It’s not much to look at right now. Gazing across the prairie the grass is brown, requiring some imagination on how the five new spreader dikes spanning the drainage bottom enhance the vegetation growth in the spring. That growth is a boon for livestock grazing, but also benefits wildlife, especially waterfowl and shorebirds.
Martin Grenier, Ducks Unlimited manager of conservation programs for Wyoming and Colorado, addressed members of the Laramie Audubon Society on a recent field trip to a portion of the Monolith Ranch called the Monolith Ranch Meadows.
“Ducks Unlimited has worked closely with the city of Laramie and other partners to restore and enhance this area,” Grenier said. “The project benefits agriculture, but also enhances the area for wildlife.”
The Monolith Ranch was acquired by the City of Laramie in the early 1980s as a long-term investment to secure additional water. Monolith Ranch Meadows is a 2,000-acre parcel of the ranch located off of Sand Creek Road. As the name implies, it supports hay meadows and provides livestock grazing.
Darren Parkin, natural resource manager for the City of Laramie, said production of the hay meadows took a real dive ever since Goforth Reservoir was breached.
Harney Creek flows into Goforth Reservoir but that reservoir was partially breached in 1983 and then fully breached just a year later. Water once held in the reservoir flowed, unimpeded, on to the Laramie River. To keep the water rights intact, agricultural use of the water needed to be restored.
Due to budget constraints, Parkin said the project was put on hold year after year. About five years ago the non-profit organization, Ducks Unlimited, came into the picture.
“The city provided funding for planning and engineering, but then Ducks Unlimited really took it on and secured funding to make it happen,” Parkin said.
The Monolith Ranch Meadows partnership includes the City of Laramie, Laramie Rivers Conservation District, North American Wetland Conservation Act, The Nature Conservancy, Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resources Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Wildlife Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.
The first step was repair of the reservoir. An agri-drain was installed to allow for water level control. At the control box molded slats are manually added or subtracted to adjust the amount of water leaving the reservoir.
Below the reservoir, water flows into Columbia Meadows, currently characterized by a three-foot wide grassy channel bordered by sloping banks of dense grasses. Enhancement of these meadows is the final phase of the project, and will take place once more funding is secured.
Upstream from the reservoir is Goode Meadow. Enhancement of this area was completed in March with construction of five meadow “cells” created by somewhat wiggly dikes running perpendicular to the creek. The configuration is due to their following contour lines across the landscape so the entire dike is at the same elevation.
“Each of these spreader dikes has a gradual slope, rising to a three-foot height,” Grenier said. “They also have water control structures so water levels can be manual manipulated. The goal is to allow the water to spread out across the drainage. It might be two and a half feet deep at the embankment, but then it feathers out to where it gets to only an inch or two deep as it gets farther away.”
When people think of wetlands, they often picture ponds and areas of open water. In reality, some of the most beneficial wetlands are those that hold water only for short periods. They dry up eventually, but they create very valuable food sources not only for livestock, but also for waterfowl and other wildlife.
“This isn’t an area where ducks come to nest,” Grenier explains, “It is where they stop for a short stay. Just like a traveler pulling in at a rest stop on Interstate 80, they refuel and rest up before continuing on their trek.”
With water saturating Goode Meadow in the spring, those plants provide excellent food for waterfowl and shorebirds, helping the birds on their way north. As a win-in, they also provide excellent forage for livestock.
Grenier explained the goal with the final phase of the project is to let the water flow out of the Goforth Reservoir in late September into the Columbia Meadows segment. Once spreader dikes are constructed, temporary marshes will provide respite sites for birds as they return from the north and continue south to their wintering ranges.
“These types of irrigated wet meadow wetlands are vitally important to Wyoming and the West,” Grenier said. “Ducks Unlimited is collaborating with agricultural producers by improving their infrastructure. These irrigated wet meadows are operationally and functionally similar to seasonal wetlands that have been lost. This collaborative endeavor not only leads to improvements in irrigation efficiency but also benefits migratory birds. It is a win-win.”