occasional catfish to chase.  As children, we pursued our work and play mostly outside—the two pursuits were closely intertwined. We learned the worth of our labors and how to enjoy our days by always finding some part of the natural world to marvel at. Most importantly, we learned respect for that world and all of its inhabitants, which collectively provided us with our livelihood, kept us warm, and fed us. While I didn’t seriously fall in love with fishing and hunting until later in life, I’m certain a life spent immersed in the landscape led me to it.

Now as someone who has sat on both sides of the table when discussing appropriate uses of natural resources, I can assure you it’s never an easy conversation. However, at the end of the day I find that most people would like to help each other and their little patch of the world out if they have the opportunity.

We recently had such an opportunity when a multi-generational landowner on the Dolores River approached me about an eroding side channel on her land and how small fish were being trapped in the channel following high water.  For a very modest amount of money, we were able to complete a project that restored functional fish-rearing habitat and reduced sediment loads in the river, both of which will benefit anglers up and down the Dolores, as well as address the concerns and needs of the landowner.

While the big challenge is always how to balance the flow needs of rivers and people, successfully working together on small problems makes it easier to imagine tackling the larger ones.

While I still sometimes hear, “Why do work on private lands?” from anglers and “Why should I care about fish?” from water users, it seems like the more we try to be real neighbors, the easier it gets to search for solutions together and the less those kinds of questions define our discussions.

---by Matt Clark

Matt grew up on a farm and ranch in southwest Colorado and now hunts, fishes, and forages with his family all over the San Juan Mountains.  He is TU’s Backcountry Coordinator in southwest Colorado and also oversees on-ranch restoration partnership work in the Dolores and Mancos river systems.