We live next to the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado. It meanders out of the Rocky Mountains toward the Platte River, which eventually joins the Missouri River and travels onward into the Mississippi basin at St. Louis. More than a century of agriculture and community development have led to numerous water diversions and flood control levees that have changed the nature of the river for wildlife, plant communities and people.
The City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department has developed Poudre River Projects with the collaboration of several surrounding communities and water districts. The result is that the river is being restored to behaving more like it did before agricultural development and housing needs changed the landscape. Levees of lakes by the river have been lowered, a major water diversion was removed and floodwaters now rush into wetlands and lakes to absorb heavier water flows. Creating a healthier river environment for people and nature is the theme of an interpretive brochure they developed. It is on the city website and at trailheads on entry signs to explain the plans and objectives of the project. It is helpful but you have to search for it to find it.
Despite educational objectives in their Draft Master Plan, we have yet to meet anyone among neighbors and trail users who knows the details about the project and its idealistic objectives. As a homeowner adjacent to the property, we have received nothing explaining the work. There was a community meeting, but since it was held while we were out of town we were unable to attend and could not find any written summary of that meeting. Small and, for the most part, unreadable signs (laminated sheets of paper printed in 14 or 16 point type, were put up in the areas where major construction or restoration activities were done. The brochures are good but generally unknown to most folks. I am not a critic of the resource managers doing this great work, but it does make me think about what is missing.
I can think of five great benefits the community and Natural Areas Department would gain from better public relations at the start of and throughout this kind of multi-million dollar project to improve river management and flood control. They are:
- Increase advocacy for natural areas budgets to support even broader ecological restoration projects.
- Decrease criticism when trails are blocked for construction. The public lost access to some of the most popular trail areas for weeks with little or no explanation.
- Sharing the story with other communities promotes the leadership of this community in doing these projects and encourages others to take a better approach.
- Achieve educational/interpretive objectives as construction occurs, not just after completed.
- Involve local stakeholders in citizen science to monitor the short-term and long-term changes as and after restoration work is done.
I am impressed by what has been accomplished with this project. It is an amazing step toward riparian management and flood control that respects the power and dominance of the natural forces of nature. I have read the management plans prepared for this work and it mentions some interpretive programming and signage, but it would provide great benefits to both the agency and the community or natural area to integrate more engagement of the public in the development and research phases. A more in-depth interpretive plan integrated with this extensive resource management plan and process would have provided a more broad-based approach to helping those in the community understand the very dramatic changes underway, but the results of this effort are dramatic and will be much appreciated in the community. Ecological Restoration is an important approach to river management and this is a story worth telling.