Community at Rio Grande Headwaters Keeps Water Flowing

In Colorado’s high-altitude San Luis Valley, the need to protect limited water supply for people, agriculture, and wildlife brings diverse groups together to creatively solve their water challenges.

Growing up on a ranch in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Jim Gilmore gained an appreciation for the abundant waterfowl and songbirds that use the ranch’s wetlands along the Rio Grande. In the 1980s, Gilmore traded in running cattle to pursue art full time, sculpting the animals and ranch scenes he grew up with. He still lives on the ranch along the Rio Grande, which he owns with his brother.

“My brother and I really have a love of wildlife,” says Gilmore. “I just see so much land being swallowed up with development and I think it’s important to keep corridors open for wildlife so they have a free run.”
The Gilmore Ranch easement is part of the Rio Grande Initiative, a broad partnership launched by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in 2007. With funding from state and federal sources, as well as private foundations, RiGHT and partners have now protected over 25,000 acres of working ranches along the Rio Grande. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

Senior Water Rights Keep Wetlands Working

To make sure their land is always a wildlife haven, the Gilmore brothers put it into a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. In the San Luis Valley, ranches like Gilmore’s are important not only for their open land and habitat, but for the water secured with them. Snowmelt from the surrounding mountain ranges is the region’s main water source. The valley’s surface and groundwater supplies are tight. Eight-four percent of the valley’s extensive wetlands exist today on private land and are largely supported by irrigation. In drought times, water is most secure on the oldest ranches with the most senior water rights.

“Wherever there are senior water rights there are working lands with wetlands,” says Rio de la Vista, Associate Director of Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT). “Conservation easements help ensure that the water will always be tied to agricultural lands and the habitat they sustain.”

In the late 1990s, developers tried to export groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s rapidly growing and water-hungry Front Range. This major threat to the rural valley’s water supply was one of the first events that brought water users and conservationists together.

Working lands with senior water rights along the Rio Grande produce forage and hay for livestock and sustain important wetlands, making them important conservation opportunities. Families have been living along the river since the mid-1800’s, such as on the Corset Ranch in Rio Grande County, Colorado. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

The export debate centered on the 100,000-acre Baca Ranch, which bordered what was Great Sand Dunes National Monument at the time. Conservationists and land managers worried that pumping water from under the ranch would also deplete groundwater under the monument. Backed by evidence that groundwater pumping would harm the monument, export plans eventually failed in the courts. In 2002, after a long and complicated collaborative effort, The Nature Conservancy purchased the Baca Ranch and transferred it to public ownership.

Now the Baca Ranch’s water will stay in the San Luis Valley and the land is part of Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the Rio Grande National Forest. Building on the partnership first forged over water export threats, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are also working together to manage bison and elk as well as improve habitat for a number of bird species and two at-risk fish, the Rio Grande Sucker and Rio Grande Chub.

Ali Duvall of the IWJV joined biologists Cary Aloia and Jenny Nehring of Wetland Dynamics, Jill Lucero of the BLM, and RiGHT staff for a site visit to a newly funded conservation project on the Conejos River, Conejos County, Colorado. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

Groundwater Crisis

While water export threats always remain on the horizon, San Luis Valley residents realized they needed to look harder at how they were using the scarce resource they fought so hard to keep. In 2002, severe drought turned the valley’s attention to an internal threat: a looming groundwater crisis. Since the 1950’s farmers had been pumping groundwater to irrigate crops with pivot sprinklers. It was becoming clear that the rate of pumping the aquifer to produce grains and potatoes was unsustainable and was also drawing down surface water.

This prompted the development of groundwater rules and regulations, which are now going through the courts. At the same time, a local effort by farmers to collectively reduce pumping emerged. Under the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, they are forming subdistricts to charge themselves fees on the water pumped, and use the proceeds to help retire wells as well as incentivize better soil health practices as means to reduce ground water use. They also have requirements to restore groundwater levels to the depleted aquifer over time.

The nationally and regionally significant waterbird habitats are a major reason why the Intermountain West Joint Venture is helping to foster collaborative conservation efforts in the San Luis Valley, a region identified as one of 18 wetland focal areas. The Joint Venture invests in this area’s partnership through both capacity grants and geospatial wetland analysis. Photo by Cary Aloia.

Water Needed by Public Lands and Birds, Too

Public agencies likewise have to account for their groundwater use by replacing water they pump, a challenge that is causing them to revamp many management strategies. A substantial portion of the valley’s important public land bird habitats rely on both aquifer levels and irrigation with groundwater. For instance, playas at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Blanca Wetlands Wildlife Habitat Area are nationally important migration stopovers for Wilson’s Phalaropes, Baird’s Sandpipers, American Avocets, and important breeding areas for Snowy Plovers. Additionally, the Monte Vista, Alamosa, and Baca National Wildlife Refuges are important waterfowl breeding areas and Greater Sandhill Crane stopover sites on the Central Flyway — all of which need adequate water to meet wildlife needs.

To maintain those important bird habitats, the USFWS, BLM, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are coming up with innovative ways to trade water. Since the Blanca Wetlands have no surface water rights, the USFWS may give some of their water to them. In exchange, the BLM will provide water rights at a different location where the USFWS lacks them.
Like the rest of the West, the San Luis Valley is facing formidable water challenges and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“None of us can do this on our own,” says Scott Miller, a senior USFWS biologist with the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “Fortunately, we have a lot of different agencies and individuals within organizations who are extremely passionate about what they are doing and have a common goal.”
The river creates a ribbon of life through the dry landscape, sustaining working ranches and vital habitat for wildlife from big game to a wide range of birds and waterfowl, including the federally endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. The river corridor is being protected, ranch by ranch, through RiGHT’s Rio Grande Initiative.

Check out all the stories in IWJV’s Summer 2017 Newsletter:

Community at Rio Grand Headwaters Keeps Water Flowing

How One Doctor is Cultivating Conservation

Ecologist and Landowners Champion Wildlife and Human Values

Refuge Manager Sees Urbanites As Crucial for Conservation

“Quiet Leader” Receives Award for Impactful Partnerships