Improvements to Butcherknife Creek to boost ecosystem and learning opportunities

This stretch of Butcherknife Creek used to be lined with trees, but these blew into the power lines during a windstorm in September 2020 and we cut. A new project hopes to revitalize the creek and increase learning opportunities for students at Steamboat Schools.
Dylan Anderson / Steamboat Pilot and Today

Last week, Bennet Colvin took his middle school students to Butcherknife Creek, which runs through the Steamboat Springs School District’s Strawberry Park campus before meandering through Old Town.

What the students found was not promising.

On Monday, May 2, as part of a growing effort to restore the creek’s ecosystem, the Steamboat Springs School Board announced the approval of a project that would aim to improve the creek and make it a space that all the district could use for scientific studies.

Colvin’s class has been collecting bugs — or trying to — along the creek, which helps them study the health of the waterway.

“It’s like getting them out of an irrigation ditch,” Colvin said. “There are no rocks at the bottom. Where we removed trees, there is nothing. When we got down lower, the second you hit some trees, we collected a whole bunch of big bugs.

Colvin said the problems started after a windstorm in September 2020 blew poplar trees along the creek into power lines. To restore power, the trees had to disappear. What was once 90% shade is now 100% sun, Colvin said.

Since the trees were felled, the creek has also straightened. Instead of the high rates of runoff being forced to wrap around the root systems, this pressure carved out a straighter channel. This led to fewer rocks, warmer water, and less life in the creek in general.

“We can do better,” Colvin said.

Jeff Ruff, a former teacher who now sits on the board of the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust, said the group has been working on local projects since 1986. They are responsible for multi-million dollar improvements thanks to Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area and they just completed a project on the main course of the Yampa River through Pleasant Valley last fall.

“We want to be involved and basically pay for this project,” Ruff said.

A figure presented Monday, May 2, shows what kinds of stream improvements could be made in Butcherknife Creek, near the Steamboat Springs School District’s Strawberry Park campus.
Jeff Ruff/Courtesy

But unlike other projects that used big machinery, this one would require a lot of manual labor, Ruff said. The work would require many volunteers and possibly the help of students, but it would also provide an opportunity to teach students what healthy trout habitat looks like.

Next week, Colvin said the Fly Water group will be coming to do a creek bed assessment, which is the first step in a restoration project.

As part of its assessment, Fly Water would create a plan to add structures in the creek that would support the health of the river. Some of these may require digging, but most upgrades would be held in place with rebar and rocks. The whole project could be finished this fall.

For Colvin, it’s not just about the health of the rivers. It is also about creating a privileged learning space for the years to come. Before the explosion, Colvin said, teachers took students to the creek all the time, but there was no good place to gather in groups.

This project would also add a kind of rocky amphitheater that would not require much maintenance, but would be a natural meeting place when learning around the creek.

The ecosystem itself could be a good learning tool. Colvin said he has had students participate in the River Watch program, which allows students to document the data they collect to the standards of state water scientists.

In Colvin’s vision, students would document Butcherknife Creek in the future, creating a database that can be used to track plants, aquatic animals and insects around the waterway over time. He said principals from each of the schools in the district have expressed interest in using the space for students.

“Next year when I teach zoology, I plan to take the kids birdwatching and see the different fish there,” Colvin said. “There’s so much you can do, you’re really only limited by your creativity.”


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