In the fall of 2002, while his fellow University of Denver students were perfecting their beer pong shots, 21-year-old Paul Bruchez sat at a polished boardroom table in Greeley and faced a jury of bankers. With his father ill, the business undergrad was stepping in to manage the loans for the family’s Kremmling ranch—and the state’s ongoing drought was creating a grim picture.

The Bruchez family had been ranching in Colorado for four generations. After development crowded them off their Westminster wheat farm, they bought Reeder Creek Ranch’s 6,000 acres of rolling sagebrush in 2000. It was a jewel of a property, a big-sky swath of elk and sage-grouse habitat that extended from the wooded foothills of the Williams Fork Mountains to the shimmering headwaters of the Colorado River. But the year after the Bruchez family moved its cattle operation to Kremmling, one of the worst droughts in state history descended on Colorado. The river all but dried up. And without its lifeblood, Reeder Creek Ranch withered.

Water shortages were affecting the entire state: In 2002, Front Range cities imposed watering restrictions and closed swimming pools. But on the Upper Colorado, where diversions had already shunted most of the water to urban centers, the drought reduced the river’s flow to a trickle. Bruchez, an avid fly-fisherman as well as a rancher, could walk across the river without it wetting his knees. Trout were dying in the warm, sluggish current, and Bruchez and his neighbors couldn’t draw enough water to produce a hay crop. Without meadow hay, they had to buy feed for their cattle—an expense that had already forced some Kremmling area ranchers to sell off parts of their herds. If the Colorado River wasn’t restored to some semblance of the mighty flow it once had been—an endeavor that seemed impossible at the time—Bruchez feared his family’s century-old ranching legacy might be lost.

Paul Bruchez fly-fishing
Paul Bruchez, one of the ranchers who advocated for the revitalization, fly-fishes on his family’s Reeder Creek Ranch. Photograph by Russ Schnitzer

One hundred years ago the Colorado River outmuscled every other waterway in the state. Settlers called it the Grand, a fitting name for a river that traversed seven Western states and part of Mexico before entering the Gulf of California. (In 1921, lawmakers changed the name to Colorado to match the river’s territory of origin.) From its headwaters in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado surged past Kremmling at more than 6,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) on average during peak flow. A few miles west of town, Gore Canyon’s rocky narrows bottlenecked the current and sent it flooding across ranchers’ meadows, soaking them with enough moisture to nourish hay through the summer. And the fishing was legendary: Old-timers tell of trout as big as steer heads that grew fat on the giant stoneflies swarming above riffles like a May blizzard.

Then humans started tinkering with the Colorado’s natural flow. One Kremmling rancher tried to straighten the river’s curves—a move that decades later would lead to several miles’ worth of devastating bank erosion—and cities east of the Continental Divide devised ways to tap into the Colorado and reroute it. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project of the 1930s diverted water from the Upper Colorado to the Front Range via tunnels beneath the mountains. Subsequent ventures resulted in more dams, more reservoirs, and more tunnels. By the 1940s and ’50s, these projects had tamed the flooding torrents ranchers relied on to such an extent that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation installed irrigation pumps in an attempt to help Kremmling property owners (who were known collectively as the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling, or ILVK) draw water from the shrinking river.

Today, several transmountain diversions siphon away as much as 65 percent of the water that once flowed past Kremmling; even at its most swollen, the current averages only 1,000 cfs. Because the river now runs more than a foot below their irrigation pumps, some Grand County ranchers can no longer irrigate their hay fields. Parched riverbanks are crumbling into the current. Sediment from reservoirs has plugged up the crevices in the riverbed where aquatic insects burrow and breed. As a result, insect populations have plummeted, meaning there’s less food for fish and waterfowl. The shallower water heats up to temperatures trout can’t tolerate (typically 75-plus degrees Fahrenheit), so in the summer, die-offs are common.

In short, 90 years of human intervention on the Colorado has effectively strangled what was once one of the most powerful rivers in the West. This month, though, work begins on a nearly $8 million project aimed at restoring about 30 miles of Colorado’s signature river—an unprecedented venture that required the cooperation of historic foes.

By 2002, Colorado’s drought was being called one of the worst in state history. Snowpack that year measured about half of what it usually did. Warm temperatures led to early spring melt-off and evaporation. Many of the state’s reservoirs were near empty by July. Wildfires, among them the devastating Hayman Fire, devoured the landscape in what was at the time Colorado’s worst-ever wildfire season.

On the Western Slope, the drought highlighted the demise of the Upper Colorado River and intensified the scramble to claim its last drops. The shortfall pinched Front Range municipalities and prompted Denver Water and Northern Water to pursue projects that would divert even more from the Upper Colorado. Both agencies had clear legal claims to the water they wanted. Kremmling’s ranchers also had water rights, but according to Colorado law, it’s the responsibility of the property owner to go and get it—even if that means chasing a retreating water level.

Irrigators blamed water companies for endangering their livelihoods to serve moneyed Front Range city-dwellers. Environmentalists, meanwhile, often slammed irrigators for being water hogs. And they were quick to criticize cowboy-style river restorations, like slowing erosion by lodging old cars (known colloquially as “Detroit riprap”) against the riverbank. Boaters and anglers also disparaged the cheap but unsightly practice and accused ranchers of ruining recreational opportunities by draining water from rapids and fisheries. When any of the parties met, it typically dissolved into a volley of threats.

To complicate things even further, the ranchers in Grand County weren’t yet a united front. One of the few times they had come together—to try to battle Front Range water interests in the ’70s—they were soundly defeated. The humiliating memory only convinced them the water agencies were too big to beat.

Paul Bruchez portrait
Bruchez, who has helped lead the collaborative effort to restore the Upper Colorado River, on his family’s 6,000-acre ranch near Kremmling. Photograph by Russ Schnitzer

This was the fray into which Bruchez waded after the bank allowed him to refinance his family’s loan. Born years after the skirmishes of the 1970s, Bruchez maintained a youthful optimism that many of his older neighbors had lost. He also straddled various cliques. A lifelong skier and fly-fisherman, Bruchez qualified as a kind of recreational environmentalist. The Bruchezes secured a conservation easement to protect their property’s sage-grouse habitat, and Bruchez cared deeply about trout populations, in part because he supplemented the ranch’s income by offering private fishing on the property. “I was the guy who was irrigating in the morning and guiding in the afternoon,” Bruchez says.

When his father, Art Bruchez, fell ill with aggressive lymphoma, Bruchez’s decision to take over the family business earned him respect amongst the ILVK ranchers. Educated but relatively inexperienced, Bruchez was as eager to learn from ranching sages as he was from his DU professors. He began attending contentious gatherings with Grand County and Front Range water agencies. Those meetings would, years later, inform collaboration among the ILVK; as water shortages worsened, Bruchez encouraged them to establish themselves as an alliance with a common cause.

Art, who survived his cancer, weighed his son’s chances of bringing their neighbors together at 100 to 1. But to Bruchez, those long odds looked a lot like the hurdles his forebears had faced. They’d battled low yields, chronic illness, and even the Great Depression—yet they’d always figured out how to make things work. Bruchez wasn’t ready to give up, and he soon found a powerful ally in science.

As an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Jon Ewert heard a lot of fish tales. Some of them he dismissed immediately. Others he believed—like how the bug hatches in Grand County weren’t what they used to be—but couldn’t prove. Then, in 2008, his colleague discovered a 1983 study that assessed aquatic insect populations near the Colorado River’s headwaters. The study was part of the Environmental Impact Statement for the then soon-to-be-built Windy Gap Reservoir, Northern Water’s storage facility that dams the main artery of the Colorado. Ewert had his baseline. He spent the next year or so replicating the 1983 study, even using the same bug nets (the study’s author had stored them in his garage and offered them to Ewert). The results showed an ominous drop-off in the river’s insect numbers and diversity. Between 1983 and 2010, the Colorado’s headwaters had lost 54 percent of its mayfly species, 40 percent of its stoneflies, and 62 percent of its caddis. “Those three play a vital ecological role as food for trout and birds,” Ewert says. “They’re indicators of the river’s overall health. Seeing them go away raises a red flag.”

Ewert’s study provided scientific proof that the river’s health was failing, and that concerned everyone. “We need to sustain the Denver metro area into the next 50 and 100 years,” says Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO and manager. “We can’t do that if the water we’re taking is coming from a degraded environment.” In other words, nobody benefits from a dying river. That realization put the Western Slope and Front Range cities on the same team—a tenuous team, perhaps, but it was enough to inspire a desire to compromise.

Meanwhile, Bruchez was forming partnerships, too. He found his first ally in Lurline Underbrink Curran, then Grand County’s manager. Curran was seven years old in 1956, when her parents moved to Kremmling, and hometown loyalty made her a force in public meetings, where she became a crusader for Grand County. Bruchez’s second ally was more surprising: Mely Whiting, Trout Unlimited’s legal counsel in Colorado. As an organization dedicated to preserving trout habitat, Trout Unlimited was unhappy with the negative impacts that existing water projects were having on the Colorado’s headwaters. So throughout the 2000s, Trout Unlimited had opposed proposals to divert even more water to the Front Range, thus finding itself fighting alongside ranchers even though the two groups hadn’t always agreed.

Paul Bruchez another portrait
Photograph by Russ Schnitzer

Whiting suggested Bruchez approach the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a diverse group of stakeholders that makes recommendations for state water policy, for a grant to study the river health around Kremmling. Such an assessment would help everyone understand the factors influencing the Colorado’s condition, but it would be expensive. Bruchez went door to door asking for the support of each of the ILVK ranchers. They were skeptical—one rancher even threatened to run Bruchez off his land if he used the name “Trout Unlimited” on his property again—but eventually everyone consented to the study, provided they wouldn’t have to pay for more than half of the cost to conduct it. No one really expected the municipalities and environmentalists who were a part of the roundtable to back them up, though. Then, in March 2014, the ILVK received the $50,000 grant. “The landowners were shocked that somebody actually said yes to helping us,” Bruchez says. It was a kind of first show of faith that cities, environmentalists, and recreationists all understood they were battling the crisis together.

The 2014 study revealed, among other things, shocking changes to the Colorado River near Kremmling: What had once been a potent river had become—thanks to diversions and erosion—a 220-foot-wide trickle no deeper than six inches in some places. Irrigators’ pumps sat useless, more than a foot above the water level, in places. To many ranchers, the solution seemed simple: Extend the pumps so they would reach the water. But that struck Bruchez as just another stopgap. “When you go deeper into the channel, it just compounds your problem,” Bruchez says. “As the water table gets lower, you need more water to irrigate the same amount of ground.”

Bruchez started thinking about riffles, the naturally occurring rock piles that gently slope downstream, oxygenating the water and serving as bug factories. As an angler, he spent a lot of time near these fish magnets. Trout like to sip hatching flies off the surface of the deep, slow water above the riffles, and downstream, they feast below the water’s surface on larvae that get dislodged by the cascading current. Beyond providing habitat for bugs and fish, riffles also can help raise the river bottom—thus elevating the water level because the same flow is forced through a smaller area—and reduce bank erosion. Various entities have built riffles to improve fish habitat, but no one had employed them for irrigation. Bruchez didn’t understand why. Resculpting the river channel by imitating nature’s own engineering seemed like a sustainable way to address Kremmling’s water shortage.

During the summer of 2014, Bruchez and Ewert floated the river, studying the remaining riffles and choosing the healthiest to inform their archetype. They handed the data over to engineers, who created 3-D computer models that analyzed every possible design dimension and how the riffles would behave at various flows. Trout Unlimited helped secure the grants to build one of Bruchez’s riffles.

Then Bruchez recruited a guinea pig. Bill Thompson’s family had been ranching along the Upper Colorado since 1959. But water troubles had forced him and his wife, Wendy, to sell first their sheep and then their cattle. Of all the ILVK landowners, their pumps sat the farthest from the water, about 15 inches above the river, and they were desperate for a fix—even if that meant accepting the help of an organization, Trout Unlimited, ranchers had historically disliked.

In November 2014, crews constructed a riffle on the Thompsons’ property, just downstream from one of their irrigation pumps. A track hoe dug three feet down into the riverbed, removing the sand and clay and replacing it with massive chunks of local sandstone. Bulldozers stacked smaller rocks atop the sandstone and finally delivered a top dressing of cobbles that sloped downstream in a long, gradual pitch. It was, effectively, a dam—but one that mirrored nature’s design.

The riffle weathered the winter well. It handled spring runoff exactly as the 3-D modeling had predicted. And it elevated the water all the way up to the Thompsons’ pump intake, letting them irrigate regularly for the first time in years. In fact, the riffle restored the water level to where it was before agriculture and cities had interfered.

The success of that demonstration project emboldened more ILVK ranchers to ask for engineered riffles. Mardi Shepard had one built on her property upstream of the Thompsons. And the Thompsons doubled down with a second riffle, again with the help of Trout Unlimited. More landowners queued up for future projects.

The real proof of the riffles’ river-healing power, though, came this past September. Bruchez and Shepard visited Shepard’s riffle to see how it was holding up after a high-runoff year. The sun still burned like summer, but the yellow leaves taking flight from the cottonwoods signaled fall. As any angler would do, Bruchez grabbed a rock out of the riffle and turned it over to look for bugs. What he saw looked like a cockroach with a tail. It was a Pteronarcys californica, the giant salmonfly. That insect hadn’t been seen in Kremmling in decades. Shepard let out a shriek. An angler herself, she ran from rock to rock, exposing their underbellies, and found giant stoneflies under every one. When she skipped back to Bruchez, she was crying. “They’re everywhere!” she sang.

Colorado River sunrise
The sun rises over a stretch of the Colorado River on Reeder Creek Ranch. Photograph by Russ Schnitzer

One riffle can raise the water level in its immediate vicinity, but by itself, it can’t rehabilitate an entire river. It would take many more riffles like the ones the ILVK had been installing to extend the benefits to the Colorado’s headwaters as a whole. The landowners were unified in their support for trying. Now, all they needed was a windfall.

“I can get money for this,” Whiting promised Bruchez. She recommended that instead of seeking grants for just the riffles along the ILVK properties, they should combine their bid with another one from the Upper Colorado River Authority, an advocacy group that had been seeking to build a bypass around Windy Gap Reservoir for years. A bypass would restore connectivity to the main stem of the Colorado River, which had been fragmented by the dam at Windy Gap so trout and sculpin couldn’t migrate between the Fraser and the Upper Colorado rivers. Not only would a bypass improve fish habitat, but the free-flowing water also would keep the river cooler (water in the shallow Windy Gap Reservoir heats up significantly).

Whiting believed that the unprecedented climate of cooperation between Western Slope and Front Range communities could work in the applicants’ favor. Never before had ranchers, conservationists, anglers, and municipalities joined forces for a project of this scale. So in September 2016, Whiting asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for $7.75 million to implement the Windy Gap bypass and 31 engineered riffles to restore roughly 30 miles of the Upper Colorado. It was a long shot—most awardees averaged less than half that amount—but it was a visionary long shot.

A week before Christmas, Bruchez was driving to Denver for meetings when he got a call from one of Whiting’s colleagues at Trout Unlimited. “Have you checked your email? If not, you’d better pull over.” The NRCS had approved the funding—all $7.75 million of it. Bruchez read the email a second time. And a third. He knew that thousands of applicants seek NRCS funding each year. When he called the ILVK landowners, each one responded with tears.

If planning and construction timelines hold up, the reservoir bypass and riffles will be completed around 2021. The series of projects, all working in concert, should cool the headwaters by at least six degrees, significantly improving water quality for downstream communities and conditions for trout and other cold-water species. Additional riffles should stimulate populations of aquatic insects along 12 miles of the river’s headwaters. Anglers might even see the legendary swarms of giant stoneflies return once more. And Kremmling’s ranchers should be able to access their water rights and raise the hay their livestock depend on. All told, it’ll be the biggest restoration project the Upper Colorado River basin has ever seen. “Usually, we see one-off projects intended to address a discrete problem,” says Matt Rice, spokesperson for American Rivers, a national advocacy group. But the reservoir bypass and the series of riffles present a more systemic fix; neither strategy has ever been attempted on such a scale. “Hopefully, it’ll set a precedent for other rivers within Colorado and across the West,” Rice says.

Bruchez hopes the success will also encourage the continued cooperation of ranchers, environmentalists, and recreationists to ensure that collaborative efforts to protect the Upper Colorado will last far longer than the span of any single project—even a landmark $7.75 million victory. Now, when Bruchez sees his nieces and nephews running around Reeder Creek Ranch, he knows they’ll have a future in agriculture—if they want it. And he believes they will. “Ag gets in your blood,” he says. Which is why, now that the project is secured and underway, he’s hoping to trade some of those meetings for more mornings on the tractor pitching hay at cattle and afternoons wetting his line.