Our Work

BTWC Programs

What IS A Watershed?

Imagine you are a rain cloud and decide to pour rain over the top of the highest mountain near you. All of the land that guides the water towards a particular network of creeks, ponds, rivers and reservoirs is this watershed. Over the tops of these mountain divides, other watershed collect water and flow down different paths. As you look down on the land from the sky you see that a watershed is so much more than the water you let loose and land that you hover over. A watershed can include: all of the habitat and wildlife that are supported by this water, land, and sky; the people who live alongside the wildlife and play, hunt, and raise their families; the much larger expanse of downstream communities, businesses, factories, and agriculture that rely on fresh water from the mountains above them. These components are all part of the Big Thompson watershed.1

We create watershed health by:

Developing regional long term management plans along all 80 miles of river across the Big Thompson watershed

Actively restoring the most vulnerable sections of the river and forest, and

Building environmental awareness and stewardship of the region with our local communities, water dependant businesses, and visiting recreationalists

Big-T Fact: The Big Thompson watershed incorporates approximately 500,000 acres of land (that’s 1.5x the size of Rocky Mountain National Park!) and 80 miles of river from Olympus Dam in Estes Park to its meeting point with the Upper South Platte River. The Upper South Platte River is just one of a whole network of rivers that eventually feeds the mighty Mississippi River and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Our work in the Big Thompson 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.

Our planning, restoration, and community engagement efforts examine complex components and needs of our particular watershed, holistically taking into account ecological, social, and economic impacts and improvements. These needs are not a “one size fits all” solution, they change from community-to-community, and river section to river section.

What makes a healthy and resilient watershed?

River Health

is dependant on the continued ability of a river to carry out its functions related to water and sediment flow, capture, and transfer and to support river life through water quantity, quality, and habitat complexity.

Countless natural and human made things contribute to the health of a river. Think of your favorite section of the Big Thompson River. Does it take a sinuous (or curvey) path down the canyon or valley? Does it have plants along the low, flat floodplains and steeper river banks to hold sediment in place and help absorb flood water? Does it have a variety of in-water features and river material sizes that you could use for hunting, hiding, or laying eggs if you were a fish? Are there are water diversions or capture devices that need to be protected to allow continued water use for residents, agriculture, and large cities downstream?

Take a closer look at river features on your next adventure up the Big Thompson. Do you see any sections of the river that contain large boulders and logs, shallow riffles, deeper pools, a mix of river bank steepness and  rock sizes, and water connectivity along the bottom of the river even in the driest times of the year? These important varieties of features provide much needed wildlife habitat, water flow management, and water and nutrient absorption into the ecosystem. 1

River Integrity

is the capacity of a river system to support ecological processes and functions that provide and sustain long-term water, watershed resources, and other benefits to society. 2


is the ability of a complex system to prevent, buffer, and recover from hazards in a timely way.2 For the Big Thompson watershed this means a quicker rebound for the human livelihoods, infrastructure, economies, and natural environments all linked together within our watershed.

Imagine cutting through the Big Thompson River and canyon just like cutting a slice of bread. Would each slice look the same or does it change as you move up or down the river? This slice, or cross-section, of the river shows just some of the components of this watershed and the below-ground ways that we work with the river to protect habitat, bridges, roads, and homes from natural wear and tear and major flood events.1

What does resilience look like for forests in the Big Thompson canyon? Historically, fires have kept tree densities low (not as many trees as we have today) to prevent the spread of pests, disease, and destructive high-intensity fires. By not allowing fire to burn over the past two hundred years we have changed the appearance of the forests and how they function. Resilience to these potentially catastrophic fires in the Big Thompson canyon means managing forests near important natural and human resources (and creating defensible space around valued locations  such as rivers and streams, homes, businesses, roads, utilities, your favorite recreation spots, etc.) to protect them and reduce their risk of damage by severe wildfire.4

  1. https://www.raritanheadwaters.org/about-us/what-is-a-watershed/
  2. Images courtesy of Ayres Associates extracted from the Big Thompson River Restoration Master Plan (2015).
  3. J. E. Flotemersch, S. G. Leibowitz, R. A. HillL, J. L. Stoddard, M. C. Thoms and R. E. Tharme. A (2016) Watershed Integrity Definition and Assessment Approach to Support Strategic Management of Watersheds. River Research and Applications published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.River Res. Applic. 32: 1654–1671 (2016) DOI: 10.1002/rra
  4. United Nations international Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009
  5. Defensible space diagram. Ross Valley Fire Department  https://www.rossvalleyfire.org/news/entry/it-s-fire-season-do-you-have-defensible-space
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