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Southeastern District Wants Bigger Share to Fight Tamarisk

July 19, 2008

By Chris Woodka, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

Jul. 19–The Arkansas River basin has the greatest tamarisk infestation of any basin in the state, but has so far received relatively meager state and federal funding to combat the problem.

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District wants to change that by developing the Arkansas Watershed Invasive Plant Plan, an approach that looks at the entire basin, not just spotty projects to remove tamarisk.

“The Colorado River basin has 8 percent of the problem and gets 80 percent of the funding,” Executive Director Jim Broderick told the Southeastern board Thursday. “We have to start making legislators aware of where it’s a problem and where it isn’t.”

The Arkansas River basin has 69 percent of the infested acreage in the state, with more than 67,000 acres of tamarisk, a recently completed survey shows. Right now, the invasive plants are depriving the basin’s water users and native vegetation of 76,000 acre-feet of water per year. If nothing is done, those plants eventually will use 196,000 acre-feet per year as they completely cover the areas where they are now found and crowd out other vegetation, said Jean Van Pelt, conservation outreach coordinator. To completely eradicate tamarisk in the Arkansas basin would cost $70 million. Tamarisk is most prevalent in downstream nine counties in the basin: Pueblo, Fremont, El Paso, Huerfano, Las Animas, Crowley, Otero, Bent and Prowers.

“We have a huge problem here compared to other parts of the state,” Van Pelt said.

Van Pelt headed the effort to develop the $150,000 plan, which used funding from counties, local agencies and state sources. A draft has been sent to the state weed control officials.

In addition to mapping infested areas in the basin, the plan outlines ways to control tamarisk, provides basinwide coordination, maintain databases and set up a Web site to share the information. The Web site is still under development.

“There is no plan in the western United States that tackles the problem as a basinwide problem. Other areas are looking at their own problems,” Broderick said.

The success of the plan will depend on continued funding to maintain the databases and Web sites, but the real advantage could be in gaining state and federal funds to actually remove tamarisk, Van Pelt said.

Right now, there are two pots of money the district is looking at:

A $4 million cost-share program by the Colorado Water Conservation Board over the next four years. Funds could be available as early as October.

A federal demonstration program authorized in 2006 to create five demonstration projects throughout the West. The program has not been funded.

The Arkansas Valley plan could be among those first in line, since it has the support of Colorado’s congressional delegation, as well as the state of Kansas, Broderick said.

Kansas sees tamarisk control as a way both to increase flows and improve water quality, Broderick explained.

While tamarisk uses vast amounts of water, it is uncertain how much would be returned to the river system. Part of the program includes revegetation of areas reclaimed from tamarisk.

Any water saved by tamarisk removal goes into the priority system, and cannot be claimed by those who remove the plants, Broderick added.

Absent large state and federal programs, the Arkansas River group plans to promote cooperative programs between government agencies and landowners that address the problem. Tamarisk removal depends on the size of area, terrain and other conditions.

Everything from aerial spraying, burning, hand-cutting and mechanical clearing to goats and beetles has been used in the Arkansas and Purgatoire river basins in recent years.

In a related matter, the district is trying to get a $500,000 federal grant to maintain the program.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., included it in his appropriation requests as an earmark. U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Wayne Allard, R-Colo., attempted to include the same earmark, but their effort was blocked by the Bureau of Reclamation, which convinced a committee to remove it, said lobbyist Christine Arbogast.

Reclamation unexpectedly opposed tamarisk removal funding because it said water salvage benefits had not been proven, Arbogast explained.

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RUTHLESS INVADERS

Tamarisks, also called salt cedars, can grow 5-20 feet tall, and are an invasive species brought to the United States from central Asia as an ornamental plant in the mid-1800s. They were planted along river banks and ditches to control erosion in the 1900s, before their potential negative impact was understood. Some of their impacts:

–Tamarisks crowd out native vegetation that is beneficial to wildlife.

–The trees clog stream channels, increasing the danger for flooding.

–Salt cedars grow in upland areas above the streambed that would not otherwise support large vegetation.

–Tamarisks increase the risk for large fires, at the same time recovering from the effects of fires more quickly than other trees.

–Salt is drawn up through the soil, and builds up as a result of leaf litter.

–A mature tamarisk tree can use 200 gallons of water per day and produce up to 2.5 million seeds, which can germinate within 24 hours. The seeds can spread by wind and be carried downstream by water.

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ON THE NET

Tamarisk information: http://arkwipp.org

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

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