Brush Creek beavers causing trouble
November 27, 2007
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” Beavers are back on Brush Creek near Snowmass Village.
But while the critters’ activities benefit the local ecological system, beaver dams can disturb the flow of water to neighboring ranches, according to Dale Will, Pitkin County’s open space and trails director.
The beavers have caught the attention of elected officials, too. Pitkin County commissioners recently dedicated $90,000 toward finding a solution that both preserves beaver habitat and protects ranchers’ water rights.
Historically, when beavers become a nuisance, ranchers either shoot the animals or destroy their dams, Will said. But because Pitkin County Open Space and Trails acquired some 232 acres along Brush Creek in 2004, the beaver population has boomed.
“Since we’re not out there killing beavers, they’re back,” Will said.
Indeed, the area downstream of the Snowmass Village roundabout has become a patchwork of neatly stacked beaver dams and cascading ponds. The dams create wetland watershed, fill underground aquifers and filter sediments by slowing down fast-running water, Will said.
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“There’s a lot of ecological benefit to having beavers around,” he said.
But as beavers build dams, they divert water from ditch-head gates, leaving the ditch dry. Or beavers build dams that flood the gate and overflow the ditch, and ranchers have no control over the water flow, Will said.
“It’s a common problem throughout Pitkin County and the mountain West,” Will said.
The issue is a clash of the “old West and the new West,” or between the needs of ranchers’ promised water and ecological concerns.
Bill Blakeslee, a water commissioner for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has inspected the site and encouraged cooperation between county staff and the ranchers.
“Ranchers have the right to protect that ditch and that water right,” Blakeslee said.
Beavers build dams when they see running water, Blakeslee said. He suggested a system with a perforated pipe drawing water from the bottom of a beaver pond to feed the ditch.
Pitkin County staffers are looking into it.
“If you further compromise the ditch operation, then I’ll have to step in to try to find a different solution,” Blakeslee said, and the matter could end up in court.
Blakeslee said there are more beavers in the valley than “we know what to do with,” and the animals can be a menace.
“It’s an ongoing battle for people who have ditches on these tributaries,” Blakeslee said.
The head gate for the ditch on Brush Creek sits on open space, Blakeslee said. And while ranchers can shoot beavers on their property, they cannot kill beavers on open space.
Blakeslee recommends cooperation between the county and adjacent ranchers.
“They can agree to get along with each other or they can agree to do battle,”
Blakeslee said. “I think it would be irresponsible if Pitkin County didn’t agree to work with the owner of that water right.”
In the summer of 2007, open space staff used a small backhoe to knock down a large dam, but county officials hope to find a more long-term fix, Will said.
He plans to hire an outside consultant to look into other options for piping water directly from Brush Creek to the ditch, ensuring a steady flow of water and preserving beaver habitat.
“We want to try to design a solution everyone can agree on,” Will said. “If we do things right it should be win-win.”
Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.