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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Big Ambitions: Restoring the Rio Grande

By Paul Formisano

Although the Rio Grande travels nearly 175 miles before it enters New Mexico, it seems to do so in silence. Isolated from Colorado's economic and political hubs by the surrounding mountains, this river basin often escapes the attention its neighboring rivers receive. Even when the non-profit group American Rivers listed the Rio Grande in 2003 as one of the nation's most threatened, Colorado's stretch of the river avoided mention. But that has not deterred local groups from working on an ambitious plan to bring the Upper Rio Grande back to vibrant life.

Early on, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District sponsored a ‘Snag and Drag’ program among the local water conservancy districts to clean up an often debris-clogged river. Then in 1999, a newly-formed Task Force began to envision a much larger program that would involve a massive restoration of the many historical functions of the river: fish habitat, grazing, irrigation, wildlife preserves, recreation and flood mitigation. Comprised of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, city officials, and representatives from state and federal agencies, the Task Force set out to assess the river's needs.

With the guidance of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, the task force created a technical advisory committee to oversee what became the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Study. Funded by a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the committee worked with engineering firms and local citizens to outline a series of river restoration projects to help the Rio Grande better fulfill its historic functions. The committee identified six major areas of concern including access to the river for agricultural water diversions, maintenance of riparian habitat, flood plain management, and water delivery obligations required in the Rio Grande Compact.

Mike Gibson, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy, knew this would be a long-term project from the beginning. ‘First we had to do the basic homework of understanding what the river had done historically, so we could identify where we wanted to go. And then we had to start prioritizing what parts of the river had the most acute needs.’

Understanding the historic flows of the Rio Grande was no easy task. With the river and its tributaries in continual human use for over a century and a half, the committee had to rely on a variety of field studies and aerial photographs to piece the river's past together. It also welcomed the advice of local government agencies and landowners familiar with the river's behavior in earlier years. Combining all this information with visits to other river restoration sites throughout the state, the advisory committee developed a published report in 2001 called The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.

The project identifies a 91-mile section of the Rio Grande most in need of attention, stretching from the upstream city limits of the town of South Fork to the Alamosa-Conejos county line. Other river restoration projects often focus on a few hundred feet or a several miles. This ambitious project will require a lot of creativity and a massive effort by the valley's water districts, local citizens and state and federal agencies.

The study revealed numerous problems with bank and channel stability, riparian habitat and floodplain management. Urban development in the floodplain, outdated irrigation structures, bank erosion, and increasing sedimentation, among other problems, had compromised the river's historic functions. In response, the advisory committee devised a two-part strategic plan involving structural and non-structural mitigation.

The Monte Vista Natural Resource Conservation Service field office has taken the lead on addressing most of the river's structural needs. Using the agency's Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP), recently retired District Conservationist Steve Russell and local landowners worked to construct 42 structures to improve bank stabilization and trout habitat. Russell also helped find funding for another 67 structures.

Thad Elliot, a landowner near Monte Vista, worked with the NRCS to restore the river on his property. ‘I saw my neighbors doing some work on the river and thought it was time to get some work done too,’ remembers Elliot. After surveying a one-mile stretch on his property, the NRCS agreed to cost-share the construction of seven bank stabilizing j-hook structures made with boulders from Wolf Creek Pass. They also reinforced the banks by planting willows.

But some proposed structural improvements have met with objections. Not all river users are in favor of removal of diversion dams or consolidation of ditches. Each improvement will likely need its own set of negotiations. Other structural restoration plans include improved floodplain mapping and channel stability structures between Monte Vista and the county line.

Managing land uses along the river was also identified as a high priority for improving river health. This includes non-structural measures such as better grazing management to reduce damage to riparian areas, adoption of standard operating procedures for ditch and diversion maintenance, and sedimentation reduction studies upstream of South Fork.

Scott Miller, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is responsible for the river restoration aspects of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. While the Partners program also helps with wetlands restoration, over the last five years it has also focused on reducing grazing pressure along the river. Intensive cattle grazing removes willow and cottonwood seedlings necessary to regenerate the aging riverside vegetation. That habitat is vital to the southwest willow flycatcher, a high priority endangered bird species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service signs 10-year contracts with landowners and then fences out as much of the floodplain as possible. Generally, during the first five years of the program the fenced off area receives no grazing. The next five years a maximum of two weeks of grazing is allowed.

So far the program has protected more than 1,050 acres covering about nine linear miles of river with some sort of grazing management. Most of the projects are between the towns of Alamosa and South Fork, with 15 different landowners currently participating.

Some ranchers participate in the program out of concern for how lack of willow and cottonwood regeneration can reduce windbreaks for calving and pasturing livestock. Other landowners may have conservation easements, but according to Miller, ‘In general, most landowners I have worked with simply care about the wildlife.’

Long-Term Plans
Securing the necessary funding to carry out a 91-mile restoration project is a task that will take decades, if not generations. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District provides small restoration grants to the Alamosa-La Jara, Conejos and San Luis Valley water conservancy districts and the Sawatch Creek Water Users Association. Other funding sources include U.S. Environmental Protection Agency non-point source (319) grants administered through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and grants available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Recently, a Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation was organized to oversee long-term restoration planning and implementation. According to Foundation Board President Karla Shriver, ‘Funding is key. Being able to get funding sources flowing to the NRCS has allowed us to keep going. Landowner cost shares have also helped distribute some of the expense.’

A 2004 Rio Grande Restoration Strategic Plan was also recently completed. The report takes a watershed view beyond the 91 miles identified in the initial study, and helps identify related planning efforts such as the Rio Grande National Forest Management Plan, the Willow Creek Restoration Project in the northern portion of the valley, and the proposed Rio Grande Natural Area.

Steve Vandiver, the newly-appointed general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, doesn't fault the restoration efforts for moving slowly.

‘We have all been putting our heads together to try to figure out how to improve the river, move sediment and make the changes that didn't get done in years past,’ he says. ‘This river still has lots of troubles we need to address. We don't have much of a channel in some areas. But nobody wants a canal. We want the river to operate like it's supposed to."

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