The Little Colorado River has been under attack for decades. The aggressors’ main weapons are salt and water absorption. An army of salt cedar, also called tamarisk, has taken over stream and river banks throughout the American West driving out native plants and animals and draining needed moisture from the waterways.
Last week, Winslow City Council entered into an intergovernmental pact to fight back. Winslow joins Holbrook, Navajo County, Arizona State Parks, the Hopi Tribe and several other agencies in the Little Colorado River Coordinating Council (LCRCC).
The organization began as the LCR-MOM (multi-objective management) in 1996 to manage water resource issues. Municipal, county, state, federal and tribal representatives comprise the partnership that sees its responsibility as restoring the environmental and economic health of the Little Colorado River watershed.
Dr. Larry Winn, Vice Chair of the LCRCC and Chairman of the McKinley Soil and Water Conservation District in Gallup, said receiving support from governmental agencies is the first step toward restoring the LCR watershed.
“The entire area and watershed area are pleased about it as it goes forward,” he told the Council.At the Feb. 22 Council meeting, Winn was among several agency representatives that spoke about a proposed project to eradicate the invasive salt cedar.
One salt cedar plant, absorbs as much as 300 gallons of water per day. Winn said there’s probably about 100,000 plants along the Little Colorado in the planned area.
The group plans to remove the invasive weeds beginning around the Clear Creek Reservoir to the city treatment plant and around Chevelon Creek.
Once the salt cedar plants are gone, Winn said cottonwoods, willows and other native plants would return.
The alien plants were introduced more than a century ago. Over-grazing led to a lack of native species along rivers. Salt cedars were imported from Central Asia to help stabilize the banks. But the imports became so dense they crowded out native species.
Salt cedar’s high productivity and ability to adapt to its new home contributed to its success. It produces hundreds of thousands of seeds per year that germinate in less than 24 hours. It also thrives because of its high drought and flood tolerance.
Its root systems extend 30 feet or more into the ground choking out native plants. But its greatest threat to plant life is on the surface. The deep roots absorb salt from deep in the ground, accumulates it in its tissues, then releases the salt on the top soil, making it unsuitable for many native species.
“It destroys the environment so nothing but it can grow,” Winn said.
The proposed project also would merge environmental protection with historical preservation by creating walking trails and interpretive areas that link the river with Brigham City and Homolovi I ruins at the state park.
“It brings back the health of the river and increase protection and appreciation for Homolovi and Brigham City,” he said. “Plus we show respect for and embrace multiple cultures.”
In addition, the Arizona Fish and Game Department sees the project as a benefit to its 668-acre wildlife area about 11 miles south of Winslow. The area was once a water fowl hunters’ paradise but the loss of water has forced the birds to find other homes. The department would like to restore the wildlife area to increase biodiversity.
Winn said salt cedar used to be an unsolvable problem and previous attempts to remove it had failed. But new methods have worked in Texas and New Mexico. The most successful method has been applying a herbicide called Arsenal.
In 2002, government agencies finished a salt cedar eradication project along the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico. The project combined helicopters and ground crews spraying 9,100 acres along 184 miles of the river. The project reportedly cost about $1.6 million.
“When done properly after two seasons of application, they saw a 97-percent kill rate in the Pecos area,” Winn said.
One report showed preliminary results reveal a potential water savings of more than 6,000 acre-feet per year in the treated area. An acre-foot, equal to 326,000 gallons, could satisfy the annual water needs of one to two households.
Scientists say the herbicide is no silver bullet. The impacted rivers still need rain and snow pack to restore their flow.
Due to above average precipitation and heavy snow pack, the Little Colorado River and its tributaries should flow at levels nearly 200-percent above their averages this spring, according to a Feb. 15 U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast. Removing the noxious weeds would add significant flow to the river in the summertime.
Beginning in the White Mountains and flowing into the Grand Canyon, the LCR watershed includes more than 26,000 square miles throughout Northern Arizona and New Mexico.