How beavers could help the Colorado River survive future droughts


(COLORADO) — The humble beaver could become one of America’s hardest working allies in the race to adapt to climate change.

Beavers are natural engineers. They instinctively build dams and canals of water to keep themselves safe because they’re clumsy on land. And capturing that water creates ecosystems for other animals to survive, earning beavers the moniker of a “keystone species.”

A growing movement of nonprofits, experts and government agencies see a potential to take a lesson from beavers’ natural engineering prowess to capture more of that water for the places that desperately need it.

“Beavers benefit a lot of things in the context of climate change,” Emily Fairfax, assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands, told ABC News.

“The ones that are most directly sort of in our eyesight right now is the beavers’ ability to protect ecosystems during droughts, during floods, during wildfires, during extreme disturbances. And in those patches of habitat that they’re protecting, there’s a huge amount of biodiversity”…

In addition to storing water, Fairfax’s research has shown that areas with beaver dams are more resilient to wildfires because the plants and trees are so wet they don’t burn. And she said they could help capture water from extreme rain events like the atmospheric rivers in California to be accessed by those water systems later.

“Beavers sort of figured this out instinctually over 7 million years of evolution that their dams and their canals work because they take the whole hydrologic cycle and they just make it more stable, more consistent,” she said.

Beavers haven’t always been recognized for their benefits. Fur trapping dramatically reduced the population starting in the 1700s and even today beavers are sometimes seen as a nuisance and killed. The animals are sometimes relocated away from urban areas where their dams could cause disruptions and flooding, which experts like Fairfax said can sometimes be appropriate but is not always the right approach.

Instead of treating them like pests, groups like the National Forest Foundation are looking to take a lesson from beavers’ work to find a nature-based approach to adapt to impacts of climate change like worsening drought conditions.

“There’s a lot of streams and headwaters to the Colorado River that used to run perennially, year-round, that we now see have stopped. And so we might be able to, as we do enough of these, turn some of those stream flows back on on an annual basis. And seeing those regular additions throughout the year could have huge benefits to the system as a whole,” said Marcus Selig, chief conservation officer with the National Forest Foundation.

The National Forest Foundation is a nonprofit created by Congress to support national forests. Selig said their work building man-made “beaver dam analogs” can help capture more water in the Colorado River, which has been struggling with historically low water levels after more than two decades of drought.

The analogs are a manmade version of what beavers would instinctively build, using sticks and mud to create a natural barrier to slow water down and create a wetland area that feeds into the river.

“The work we do with beaver dam analogs and low-tech process-based restoration is holding that water in the higher elevations as the snow melts and so that it can be released slowly throughout the year, giving more continuous, dependable flows to downstream users,” Selig said, adding that it can help communities downstream receive water more consistently.

“Our big dream is that we can restore every headwater, every watershed that feeds into the Colorado River on national forest lands. And so we’re working on creating that pipeline of projects right now,” he added.

Selig said this kind of work hasn’t been scaled up enough to identify how much of a larger impact it could have and they still need more funding to do so, but said the foundation is working with the U.S. Forest Service to add projects in 14 different national forests around the Colorado River.

Fairfax said river systems like the Colorado have lost a lot of the wetlands that would have existed 200 years ago so replicating them either by creating man-made beaver dams or relocating beavers to streams in the area can help make the river more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

“Bringing back beavers and restoring the wetlands, it’s not like we’re introducing something new to save the Colorado River Basin. We’re just trying to get it back to the state it was in when it was stable and when it was healthier,” she said.

Similar projects are growing around the country, some with support from states or the federal government. California has dedicated $1.6 million to hire staff to start similar projects in the state.

And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with groups like Trout Unlimited to relocate beavers in Washington state to beef up streams and protect salmon populations.

Fairfax said there will need to be a balance between this kind of low tech restoration work around rivers and streams and limiting the impacts on infrastructure or getting buy-in from private property owners.

“If we wanna do this at scale, not just in like a hobby context, we as a society need to be giving up control and giving up space. And those are 2 things that we don’t like to give up,” she said.

But Fairfax said she’s optimistic that beavers could be a relatively low cost solution with big potential benefits to help us adapt to the changing climate. And she said supporting beaver populations or protecting beavers that live in your area is a way for individuals to be involved in a climate solution.

“It’s easy to recruit a beaver. Literally just leave it alone, and it’s recruited. And that’s really powerful. Because then you get all these benefits of the beaver engineering and as long as you don’t step on its toes too much, it’s gonna keep doing its thing,” she said.

“So parting with beavers, I think, is a very powerful way for us to expand our ability to tackle climate change without having to do it all ourselves.”

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