A proposed national monument expansion may not receive a ringing endorsement from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, but the district is willing to keep an eye on the process.
The board for the district, which represents water interests throughout the San Luis Valley, discussed the proposed expansion of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument on Tuesday and met with Ana Lee Varga, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, which is spearheading the expansion.
Varga is currently working with Tami Valentine, one of the opponents of the expansion , to bring people together to discuss the issue. Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) General Manager Cleave Simpson said he was willing to represent the district’s water interests in this “stakeholder” group. “There is no change in their status, no draft proclamation ,” Simpson told the water board during their Tuesday meeting. “They are trying to put together a stakeholder meeting.”
Currently the monument, designated by President Barack Obama in 1993, covers 242,000 acres in New Mexico in the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Plateau areas up to the Colorado state line. Conejos Clean Water and others have proposed to expand the monument into the San Luis Valley.
In meeting with the RGWCD board on Tuesday, Varga said Adams State University Professor Armando Valdez volunteered to help draft language as a starting point for the monument expansion, specifically detailing traditional uses that would be protected.
“This is a staring point, not a final draft,” Varga said.
Varga said Valdez included language recommended by RGWCD Attorney David Robbins protecting traditional uses such as grazing. Other traditional uses included in the draft are fishing, piñon wood and herb gathering.
RGWCD board member Lewis Entz said that while the group proposing the monument expansion is saying traditional uses like grazing and hunting would still be permitted, that has not always occurred under monument designations in the past. Some monuments restrict grazing, for example.
“Once you develop this into a monument, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Varga said that’s why it is important to get the stakeholders together. She said the Conejos County commissioners are supportive of a stakeholder group to discuss issues around the monument expansion.
RGWCD board member Lawrence Gallegos, a Conejos County resident, said it is true that grazing has been limited on some national monuments but not all.
“There are several national monuments that grazing and traditional uses are still allowed ,” he said.
“At this point we just need to monitor where things are going,” he added.
Varga said half of the Conejos Clean Water’s board are ranchers, and they do not want to see cattle or other traditional uses eliminated on the proposed monument.
“When we started this initiative, we did not want to drive a wedge in the community in any way,” Varga said. “What we are trying to do is bring community members together.”
Varga said she hoped the stakeholder group could meet in the next few weeks. She and Valentine are currently trying to find a neutral facilitator to lead the discussion. Conejos Clean Water will not facilitate the gathering, she said, and neither she nor Conejos Clean Water Executive Director Justin Garoutte would sit at the table, but a board member would represent Conejos Clean Water at the meeting.
Other constituencies that would be represented would include the Farm Bureau, planning commission, ranchers and small business owners , Varga said.
Varga said since the group could not find a neutral facilitator to oversee the meeting pro bono, the proponents and opponents were going to split the cost of hiring someone.
Varga said so far the dialogue has been for or against, and she would like to see people talking together about it.
She said Conejos Clean Water and other supporters feel strongly that there would be positive impacts from the monument expansion, such as protecting sacred lands. National monument designation could also bring funding with it, she said.
Entz said he was concerned about the inclusion of the already designated Rio Grande Natural Area in the monument expansion and said a map of the proposed area seemed to overlap the two.
Varga said there was no official map yet, and the proponents were willing to exclude areas such as the Pikes Stockade, which has already been taken out of the equation.
RGWCD board member Dwight Martin, a Conejos County resident, said many people oppose the monument expansion. Groups that have publicly stated their opposition to it include the Conejos County Commissioners, Conejos Water Conservancy District, Conejos County segment of the Colorado Farm Bureau, San Luis Valley Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association “and a myriad of individuals.”
Martin said 300 letters and 832 signatures have been sent to Colorado congressmen in opposition to this designation, and at a meeting he attended, there was a room full of landowners, who probably represented 90 percent of the land owned in Conejos County “not one jumped up and said they were in agreement this monument should be in place.”
Gallegos said there were also groups, such as three or four municipalities, that publicly stated their support for the monument expansion. There are as many letters in support for it as in opposition, he added.
“I think there’s not a reason for us to move forward in either support or opposition to it at this point until we really know what direction it’s going to go,” Gallegos said. “I don’t feel like we need to antagonize half of the community by taking a stand one way or another.”
Martin said he was concerned about the water language that might be included in the monument designation. He said his main concern was the water issues and potential impacts the designation might have on water and specifically the Rio Grande Compact.
“I think that it’s probably a water grab,” he said.
He added he understood Forest Guardians were looking for water upstream of New Mexico, and he was concerned this might be an attempt to take some of the Valley’s water.
“If water has to be given up, it’s a threat to all of us,” he said.
Martin said the federal government could determine the water needs for the monument .
Robbins said congress has and can state in a monument designation what water rights the monument would be entitled to. Those rights can also be limited in a monument designation, he added.
Martin asked if a group like WildEarth Guardians could sue the federal government if it did not like the water language that was included in the monument designation. Robbins said that would depend on how the monument boundaries were drawn. He said if the boundaries did not include flowing rivers such as the Conejos River and the San Antonio, “the federal agencies would not have any more authority than they have today.”
If those rivers are included, however, “you want to pay more attention.”
That is why the water district is paying so close attention to this issue, to make sure the existing Rio Grande Natural Area is not negatively affected, Robbins explained.
“We want to make sure any proclamation by the president or ” congress would contain specific recognition of the existence of the natural area and specific statements it would not upset or change any management prerogatives of the management area or ” water resources in the Rio Grande,” Robbins said. “If the monument touched the Conejos or San Antonio, we would want to do the same thing there.”
Robbins said the best solution would be no overlap of the monument and the natural area. He reminded the board the natural area extends a quarter mile on either side of the center of the Rio Grande.
“I really believe there won’t be any rivers within the boundaries if everything is done properly,” Robbins said. He said he believed the congressional delegation was sensitive to the district’s and the Valley’s water issues.
Robbins also explained that if the area under consideration for monument expansion were included in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, it would still be under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. One of the major differences in use, he added, would be that now the BLM land could be used for gas and mining leases but under monument designation could not. That is one of the reasons proponents are recommending the monument designation.
Robbins said the same restriction was tied to the Rio Grande Natural Area as well, no mineral development.
Although rain was a welcome sight during a Tuesday water meeting in Alamosa, it may not be a frequent occurrence as the year progresses.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten on Tuesday shared the longterm precipitation forecast for this region, which calls for below average precipitation. He said the forecast for July through September calls for “equal chances” in this region but through November the weather service forecast calls for below average rainfall.
Water users on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems are currently under curtailment to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations , Cotten told members of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday. The curtailment on the Rio Grande is currently about 9 percent and on the Conejos about 13 percent.
Cotten said the annual forecast for the Rio Grande is 690,000 acre feet, of which the obligation to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact will be about 200,000 acre feet. From now through October the Rio Grande will have to deliver about 11,500 acre feet to meet that obligation, Cotten explained.
The forecast for the Conejos River system is 290,000 acre feet, of which 102,000 acre feet are obligated through the Rio Grande Compact.
Cotten reported that the Conejos River was higher through June over last year’s flows during that time period but this month is a fair amount lower than last year and significantly lower than average.
The Rio Grande showed a similar pattern, he added, with fairly high flows in May, compared to last year, and higher than average. The first part of June was similar to last year, but after the peak the river dropped hard. The latter part of June the Rio Grande was below average and has continued to be below average this month.