Riparian Restoration on Nutrioso Creek, Arizona

Jim Crosswhite - EC Bar Ranch

In 1996, I acquired the EC Bar Ranch, a 300-acre spread located in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona. The ranch included a 1'/2 mile stretch of Nutrioso Creek; another mile of this riparian area was added in 2000 through the purchase of an additional 100 acres. The land presented numerous challenges from the start. Upland pastures were infested with rabbitbrush and sumac. Blue gramma, the predominant grass species, yielded only 300 pounds per acre. Due to lack of vegetation and eroding streambanks, the riparian area was essentially nonfunctional. The earth ditch irrigation system was in disrepair and fencing was altogether lacking.

 

 

(above) Nutrioso Creek at EC Bar Ranch, (below left) planting willow seedlings; (below) installation of stream stabilization structures. Photos by Jim Crosswhite.

Water quality in Nutrioso Creek also presented a significant problem. A report released in 2000 by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) identified excessive levels of turbidity along seven miles of the creek. With four fish species inhabiting the creek, including the endangered Lower Colorado River spinedace minnow, turbidity had the potential to adversely affect both irrigation water and property rights. But ADEQ's report on total maximum daily load (TMDL) for turbidity also offered numerous recommendations to improve water quality that have been successfully adopted:
  1. Confine livestock grazing in the riparian areas to the dormant winter months. Twenty riparian and upland pastures have been set apart to allow rotational grazing of livestock, and the riparian area is now fenced to exclude elk. The USDA Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) provided matching funds for brush management to improve upland pastures, and cross fencing to allow rotational grazing.

  1. Install stream grade stabilization structures to protect streambanks during high flow events and reduce water velocity. Also with help from EQIP, more than 15 such structures were installed to raise the streambed and create a floodplain in deeply gullied channel reaches.
  2. Provide alternative drinking water sources for wildlife and livestock. The Arizona Water Protection Fund helped to pay for the drilling of several offchannel water wells and installation of 15 wildlife drinkers so that cattle, elk, and other animals would not have to access the stream directly. These projects protect revegetation projects along the stream corridor and allow more water to remain in the stream itself.
  3. Revegetate the riparian corridor with grass and willows. The seedings and plantings were aided ' by sprinkler irrigation until they JAV were established. Inefficient earth ditches, which lost 100 million gallons of water each year due to seepage and evaporation, were replaced with sprinkler irrigation systems supplemented with pipe, water storage tanks, water pumps, and aluminum irrigation pipe, to cover 200 acres of upland and riparian pastures.
  4. Eradicate rabbitbrush and replace it with grass, providing more grass per acre and reducing livestock reliance on vegetation within the stream corridor. Upland pastures were mowed, root plowed, and reseeded. Buffer strip areas were created. Erosion has been reduced, and forage production increased tenfold.

Prior to restoration efforts, the creek periodically dried up under mild drought conditions, causing loss of habitat for all fish and many other wildlife species. In three of the last four years, which were characterized by severe drought, Nutrioso Creek has been dry upstream and downstream from the property, but pools and running water on EC Bar Ranch have kept alive the vegetation, fish, and other wildlife that are dependent on the riparian area. In 2002, the condition of the riparian area was rated by an independent consultant as "on an upward trend," with many places "in proper functioning condition."

More partnerships are being developed to extend water quality improvement practices downstream, increase wildlife habitat, and improve ranching economics. Those interested in applying best management practices on their property may also find riparian fencing, dormant season livestock grazing, and willow plantings to be basic yet very productive and cost-effective practices to implement.

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