by Keith Krebs, reprinted from The Mountain Mail, May 7, 2020, edition
The South Arkansas, known as The Little River to many locals, is an important tributary of the main stem of the Arkansas River.
Historically, flows in the South Arkansas were larger and more varied than at present. The physical footprint of today’s river reflects natural processes that are largely no longer at work. Today, there is often not enough water for the
original channel, and that limits the river’s ability to sustain a fully functioning ecosystem.
The South Arkansas River Watershed Assessment was completed in May 2014 by Bill Goosman at the request of Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas, now the Central Colorado Conservancy (CCC) and offers comprehensive evidence that today there are two different South Arkansas rivers.
The first is the upper reaches with its physical template created over millennia. The second arises gradually downstream as the impacts of past and present human activity intensify, creating a river less able to function properly. A line between the two rivers is crossed in the vicinity of Chaffee County Road 210.
In the upstream portion the influence of human activity is moderate, allowing more diverse habitat, limited sediment disposition, fewer barriers to fish movement and healthy, functioning plant communities.
Downstream the adverse impacts from human activity accumulate through more intensive and extensive use of water and land that have degraded in-stream and streamside habitat quality and quantity.
The river channel has been straightened with fewer areas of slower, deeper water, areas of sediment disposition are larger and more frequent, the riparian habitat is degraded or eliminated, and the river has been disconnected from natural and historic adjacent wetlands areas.
The South Arkansas River is a tremendous biological resource. From its origins high in the Sawatch Range, the South Arkansas flows along and through public lands, ranchlands, businesses and residential neighborhoods, providing drinking water to the city of Salida as well as valuable habitat to the many wildlife species that use the river corridor.
While rivers and wetlands make up only 2 percent of our land cover in Chaffee County, 80 percent of wildlife species use them at some point in their life cycle. Healthy riparian areas, or the green ribbons of vegetation that line rivers, act as a living filter and help attenuate floods, enhance water quality and recharge groundwater.
Central Colorado Conservancy and Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited are teaming up with local landowners to study opportunities along the South Arkansas River to improve water quality, riparian habitat and fish habitat while at the same time supporting landowners and their goals.
While this work is focused on maintaining and improving health of the overall watershed, we are currently engaged in an exploration of opportunities for a 1.2-mile reach of the South Arkansas River from CR 107 downstream (east) to the confluence with the main stem of the Arkansas.
We have used grant and donation funding to hire a consortium of locally based expert consultants who are completing a river health assessment, and along with adjacent landowner input, developing a conceptual design for enhancement along this reach of the Little River. We hope to have completed this phase before year’s end. Volunteers from Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited and staff from the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association are collaborating to implement the Colorado River Watch water quality monitoring program on the South Arkansas. The River Watch program is defined as “Real people doing real science for a real purpose.” True citizen science that we want to continue into the foreseeable future.
After completing 48 hours of training and in possession of several hundred dollars of testing equipment, three volunteers expect to complete our initial on-site sampling sometime this summer. Look for us on the Little River near the pedestrian bridge. We hope to expand to additional sites in the future, hopefully including some sites on the main stem of the Arkansas as we acquire more resources and as additional volunteers are trained. It is a long-term commitment to monitoring the health of our rivers.
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter, including our events and projects, visit our website, collegiatepeaksTU.org.
Keith Krebs is chapter president and youth education coordinator for Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited.