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A Hands-On Education in River Restoration

April 24, 2017
Tamarisk Coalition
How a Colorado school teacher – and her students – are helping revive a threatened river

Sarah Henry, a teacher at the Paradox Valley Charter School in the small town of Bedrock, Colorado, knows how important the health of the nearby Dolores River is to the local community.

The Dolores, a 240-mile-long tributary of the Colorado River, supplies water to irrigate agricultural crops, support ranching operations and is a destination for fly fishers, rafters, campers and hikers. It’s also under siege by invasive tamarisk trees, a thirsty species that spreads along the riverbank, sucking up precious water and choking off access to the river for recreation.

For the last few years, Sarah has been working closely with the Tamarisk Coalition and the Dolores River Restoration Partnership (DRRP) to give her students a first-hand education about the impacts of non-native plant species to the local ecosystem.

As a local landowner and someone who’s dependent on the river, she’s also been working hard to involve her entire town in efforts to restore the river to a more natural state.

“Without that river, there isn’t life in that area,” Sarah says. “Think about what a healthy river needs. I think that’s what I’m trying to learn and teach to my students.”

Located 120 miles southwest of Grand Junction, Bedrock has a population of only a few hundred residents.

“I teach high school, and this year I have nine students in the whole high school. We graduated our first senior last year, and this year we have three,” Sarah chuckles. “We’re growing!”

Because the Paradox Valley school is so small, Sarah works with her students individually and focuses on trying to have a positive impact on their lives, inside and outside the classroom.

It is this unique approach to teaching that led Sarah and her students to become involved with the DRRP and the Tamarisk Coalition.

“I kept seeing the Conservation Corps kids go down to the river and use chainsaws to remove the tamarisk (salt cedar).

Curious about the work, Sarah inquired with the Tamarisk Coalition and DRRP if there were any opportunities for her students to help with restoration work on the river. “We started taking the kids out, planting native plants, and teaching them - both in the classroom and the field - about the importance of removing invasive species along rivers.”

Tamarisk is non-native invasive species considered to be among the biggest threats to healthy riparian habitat along tributaries of the Colorado River. Tamarisk grows in dense stands that limit access to the river for recreation and agricultural use. It consumes large amounts of water, increases soil salinity and overwhelms native plants. Tamarisk also constrains natural river processes that create and maintain riparian and instream habitat and can exacerbate the risk of floods.

Its removal allows native plants to re-establish, improving riparian habitat for virtually all western wildlife that depends on river corridors. It also re-establishes natural river processes that support instream habitat and fisheries, improves fishing and boating, and can increase instream flows.

Sarah’s goal is to have her students learn on an applied level, with hands-on experiential education. That means getting outdoors, where students can have a direct impact on improving the environment they live in.

“People in general need to be outside. It’s not good for people to sit inside eight hours a day. Also, it’s grounding. We need this planet to survive if we’re going to survive,” she says.

“To me, it’s common sense.”

Driven by this passion for teaching under the sun, she’s developed a curriculum which aims at educating her students on the riparian (riverside) ecosystem in their own backyard.

“This is my first year that I’m going to offer an outdoor science class,” she says. “I really think involving the Tamarisk Coalition and water ecology will have a great influence on the students.”

Sarah has been living on the river for multiple years and the riparian system’s health has had a considerable effect on her own livelihood, as well.

On her property, Sarah has a small orchard for which she draws water from the river. She is tirelessly working to develop systems to make better use of the water she’s been given. Sarah also has a front-row seat to the positive effects that the DRRP’s removal of non-native, invasive plants and revegetation has had.

“As somebody who's lived on the river I love the pathways that the DRRP create through the tamarisk. It opens up a whole new path, where I can get across the river, and explore places that I haven’t had access to,” she says.

“When the DRRP goes in and makes these tunnels so that wildlife and livestock can get to the river, I think that’s important for the students to understand. It just gives them a better understanding of how invasive species can negatively affect an ecosystem.”

It isn’t just these ongoing projects that will save the river, Sarah suggests, but a shift in the paradigm of how we look at these river systems.

“I think we often concentrate on actions,” she explains, “which are great, but (it’s important) even just to take that minute when you’re sitting by the river, to thank the river for being there.”

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