Native Plants Help Restore the Colorado River

Audubon’s advocacy put new state grant dollars on the ground in Arizona, helping restore native plant communities along waterways.

Sufficient water and habitat for people and birds requires careful planning in the arid Southwest. One major component to water planning is the restoration of habitat in riverside corridors, including the removal of invasive plants and its replacement with native vegetation. Strategically restoring sections of riverside habitat can benefit both people and birds, which is why Audubon supported efforts to fund this work during Arizona’s 2019 legislative session. 

During Haley Paul’s (Audubon Arizona’s Policy Manager) testimony in support of the invasive plant removal legislation to relevant committees in both the Arizona House and Senate, she stressed that planting drought-tolerant native plants is just as important as removing invasive ones. That message was heard by lawmakers, who improved the bill’s language thanks to Audubon’s input. The final legislation, signed into law in May 2019, provides grants for both invasive-plant removal and native-plant restoration projects along Arizona waterways.

One of the 12 funded projects is in the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which encompasses more than 4,000 acres along the Lower Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona—vital habitat for federally threatened and endangered bird species including the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, among countless other plants and animals. The restoration project specifically targets a portion of the Yuma East Wetlands, a restored riparian landscape that consists of marsh habitat and native plants like honey mesquite, cottonwood, and willow trees.

Since 2004, the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area has worked with the City of Yuma, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the federally administered Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, and the Quechan Indian Tribe to restore 380 acres in the Yuma East Wetlands. At the time restoration started, the wetlands were full of illegally dumped trash and overrun with non-native plant species like phragmites, buffelgrass, and salt cedar. Some 16 years later, the Yuma riverfront is more accessible to community members and is an indispensable refuge for wildlife. Restoration efforts mean new marsh and backwaters and thousands of native trees in place of invasive species, all creating habitat for more than 300 species of wildlife.

Vianey Avila, environmental program coordinator of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area says  there are multiple benefits to reconnecting people to a storied body of water in the city’s history.

“Yuma is the oldest city established on the Colorado River,” says Avila, a Yuma native. “The Quechan and Cocopah Tribes used to live along the river, it’s a resource for the region’s agricultural industry, and moving forward with restoration [will help us provide] water to sustain trees and maintain a healthy habitat for our endangered species.”

For Brian Golding, director of economic development for the Quechan Indian Tribe, the Yuma East Wetlands project is much more than riparian restoration. It is an opportunity to reacquaint his tribe to sacred grounds.

“We were here long before anyone else. Since the construction of the Laguna Dam more than one hundred years ago, our tribe has felt a sense of disconnection to the Colorado River,” said Golding. “By participating in this project, the Quechan Indian Tribe is able to bring back that connection—physical, spatial, and spiritual—to our land.”

As a result of restoring this sanctuary for wildlife, the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area also provided a veritable warehouse of native plants that the Quechan Indian Tribe uses for Kachina dolls, cradleboards, and funeral practices.

Additionally, restoration has led to more outdoor recreation opportunities for community members and out-of-town visitors alike, making it a vital economic driver in the region. A recent Audubon study revealed that the outdoor recreation along rivers, lakes, and streams in Yuma County generates $372 million in economic output annually and supports 3,000 jobs statewide. The Yuma East Wetlands is a hotspot for birding, hiking, and nature walks, some of which are facilitated by partner organization Yuma Audubon Society. In addition to their collaboration on Yuma Audubon Society’s weekly bird walks, Avila says the two organizations are applying for grants that would make birding more accessible within the heritage area and working toward hosting the city’s annual birding and nature festival in the Yuma East Wetlands early next year.