When farmers must pay for groundwater, they cut use by a third — @CUBoulderNews

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

From the University of Colorado — Boulder (Lisa Marshall):

With record high temperatures scorching the Southwest this week, farmers were quickly reminded of the severe droughts that threatened their crops and livelihood in recent years. How will they manage increasingly scarce water when drought comes again?

A new CU Boulder-led study suggests that self-imposed well-pumping fees can play an important role, incentivizing farmers to slash use by a third, plant less thirsty crops and water more efficiently.

“When we talk about groundwater crises arising all over the world, the knee-jerk reaction among policymakers is often to ask, ‘What can government do?’ not ‘What can farmers do?’,” said Krister Andersson, director of the Center for the Governance of Natural Resources at CU and co-author of the paper in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. “This study shows that there exists a good alternative to top-down regulations—that self-organized efforts can have a huge impact on how much water farmers use.”

The study centered around a novel initiative in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where several hundred farmers voted to self-impose a fee on groundwater—which is typically free and largely unregulated—beginning in 2011. The move came after a historic drought in 2002 and subsequent dryer-than-average years left the region’s aquifer depleted and some farmers worried that the state might begin shutting down wells, as it had in other areas.

Historically, farmers have relied primarily on surface water from streams and run-off, but as population growth and climate change have strained supplies, agriculture has grown increasingly reliant on water pumped from underground.

The new fee, now at $75 per acre foot of water, is among the first in the nation. About 700 farmers who manage 170,000 acres are subject to the fee. Proceeds are used to help local irrigators buy supplemental surface water or to pay them to let their acreage go fallow, or unused, in dry years.

As part of a National Science Foundation grant aimed at assessing self-organized water conservation programs, CU Boulder researchers have spent years in the San Luis Valley Basin meeting with stakeholders and collecting data.

“With this study, we have been able to offer validation that what they are doing is working,” said co-author Kelsey Cody, a graduate research assistant in CU Boulder’s environmental studies program.

The study drew upon five years of data from farmers inside and outside the fee district before and after it was implemented. It found that farmers subjected to the fee pumped 32 percent less water per year on average. Some switched to less water intensive crops. Others upgraded to more water-efficient irrigation equipment. Notably, some did not reduce their water use at all and instead opted to pay extra.

“This is because a fee does not prescribe what one can and cannot do; it just forces the irrigator to consider the cost of the water itself,” notes lead author Steven Smith, who did the research as a doctoral student at CU Boulder and who is now an assistant professor of economics at Colorado School of Mines.

The authors stress that while the study confirms that irrigators are using less water and changing their farming practices, more research is necessary to determine how the fee has impacted them financially and whether the fee has caused the aquifer to recharge. Another study is in the works.

Despite wetter weather in the past year, the participating irrigators intend to keep the fee in place, and other nearby districts are moving to implement a similar one, said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which helps facilitate the fee.

“We are cautiously optimistic about it.”

As lawmakers in California, Texas, and other states ponder ways to regulate groundwater use, the researchers hope what’s happening in the San Luis Valley can serve as a lesson. The authors stress that a self-imposed groundwater fee may not be appropriate for all agricultural areas, but as the state looks for ways to conserve groundwater, it could be one effective tool.

“The punchline here is that irrigators are far more responsive to these price mechanisms than was previously believed,” said Smith. “Through their adoption, they may be able to induce a lot of conservation.”

San Luis Valley aquifer system primer

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Helen Smith) via The Valley Courier:

Water is the glue that holds the San Luis Valley together. It is vital to the people, the economy, lifestyle and even the physical landscape of the Valley itself.

There are two aquifers that lie beneath the Valley floor. One is the confined aquifer that is trapped below a series of clay lenses deep beneath the Valley floor. The other is the unconfined aquifer that is generally found within the first 100 feet of the surface. Without the water from these aquifers, the San Luis Valley would very likely not be the agricultural workhorse that we know today.

There are also unique geological structures such as Rio Grande Rift that contributes to when and where water travels throughout the Valley subsurface. Aquifers are key, particularly the unconfined. The water of the unconfined aquifer functions very much like surface water. The recharge of this important commodity comes from the mountains and the snow that brings down their runoff. The unconfined aquifer supplies 85 percent of agricultural well water. The largest concentration of these wells lies within Sub-district #1.

The confined aquifer lies beneath the unconfined aquifer. There are clay layers that separate the aquifers. Historic Alamosa Lake is likely responsible for the formation of these layers. The water that lies beneath the surface is heavily relied upon by the agricultural community. There are also differences in how each of the aquifers react. In addition, any well in the San Luis Valley inevitably impacts the river flow at some point.

As a Valley native from Saguache, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering Services has studied the San Luis Valley aquifer system extensively. He also has a great deal of background on the Valley’s water issues. Davey points out that the aquifers and well levels have been monitored since 1970, when accurate measurements were first available. Since that time, there have been notable trends in the increase and decrease of the aquifer and well levels. The water table itself has seen a significant and steady decline partly due to the sheer number of wells that have been drilled. More water has been taken than replaced. The worst decrease was the extreme drought that began in 2002. Historically speaking, demand has simply outweighed supply. Because of these factors, there are now big implications for the future.

Davey also explained that the aquifers are situated very much like a bowl of water. This means that there is pressure that pushes the water upward from beneath the clay and downward pressure from the surface. The result is wells in the confined aquifer have high amounts of pressure, the result of which is artesian flow. Both confined and unconfined wells are heavily relied upon especially for agriculture irrigation. This has resulted in a widening gap between the aquifer waters and the surface.

Because this gap between the water and the surface has increased, it is now not impossible that there is potential for the Valley floor to begin sinking if the aquifer is not replenished. Rebuilding the aquifer system has now become even more necessary than many once thought. It has now become imperative that this issue be addressed. It is also critical that the recharge process is working properly.

The effort to replace the depletions and rebuild the aquifer is another piece to this puzzle. This is where sub-districts, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the pending well rules and regulations for Division 3 come in. The pending regulations for Division 3 require well users to replace their depletions. There is also a slow gain in the northern portions of the aquifer system being seen though studies and reports that Davis Engineering Services provides to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Because the well owners of Sub-district #1 have been replacing their depletions, Davey believes that the aquifer is headed in the right direction because of monitoring and reduced pumping. Replacing depletions will only help agriculture as well as Colorado’s obligation to the Rio Grande Compact.

The well rules for Division 3 and the replacement efforts are still a work in progress. However, it would appear that these measures are producing some results. The trial to finalize the rules for Division 3 is set for January of 2018. If and when these rules are approved, a great deal of change will arrive. Arguably, it is necessary change.

The future remains to be seen. There is certainly a great deal of importance in this matter when considering the agriculture, the people and the future of the San Luis Valley. This is a unique situation that will require a unique solution.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. For more information visit http://www.RGBRT.org.

Alamosa councillors cap groundwater compliance right aquisition

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

The city has already bought some water rights to begin this compliance process.

Alamosa City Attorney Erich Schwiesow told the council Wednesday night that staff has estimated it could take $3.5 million to comply with the rules…

The ordinance provides an outside limit to the terms of the financing of $3.7 million principal, $5.6 million total payment, and maximum annual payment of $375,000.

The $5.6 million is based on 5 percent interest over a 15-year repayment period.

Schwiesow said this ordi-ALAMOSA city council this week set boundaries on how much it will spend on its efforts to comply with new water rules from the state.

The council approved on first reading and scheduled for a March 1st public hearing an ordinance setting $3.7 million as the upper limit of what the city will finance to pay for water rights and associated expenses to bring the city into compliance with new groundwater rules.

Under the new rules, well owners (including municipalities ) must make up for their negative effects to surface water rights as well as providing means to replenish the San Luis Valley’s aquifer to more sustainable levels. nance for financing for the water project including the acquisition of water rights. It does not mean the city will be spending that much, but it means the city will not spend more than that, he explained.

The city will be working with UMB Bank to set up the financing . Alamosa Councilman Charles Griego said he hoped local banks would be involved. City Manager Heather Brooks said UMB Bank would shop around for the best rates, and Schwiesow added that the city council would ultimately approve whatever bank UMB Bank brought back to the council for financing. UMB Bank essentially serves as a broker for the city, he explained. In another water related matter of a different nature, the council on Wednesday approved its first budget amendment for the year in part to cover the costs of replacing failing equipment in the city’s wastewater treatment facility. The city will transfer $250,000 from the Enterprise Debt Fund to the water treatment department to replace ultraviolet equipment that is part of the last disinfection phase at the wastewater plant…

Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg added that when the plant was constructed 19 years ago, it had two UV systems. One of those quit working five or six years ago and the other is “on its last leg.” There are no parts even available for it now, he added.

The total transfer from the Enterprise Debt Fund was for $383,000, which included the $250,000 for the UV equipment as well as water department operations including $33,000 to add a technician to backfill existing staff.

The budget amendment also includes interdepartmental transfers to cover the cost of a drone purchase for the city, which all departments from IT to fire will be able to utilize.

San Luis Valley: New groundwater sub-district forms

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Southern San Luis Valley water users took charge of their future on Tuesday as they became the third group to form a water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The sponsoring district board unanimously accepted petitions for its latest subdistrict , which encompasses 141 wells covering 170 parcels of land in Conejos County.

The sub-districts are designed to provide an alternative to individual well regulation by grouping wells in geographic or hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), which as a group replaces its injurious depletions to surface water rights. Sub-districts are also beginning to repair long-term depletions to the Valley’s aquifer system caused by well pumping.

Sub-district participants pay fees, which are used to buy water and/or provide incentives to reduce pumping. In the sub-district presented on Tuesday, participants will be assessed fees per well and per acre foot of water.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Amber Pacheco presented to the sponsoring district board on Tuesday petitions representing 141 of a potential 198 wells in Sub-district #3. Nathan Coombs and LeRoy Salazar, who were part of the group that formed the subdistrict , were also present for the petition presentation to the RGWCD board.

Pacheco told the board staff and working group members had been working on this third sub-district for many months. Once they had information from the groundwater model, which determines depletions, the group was able to move forward.

Pacheco said the group was very successful in persuading well owners to join the sub-district , which is an “opt-in” sub-district . People had to choose to join. The first sub-district , on the other hand, was drawn up to cover a specific geographical area in the Valley’s closed basin region, and the work group then had to gather petitions from at least 51 percent of the landowners and 51 percent of the land.

Pacheco said efforts were made to contact every well owner in the Conejos subdistrict to give them the opportunity to join the subdistrict . Only one well owner, whose address was in Florida, did not respond at all, and another did not want to be involved. Both of those wells had not been used in a while.

Four other well owners opted out, not because they were against the sub-district but because they had other plans for their properties, and 21 wells belonging to governments such as towns or school districts indicated they would like to contract with the sub-district but could not participate directly, Pacheco explained.

She added a number of well owners decided to move their wells to exempt status so they would not fall under the groundwater rule process, for example downgrading them to stock or domestic wells, and a couple of well owners planned to seek abandonment of their wells.

All of the irrigation wells in the third sub-district are included, however, Pacheco said.

After receiving the petitions , RGWCD staff verified ownership and legal descriptions before presenting them to the board.

“It’s a massive undertaking ,” said RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson who commended the staff who completed that process. He also commended the residents who have been working on this for some time.

“The people have been great to work with,” Pacheco added.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the process now is to file the petitions with the district court in Conejos County (because that is where the land lies in this subdistrict ) and seek the court’s approval for the sub-district’s formation. The court must hold a hearing no less than 60 days and no more than 90 days after receiving the petitions , he added. Individuals with questions or challenges against the sub-district formation may express those to the court.

“With our participation basically 100 percent, we would hope we wouldn’t see much of a protest to the formation of the sub-district ,” Pacheco said.

If there are no challenges, the court will enter an order forming the sub-district , and a board of managers can then be appointed and a plan of management prepared, Robbins explained.

That plan will be submitted to the state engineer’s officer for approval.

The first sub-district , which is one of the largest and most complicated, has been in operation for a few years now, and the second sub-district in the alluvium of the Rio Grande was officially formed in March of this year and is currently working on its plan of water management.

Pacheco said progress is also being made in sub-districts in the San Luis Creek, Saguache and Alamosa/La Jara areas. She said the goal is to have the remainder of the sub-districts in front of the court by early next year.

RGWCD staff has been meeting with entities such as the towns of La Jara and Saguache and the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District to discuss their options for contracting with sub-districts . Discussions are also occurring with federal agencies.

San Luis Valley aquifer marks another year of gains — Pueblo Chieftain

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The shallow aquifer leaned on heavily by farmers in the San Luis Valley is up 58,000 acre-feet over last year at this time.

The news delivered by Rio Grande Water Conservation District Engineer Allen Davey marks the third straight year the aquifer has gained.

“The last three years have seen a significant change in direction,” he told the district’s board Tuesday.

Davey, as he has in previous years, credited gains to the reduction in groundwater pumping by well owners in Subdistrict No. 1, which takes in 163,000 irrigated acres in the north-central part of the San Luis Valley.

The subdistrict, which was implemented four years ago, assesses a combination of fees on its members that aim to reduce pumping and also pay to fallow farm ground.

Groundwater pumping was expected to be 238,000 acre-feet, according to the subdistrict documents, although a final tally won’t come until later in the year.

Landowners in the subdistrict have also fallowed 14,245 acres of ground since 2013 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

The program pays farmers to either permanently retire ground or fallow for 15 years.

Davey also said Mother Nature has cooperated by providing decent snowpack.

“If we can just get in that cycle where we’re average, we have a good future ahead of us,” he said.

The shallow aquifer, also known as the unconfined aquifer, recharges from stream flow and from the return flows that follow surface-water irrigation by farmers.

Once stream flows dwindle in late summer, farmers typically rely on groundwater to finish their crops.

The shallow aquifer has recovered by nearly 250,000 acre-feet since 2013.

The aquifer would have to recover by another 350,000 acre-feet to meet the goals laid out in the subdistrict’s management plan.

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

#RioGrande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

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):

Although the liquid that attorneys argue about evaporates quickly, legal battles around water do not.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Attorney David Robbins, who has been on the forefront of many of those battles over the years, updated the water district board this week on several ongoing cases of water litigation.

One of the most significant cases revolves around the groundwater rules promulgated by the state engineer about a year ago. About 30 responses were filed to the rules, some for them and some objecting to portions of the rules.

The Division of Water Resources staff has been trying to work with objectors to resolve their concerns short of trial. However, if the objections cannot be resolved, they will go to trial in January of 2018.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said, “We have met with all of the objectors at least once, most multiple times. We are working out stipulated agreements, getting closer on some of those. We will be continuing to work with those people and see if we can come up with agreements.”

Cotten said the goal is not to need the eight-week trial presently scheduled for early 2018. Robbins said the judge asked parties objecting to the rules to file notices stating specifically what they objected to, such as the model or data the rules rely upon. The parties have done that, he said, and now the state has the opportunity to respond.

Robbins said some objectors are working out stipulated agreements with the state, which will resolve their concerns short of trial. For example, water users with wells in the confined aquifer system in the Alamosa-La Jara and Conejos Response Areas, who objected to the sustainability criteria in the rules, are working out a stipulated agreement with the state. Robbins said he did not think the RGWCD would have any reason to object to the stipulation but he has asked for the documentation.

“The groundwater rules/regulations case is moving along. Judge Swift is doing a good job herding the cats. The state continues to work hard to try to resolve some of the objections so they can winnow it down to people who have concerns they want to pursue before the court,” Robbins said.

Robbins is also monitoring other ongoing cases such as:

• Bureau of Land Management augmentation plan for wells at the Blanca Habitat Area, which could potentially impact flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers and for which BLM must identify replacement sources for those impacts;

• A Saguache Creek area individual augmentation plan for which Robbins questions the sufficiency of replacements for depletions;

• The City of Alamosa change of water rights case related to the golf course, which is pending information review;

• A case south of the Rio Grande and west of Alamosa revolving around the question of whether recharge replacement can carry over from year to year;

• The Santa Maria Reservoir change case to provide reservoir water for replacement for plans of water management such as those set up in the RGWCD’s subdistricts , and for which a trial is scheduled in April 2017, with James Werner the sole objector remaining;

• Three cases proposing to move water around to provide replacements for well depletions , including one for the City of Alamosa;

• The Texas vs. New Mexico /Colorado compact compliance case, which is being overseen by a special master who has indicated he will deny a motion to dismiss the case;

• Center for Biodiversity’s suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout as endangered, a case in which the RGWCD has not become involved but is considering whether it should, favoring the opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service that the trout is not endangered.

RGWCD Board Member Bill McClure cautioned against the district spending dollars and time on cases that were already well represented by other agencies. Robbins agreed and said that is why he had not recommended that the district become directly involved in the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout suit, as the US Fish and Wildlife Services is already handling it.

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Colorado will end the year with a credit in Rio Grande Compact accounting.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday it appears both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems will end 2016 on the plus side, with the Rio Grande reflecting about 7,000 acre feet credit at this point and the Conejos River system less than 1,000 acre feet credit.

“We try to over deliver just slightly so there’s no issue with downstream states,” Cotten said.

Colorado must deliver water to New Mexico and Texas according to the Rio Grande Compact. Cotten explained that the annual flow on the Rio Grande this year will be about 670,000 acre feet, which is not a bad water year, especially considering some of the previous dry years in the Rio Grande Basin.

He said that of the 670,000 acre feet, the Rio Grande would owe 190,800 acres feet or about 28 percent, to its downstream neighbors through the Rio Grande Compact . The river has met that obligation and then some, Cotten added. At this point, it appears the Rio Grande will have over-delivered about 7,000 acre feet.

There are currently zero curtailments on Rio Grande users and slight if any curtailments since the beginning of September.

The Conejos River system came closer to its obligation without sending too much extra downstream, according to Cotten.

The annual index flow on the Conejos system will be about 280,000 acre feet, of which about a third, or 95,400 acre feet, was obligated to downstream states.

“We will be close on the Compact delivery, within 1,000 acre feet,” Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday. “We are close to where we want to be on the Conejos.”

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Southern San Luis Valley water users took charge of their future on Tuesday as they became the third group to form a water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The sponsoring district board unanimously accepted petitions for its latest subdistrict, which encompasses 141 wells covering 170 parcels of land in Conejos County.

The sub-districts are designed to provide an alternative to individual well regulation by grouping wells in geographic or hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), which as a group replaces its injurious depletions to surface water rights. Sub-districts are also beginning to repair long-term depletions to the Valley’s aquifer system caused by well pumping.

Sub-district participants pay fees, which are used to buy water and/or provide incentives to reduce pumping. In the sub-district presented on Tuesday, participants will be assessed fees per well and per acre foot of water.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Amber Pacheco presented to the sponsoring district board on Tuesday petitions representing 141 of a potential 198 wells in Sub-district #3. Nathan Coombs and LeRoy Salazar, who were part of the group that formed the subdistrict, were also present for the petition presentation to the RGWCD board.

Pacheco told the board staff and working group members had been working on this third sub-district for many months. Once they had information from the groundwater model, which determines depletions, the group was able to move forward.

Pacheco said the group was very successful in persuading well owners to join the sub-district , which is an “opt-in” sub-district. People had to choose to join. The first sub-district, on the other hand, was drawn up to cover a specific geographical area in the Valley’s closed basin region, and the work group then had to gather petitions from at least 51 percent of the landowners and 51 percent of the land.

Pacheco said efforts were made to contact every well owner in the Conejos subdistrict to give them the opportunity to join the subdistrict. Only one well owner, whose address was in Florida, did not respond at all, and another did not want to be involved. Both of those wells had not been used in a while.

Four other well owners opted out, not because they were against the sub-district but because they had other plans for their properties, and 21 wells belonging to governments such as towns or school districts indicated they would like to contract with the sub-district but could not participate directly, Pacheco explained.

She added a number of well owners decided to move their wells to exempt status so they would not fall under the groundwater rule process, for example downgrading them to stock or domestic wells, and a couple of well owners planned to seek abandonment of their wells.

All of the irrigation wells in the third sub-district are included, however, Pacheco said.

After receiving the petitions, RGWCD staff verified ownership and legal descriptions before presenting them to the board.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson who commended the staff who completed that process. He also commended the residents who have been working on this for some time.

“The people have been great to work with,” Pacheco added.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the process now is to file the petitions with the district court in Conejos County (because that is where the land lies in this subdistrict) and seek the court’s approval for the sub-district’s formation. The court must hold a hearing no less than 60 days and no more than 90 days after receiving the petitions , he added. Individuals with questions or challenges against the sub-district formation may express those to the court.

“With our participation basically 100 percent, we would hope we wouldn’t see much of a protest to the formation of the sub-district ,” Pacheco said.

If there are no challenges, the court will enter an order forming the sub-district , and a board of managers can then be appointed and a plan of management prepared, Robbins explained.

That plan will be submitted to the state engineer’s officer for approval.

The first sub-district , which is one of the largest and most complicated, has been in operation for a few years now, and the second sub-district in the alluvium of the Rio Grande was officially formed in March of this year and is currently working on its plan of water management.

Pacheco said progress is also being made in sub-districts in the San Luis Creek, Saguache and Alamosa/La Jara areas. She said the goal is to have the remainder of the sub-districts in front of the court by early next year.

RGWCD staff has been meeting with entities such as the towns of La Jara and Saguache and the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District to discuss their options for contracting with sub-districts. Discussions are also occurring with federal agencies.

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley: Habitat study to document change — The Pueblo Chieftain

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. "Sawatch Lake" at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.
1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A San Luis Valley consulting firm is undertaking a study of wetlands and riparian habitat that state and federal wildlife officials hope will help their management efforts in the face of climate change and pending groundwater regulation.

The $228,000 project by Wetland Dynamics will look at past and present wetland habitat across the valley, agency capacity in managing that habitat on their respective jurisdictions and the needs of 35 species.

Jenny Nehring, a partner at Wetland Dynamics, said the agencies have a good understanding of what they manage inside their boundaries but the study will make it easier for them to collaborate.

“A valleywide perspective of how these wetlands function as a whole to provide resources for wildlife is not well understood,” she told the Rio Grande Basin roundtable earlier this week. “This effort will help us determine where we have information gaps regarding changes in historic habitats and populations.”

The information they gather will include a look at how wetlands have changed in the valley since its permanent settlement in the 1850s.

Missoula, Mont.-based Intermountain West Joint Venture is partnering with Wetland Dynamics and will analyze historic survey and land records from the U.S. General Land Office.

The General Land Office oversaw the public domain from its creation in 1812 until it was folded into the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1934.

The analysis will also include satellite photos that were taken every 16 days between 1984 and now.

That time interval will help determine how wetlands habitat changes between seasons, Nehring said.

The final report, due in 2019, would include information for 35 species, detailing how, when and what type of habitat they use and whether the water source undergirding their habitat is secure.

It would also detail the water held by landuse and wildlife agencies and any limitations on the use of that water — a key piece of information for determining how agencies can work together.

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.
Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

Just one example of the importance of water use can be found at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials use groundwater to provide the roosting pools for the roughly 20,000 sandhill cranes that come through the valley in late winter.
Likewise, the Bureau of Land Management uses groundwater to supplement the Blanca Wetlands Recreation Area east of Alamosa that hosts migrating shore and songbirds.

The agencies that are partnering on the project and contributing manpower include the BLM, USFWS, the National Resource Conservation Service, National Park Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But it could also help land trusts and state wildlife officials who work with private landowners.

“Really what it’s going to do is help us be better partners,” said Rick Basegoitia, area wildlife manager for CPW’s valley office.

San Luis Valley via National Geographic
San Luis Valley via National Geographic