Colorado River Restoration Initiative

Low-Tech Process Based Restoration - A Nature Based Solution

Photo by Nina Ritchie

Why the Colorado River?

The Colorado River has been called the "hardest working river in the West." In its 23rd year of drought, the river is being stretched beyond its limits, placing at risk: $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity -- at least half the gross economic product of each of the seven states it encompasses; the drinking water supply relied on by over 40 million people; and 5.5 million acres of irrigated farmland.

The Role of National Forests

The disproportionate contribution of the snowpack captured by high-elevation headwaters on National Forests is critical to total Colorado River flows. While National Forests comprise less than 20% of the land area, they contribute more than 60% of the Colorado Rivers' water.

As we pursue the goal of improving forest and watershed health in our national forests, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) is embarking on an effort to increase the utilization of low-tech process-based restoration approaches to restore the vast network of tributaries which feed the Colorado River.

Disconnected Floodplains

Vast networks of the Colorado River's tributaries have been disconnected from their historical floodplains through a process known as incision. Stream incision is when a stream deepens its active channel through erosion. This process is a naturally occurring but can be abnormally sped up by human activities such as agriculture, forestry, road development, and changing land uses.

When there is nothing to slow and spread-out water, the stream eventually cuts so deep that the adjacent water level drops too low for the roots of nearby plants to reach. Thus, disconnecting a stream from its floodplain.

LTPBR - A Nature Based Solution

A connected floodplain with a robust riparian vegetation community is substantially more resilient to stressors including drought, wildfire, and flooding. These connected floodplains play a vital role in increasing the quality and quantity of water resources.

Low tech process-based restoration (LTPBR) focuses on creating the right conditions for natural processes to resume, thus "letting nature do its thing." In practice, LTPBR approaches often include techniques such as Zuni bowls, Zeedyk structures, one-rock dams, and beaver dam analogs.

LTPBR projects result in reintegrated floodplains and increased resiliency. Through funding provided bt the Walton Family Foundation, NFF is working diligently to scale up the use of LTPBR across the Colorado River Basin resulting in a "pipeline" of restoration projects to support the vital lifeline of the west, the Colorado River.

Low-Tech Process-Based Restoration Site Identification Tool

Click here to access the full Low-Tech Process-Based Restoration Site Identification Tool.

With the support of the Walton Family Foundation, and in close coordination with the Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation has created the CRB Low-Tech Process-Based Restoration Site Identification Tool to aid in identifying restoration sites throughout the Colorado River Basin. By employing the CRB LTPBR Tool, NFF allows users to explore the potential for implementing processed-based restoration techniques on public and private riverscapes alike.

The Tool is based upon the Beaver Restoration Analysis Tool (BRAT), developed by the Wheaton ET-AL Lab at Utah State University, an open-source platform designed to assist in identifying streams suitable for process-based and beaver-based forms of restoration. These restoration projects can provide immediate benefits to water quality and native flora and fauna by restoring the critical riparian habitat that sustains the flows of the CRB. NFF is hopeful that the Tool will be used to contribute to the revived health of this impaired basin.

Click here to read the CRB Geospatial Analysis and Online Map Methodology Report to learn more about the tool.

Click here to access the data used to create the CRB LTPBR tool.


Adde Sharp, Colorado River Watershed Project Coordinator, at [email protected]