South Arkansas River Restoration

Creating a healthier watershed on a major Arkansas River tributary

Our rivers and creeks are vital to the people, wildlife and agriculture operations in Central Colorado, so it is important that we care for these resources. Central Colorado Conservancy is committed to this goal through restoration and healthy watershed programs within the region.

The South Arkansas River is Chaffee County’s second-largest waterway and a major tributary of the Arkansas River. It flows from its headwaters near Monarch Pass through the towns of Salida and Poncha Springs, past prime ranchland, housing developments, and San Isabel National Forest, all the way to its confluence with the Arkansas River near the Vandaveer Ranch.

Central Colorado Conservancy is working with the Collegiate Peaks Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited and private landowners to restore sections of the South Arkansas River. Our role is to help willing landowners improve the river, often with the added benefit of improving the health and value of individual private properties.

Before restoration, a large abandoned beaver dam (already removed) caused water to flow around an island and back up on the property, eroding banks in the large meander. Photo by Jason Willis

Before restoration on a section of the South Arkansas River north of the Highway 285 bridge, a large abandoned beaver dam (already removed) caused water to flow around an island and back up on the property, eroding banks in the large meander.

Central Colorado Conservancy’s goal is to restore the entire length of the South Arkansas River. We conducted the first-ever watershed assessment in 2010, determining that the river’s headwaters to Maysville are fairly healthy, but natural systems from the valley floor through Salida are heavily impacted. The river does not contain heavy metals, but water quality is degraded by sedimentation caused by erosion. Historical human uses of the water have put pressure on the river, as its flows have been channelized, its bends straightened, its banks eroded and its wetland habitat degraded.

In the past few years, we have worked with multiple adjacent landowners near Poncha Springs by providing resources, expertise, funding and volunteers to restore 2,500 feet of the river. Within these projects, 400 native trees and shrubs were planted. Efforts include working with water rights holders to improve their water delivery systems, while reducing or eliminating annual maintenance.

Restoration involves many aspects but often the main goal is to reduce erosion. Erosion on the South Arkansas is caused by human changes to the river and its banks, from removing vegetation to adding hardened materials such as concrete and old car bodies. This was done in past years to shore up banks but many times, it created larger sedimentation problems downstream as the force of the river moved to new locations. By removing foreign materials and replacing them with natural rocks and vegetation, the river is returned to its natural flow.

After restoration, natural structures help control the river grade between upstream and downstream sections. The river now has a serviceable flood plain that will absorb high flows, and bank erosion is under control. Photo by Jason Willis

After restoration on the same river stretch pictured above, natural structures help control the river grade. The surrounding property now has a serviceable flood plain that will absorb high flows, and bank erosion is under control.

Restoration projects also involve in-stream work, where large boulders and trees are placed in the river to stabilize banks, control the river grade, and create more natural meanders and flow lines. These materials are culled from the site whenever possible to help create a natural setting. In-stream structures also oxygenate the water and create places for fish to feed, spawn and rest.

Purchasing and planting new vegetation to shore up river banks and riparian areas is costly and requires the hard work of many volunteers but is an important part of the restoration. A healthy riparian buffer filters out pollutants like car oil, yard fertilizers, pet waste and other runoff by capturing it in the soil and plant roots before it enters the water. A variety of upland and riparian species are planted, including cottonwood, alder, dogwood, willow, juniper, pinyon pine, chokecherry, rabbit brush, and a native seed mix.

We have seen restoration projects quickly yield visible benefits on the South Arkansas River, but other improvements will take more time. New trees will shade the river and help control water temperature. Fish will live longer and grow larger within the improved habitat, and water quality will improve with less sedimentation entering the river.

We continue to work with landowners to connect restoration projects that will benefit the entire watershed. We appreciate our project partners and supporters who have contributed to the South Arkansas River restoration: National Trout Unlimited, the Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Great Outdoors Colorado, Salida Sunrise Rotary Club, the Upper Arkansas Conservation District, and those individuals among the 174 landowners who live and own property along the river.


A restoration success story

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Poncha Springs property owner Fred Klein restored a stretch of the South Arkansas River by placing fallen cottonwood trunks, pictured, and river rock in the water to create better fish habitat and improve a diversion dam that delivers water to irrigators.

Shortly after moving to Salida in 2008, Fred Klein and his wife, Vicki, purchased a lush triangle of land fronting the South Arkansas River in Poncha Springs. The property became a getaway for the couple, where they remodeled a one-room cabin and relaxed among soaring cottonwoods, listening to the river rush by. After decades living in prickly, drought-ridden Santa Fe, where water is so scarce they’d put a bucket in the shower to water outside plants, their acreage on the South Arkansas River seemed like a romantic dream come true.

On a sunny June morning during that first year, Fred was picking up fallen cottonwood branches on the property as a tractor approached the far bank across the river. He stopped his work to watch, as all four tires on the big machine crunched over the bank and into the riverbed then turned upstream. The front-end loader splashed into the water and the tractor lunged forward with its blade scraping the riverbed, scooping up rocks and everything else on the way. A lifelong fly fisherman who has been standing in rivers since he was 6 years old, Fred was horrified.

“All the fish habitat, the aquatic plant and insect environment, was being decimated over a stretch several hundred feet there in front of me,” he said. “There was absolutely no regard for the ecology at all.”

He waved the driver down, finding out that the tractor was used every year in the same way, to rebuild a temporary diversion dam that delivers water to an irrigation ditch. Fred decided to act. He hired a Front Range hydrologist and went to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to improve the diversion and restore the river. The permit took years but in the meantime, he gained the support of the irrigation ditch owners to try something new.

“I knew it was worth their considerable apprehension, that this new kid on the block wanted to mess with their program,” he said. “I think they thought I was more trouble than I was worth. But they tolerated it and let me give it a shot.”

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Fred Klein’s property before restoration: Erosion on the South Arkansas is caused by human changes, from removing vegetation to adding hardened materials such as concrete and old car bodies.

He brought in about 300 tons of river boulders and moved fallen cottonwood trunks on his property, placing them in the river to create a natural diversion that delivers the Salida irrigators their water without the use of a tractor. The restoration project also created new holds for fish, where they hang out in soft water that is oxygenated while feeding.

Fred knew that June day there were brown trout in the river. He had caught small fish mostly under a foot long. But today, the reach on his property holds more fish that grow to 18 inches and larger. Fred had his reasons for restoring a small reach of the river. He hoped the initial project would serve as a model for other river sections, and it has.

The river on the Klein property after restoration offers more natural flows, improved riparian habitat along the banks and better habitat for fish.

The river on the Klein property after restoration offers more natural flows, improved riparian habitat along the banks and better habitat for fish.

By the end of 2016, Central Colorado Conservancy has worked with six landowners to help restore 2,500 feet of the river. Restoring rivers is an important part of what we do, because protecting water resources is just as vital as preserving the land for many generations to come.


In 2010, Central Colorado Conservancy completed the first comprehensive assessment of the South Arkansas River. This assessment has helped us prioritize and identify restoration projects along the River. Download the reports:

Download the South Arkansas Tributary Map