Ecologist Randy Walsh is working to restore the banks of the great North Platte River Basin, a labor of love for him and his community.
When I moved from the US Northeast to Colorado in pursuit of a degree in watershed science 20 years ago, I simply thought I’d reached the Promised Land. I actually never left. As an avid fly-fisherman, I loved the legendary trout streams that are now outside my back door. This love of field and stream eventually evolved into a career, and today I work on a talented Stantec team that restores rivers in the Intermountain West.
One of those rivers is the North Platte River Basin, which covers approximately 22,000 square miles in Wyoming (about one quarter of the state). The river originates in the high peaks surrounding North Park, Colorado and the Medicine Bow, Sierra Madre, and other Wyoming mountain ranges that formed over 40 million years ago. The river flows north from Colorado into Wyoming, and then bends in a horseshoe-shaped crescent nearly 350 miles long, draining the entire southeast quarter of the state, eventually flowing into Nebraska. This is my office.
What do I do “at the office?” Along with several key partners, we’re working on a number of stream restoration projects in the North Platte Valley. These efforts include projects on tributaries to the North Platte – including Big Creek and the Encampment River – as well as projects on the North Platte River itself: one in the Town of Saratoga and another further down valley in the City of Casper. Our work takes on many forms. Some days, we focus on helping ranchers get better access to irrigation water while simultaneously ensuring that native fish can safely pass through the stream. Other days, we focus on developing and testing methods to restore and enhance native plant life along the stream banks. Several of our projects involve the design and construction of in-stream structures that help maintain the size and shape of the channel as well as the banks. These structures also improve habitat for native fish species. While the specific goals of restoration vary among these projects, their common purpose is to restore the health and function of the river system.
I was recently at a meeting to discuss river restoration in the City of Casper, Wyoming, when a citizen made an interesting comment. They shared how local attitudes have changed about the river since cleanup efforts began nearly 10 years ago. The North Platte is no longer referred to as “the river” but rather “my river” by local residents. In the end, this is the ultimate goal of the professional services we provide. Through science and engineering, we help towns, agencies – and ultimately citizens themselves – reverse the damages of previous decades.
Essentially, we help folks reclaim their local watersheds and the rivers that define them. Though we use sophisticated concepts to gauge our project success like “channel geometry” and “bank stability,” our projects are truly successful when communities become actively engaged in the restoration process and take pride in the results. As a restoration ecologist, I too am proud of the work that Stantec and our partners are doing in the Platte River Valley. And, as a fisherman, I can’t wait to cast my line in these waters next spring to “properly” evaluate our collective success.
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