City looks to protect banks of Roaring Fork
First-ever riparian area assessment and plan looks at existing conditions and how stream banks can be protected, mitigated
Development along the banks of the Roaring Fork River has damaged riparian areas so significantly that it’s led to water quality problems and the river is listed by the state as an impaired waterway under the Clean Water Act.
In response, the city has developed a riparian area assessment and plan, which is a 300-page guiding document for the municipal government’s clean-river program.
The plan outlines future policies, programs and projects that will protect and improve riparian areas, and it also will be matched up to future budget requests, said April Long, the city’s clean river program manager.
She, along with PJ Murray, the city’s project manager, presented the assessment and plan to Aspen City Council on Monday during a work session.
Council members acknowledged that development has a huge impact on river health and they are supportive of changes to the land use code that strengthen protections for riparian areas.
“I think we should have some zoning changes, enforcement zones, or there are no-landscaping zones and huge penalties for people who make changes to the riparian area,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein.
Long said regulations and code changes fall under the plan’s policies section that will mitigate the impacts of riparian degradation and incentivize restoration.
“The recommendations are to just more explicitly call out water quality and riparian protection in our code,” she said. “Also, just strengthening what those protections look like in undeveloped locations, or in redeveloping areas.”
There are almost 300 structures along the Roaring Fork in city limits that encroach on riparian areas, Murray told council.
Long pointed out that it takes at least 50 years to grow a healthy riparian area, which is why protection is such a critical component of the plan.
“But protection only offers the status quo, it just keeps it from getting worse … and it doesn’t move the needle on improving our riparian health or our water quality,” she said. “There are very strong recommendations that while we need to do protection, we also need to think about how can we do restoration and recognizing that we are working with our own limited parcels and therefore, limited ability to effect change in the riparian corridor so it’s critical that we also work with private properties in programs and projects.”
Long pointed to the riverbanks behind the Aspen Club, where public property is on one side and large homes are built on the other.
“You can see it in this area really well that while we work hard to preserve and restore riparian area and spend a lot of money on this side, we are only compensating for what’s happening on the other side, we’re only compensating for the amount of development that we allow to encroach into the riparian area,” she said. “The only way we begin to move the needle on improving riparian area is to protect an existing riparian area at the same time we are also doing restoration.”
There are three major threats to river health: pollution in stormwater runoff from developed areas, degraded riparian areas and low river flows during dry and warm months, according to Long.
Degraded riparian areas are linked to water quality problems and include turbid water, nutrient enrichment, bacterial contamination, increases in organic matter loads, metals, salts, oil and grease, pesticides, herbicides, temperature increases and increased trash and debris transported by stormwater runoff.
Observations of unhealthy aquatic macroinvertebrate communities in the river is why the state listed it as an impaired waterway.
Long said 90% of all species use riparian areas at some point in their lives.
The riparian plan is an effort to begin addressing degraded riparian areas by assessing existing conditions and identifying and prioritizing opportunities for protection and improvement.
In 2019, the city contracted with DHM Design, a landscape architecture firm in Carbondale, for roughly $55,000 to develop the plan.
A grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board covered about half of those costs, according to Long.
DHM led a consulting team comprised of hydrologists, biologists, botanists and ecologists to conduct field and aerial inspection of the riparian areas along the Roaring Fork River.
What they found was that the largest impacts to riparian function include the reduction in the width of vegetated buffers that separate riparian zones from urban land uses and the high degree of fragmentation of the vegetated buffers that persist.
They also found the expectation that large portions of the riparian zone receive untreated urban runoff during storms and snowmelt.
The plan recommends an education program that has the city talking to private property owners about what healthy riparian areas look like and what benefits they provide.
“People build and buy properties along the river because they love it, they just happen to love it to death,” she said.
Other program recommendations in the plan include finding ways to incentivize restoration and enhance mitigation opportunities.
The plan also maps out several projects that can be done to improve riparian areas on properties the city owns along the Roaring Fork River.
Long said the consultants and the city team brought the recommendations to a group of residents who have a stake in river health to evaluate their feasibility and the political appetite for them.
Mayor Torre pointed out water quality and river health continues to be the No. 1 concern stated by Aspen residents in the city’s annual citizen survey.
“I think what you are hearing at this table is that we are for improvements to the areas you’ve outlined, so policy, land use code and the programs and partnerships,” he said. “We have work to do in this area.”
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