[Rio Grande] Roundtable changes water leadership — The Valley Courier

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

After a decade of service as chairman of one of the San Luis Valley’s leading water groups, Mike Gibson handed the “gavel” over to Nathan Coombs on Tuesday.

Gibson, of Alamosa, has led the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable for the past 10 years while also working full-time as director of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, where he has served for 14 years. He retired from the district and as chairman of the roundtable board. The board, which is comprised of representatives from throughout the basin, elected Coombs from Conejos County as the new chairman.

Vice Chairman is Heather Dutton, who followed Gibson as director of the SLV Water Conservancy District and has been active in the roundtable for some time, and board secretary is Cindy Medina of Conejos County, who has held that office in the past. The roundtable administers a pot of local funds allocated by the state from severance tax funds. State legislation set up the roundtables in each basin in the state and provided for funding on a local and statewide level for water projects ranging from feasibility studies to ditch canal repairs. The Rio Grande Basin has been highly successful in the past decade in drawing funds for local water projects.

Board members recognized Gibson for his leadership during his final meeting as chairman on Tuesday in Alamosa . U.S. Representative Scott Tipton’s San Luis Valley aide Brenda Felmlee also shared the tribute Tipton had read into the congressional record in Washington D.C. honoring Gibson for his leadership with the conservancy district, roundtable , water congress and other water organizations, effective management and multiple awards. Tipton also recognized Gibson for his willingness to cooperate with others for the success of the basin.

Tipton said Gibson was “among the very best of the water managers in the 3rd Congressional District” and thanked him for his valuable work.

“I could not have done what I have done without the support especially of my board of directors,” Gibson said. The board allowed him to serve in the voluntary position as chairman of the roundtable in addition to his full-time job with the conservancy district, Gibson said, because his board recognized the importance of the water issues the roundtable was handling.

“They were very kind and supportive of letting me pursue those other interests, and hopefully I have made a contribution,” Gibson said.

Gibson also acknowledged his wife Gigi for her support. Gibson said he took early retirement from the mining company in Craig where he was working and when he learned there was an opening with the Nature Conservancy at their newly acquired Medano Ranch in the Valley, he applied for and obtained the job, with Gigi’s support.

“She said ‘it’s going to be an adventure’ .”

From the Nature Conservancy Gibson became involved in water projects and the conservancy district.

In addition to recognizing Gibson’s efforts, the roundtable acknowledged the leadership of Vice Chairman Rio de la Vista and Secretary Cindy Medina who have volunteered countless hours on water committees in addition to the roundtable meetings themselves. For example, they were involved in developing the Rio Grande Basin water plan, which was included in the statewide water plan recently approved by Governor John Hickenlooper .

Travis Smith of Rio Grande County, a local and statewide water leader, said all of those who have been part of this water effort should be recognized for what they have been able to do by working together over the past 10 years.

Smith said these positions in leadership on the roundtable have been voluntary and not without criticism.

“It’s a unique experiment,” he said.

Smith also encouraged the young people who are now taking leadership roles on water issues.

“We want to raise up water leaders,” he said.

Craig Godbout, staff member with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversees the statewide and roundtable-level funding, gave the group an update on what it can expect for revenues in the near future. He said since oil and gas prices “have tanked,” severance tax revenues for water projects will likely be reduced this year by 20-30 percent compared to last year’s funding . Usually the statewide fund receives about $3 million from severance taxes in January, Godbout said, but it will probably receive $1.5-2 .5 million this year, and the basin roundtables that usually receive $120,000 infusion of funds in January will probably see $60,000-100 ,000.

Currently the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has a balance of $318,000 in its local fund with about $110,000 in pending requests for funding , which would bring the balance down to $208,000, Godbout explained. Many of those who request locally allocated funds also request statewide funds, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board gives the final approval to both.

On Tuesday the roundtable approved, with board member Charlie Spielman dissenting, a $100,000 funding request from the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) to assist with a conservation easement on the Nash Ranch near Del Norte. Of the $100,000 request, $10,000 will come from basin allocated funds and $90,000 from the statewide pool, if approved by the state water board this spring.

Matching funds will come from the Gates Family Foundation , Great Outdoors Colorado and the landowner, RiGHT Executive Director Nancy Butler told the roundtable members.

The easement will preserve about 200 acres, which includes hay production, cattle grazing and wetlands. RiGHT Stewardship Director Allen Law said this property is especially crucial in providing habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher . Other benefits of the conservation easement are protection for wetlands and against development encroachment. Butler said RiGHT has received letters of support from the Town of Del Norte, Rio Grande County, Rio Grande Water Users and Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Spielman said he opposed funding this request because he did not believe it was the most effective use of funds to deal with the basin’s primary problem of imbalance between agricultural water use and supply.

“Implementation of this conservation easement will not have a significant positive effect dealing with the main problem,” he said. He also said if one of the goals was to prevent residential development on the property, he did not see that this property would be marketable for much more than a couple of 40-acre tracts if it were developed.

Wetland biologist Cary Aloia said if the property was developed, however, the lost southwestern willow flycatcher habitat would have to be mitigated elsewhere.

Rio Grande County Commissioner Karla Shriver said another consequence of development could be artifi- cial dams caused by property being built up for roads and homes. Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten agreed that building up roads for even small developments along the river could create dams and cause problems with flooding.

Aside from Spielman’s “no” vote, the funding request was approved on Tuesday.

The roundtable board on Tuesday also heard the preliminary request, with a final request expected next month, from Judy Lopez for outreach and education. The request is for $30,000 from the basin funds for three years for a total of $90,000.

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