Proponents of an expanded national monument met with water leaders and some resistance on Tuesday in Alamosa.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board Member Dwight Martin , who lives in the southern part of the San Luis Valley where the proposed expansion would occur, was clear in his opposition to expanding the existing Rio Grande del Norte National Monument northward from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley.
“I am adamantly opposed to this monument designation ,” Martin said. “We really don’t need this monument in Conejos County. I really don’t see what it serves.”
He added that the Conejos County commissioners are also opposed to the monument expansion. Martin said about 90 percent of Conejos County residents at a meeting he attended on the monument were opposed to the expansion, and he questioned why the expansion was needed.
Anna Vargas, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, the organization promoting the monument expansion, responded that the meeting Martin attended was a meeting hosted by opponents .
“There has been interest in supporting the national monument, and there has been opposition that has been raised,” Vargas said. “We have tried to address all the concerns.”
Vargas told water board members on Tuesday that Conejos Clean Water had accepted language recommended by the water district to safeguard water rights within the monument, if it is expanded into the Valley. The language also recognizes the existing Rio Grande Natural Area, which lies in the proposed monument expansion.
“We are not trying to trump any of the work that’s been done on the natural area,” Vargas said.
Vargas recently completed the intensive water leadership course sponsored by several water groups including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. She said the course gave her a better understanding of water issues and rights, such as the Rio Grande Compact. She said she had not viewed the monument expansion as affecting water rights but as more of a land protection issue . She said she now understood the potential problem implied water rights could generate.
“We don’t want national monument designation to have any implied water rights,” she said. The goal of the monument expansion, she said, is to preserve the land for traditional uses.
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, encompassing 242,500 acres, was designated by presidential proclamation in 2013. The expansion proposal would bring the monument north of the New Mexico state line into the southern part of the Valley and would encompass about 64,000 additional acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, Vargas explained.
She said the goal would be to preserve traditional uses such as piñon and wood gathering, hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. The monument would also prevent the land from being sold or leased for mining extraction. The turquoise mine would be “grandfathered in,” she said.
Vargas said proponents of the monument expansion want to be proactive in protecting the land from oil and gas activity.
“To us, that is a threat,” she said.
In 2007 that threat was real, she said, with four oil/gas sales involving 14,500 acres in the San Luis Hills and Flat Tops. The reason drilling did not occur, she added, was “basically because of a loophole” created because private landholders had not been notified of the sales.
“What we don’t want is a repeat of that,” she said. There might not be a loophole to prevent it in the future, she added.
Martin said, “This is really about oil and gas and not about protecting the land. All the monument will do is make it more restrictive for landowners.”
Vargas said that is why Conejos Clean Water is trying to get more community input and address these issues. She said there are rumors that the group is trying to prevent such uses as cattle grazing, but that is not the case. Such traditional uses are what the monument would protect, she said.
The land would continue to be BLM property, public lands, she said.
“We want it to stay publicly accessible.”
“Thank you for recognizing the concerns the district expressed,” RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told Vargas.
The district also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior and Colorado’s congressional delegation expressing the district’s concerns about the monument expansion without terms and conditions that would ensure water resources and the Rio Grande Natural Area are not adversely affected. The Rio Grande Natural Area, created through a federal, state and local partnership, integrates the management of federal and private properties along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and the state line to protect the riparian corridor for several purposes including Rio Grande Compact deliveries.
The district’s letter to congressmen regarding the monument expansion stated: “Every federal withdrawal or designation carries with it an implication that sufficient water will be made available to support the purposes of the designation unless specifically disavowed. The flows of the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers in this area of the San Luis Valley are intimately tied to the economic and social health of the entire region, and reflect 150 years of water use practices that support the entirety of the San Luis Valley’s population as well as a water management structure designated to allow Colorado to freely utilize its share of the Rio Grande and its tributaries pursuant to the Rio Grande Compact. Any new federal land use designation that could impact or interfere with the water use practices in the San Luis Valley or Colorado’s ability to utilize the water resources to which it is entitled must be strenuously resisted by our elected federal representatives , as well as all of our state officials . This matter is of enormous importance.”
Representatives of the district also personally met with congressmen and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor.
The district presented language protecting the Rio Grande Natural Area that it requested be included in the monument designation, were that to occur, and Conejos Clean Water has agreed to that language.
Robbins said the Valley’s congressmen and Department of Interior also assured the district they would not move forward with a monument expansion unless the district’s concerns were properly addressed.