Twenty Years of Habitat Restoration in Delta County

John Welfelt moves through a dense patch of willows and I lose sight of him for a moment. “Keep track of how much water you see!” he yells back.

I try to count the various ponds we pass but get distracted around the time we reach the fifteenth one.  

“Instead of having one giant pond we’ve got a whole bunch of smaller ones, because your edge is what’s really productive. We made them deep enough so that they’ll hold a cold temperature in the summer, but also so that 100 years from now there won’t just be cattails,” John explains. As we tour his property, he recounts the work that has taken place here since he and his business partner, Stephen Lewis, purchased it in the late 1990s.  

John leading the way through dense willows

They located the 160-acre property on the south side of the Uncompahgre River and started constructing ponds. Then, they voluntarily placed a conservation easement on the land to protect it.  

From the beginning, their intention has been to improve wildlife habitat. Today, rabbitbrush, three-leaf sumac, cattails and milkweed stand tall and thick against the shoreline of the ponds. Brush them aside and you see crystal clear water that sustains plenty of life—rainbow trout glide under duckweed while marsh wrens, swallows and yellow-rumped warblers fly overhead. Occasionally, a family of river otters stops by to help John keep the population of crawdads under control.  

There is no wondering why all these animals choose to live here—John and Steve have worked hard to encourage native plant growth and keep invasive species, like reed canary grass, Russian knapweed, and Canada thistle, from taking over. With help from the Palisade Insectary, they have released gall midges and wasps to eat the Russian knapweed and a rust fungus to kill the Canada thistle, and the results have been promising.  

John and Steve are also working with the North Delta Irrigation Company (NDIC) and the Uncompahgre Valley Water User’s Association (UVWA) to implement habitat replacement projects on their property. The work will offset riparian habitat losses elsewhere in the region due to the piping of irrigation canals and an effort to reduce selenium loading in the Colorado River watershed. And the appeal to these organizations is clear: conserved private property affords them the opportunity to implement projects in an efficient and secure manner. Together, they are working to plant nearly 700 native shrubs and trees on the land over the next five years, which NDIC and UVWA must then sustain for the next 50 years.  

“I think it’s an opportunity to see a lot of these habitats get better, and [Colorado West Land Trust] has been a great partner in this,” says John. “We’re going to lose more habitat to more people, and so I think it’s important to improve all the habitat we can, especially in a desert area.”