Restoration in Nutrioso Creek:
Successful Results Beginning to Show
|Nutrioso Creek is located in the Little
Colorado River Basin in southern Apache County along the eastern border of
Arizona. It is a 27-mile-long tributary to the Little Colorado River.
Historical livestock activity caused a loss of riparian vegetation, such as
willows, which has resulted in exposed streambanks aggravated by continued
large ungulate grazing (cattle and elk). Riparian vegetation is necessary to
help stabilize banks, dissipate stream energy, reduce erosion, and naturally
filter sediment to reduce turbidity.
Turbidity data were collected throughout the restoration project to determine the project's effectiveness.
Nutrioso Creek was listed as an impaired water for violating the turbidity standard for aquatic and wildlife cold water streams. The entire 27-mile reach of Nutrioso Creek was listed on the state's 303(d) list, requiring the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the watershed. The TMDL Report, issued in July 2000, focused recommendations on 3 miles of private property and 4 miles of property owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The turbidity impairment in Nutrioso Creek is a result of suspended solids in the form of excessive sediment. The excess sediment comes from the banks of the stream itself, which is incised in some areas because of channel degradation. This downcutting of the channel created a loss in floodplain for the stream, resulting in higher stream velocities during high flows. The higher velocities increased the shear stress/force acting on the streambanks and thus increased erosional forces.
Through the implementation of BMPs, streams in the riparian corridor have been returned to "proper functioning condition."
A local model of success
Restoration of Nutrioso Creek is occurring as a result of the cooperative efforts of area landowners. One landowner, Jim Crosswhite, has undertaken efforts to implement water quality practices while at the same time improving ranching economics. In 1996 Crosswhite purchased the 275-acre EC Bar Ranch, which included 1½ miles of riparian zone within the 3 miles recently recommended for water quality improvements. During 2000 Crosswhite purchased 115 acres from two neighbors, including another mile of the riparian corridor downstream. He now owns about 390 acres, including 2½ miles of the riparian zone being restored.
Crosswhite has changed range management practices and has been actively seeking grant monies to protect the riparian corridor, help restore the stream, and implement best management practices (BMPs). He has used a combination of 319 funding and grants obtained through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Arizona Stewardship Incentive Program, Arizona Water Protection Fund, and Arizona Game and Fish Department. He receives continued technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
In 1997, at Crosswhite's request, the NRCS prepared a Conservation Plan for the EC Bar Ranch. The plan recommended a number of conservation practices designed to restore the riparian zone, improve grazing management of livestock, and increase irrigation efficiencies. In 1998 the riparian corridor was fenced to limit livestock grazing to dormant winter months, restore the wetland habitat, and raise the water table to increase off-channel forage production. A plan has been followed to eradicate rabbitbrush because it causes erosion into the creek and consumes vast quantities of subsoil moisture that could otherwise be used by productive grasses and crops. Improvements are under way to increase the efficiency of an irrigation system using water from Nutrioso Creek. Portions of 20,000 feet of earth irrigation ditches are being replaced with permanent and temporary pipe. Water is stored in a 250,000-gallon tank to supply a 1,500-gallon-per-minute pump to deliver water to traveling gun sprinklers covering 100 acres of upland pastures and 2 miles of the riparian zone. A significant portion of the 100 million gallons previously lost due to seepage and evaporation in earth ditches will now remain in the creek to help reduce turbidity, increase wetland habitat, and improve forage production for dormant season grazing; it can also be applied to upland pastures to help reduce erosion and improve crop production.
Water control structure used to replace earth ditches with pipe and screen fish from entering the irrigation system.
Improvements in water quality and ranching economics
Successful results are already beginning to show. In a study in 1996, the Bureau of Land Management, using the Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) score, rated the 1½ miles of riparian corridor on the EC Bar Ranch as "non-functional" in places and "functional-at-risk with a downward trend" in other places. In 1999, after implementation of some BMPs, the same area was found to be "functional-at-risk with an upward trend." In 2000 one reach was found to be in "proper functioning condition." Turbidity and flow monitoring by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality over high- and low-water flow events between October 1999 and April 2001 indicated that the level of turbidity has stabilized at 9 NTU, while flows have reached 50 percent above historical high levels. In another vegetative study performed during a severe drought in September 2000, the creek was dry upstream and downstream of the 2 miles located on the EC Bar Ranch where water quality improvement practices had been implemented. This created a stable wetland habitat for the threatened Little Colorado River spinedace and other fish.
Ranching economics are beginning to improve through a combination of conservation practices. A new Livestock Management Plan (LMP) places emphasis on producing forage during the growing season, assessing forage availability in the fall, and then acquiring stockers to be sold in January to March. This LMP will increase gross revenues, reduce year-round feeding expenses, allow wetlands to reach PFC, and permanently reduce turbidity.
Ongoing TMDL Implementation in Nutrioso Creek
Implementation of the Nutrioso Creek TMDL is ongoing, with a 5-year estimated time frame (and a 5- to 20-year time frame to meet turbidity standards). Primary goals of TMDL implementation include
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