Restoring A River

Edited by Hol Wagner | September 28, 2010

Freshwater rivers are the world's life blood. All creatures both on land and in the air are dependent on fresh water for their existence. In addition, rivers are centers for transportation, commerce, agriculture, and recreation. Without this life-giving flow, many more areas of the world would be arid, non-productive wastelands. Such could be the description of the northwest corner of New Mexico, but for the San Juan River.

Adobe Contractors operator Reggie Davis uses the exacting capabilities of the firm’s Volvo EC240BLC excavator to strategically place large rocks in the river.

A Large Project Built

To harness the potential of this broad, slow-flowing river, the mammoth, earthen Navajo Irrigation Dam was completed in 1963. The dam holds back the 15,610-acre Navajo Reservoir. Although the life-giving waters stored behind the dam are shared with various irrigation districts throughout the region, the river below the dam suffered as a consequence of construction. Over the years, further damage occurred as the result of silt from arroyo runoff and slow river flows.

However, what was at first perceived as a tragedy for the river has actually turned into a recreational and economic bonus for the towns of Blanco, Bloomfield, Farmington, and the surrounding areas. The waters released from the dark, hidden depths of the reservoir are crystal clear and cold; ideal habitat for brown and rainbow trout and the creation of a world-class trout fishery.

The dedicated efforts of many have resulted in the enhancement of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam and a huge economic boost for the local area.

A Smaller Project Needed

Although the river water was ideal in temperature and clarity for trout, fisheries biologist Marc Wethington, with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, knew that more had to be done to improve the fish habitat in the below-dam reaches. He also knew that fixing the river would take some very dedicated, conservation-minded partners, so he approached John Hansen, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Together, they began involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the New Mexico State Environmental Agency, local members of the Navajo Nation, and the community at large. They knew, too, it was going to take a lot more money than either had in their budgets. So they began approaching environmentally concerned businesses and individuals in the area. According to Hansen, "It was really neat to see how both companies and individuals began to step up to the plate. Companies such as Adobe Contractors, Golden Equipment Co., Volvo Construction Equipment, local tribes, fishing clubs, guide and fly shops, oil and gas companies. Everyone, big and small. It was very encouraging."

Everyone Pitches In

Johnny and Machelle Stinson, owners of Adobe Contractors Inc. of Bloomfield, and Daniel Thompson, product specialist with Golden Equipment Co., Volvo Construction Equipment's Farmington-based New Mexico dealer, were among the first to get on board.

"This is a project that my wife and I really believed in," said Stinson. "Habitat improvement of a world class fishery like we have here will do nothing but help everyone in the area. This is our third year of participation in this project. After the first one, nobody knew whether it would work or not, but it was real encouraging when almost immediately fish moved in and started feeding."

Wethington knew that adding channel complexity and increasing sediment transport would result in more and better trout habitat.

"We also wanted to enhance small islands and encourage the growth of willows as well as other grasses and vegetation," Wethington explained. "We wanted to not only improve fish habitat, we were also interested in creating a safer, more natural surrounding for birds such as the endangered willow flycatcher and the mighty American bald eagle."

Construction would include excavating certain areas of the riverbed, as well as locating and strategically placing large rocks and logs to better direct the river's flow.

The result: more back eddies and still water pockets, which are the ideal habitat for water insects. More insects would equal more fish.

Construction Equipment In a Trout Stream?

Construction of this type would involve the use of heavy construction equipment, both on the banks and in the river. But the mention of heavy equipment working around — or worse yet, in — an important river or stream, tends to bring out the highest level of concern among environmental agencies and their staffs.

That's where work for the folks from Adobe and Golden began. First, Adobe provided an excavator and Golden a rock truck from its Volvo fleet. Next, suitable rock had to be located. Hundreds of tons of large, smooth river rock had to be trucked in.

According to Stinson, "There was nothing left around here, so we had to go up into Colorado for the rock."

Then, the Volvo EC240BLC excavator and A30D articulated haul truck were thoroughly steam cleaned. Berms were built a minimum of 150 yards from the river shore to house the machinery at night and while it was being fueled. Every hydraulic hose had to be checked; there could be no oil or fuel leaks. In other words, the Volvo machinery had to be as perfect as the day it left the factory.

Under the ever-watchful eyes of Wethington, Hansen and project designer Chris Philips, of Riverbend Engineering, the rocks were very gently dumped into the stream. Then, with masterful precision, using the excavator's bucket and thumb, operator Reggie Davis took great care in placing the gargantuan boulders.

Next, huge trees were moved from the shore and dug into the banks of both the river and the small islands that dotted the stream. Extreme caution was taken to minimize the impact on the river and the local vegetation. The river channel had to be redirected in places.

According to Stinson and all government agencies involved, "The Volvos have been fantastic. They've been perfect. There hasn't been even a hint of a problem."

What Value On A Day's Fishing?

Biologists estimate that this area of the San Juan River is home to over 75,000 trout up to 27 inches long. It is also estimated that the river sees over 50,000 angler days every year. Spread equally among 365 days, that would put over 135 anglers on the river every day — each one hoping for a San Juan River trophy or maybe just a good family meal around the campfire.

According to John Hansen, it is difficult to measure the total economic value to the area, "but what is the life value placed on a good day's fishing?"

So at the end of the day, the San Juan River, the life stream of this area, has been rehabilitated. Fishery habitat has been improved, natural surroundings for birds and mammals have been built, an exciting fishing experience enhanced, and the region's economic health supplemented. All this with minimal impact on the environment.

Visit our photo gallery to see photos of this project.