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  • Dylan Anderson

How the deceptively named one-rock dam helps restore a century of abuse in California Park

Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council helped build rock structures meant to restore wet meadows, improve drought resiliency and revive one of Routt County’s ecological treasures.

California Park was once part of the so-called beef trail, meaning thousands of cattle were brought down from the north each year on their way to be exported in Hayden and Steamboat Springs.


One key ecological feature of the area are wet meadows. This is where there is a depression in the hillside that collects water and allows it to soak into the ground like a sponge.


This results in water flowing through the ground in sheets, retaining moisture in the soil for longer into the season and releasing it into creeks at a slower pace. These valley bottoms also produce different plant types and promote drought resiliency.


But, the easiest way to move through California Park for cattle (or wildlife or people), is through the valley bottoms. Over time, trails start to form through wet meadows, creating a channel for water to flow down rather than soaking into the ground like a sponge.


“As the water goes into that trail, it has more erosive force, starts downcutting and you start getting more gullies forming,” said Ryan Messinger, Natural Climate Solutions Project Manager with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. “The water then disappears from the landscape up top, that wetland vegetation dies off and we have lost our sponge. Instead of that water being released slowly throughout the year, it just rushes off the landscape.”


Over the weekend, volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council worked to restore these wet meadows in one of the lowest-tech ways possible: literally stacking stones.


“We’re not using big fancy machinery,” Messinger said. “We’re just using our muscles and our minds.”

Caption: Ryan Messinger with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council gives advise on how to better build the edge of this one rock dam so that it slows water as intended. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


On Saturday, roughly 20 volunteers made the trek up to California Park to build one of a few different rock features called Zeedyk Structures. The structures included the deceptively named one-rock dam, a rock rundown and a Zuni bowl.


The latter two of those are known as prevention structures, meant to stop channeling from getting worse and moving further up the slope. The one rock dam, which curiously contains lots of rocks, not just one, is what is restoring the wet meadow and helping to retain that moisture in the soil.

One-rock dams, named because they are one rock high, slows the water down, allowing it to drop more sediment as it flows. That sediment builds up the dam and raises the water table, recreating the sponge and allowing the water to flow in sheets.


When working properly, these wetlands are important for wildlife like Sandhill Cranes and Sage Grouse. They also keep water on the landscape longer, making it more resilient to drought. From a climate standpoint, wetlands also trap five times more carbon per acre than forests, which results in dark, rich soil.

Caption: Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council's Climate Crew try to find the right rock while building a one-rock dam in California Park on Aug. 5. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


Volunteers split into groups under the guidance of Messinger and three other team leaders who knew what they were doing. From there, teams worked on building the various structures by carefully placing rocks in predesignated locations, an at times frustrating tasks as the rocks never seemed to fit as hoped.


Once built, the structures will not fix the problem right away, rather, they are process based restoration techniques. This means that over the coming years the environment will change around the structures and restore the wet meadows.


“We’re going to let nature do the work for us,” Messinger said.

Caption: A nearly complete one-rock dam from above. The one-rock park of one-rock dam refers to the height of the dam. Dams also extend back to help slow and stop sediment and raise the water table. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


From Greyson O’Neal’s perspective, a volunteer and part owner of Elkhead Creek Ranch downstream of the restoration work, it has a variety of benefits.


The meadows being worked on Saturday flow into First Creek, which later flows into Elkhead Creek and Elkhead Reservoir. O’Neal said if these meadows were retaining more water, then the flows into the reservoir and in turn out of the reservoir, would likely be stronger, meaning more water downstream.


Likewise, if the meadows are functioning properly, they can act to prevent flooding downstream, an issue Elkhead Reservoir needed to deal with this year after as a strong snowpack melted. When it melts off quickly, that water has a lot of potential for erosion as well. When that water passes through his ranch, it erodes away the banks, which has required restoration work of it’s own.


“This kind of work, it doesn’t directly help me, but it indirectly helps me for years to come,” O’Neal said. “If we get this better, then everything from here to the Yampa improves.”

Caption: Volunteers work to fit rocks neatly together behind the one-rock dam, helping slow water and trap sediment, which over time helps restore the wet meadow. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


Messinger said this year’s work is being funded with money the Forest Service had left over from a project on First Creek last year. Funding to continue this work next year has already been identified as well through a grant from the Forest Service as well.


In addition to volunteers over the weekend, the Sustainability Council also worked with a crew from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which worked through the week. Still, there is a lot of restoration work needed in California Park.


“There is a lot of stuff going on here, which is great because it has a long history of abuse,” Messinger said.


While it will take time to see results from this project, the good news is similar work from last year is already showing promising results.


“The structures that we built last year and holding water and doing great,” said Aspen Spiker, a wildlife biologist technician for both the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We found our first leopard frog there and we haven’t had leopard frogs here in 10 years. So, it is holding water, it is doing its job and it is making habitat for all these really awesome amphibians.”


Top Photo Caption: Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council sort through rocks while building a one-rock dam in California Park on Saturday, Aug. 5. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

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