Can ranches and farms in the Poudre-Big Thompson watershed improve the quality of water used by Front Range urban dwellers? That question is being addressed by a pilot project at Sylvan Dale Ranch, a 3,200-acre working guest ranch located at the mouth of the Big Thompson Canyon west of Loveland, Colorado.
Owned and operated by the Jessup family since 1946, Sylvan Dale hosts family dude ranch vacations in the summer and everything from weddings to corporate events during the rest of the year. The ranch also runs a cow-calf operation that raises 60 calves per year to grow and sell as grass-fed and grass-finished natural beef directly to local consumers.
The Jessups have been concerned about runoff from manure in their cattle pens and horse pastures next to the river. Although small in amount compared to feedlot operations, the nutrient runoff reduces water quality in the river and may even contribute to recent duckweed blooms in the ranch’s trout ponds below the pastures.
In 2010 the ranch invited the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to analyze the problem and suggest solutions. Three options were suggested, all of which required considerable cash outlays. As with many close-to-the-margin family ranches, such expenditures sometimes fall to the bottom of the list as equipment repairs, leaky roofs, broken water pumps and other urgent projects rise to the top.
Several organizations came forward to help. CSU’s Institute for Livestock and the Environment (ILE) provided an implementation grant with a community outreach component to share lessons learned with a larger public. A group in formation at CSU’s Center for Collaborative Conservation, preliminarily called the Colorado Conservation Exchange (CCEx), saw an opportunity to demonstrate how a marketplace might be created for community members to support land stewards who seek to conserve and enhance natural resources. The Big Thompson Watershed Forum (BTWF) provided technical expertise to measure nutrient runoff before and after any changes are made. Northern Water (NW) agreed to provide a Parshall flume and rain gauge for these measurements, and the City of Loveland Water Department agreed to do lab tests.
All sought an answer to this question: How many pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter can be kept out of the river by implementing a solution, and what is the most cost-effective way of doing so? All were interested creating a pilot project to serve as a model for other water quality efforts.
Wider Implications for the Watershed
By itself, the Sylvan Dale effort will have a negligible effect on overall nutrient loads in the Big Thompson River. But there are hundreds of small livestock and horse properties in the watershed that collectively have a considerable impact. Large-scale animal feeding operations are required by law to mitigate their runoff and environmental effects. Similar rules for small family operations would likely put them out of business. The CCEx hopes to implement a voluntary marketplace whereby communities, organizations, and individuals who benefit from cleaner water will provide resources for land stewards who seek to provide it. If this is done on a wide scale, the improvement in water quality could be significant. All would benefit: water users, city dwellers and family farms and ranches.