DRIGGS — The ponds, wetlands and streams on Idaho’s private working lands provide critical hydrologic, ecological and habitat benefits that extend far beyond the fence lines. When these areas become degraded and their function impaired, landowners may look to a restoration contractor like Aqua Terra Restoration of Driggs for help.
Founded in 2000 by Arlin Grimes, ATR has completed more than 150 projects in seven states.
Arlin says, “Environmental restoration isn’t like working on infrastructure hardscapes because there are so many biological considerations. Sometimes we’re doing creation — building a new pond or wetlands, which will have waterfowl and sediment or water temperature benefits. Or we’re improving stream stability and fisheries on a recreation property and have to consider fish needs plus how it will be fished, like casting areas and fly drift. Maybe a rancher needs to water his cattle but wants to protect a stream. It’s never simple.”
Arlin grew up in western Montana. After working in construction and logging, he graduated college with a biology degree, and joined a consulting firm specializing in restoration project design, permitting and oversight. He learned project development from concept to culvert and then opened his own business.
In 2003, he shifted to the operational side, concentrating primarily on ponds, wetlands and stream work. The quality of his work and his relationships with consultants and engineers generate referrals that keep him on the road from 200 to 250 days a year and have taken him, his team of skilled equipment operators and his GPS-controlled heavy equipment all over the West and Alaska. Clients include federal, state, tribal and local agencies, outdoor and conservation groups, corporations, private ranch and recreation property owners and others. Arlin recently added international work to his portfolio, consulting on an African project in Zambia.
The importance of restoration projects on private lands cannot be overstated, he says. An estimated 44 percent of wetland and riparian habitat in Idaho is privately owned, and approximately 74 percent of the nation’s wetlands are on private land. Helping landowners achieve ecological and economic objectives is a double win for habitat, Arlin says.
“I always start by meeting with the landowner, talking about their goals and walking the site,” he explains. “It may be a wetland, a live stream or a floodplain issue. Maybe they want a pond or to control erosion. We look for solutions that can benefit the resource and the rancher’s operation.”
ATR projects include creating wetlands for waterfowl nesting by improving degraded habitat areas with hardened banks for stream stability and to reduce property loss, refining flow with channel shaping and erosion control, reducing sediment and water temperature issues, improving fisheries and fish habitat and other interrelated solutions. Depending on the contract, Arlin may finish by adding native vegetation and trees.
Voluntary restoration in the private sector is growing, and the hydrologic and habitat value of these projects can be almost immediate. For example, a spring-fed stream on a ranch near Bozeman degraded over time into a wide, flat channel, elevating the temperature to nearly lethal for desired fish populations. By narrowing and deepening the channel and other restorative work on a 5-mile stretch of private and agency-owned ground, the stream temperature dropped ten degrees within a couple months. On another ranch, Arlin isolated warm and muddy irrigation return water by creating deep ponds, which provided waterfowl nesting and doubled as a sediment catch. Return water to the stream was significantly cooler. For some clients, he hardens and limits cattle access to waterways.
Most water-related projects face lengthy permitting, approval and funding hurdles, and the cost and complexity of navigating the process at the federal, state and local levels of government can be daunting. Arlin cites a project in Wyoming that involved city, county, Wyoming Fish & Game, NRCS and 20 landowners. It took five years for the approval and funding phase alone.
“Approvals, funding, time of year and all the other jobs we have going can make it a challenge to schedule my part of these projects,” he says. “Logistics of moving men and equipment is major. And there may be fish restrictions at certain times, weather issues and some things you do in winter instead of spring or summer. It’s not just doing the work; it’s also working around the function of that area.”
Of the finished product, he says, “It’s fun and rewarding to see the difference from start to finish. I always hope people won’t even realize the improvement because it looks so natural and it functions like it should.
“And, of course, it’s great if the owner lets you come back and fish,” he adds.