Our Approach to Building Watershed Health

What is a watershed?

Simply put, a watershed is an area of land that all drains into a single waterway or body of water. So imagine you are a rain cloud raining over the top of the highest mountain around. You see your rain droplets landing on the mountain and flowing downhill in different directions, some of the rain is absorbed by the soil but some of it makes it into small tributary streams. Carried by those tributaries, your rain droplets flow downstream until they reach a confluence, or intersection, with other larger waterways. Those waterways then continue flowing downstream, all making their way toward a single body of water. So even though your rain droplets took many different paths, those paths all end up flowing into the heart of the watershed, the river. But a watershed is much more than just a river, it includes all the land, streams, wetlands, ponds, and reservoirs that funneled your rain droplets into the river as well as all the wildlife and people who live on that land and the downstream communities, businesses, factories, and agriculture that rely on freshwater flowing downstream. Watersheds connect everyone and help us to recognize that we all rely on the same land and waterways to generate the water in our taps, the water we grow our food with, the water we recreate on, and so much more.

Click the link below to see how a single drop of water flows from the Big Thompson River all the way to ocean.

The Big Thompson watershed is a hard working watershed.

It not only provides critical freshwater resources to over 1 million Coloradoans, 32 communities, and numerous irrigators, it is also the gateway to 4.5 million annual visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park, provides critical habitat to wildlife, connects our diverse water user communities, and is the place we call home. So just as the river works hard to provide for us, we’re working hard to protect and enhance the watershed so it can continue to provide the benefits we all rely on.

Photo by Evan Barrientos
Photo by Evan Barrientos
Photo by Will Davis

Our work in the watershed

We carry out our mission by not only restoring, but improving, the ability of our rivers and forests to withstand stressors in the Colorado Front Range. Today, the greatest threats to our water resources are our steadily increasing demands from population and industry growth and increasing rates and severity of extreme weather events such as drought, flood, and wildfire. These threats can impact the beauty of the region, its diverse wildlife, and many of the communities akin to the river.

Through our four program areas – stream and water resources, forest management and planning, disaster recovery, and education and outreach – we examine and address the complex components and needs of our watershed, holistically considering ecological, social, and economic impacts and improvements. We rely on planning, community engagement, and restoration expertise to develop each project, recognizing that there is no “one size fits all” solution and projects and needs change from community to community, river section to river section, forest to forest, and landowner to landowner.

Stream & Water Resources

Forest Health & Management

Disaster Recovery

Education & Outreach

What makes a healthy and resilient watershed and how can we work together to build a better Big T?

Watershed health is defined as: a watershed with intact and functioning headwater streams, floodplains, riparian corridors, wildlife habitat, and biotic communities that sustains natural vegetation, dynamic stream processes, and physical and chemical water quality conditions that are able to support healthy biological communities.

Watershed resiliency is defined as: the ability to plan for, withstand and recover from severe events — without suffering permanent loss of functions, devastating damage, diminished productivity or decreased quality of life. Resilient watersheds are better able to respond and recover from extreme weather.

In other words, a healthy and resilient watershed is one that can self regulate so its streams, waterways, and surrounding lands are resistant to natural and human impacts and can continue to support the plants, animals, and humans that make the watershed their home.

Building watershed health isn’t always straightforward though. Many watersheds, like the Big Thompson, provide numerous natural resources as well as recreational opportunities to human communities. In order to ensure these resources are provided, watersheds and rivers are heavily managed. In the Big Thompson, the amount of water flowing through the river is controlled through dams and reservoirs so that downstream water rights owners are able to receive the municipal, agricultural, and industrial water they need throughout the year. The lands and forests surrounding the river are managed by public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or are owned by private landowners. So the river and watershed may look natural, but they are far from it. To counteract this human impact, human intervention is needed. That’s where we and many of our partners come in, our projects help to maintain and enhance watershed function while also increasing our community’s awareness and participation in building watershed health.

So how do we work with our partners and communities to build a healthy and resilient Big T?

Our stream and river projects help restore natural stream function and processes by:
  • Engineering natural river features like riffles and pools that provide aquatic habitat and help with sediment transport and storage
  • Stabilizing banks to reduce erosion and the incising of channels Installing native riparian vegetation
  • Connecting streams with their floodplains to increase wetland habitat and reduce flood impacts
Our forestry projects help enhance forest health and reduce wildfire risk by:
  • Strategically placing projects on the landscape in locations that protect human communities or infrastructure or are critical to wildlife and watershed health
  • Creating more natural or historic forest stand structure to reduce forest density and open the canopy
  • Working with communities and landowners to raise awareness about wildfire preparedness and provide support to help those communities and landowners complete mitigation projects that reduce wildfire risk
Our disaster recovery projects help our lands recover from flood and fire by:
  • Assessing what areas are most in need of recovery projects following a natural disaster
  • Developing recovery projects that address both immediate and long-term needs of an area
  • Restoring natural vegetation in denuded or burned areas
  • Building projects that make an area more resistant to future natural disasters

Built into all our projects and programs is also collaboration, education, and outreach. None of our projects are achieved alone, we rely heavily on our partners, stakeholders, funders, and community to identify, plan, fund, and implement each project. We also work to ensure that we are providing opportunities for our community to be a part of the decision-making process when identifying new projects, learn about our work in the watershed and its benefits, and obtain educational resources or attend workshops and trainings geared toward sharing knowledge and raising awareness.