Rio Grande Restoration Project’s Outcalt Project wraps up, 12 miles of river now restored

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The Rio Grande isn’t a raging torrent of white water on the San Luis Valley floor.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t do damage.

For decades, the river has carved shelf-like banks on segments of the river between here and Del Norte, leaving increased sedimentation, degraded fish and wildlife habitat and property damage.

The nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration Project has set out to fix that problem, having restored roughly 12 miles of riverbank, including the completion of the Outcalt Project last week.

“It’s a typical stream bank and river restoration project for around here where there’s been a loss of anchoring vegetation, so that results in instability in the stream bank,” said Heather Dutton, the project’s executive director.

The increased erosion that comes from the river carving up its banks leads to more sediment, which is a water quality problem for fish and makes it more difficult for the channel to carry water downstream to meet the needs of other irrigators.

It also makes it harder for state water officials to meet the demands of the Rio Grande Compact, which divvies up the river’s flows between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

The river’s carving can also impact property owners.

“Landowners freakout when they see their property wash away in the river and especially if they have a house there or some kind of infrastructure the river is getting close to,” Dutton said.

But she added that the roughly 50 property owners she’s worked with have been interested for reasons beyond self-interest.

“The neat thing about the valley is, people get it,” said Dutton, who grew up on a farm near Sargent. “People understand the need to restore the river for the river’s sake.”

The threat to buildings was not a problem at the Outcalt property, which sits roughly 10 miles upstream of Alamosa.

The project’s contractor — Antonito-based Robins Construction — shaped sections of stream bank, replacing vertical shelves with a more gradual grade.

Rock barbs then were planted to help keep current off the freshly molded banks.

On properties with large cottonwood galleries, root wads also can be dug into the banks, offering the same type of protection but one that’s more attractive to fish and the bugs on which they feed.

“That was a really neat part of this project is there were more cottonwoods than we knew what to do with,” Dutton said.

But the ultimate tool, albeit one that takes longer to take effect, is the planting of willows along the banks to provide long-term stabilization.

All told, 0.65 miles of stream bank were restored in the Outcalt Project. Funding for the projects includes 20 percent payment from the property owner.

Other funding has come from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The restoration project also has an eye on the 33-mile segment of the river that runs from the southern end of the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge to the New Mexico State line.

Program Manager Emma Regier is set to start work on a plan that will identify stretches in need of restoration and the prioritization of potential projects.

Both tasks will be subject to public input and the plan should be completed by next year, Dutton said.

But in the meantime, the restoration project still will have plenty of work to do on the upper reaches of the river between Alamosa and Del Norte fixing diversion structures.

Its biggest and first diversion work came on the McDonald Ditch project, which involves the replacement and relocation of a check dam and the extension of the ditch to a new diversion point upstream.

Construction is underway on the project.

Dutton said she has secured funding for three other projects designed to fix irrigation diversions and has identified another three that still need money.

“We’ll be working on ditch projects for a long time,” she said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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