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Canoeing down the river: ‘It’s a different thing to see the river up close’

by Jeff Munson

About a month before the Carson River begins to roar with its annual spring runoff, a group of scientists, conservationists, tribal, state and county officials took a canoe ride down the meandering watershed to observe decades of erosion and ongoing efforts to stop it.

“It is one thing to see the river from a distance and quite another to ride down it, seeing with your own eyes the years of damage,” said Dan Kaffer, of Western Nevada Resource Conservation and Development, who spearheaded Wednesday’s event.

The tour, which began at Genoa Lane and ended at Cradlebaugh Bridge near Carson City, was the equivalent of an educational laboratory, where officials were introduced to the effects of sediment, runoff, causes of erosion, water quality and downstream impacts.

Thirteen canoes filled with 22 people got a firsthand look how erosion has literally swallowed about a dozen acres of farmland and how river sediment affects migratory birds, fish and other wildlife.

The 168-mile river begins in Alpine County in California and meanders its way through Douglas County, Carson City, Lyon and Churchill counties. Primarily used for agriculture, the river provides municipal water to some towns and municipalities.

To understand the workings of a river, you must understand that everything in and around it is interconnected, Kaffer told officials. “The impacts that you see here work downstream and affect everything in its path.”

During the last decade, the most noticeable effects have been riverbank erosion, murkier water, a declining native fish population and less wildlife habitat, he said.

While the flood of 1997 did its share of devastation to the river, the watershed was already in jeopardy. Years of development in the Carson Valley produced phosphorous runoff, which seeps into the river. Banks were already eroding in some places where soils had become destabilized after vegetation was cleared for homes.

The 1997 flood caught off guard a lot of people who had built into the Valley floor flood plain.

“There was a lot going on with the river before the flood. What we were seeing, effectively, was erosion of the beds and banks of the river and the land adjacent to it.

“What happened prior to the flood was that there was a false sense of security, a lulled sense of complacency,” Kaffer said. “We hadn’t had a major flood since 1962, and after that we saw buildout of the area. And then along comes the flood and the whole Valley is under water.”

Repair to the river had already started before the 1997 flood. In 1995, the first Carson River work Day was launched. Now a bi-annual event, volunteers spend the day planting willow trees and repairing badly eroded levies along the river.

While the flood wiped out some of the work from previous years, there are some areas along the river that continue to thrive. During the tour, officials were greeted by three bald eagles who flew overhead as well as numerous geese and shorebirds. A few fish were also seen swimming downstream.

In one area on Washoe Tribal land, more than 200 cottonwood trees and numerous willows were planted. While beavers ended up destroying most of the planted trees, the willows took hold. Some 15,000 of the plants have been identified in the area of the initial planting.

“While the river faces monumental problems, we are finding innovative ways to repair it,” said Marie Berry, a Washoe Tribal environmental specialist.

Once roots are established, willow trees help stabilize soil along the river shoreline so that as water rises, the roots keep the soil locked in and compact rather than loose and fluid.

Jane Schmidt of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said these techniques of shoreline bio-engineering work emulate what was done long ago in other cultures.

“We are using 2,000-year-old Chinese techniques of repair using what is living to protect these banks,” Schmidt said.

Two things that will keep the momentum going is time and money. WNRCD and other conservation groups have worked hand-in-hand in applying for federal grant money to help restore the river.

While the grant money does trickle in, finding matches for grants has been part of the process, he said. That’s why groups rely heavily on both the work of volunteers and conservation crews from prisons and youth camps.

Still, citizen participation is key to any lasting recovery of the river, Kaffer said.

“We all have to work on the problems up and down the system,” he said. “For years, ranchers and farmers have been trying to solve these problems without support. And they are at a point now where they need our help.”

Volunteers are needed in the areas of technical help, engineering and labor. For local projects, contact Paul Pugsley at 782-3661, Steve Lewis at 782-9960 or Kaffer at 883-2292.

Breakout

To volunteer with Carson River restoration work contact Dan Kaffer, 883-2292; Paul Pugsley, 782-3661 or Steve Lewis, 782-9960