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Cheryl Cwelich: Restoring the Gunnison Basin’s Wet Meadows, One Rock at a Time

A stone structure in a grassy field.

Cheryl Cwelich is not your traditional student. After working in the accounting field for over a decade, Cheryl went back to school and was well on her way to earning her certificate from CU Boulder when she realized accounting wasn’t for her, and neither was CU Boulder. She was more interested in the natural world than numbers and needed a more personal university experience, one where she could ask questions, partake in engaging conversations, and look her professors in the eye. With its world-class Clark School of Environment & Sustainability, smaller classrooms, and sense of community, Western was the answer.

Megan West: How did you discover Western?

CC: Growing up in South Denver, I actually have been coming to Gunnison since I was a kid. We would meet up with my grandparents here in the late summer and fall. I have a lot of nostalgia and love for Gunnison and Crested Butte. I learned to fish here, hike here. We walked by the rivers and picked wildflowers. Now, I find myself being that person who says, “Look, I get it; I know you want to pick the wildflowers. I did it, too. Please don’t.” It is a funny journey.

I knew about Western and I always wanted to go to Western. I was convinced otherwise by my family and attended CU Boulder. I was not happy with that and ended up transitioning, getting my associate degree, and then I did the whole seasonal life thing. I worked for ski patrol at Monarch Mountain, and then in the summer, I worked as a seasonal park ranger on the Arkansas River for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, which was really rad. I enjoyed that for a long time. Then there is this moment where you realize, “Ok. To go on, I need something more. I need to learn. There is so much to learn,” and I was ready to get a degree. I looked around for a little bit but quickly realized I just wanted to be at Western.

MW: Tell us about your journey and why you ended up coming to Western.  

CC: I had a different, non-traditional path. I actually started out working in accounting, and I worked my way up this ladder. I had a whole accounting career in Boulder and worked in that field for over 10 years. I started going to school to earn my certificate, then realized that was not something I wanted to do. I attended CU Boulder and it was just such a huge college. I loved CU but it was not the experience I hoped it would be. I picked Western because of the nostalgia piece, but then when I actually came here and did the tour, I met some of the different professors, and I loved that feeling of being part of something and making a difference. I felt like I was part of a community, like I belonged to something and I think just being part of a smaller college lets you do that. I like to ask questions, have discussions, and be able to look my fellow students and professors in the eye. That is what I loved about going to Western. You have small classrooms, you get to have amazing discussions in and out of the classroom, and it feels like a community, which is really cool. I graduated with a degree in Environment and Sustainability, with an emphasis on water policy and resilience, and a minor in outdoor recreation and education in 2019.

MW: What is your fondest memory of Western?

CC: I was in Kate Clark’s class with my capstone partners, working on a demand management pilot project and brainstorming together. I loved that collaborative environment, which is another thing I love about Western. I also loved being outside of the gymnasium during one of Hank Ebbott’s classes. He was definitely one of my favorite professors. He brought so much life and energy and got everyone interacting. We would go outside and work through all these different icebreaker games. It was a lot of fun.

Cheryl Cwelich takes a selfie while conducting out in the research field.

MW: Who had the biggest influence on you while you were at Western?

CC: Hank might have been my favorite professor, but I would say Kate Clark influenced me the most.  Here is this woman who is incredibly busy as the Associate Dean, teaching and grading papers, and she remembered everyone’s name. She would see you in the hallway and say hi to you. She is such a skilled public speaker. That was something for me that I always struggled with. I told her how much I appreciated her public speaking skills, to which she replied, “You know, I used to be terrible.” I thought, ‘Here is the woman who is an incredible public speaker. Maybe I can get there someday, too.’ Kate was just such a great advocate for me while I was working through the program as a non-traditional student.

MW: Tell us a little bit about what you are doing now.

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CC: I am a Water Specialist for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. The most exciting thing I am working on now is kicking off the Gunnison-based conservation crew that is helping with our wet meadows conservation efforts. We have ten young individuals doing a whole host of conservation and restoration projects across jurisdictional boundaries on BLM property, Colorado Park & Wildlife property, Forest Service property, and private property. They are brilliant young people, and I am so excited to have them here. We talk about the wet meadows project as a way to provide hope through action. We talk about climate change, we talk about species extinction, we talk about all these things that are happening. This wet meadows project is something we can do and make a difference immediately for the environment and for species. This will be part of helping with our socio-economic issues as well.

MW: How did you get involved with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District?

CC: In 2018, I got an internship with them while I was at Western. I had a whole host of internship responsibilities. I kicked off a blog series and interviewed different water professionals across the valley: folks from the agricultural sector, folks from the recreational sector, and folks involved in the municipality and water distribution. I also helped with tasks similar to the wet meadows team. We had a contractor who was their wet meadow coordinator at the time, so I helped him build a website for the Wet Meadows program, did some volunteering, and also did other miscellaneous intern tasks such as data entry.

After that I started working for the Crested Butte Land Trust as a River Steward and helping with a three-year river use study. I did that for three years and worked on other land conservation projects. After I graduated, I thought I needed to get back into water resource management so I reached out to Sonia Chavez, current general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and asked about a letter of recommendation. Her response was, “Actually, I have a job for you. I need you to come interview.” Now I am a Water Resource Specialist.

A group of environmental scientists conduct research in a large, grassy field.

MW: What’s the mission of the wet meadows project?

CC: The wet meadows project was kicked off in 2009 by the Gunnison Climate Working Group. At that point, they were looking at a predicted decrease in snowpack and decreased stream flows as a result, as well as a prediction of intense episodic rainfall events, and we are experiencing every single one of those things. They were looking at how to be prepared for all of this. One of the things that got highlighted in our Valley is the importance of protecting, preserving, and restoring wet meadows within the sagebrush biome. We talk about the sea of sage but what we don’t talk about is these beautiful little green gems, which are the wet meadows. These wet meadows act as sponges for water. So this is a really dry area and we need those sponges to help with drought resilience. We have lost a lot of wet meadows and this projects helps to preserve and protect them. The Gunnison Basin has lost over 50% of our wetlands, which include wet meadows, due to human impacts. Now, what we want to do is protect those that remain from getting drained by building a feature called a head-cut. The students are helping build those structures and gather data. The Nature Conservancy came in 2012 and brought in restoration professionals to help design and restore those areas. The Nature Conservancy identified 276 high-priority stream miles in the last 10 years, and we’ve done work on 45 of them. So we have done a lot, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.

There are over 4,000 stream miles in the Gunnison basin, so it is difficult. Out of the 230 steam miles that are left, where do we go next? The team is helping with this planning effort for the next five and 10 years and also scaling the project up. The students are also helping with the planning, restoration, and treatment of cheatgrass, which might be the biggest threat to the sagebrush ecosystem. So they are also doing cheatgrass inventory, treatment, and seed collection, as well as seeding and road decommissioning.

MW: Do you have any sites you would like to encourage our readers to check out?

CC: Yes, Water Education Colorado!

Water Education Colorado works really closely with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is this overarching agency for the state government over the state’s conservancy districts. They have distilled it down to a 30-page pamphlet for people to give them an idea of what is going on with surface water, well permits, interstate and intrastate compacts, and how it is managed across the continental divide here in Colorado.

MW: Do you have any organizations you would suggest donating to and/or volunteering for? CC: Yes! High Country Conservation Advocates runs the volunteer program. If you want to come out and volunteer for the Wet Meadows projects, you can sign up through HCCA. They can get you plugged into some of the projects we are doing.

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