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Tamarisk, the scourge of Southwest riparian areas, can grow 25 feet tall, suck up to 200 gallons of water from the ground per day and produce 500,000 seeds a year.

The exotic species can destroy habitat for native plants and animals. Eradicating tamarisk is an ongoing battle waged by state and federal agencies.

One of the latest skirmishes in that battle is taking place along the banks of the San Rafael River. The pesky plant is being uprooted and burned and eventually will be replaced with 750 native cottonwood trees along a 15-mile stretch south of Interstate 70. Officials would like to extend the 15 miles to 39 miles, to the stream's confluence with the Green River.

Daniel Keller, a native aquatics biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), said removing the tamarisk — imported from central Asia in the early 1800s to stabilize stream banks — is needed partly to support three rare fish species.

The flannel mouth sucker, blue head sucker and roundtail chub have lost habitat as the tamarisk changed the flow and dynamics of the river, which cuts through Emery County in east-central Utah.

Keller said tamarisk in the targeted areas has taken over stream banks. The replanting, which began in the fall, is part of a comprehensive approach to ecosystem restoration.

"It is more like an irrigation ditch now than a free-flowing river," he said of the stream section. "We hope to ensure the free flowing and flooding of the river so species like fish can survive, and help other species like turkeys and raptors that will have places to perch."

Tamarisk promotes deep-cutting of the river channel. Once it is removed, the river is free to flood its banks, creating the back pools necessary for the rare fish to reproduce and thrive, Keller said.

The current project, which began in 2008, has cost about $2 million so far. Funding has been provided by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and Watershed Restoration Initiative.

Utah State University, the Bureau of Land Management, and Emery County are also participating.

Daniel Eddington, a restoration biologist with the DWR, said this project is one of the biggest in the West largely because it involves stretches of state-owned land, rather than privately owned land. Some of the property was donated to the state by the power company PacifiCorp.

Removing the tamarisk is less costly than the measures that would be required if fish populations dropped enough to list them under the Endangered Species Act.

"Once listed, the [federal government] enacts a recovery plan [funded] by tax money," he said. "But there are also secondary benefits from [restoration] like aesthetic values."

Government agencies aren't alone in rooting for uprooting the tamarisk. Daniel Gunnell, the West Colorado River watershed coordinator for the Utah Association of Conservation Districts, said his organization and private landowners support tamarisk removal on the San Rafael and other stream banks in southern Utah.

He said the noxious plant also can ruin grazing areas by channeling water in ways that decrease feed areas for livestock. Ranchers can qualify for financial aid from the NRCS and Environmental Protection Agency for the cost of removing the plants with machinery or environmentally friendly herbicides. Landowners have to pay only 40 percent of the cost.

Gunnell said the tamarisk beetle, which eats tamarisk leaves and eventually kills the plant, also has been used successfully on specific streams, including the San Rafael.

"What the [state] is doing on the San Rafael should increase fish habitat," he said.

Justin Jimenez, the fisheries and riparian leader with the state office of the BLM, said the federal agency has secured funding and is in the process of creating a plan for the restoration project to extend onto BLM land. The project is important because riparian areas comprise just 1 percent of Utah lands.

The environmental assessment required for work to be done on BLM land will rely heavily on three studies conducted by graduate students at Utah State University. Jimenez said the plan should be completed within a year.

In their battle against tamarisk, the government and landowners have an ally in the Tamarisk Coalition, a private nonprofit group based in Grand Junction, Colo., that focuses on projects to keep riparian areas healthy in 17 Western states, including Utah.

Rusty Lloyd, a spokesman for the coalition, said the group's $1.2 million annual budget is used to monitor waterways, for education programs and organizing volunteer efforts to keep stream banks healthy through revegetation projects.

Lloyd said there are problem species other than tamarisk that adversely effect riparian areas, including the Russian olive and Russian knap, that won't be eradicated any time soon.

"It is a long process," said Lloyd. "It took a long time to degrade [stream banks] and will take a long time to return them to a better state."