For years, the Crystal River Restoration Project (CRRP) has been a topic of conversation. In 2016, a section of the river south of Crystal Bridge Drive in Carbondale was identified by the Roaring Fork Conservancy as “unsustainably impaired” due to its wide and shallow channel, which can trap fish in warm waters during low-flow. In addition to in-stream work, the project grew to encompass improvements at Riverfront Park as well as replacement of the Weaver Ditch headgate with the potential for automation.
Riverfront Park is a half-mile, out-and-back trail acquired by the Town of Carbondale in 1994 with approval for the development of River Valley Ranch. The park is closed for bald eagle nesting every winter and dogs are excluded year-round. It’s a quiet spot for bird watching, with nesting boxes and low visitation. A stone cairn sits beside the trail near its entrance. This “apacheta,” an earth-honoring altar, is intended to connect visitors with nature through offerings of flowers, feathers and prayers.
In 2019, residents of Carbondale were invited to comment on conceptual designs for the CRRP. More drastic alternatives were set aside for an approach that focuses impacts on the first 315 feet of the park, installing a wheelchair-accessible ramp and an outdoor classroom feature there while mostly leaving the existing trail as is. Portions will be repaired, interpretive signs replaced and weeds mitigated. Four angler access points will also be installed to curtail riverbank erosion due to “bandit trails.”
After two years of fundraising, it was announced to the Board of Town Trustees on May 23 that work would begin within two weeks. This ruffled feathers at Roaring Fork Audubon (RFA), sensitive to the presence of 36 confirmed bird species that nest in Riverfront Park.
“This particular area is so narrow and so packed with such a great diversity of breeding birds, there is no way to escape the damage to the bird species that this disturbance will do, causing birds to completely abandon their nests, and therefore lose the eggs and young for this year,” wrote Mary Harris, chair of RFA.
According to Cornell University, the population of North American birds declined by nearly 30% between 1970 and 2019. With many factors driving this trend, protecting every breeding season is a priority. American dipper populations, a local indicator species for water quality, declined by 27% between 1998 and 2016, the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas estimated.
Parks and Rec Director Eric Brendlinger responded to RFA’s concerns by delaying work and consulting with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on June 6. “They will be sending us a letter of recommendation of construction start times, which will be after July 15,” he wrote. According to RFA, any work prior to July 15 would violate the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The challenge, Brendlinger informed The Sopris Sun, is that in-stream work must be completed by Sept. 30 so as not to interfere with spawning fish, as directed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Significant run-off may also prevent that work from beginning until mid-July. “We don’t want to harm the fish and we don’t want to harm the birds,” Brendlinger assured. “We’re here to benefit the ecology, not to hurt it.”
The installation of a fence and gate will make bald eagle closures easier to enforce, he continued, and the no-dog policy will remain. No heavy equipment will be used upstream from the outdoor classroom installation, only hand tools. Later, channel and bank work will be performed from within the river with access from the Weaver Ditch headgate.
Harris clarified that RFA is in favor of curtailing invasive vegetation and “improving any stream that needs tending to in the proper season.” However, “sometimes the best path is to leave parts of our surrounding natural habitat as it is — supporting the wildlife that lives here.”
“I think this project will truly benefit the birds in the long run,” insisted Brendlinger, hoping that new interpretive signage can educate park users on how to behave, especially during more sensitive times of the year.
The CRRP began as a partnership between Aspen Valley Land Trust, Roaring Fork Conservancy, American Rivers, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Public Counsel of the Rockies and Trout Unlimited.