Rio Grande Forest water right is working — Rio Grande Roundtable

Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative
Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

If it ain’t broke ” don’t let the government fix it.

That’s the gist of San Luis Valley residents’ message yesterday to representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and their consultant who are gathering input to revise the Rio Grande National Forest’s plan.

In fact, members of the Rio Grande Roundtable who represent varying water interests throughout the Valley went so far as to make a motion to write a letter to the Forest Service urging it not to change the Forest’s plan regarding federal reserve water rights. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from Charlie Spielman.

“There’s no need to change it,” said Travis Smith, who sits on state and local water boards and manages the SLV Irrigation District. “It is a huge success story not only for the federal agency but for the water users in the San Luis Valley. Don’t change it. I think we have demonstrated over the last 30 years it is a very workable situation.”

Rio Grande National Forest Deputy Supervisor Adam Mendonca said he was not aware of any other National Forest that had anything like this. He said in 1977 the process began to develop a federal reserve water right that would provide in-stream flow for such purposes as fish and other wildlife habitat. The water right decree was filed in 2000 and is specific solely to the National Forest. The decree requires minimum flows in many riparian areas. Mendonca said the flows are so minimal they do not impact other uses and in fact provide benefits to those uses.

“I have yet to have anyone tell me the decree we have today is bad,” he said. “We don’t have monitoring data that would indicate it is not working.”

He said many people were unaware the federal government had a water right in the forest, which is probably a good thing because they have not seen any detrimental effects resulting from it.

“If you hadn’t noticed a real impact, I would say it’s working,” he said. Unlike the process in other basins in the state, the water right in this basin was accomplished without litigation thanks to the forest supervisor at the time, Jim Webb and then-Division Engineer Steve Vandiver, Smith said. He added that the decree that is in place provides a certainty for water rights for the Forest Service in addition to providing certainty for the water users.

“I would strongly support that it needs no change,” Smith said.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson agreed.

“My understanding is it was a monumental accomplishment for the Forest Service and local water users ,” Gibson said, “something that was not accomplished in any other basin.”

He added, “It worked. We have demonstrated it works.”

Mendonca explained that the Forest Service is currently working under a plan approved in 1996, and the parts of that plan that no one wants to change will just roll over into the new plan. The Forest is not starting over with a new plan but is revising the 1996 plan, he added.

“We will use the 1996 plan until we have a new one filed ,” he said.

He said the revision plan is a four-year process, with this being the first year of that process. This year, which ends this summer, is a time of assessment when the Forest Service and its consultant Peak Facilitation Group are gathering input from residents throughout the area on what they believe should be kept and what should be revised in the current plan. The Forest Service has held numerous public meetings already, many of which focus on specific parts of the plan such as timber use, water and livestock grazing.

The Forest Service also wants input on what people believe should be changed under the standards and guidelines specified in the plan, particularly since the Forest’s budget has decreased drastically in recent years so it is more difficult to meet the “have to” requirements as opposed to “it would be good to” guidelines.

Mendonca said the budget for the Rio Grande National Forest has decreased from $14 million to $8.5 million over the last eight years. When the budget declines that significantly , he added, “something doesn’t get done.”

That is why it is important for the forest plan’s standards and guidelines to be “sustainable and attainable,” Mendonca said. The Forest Service will prioritize what it focuses its resources on according to those mandates and guidelines.

The next two public meetings regarding the Forest Service plan revision are scheduled Monday and Tuesday , April 27 and 28, with the first on April 27 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Alamosa County Commissioners Building, 8900-A Independence Way, Alamosa, specifically related to vegetation, timber and fire issues, and the second on April 28 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Saguache County Road and Bridge, 305 3rd Street, Saguache, with a focus on current issues and foreseeable trends concerning water and soil management.

For more information, visit the RGNF plan revision website at http:// riograndeplanning or contact Mike Blakeman at the Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 852-5941.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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