An ecological response model for the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins

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The Poudre River Ecological Response Model (ERM) is a collaborative effort initiated by the City of Fort Collins and a team of nine river scientists to provide the City with a tool to improve its understanding of the past, present, and likely future conditions of the Cache la Poudre River ecosystem. The overall ecosystem condition is described through the measurement of key ecological indicators such as shape and character of the stream channel and banks, streamside plant communities and floodplain wetlands, aquatic vegetation and insects, and fishes, both coolwater trout and warmwater native species. The 13- mile-long study area of the Poudre River flows through Fort Collins, Colorado, and is located in an ecological transition zone between the upstream, cold-water, steep-gradient system in the Front Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains and the downstream, warm-water, low-gradient reach in the Colorado high plains.

The City wanted to better understand the ecological response of the Poudre River ecosystem to potential changes in stream flow and other physical parameters through the conceptual framework of a multivariable integrated model. This goal was met through the use of a probabilistic model based on Bayesian concepts. This construct allowed the integration of a wide range of data and expert opinion (as informed by local data) to predict potential changes to ecosystem conditions under various flow scenarios. Nine flow scenarios representing past, present, and possible future hydrology were developed as the primary model input. Both reach-scale drivers such as stream channel conditions and pollutant loads, as well as ecological conditions, including species composition, interactions, and habitat requirements influenced model-predicted ecosystem outcomes. Model output consisted of probability distributions for eight ecological indicators collectively representing the physical setting, aquatic life, and riparian habitats of the river ecosystem.

We are confident in model predictions related to probable trends, relative magnitude of changes and potential ecosystem responses to changing flow conditions, though data availability and the process of converting diverse data types into a common unit (probabilities) limit precision of individual results. Key findings suggest that:

  • The present ecological function of the Poudre River is altered as a result of more than 150 years of human influences that include highly managed flows, urbanization, gravel mining, channelization and urban and industrial encroachment in the floodplain, underscoring the vulnerable and complex character of the Poudre River;
  • A continuation of today’s flow management will lead to ongoing changes in ecosystem condition, and additional water depletions will compromise ecological conditions;
  • High flows play an essential role in maintaining and improving the aquatic and riparian condition of the river;
  • Adequate flows in base-flow periods are critical to desirable water quality, and thriving fish and insect populations; Improvement of native aquatic life is possible if issues related to channel modifications, siltation, invasive species, and base and high flow conditions are managed properly;
  • The present confined river channel and modified flows has reduced the potential for a keystone and iconic species, plains cottonwood, to be self-sustaining in the study area;
  • The streamside corridor retains the potential to support a functioning riparian forest that provides important ecological services if periodic floodplain inundation occurs.

Environmental flows that combine stable and adequate flows in base-flow periods with occasional rejuvenating high flows that meet target levels defined in this study are likely improve all biological indicators across the system. ERM test scenarios that include both stable base flows and rejuvenating high flows indicate that substantial improvements in the river ecosystem can be achieved with improved management of flow volumes similar to those observed in the river during the last half century of intensive water development. These results underscore the possibility of improving the river ecosystem through active management while still maintaining the Poudre’s diverse economic benefits and role as a working river.

The ERM was designed to represent the multi-dimensional ecological character of the contemporary urban Poudre River. It provides a scientific foundation that can serve as a decision support tool and foster a more informed community discussion about the future of the river as it provides a better understanding of the likely response of the Poudre River ecosystem to environmental flow management and other stewardship activities. In particular, model results can assist managers in developing specific management actions to achieve desirable goals for key indicators of river health.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype State or Local Government Series
Title An ecological response model for the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department
Publisher location Fort Collins, CO
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description xv, 95 p.
Country United States
State Colorado
Other Geospatial Cache la Poudre River Watershed, Poudre River
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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