From The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (Lisa Cyriacks) via The Crestone Eagle:
In the San Luis Valley: water is and will always be a critical issue. While demands on our scarce water supply grow, there are many community-based efforts working to restore a better water balance and plan for our future.
In the case of groundwater, the amount of water withdrawn by legally permitted wells exceeds the amount of water refilling the aquifers.
At a recent symposium hosted by Adams State University’s Salazar Center, local water leaders presented information on key aspects of current water conditions and challenges.
Salazar Center Director, Rio de la Vista, “With this year’s water shortage, the time is now to raise our level of knowledge on the critical water issues here. We aim to engage more people in community-based efforts for a sustainable water future and we need everyone’s help to make that possible!”
Local water users and State officials recognized something needed to be done in response to a severe drought that started about 20 years ago and reached its peak in 2002. They banded together to form local groundwater sub-districts to balance water use and supply. Their goal is to make groundwater use sustainable and protect senior surface water right holders from water shortages due to groundwater pumping.
Despite efforts to meet a court-mandated goal to replenish the shallow aquifer to pre-2000 levels by 2030, significant progress was curtailed by another serious drought beginning in 2018.
Agriculture is the economic engine in the San Luis Valley. None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the valley floor. The valley is one of the world’s largest high-altitude deserts. Water users draw from the valley rivers and streams to irrigate their crops but the peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of water storage in the region, growers rely on groundwater to finish watering their crops.
The latest attempt to export water from the valley to the Front Range is led by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), based in the city of Centennial near Denver. This scheme is undermining local farmers’ efforts to address water shortages and could set a dangerous precedent of water export.
There is zero unappropriated water in the Rio Grande Basin. This means all surface water and groundwater is currently used by existing water users, leaving no water available for transport outside the valley.
RWR aims to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water and pipe it over Poncha Pass to the Front Range. Local water leaders believe that if the pipeline is built, the RWR project will be just the start and lead to further attempts to export water.
The proposal is opposed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache; joined by environmental groups, local businesses, and many farmers and ranchers.
There is widespread opposition in the valley to the RWR export scheme. Locals are concerned that RWR’s plan could turn Saguache County into another Crowley County, an area east of Pueblo that has been devastated economically by the sale of its water. See https://bit.ly/2CORMbB.
The San Luis Valley is a beloved place for many Colorado residents and travelers from across the country and around the world. With the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three extraordinary National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande Natural Area, the Rio Grande National Forest and many other public lands, the valley’s water sustains wildlife for viewing, hunting and fishing, and many forms of recreation. Sandhill crane migration attracts many visitors to the valley. Water export threatens the valley’s economy, which is dependent on agriculture.
Valley water leaders urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts about valley water resources and advocating for the truth about RWR’s export plans and the valley’s water supplies and hydrology.
Please see http://www.rgwcd.org for information about current aquifer levels and the subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jeff Dodge):
Colorado State University is one of 14 universities from around the globe that have collectively been awarded $12.5 million by the National Science Foundation to launch a new Biology Integration Institute called EMERGE. It will focus on better understanding ecosystem and climate interactions — such as the thawing of the Arctic permafrost — and how they can alter everything from the landscape to greenhouse gases.
EMERGE, which stands for “EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE,” is a five-year project that will concentrate on discovering how the processes that sustain life and enable biological innovation operate and interact — from molecules and cells to species and ecosystems — under dynamically changing conditions. The end result will be a new “genes-to-ecosystems-to-genes” framework to create models that could help predict ecosystem response to change.
The research will be done in Stordalen Mire, a long-studied peatland in northern Sweden where permafrost thaw drives changes in the landscape, plants and microbes. The institute, launching in September, will also have a strong training, education and outreach component and will involve biologists at the postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate levels.
The project will be led by Ohio State University researchers and consist of a team of 33 scientists representing 15 specialties. The partnership brings together expertise inside and outside of biology, such as ecology and evolution, organismal biology, team science, and modeling and computational science.
Jeni Cross, a professor in CSU’s Department of Sociology, and Kelly Wrighton, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, are co-principal investigators on the project. Cross and her colleagues in the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences will provide facilitation and team science training for the large team, helping the various scientists from different fields communicate and work together effectively.
Wrighton is a soil microbiologist who will study the microbes at the site during summer, specifically examining the methane they emit when the permafrost thaws and provides the microbes with the carbon and water they need to thrive.
“When microbes get carbon and water, you’re basically opening up the donut store,” Wrighton said with a laugh.
“It’s like a giant feeding frenzy,” Cross added, explaining that the more the permafrost warms, the more the atmosphere warms due to the microbes’ emissions. “Climate change is accelerating faster than what we had modeled 10 years ago.”
While Wrighton will be looking at the small-scale processes that contribute greenhouse gases to global warming, other scientists who look at climate change at a larger scale will be examining the big-picture effects of Wrighton’s work. The goal is to identify key predictors of methane and other greenhouse gases to create models that can be applied to other areas of the globe.
“I think it’s going to be a really neat melding of the disciplines,” said Wrighton, who came to CSU from Ohio State in 2018 and has worked with some of the researchers there. “I was really excited to be invited to be on this team; this is the ‘who’s who’ of scientific research on permafrost. Everyone coming to the table is really looking forward to having this conversation.”
‘Pressing societal need’
Other team members agreed that the team will be doing important work.
“Being able to predict how ecosystems respond to climate change is a pressing societal need,” said Ruth Varner, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of New Hampshire and co-director for EMERGE. “We have assembled a large interdisciplinary team to tackle the complex research questions that face our world today, like whether thawing permafrost could increase emissions of the greenhouse gas methane and actually further accelerate climate change.”
“Ecosystems respond to changing conditions, like a new agricultural practice or changing rainfall patterns, in a way that is greater than the sum of the responses of individual parts,” added Virginia Rich, associate professor of microbiology at Ohio State and co-director for EMERGE. “To address this challenge head on, our team will pull cutting-edge ideas and methods from across biology and beyond into a unified vision for seeing what each discipline, alone, cannot — piecing back together the forest from the trees, if you will. It is incredibly exciting.”
Wrighton has worked with some of the researchers before and will be visiting the site during the summers. Photo by Patrick Crill
Wrighton has worked with some of the researchers before and will be visiting the site during the summers. Photo by Patrick Crill
In addition to CSU, UNH and Ohio State, participating universities include the University of Arizona, Florida State University, Case Western Reserve University, University of California at Berkeley, Rochester Institute of Technology, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Joint Genome Institute, all in the United States; Lund University, Umeå University and Stockholm University, all in Sweden; and Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
The Department of Sociology is in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts. The Department of Soil and Crop Sciences is part of CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve, one of Earth’s most biodiverse habitats, could be wiped out by mining. A court case could save it — and set a precedent for the planet.
Should nature have rights? That question is being put to the test right now in Ecuador.
In 2008 the South American country made history when its new constitution declared that nature had “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It was an unprecedented commitment, the first of its kind, to preserving biodiversity for future generations of Ecuadorians.
The constitutional change did not automatically protect nature, but it gave citizens what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature describes as “the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”
The country could soon make history again when its Constitutional Court hears a case that seeks to apply these rights of nature to a protected forest, known as Bosque Protector Reserva Los Cedros, against large-scale copper and gold mining.
The threat stems from a 2017 change in government policy that allowed mining concessions on 6 million acres of lands, including at least 68% of Los Cedros — part of a hasty attempt to boost the mining sector and compensate for declining oil revenues. Experts say that policy appears to be unconstitutional, which has led to the present showdown.
“Mining in protected forests is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, the Rights of Nature, and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively,” says ecologist Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon, who has conducted research at Los Cedros since 2008.
A Vital Reserve
Los Cedros is a remote, pristine, 17,000-acre cloud forest in northwest Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Conservation biologist Mika Peck, of the University of Sussex, describes Los Cedros as “a biodiversity hotspot within a hotspot — and of global importance in terms of conserving our natural history.”
He adds, “the reserve and all it maintains is priceless.”
The reserve has been protected since 1988 due primarily to the work of manager Josef DeCoux and Australia’s Rainforest Information Center.
DeCoux tells me he was one of the “hippies” who moved from the United States to Ecuador in the 1980s to help “save the rainforest.”
He chose well. Not only does Los Cedros protect at least 250 species from extinction, it safeguards four watersheds. That means the court case is not just about preserving a biodiversity jewel; it’s about guaranteeing a livable environment to local people as well as protecting the forest’s own right to remain undisturbed.
A recent letter from 23 international scientists, including Roy and Peck, argued that “the value of this intact watershed is far greater than that of any possible mineral wealth that lies beneath it.”
The remoteness of the reserve was one of the things that pulled me to it a few years ago.
Inaccessible by road, the final ascent up to Los Cedros is a nerve-wracking, two-hour mule ride on a muddy track with sheer drop-offs and awe-inspiring views. Once there you’re immersed in a biological paradise. You can walk among the shaggy, epiphyte-laden trees dripping from the frequent rain showers brought by the low-creeping clouds; listen to the cacophony of some of the 358 bird species that greet the dawn; seek out the six species of cats, including pumas and endangered jaguars; get to know some of the 970 species of moths; or look for 186 species of orchids, one-third of which are endangered. They include several species of Dracula orchids, named for their blood-red petals and haunting faces.
Each day I explored the reserve’s trails — kept short to minimize disturbance to the ecosystem — its uniqueness became more evident. Nearly two dozen species of frogs, almost all endangered — including a species of rainfrog able to change its skin texture and a glass frog known for its transparent abdomen — occupy streams so clean you can drink directly from them. During my visit DeCoux told me he was particularly proud of that pristine resource.
The reserve is also home to the endangered spectacled Andean bear and three species of monkeys, also endangered.
On a morning hike with one of the guides employed by the reserve, I saw a troop of one of those species, the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, one of the rarest primates in the world, with a population of about 250 individuals. As most of the troop moved on, one monkey hung back to grab and eat some fruit. Although we watched from 30 yards away, it soon started hooting at us and shaking a branch to scare us off.
A clear message that we’d encroached on its personal space.
The Mining Threat Looms
Yet in an encroachment of national and potentially devastating proportions, in 2017 the government put more than two-thirds of Los Cedros under a mining concession to the Canadian mining company Cornerstone Capital Resources, in conjunction with ENAMI, the state’s mining company.
More than seven million acres across Ecuador are now under concessions. Additional concessions cover major portions of Indigenous territory, which threatens not only the people’s livelihoods but their lives. The permits, the majority of which are in the highly biodiverse Andean cloud forests, were issued without consulting the affected communities.
A year ago DeCoux’s legal team succeeded in getting a provincial court to revoke Cornerstone’s mining permit because of the lack of consultation. But that hasn’t stopped the company from continuing to operate, according to Elisa Levy of the mining oversight collective OMASNE (Observatorio Minero, Ambiental y Social del Norte del Ecuador).
“They have built roads to the edge of the reserve,” she says, “and broken new trails in Los Cedros” — actions that compromise the integrity of the presently intact ecosystem.
ENAMI appealed the provincial court’s decision, and in May the Constitutional Court decided to hear the case under rights of nature, probably by the end of the year.
The latest development was “very good news indeed,” DeCoux wrote in a blog post. Without rights people perceive forests, rivers and oceans as objects to be used; but with rights they become subjects to be valued on their own terms.
The case matters not just for Los Cedros — it could set precedent for the entire country.
Two of the Constitutional Court judges, Ramiro Avila and Daniela Salazar Marin, issued a written statement on May 18 that acknowledges the biodiversity of Los Cedros and explicitly mentions that it is the home of the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey and the endangered spectacled Andean bear. They further argue that the case will allow the court to rule on the “content” of the rights of nature, and to “develop parameters to set the limits of protected forests and the scope of responsibility for the state to monitor and follow up on mining concessions.” (Translated from Spanish.)
The Call to Protect
Habitat loss, now exacerbated by climate change, is the leading cause of extinction around the world. With the high number of endemic species in Los Cedros, and their small range, allowing mining exploration to continue will undoubtedly result in extinctions. In a research paper published in 2018 in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, Roy and others argue that permanently protecting Los Cedros, the last uncut forest in western Ecuador, is necessary to ensure lower-altitude flora and fauna can migrate freely to the higher altitudes found to the north, where Los Cedros borders the enormous 450,000-acre Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.
Peck echoes that conclusion. “The move to rule in favor of Bosques Protectores such as Los Cedros is vital to ensure protection of vital natural habitats, and the species they maintain, in a world that is going to undergo major climatic shifts,” he says. “Natural habitat is key to maintaining ecosystem services that buffer these changes and allow species to migrate and survive.”
Those species remain ever-present in my mind.
The sound I most remember from Los Cedros is the eerie call of the pastures frog: a high, slow electronic bleating that reverberated back and forth over the ridge — as if to warn that all this could be lost. Reserves like Los Cedros make up one-third of the protected lands in Ecuador, so a ruling in favor of rights of nature here would be a bold move that would protect other forests from mining and ultimately allow the establishment of new conservation corridors.
If ever there was a time for bold moves that will surely make history, it is now.
Peck calls a ruling in favor of the Bosques Protectores “the only rational response in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Levy is encouraged that the case will be heard under rights of nature, but remains cautious. “We don’t want to be too optimistic,” she says. “We know what’s at stake.”
For more on Los Cedros and the threat of mining in Ecuador, watch this video from the Rainforest Action Group:
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