Hooded Merganser bird
Hooded Merganser bird

Hooded Merganser. Photo: Raymond Hennessy/Audubon Photography Awards
Hooded Merganser. Photo: Raymond Hennessy/Audubon Photography Awards

Western Rivers Initiative

How a Small Chapter is Making a Big Difference

Grand Valley Audubon Society is restoring bird habitat along the Colorado River through partnerships.

Meredith Swett-Walker is an adjunct board member and volunteer wetlands improvement project coordinator for Grand Valley Audubon Society.

In Grand Junction, Colorado, Grand Valley Audubon Society owns and manages the Audubon Nature Preserve—almost 60 acres along the Colorado River adjoining a state park. Located in the Grand Valley Riparian Corridor Important Bird Area, the preserve is home to many wetland bird species, such as Cinnamon Teal and Hooded Mergansers. Our chapter's goal is to steward the best possible river and wetland bird habitat. This can be hard for a small, volunteer-run chapter, but with dedication and help from Audubon and other groups, we’ve made it possible. Here’s how.

In 2016, Abby Burk, the western rivers regional program manager for Audubon Rockies visited the preserve and was excited by its potential bird habitat. She encouraged us to apply for a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Five Star & Urban Waters Restoration Program Grant. Although we were not awarded the grant, our application was the top-rated proposal in Colorado, which encouraged us to keep trying. The application process also helped us clarify our goals, identify partners, and assemble the necessary information to apply for other grants.

In 2017, we partnered with Ducks Unlimited to apply for Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Wetlands for Wildlife grant. The Audubon Nature Preserve was previously the site of a gravel mine, so it contained deep pits filled with stagnant groundwater that weren’t very productive for birds. We proposed a project to convert these ponds to shallow water wetlands, remove invasive plants, and plant native shrubs and trees in the surrounding riparian forest. Ducks Unlimited’s engineers, hydrologists, and biologists provided the expertise needed to design and construct the project.

Converting our gravel pit ponds to shallow-water emergent wetlands was an important action for waterfowl and wading birds. The preserve is located on the western edge of the Central Flyway, where migrating waterbirds need wetland habitat to stopover and refuel. Shallow wetlands with emergent vegetation provide the food and habitat these birds need, whereas our stagnant ponds did not.

In the past, the Colorado River created natural wetlands as its channel moved and flooded, but with dams and diversions it no longer does so. For the past 100 years, flood-irrigated agricultural fields in our area have served as substitute—albeit inadequate—wetland habitat. But with water restrictions looming and conversion of agricultural land to residential developments increasing, even these wetlands may be in decline.

In 2018, we partnered with Audubon Rockies and RiversEdge West. With funding from Patagonia we organized a large volunteer riparian restoration event over Earth Day weekend. Shortly thereafter, we applied for and received a grant from Audubon's Plants for Birds program to build a bird and pollinator-friendly garden on the property, adjacent to a popular trail.

This has been an ambitious and expensive project, but we have received support from the City of Grand Junction, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Audubon Rockies, RiversEdge West, Desert Ecosystem Analysis and Restoration, Forever Our Rivers Foundation, and more. With our momentum, we have applied for grants from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And we recently received a grant from the Western Colorado Community Foundation to install interpretive signage at the preserve to educate the public on the importance of wetland habitats for birds and other wildlife.

None of this would have been possible without the partnership and impetus we received from Audubon Rockies. As we have expanded our network of partners, our collective momentum has grown and enabled our small chapter to take on a big riparian and wetland restoration project.

In Colorado and across the West, water is a critical issue for birds and people. Climate change, overuse, and drought have pushed western water supplies into uncertain territory. In order to avoid continuing risks to birds, habitat, and people, we need to rebalance our water use with available supply. We need your to help make this change. Audubon’s Western Water Grant opportunity could help your Audubon chapter make a difference for a sustainable water future for birds and people.

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