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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

Preserving Wetlands in an Alpine Desert

By Marcia Darnell

The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado is known as an agricultural land of plenty. Its potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, barley and other bounty make their way to feedlots and dinner plates throughout the region. However, meteorologists say this breadbasket is technically a desert, averaging less than 8 inches of precipitation per year.

This puzzling contradiction is even more striking in view of the valley's abundant wetlands. This alpine desert boasts more than 230,000 acres of wet, marshy grassland that is home and vacation resort to an array of wildlife that would make John J. Audubon's palms sweat.

It's been that way since before humans roamed the Earth, according to Ron Garcia, deputy manager of the Alamosa-Monte Vista Wildlife Refuges.

‘It's the layout of the valley,’ says Garcia, ‘We're between two mountain ranges, the San Juans and the Sangre de Cristos, and we get massive spring runoff.’

The northern part of the San Luis Valley is a closed basin, meaning that snowmelt and rainfall stay in the valley and don't drain into a river. That water seeps into groundwater aquifers with high water tables, keeping the ground wet and creating perfect habitat for many species of birds, including ducks, geese, and cranes. Ancient petroglyphs near Del Norte depict cranes arriving in the Valley long before before written history.

‘The San Luis Valley is Colorado's most important wetlands habitat,’ Garcia says. When settlers first arrived in the mid-1800s, the plentiful water led them to become farmers, and their artesian wells further enhanced the wetlands by bringing groundwater to the surface. Today, those wetlands serve as farmland, ranch land, water storage, wildlife habitat, plus aquifer recharge and water purification systems.

‘The San Luis Valley is unique in that we don't have deep 'cattail-like' wetlands,’ says Garcia. ‘Instead we have shallow 'wet meadow' wetlands. It's a function of the valley being so flat.’

Those wet meadows are also perfect for raising hay, barley and other grains. In some regions this might translate into conflict between the needs of wildlife habitat and commercial agriculture. But cooperation is the name of the game in the San Luis Valley, where government agencies, private groups, non-profits and individuals routinely work together to protect the land and water.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service offers its Private Lands Program to help private landowners create and enhance wetlands. About 70 percent of the nation's wetlands are on private property. Rick Schnaderbeck runs the USFWS program in the San Luis Valley.

‘When we help create a wetland, we don't like to see a typical duck pond,’ he explains. ‘A duck pond is too deep, and we don't grow the invertebrates that the birds feed on. We prefer a hay meadow, with a maximum depth of 6 inches of water.

‘Our goal is much like a rancher's,’ he says, ‘to grow more grass.’

The program has very little bureaucracy; a typical contract with a landowner runs a page and a half. That encourages participation among the agricultural community.

Schnaderbeck and his crew help ranchers and farmers improve their water delivery systems to enhance grass growth and nests. Over a 30-year period, the areas monitored averaged 1,300 nests per square mile, one of the most productive wetland areas in the U.S.

‘Ranchers are usually pleased to hear we value their hay meadow as much as they do,’ says Schnaderbeck, ‘and that we can increase hay production as well as wildlife.

‘A good hay meadow is a very good thing for wildlife,’ says Schnaderbeck, ‘and barley is good bird food.’
That lush banquet and habitat are attracting more birds every year, including northern harriers, peregrine falcons and wintering bald eagles. The snowy plover, a species on the endangered species list, has been seen in the valley, and pelicans are making an appearance, making this alpine desert look a lot like a beach.

Another example of the valley's broad-based cooperation is the San Luis Valley Wetlands Focus Area Committee. Established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the committee is an amalgam of land and wildlife management agencies, focus groups, land trusts and interested individuals. Their monthly meetings are open to everyone. Rio de la Vista is the committee's coordinator.

‘This is one of the largest areas of wetlands in Colorado,’ de la Vista says, ‘and a lot of it is formed by agricultural water. What we try to teach landowners is that with the right management and vegetation mix, it can be great wildlife habitat, too.’

The committee's focus is on conservation of private, rather than public, land. It seeks to conserve and restore open space through buying easements and educating landowners, and raise money for the cause.

They've distributed two $1 million grants thus far, and have applied for a third. In addition to buying conservation easements to permanently preserve land from development, they educate landowners about preserving and managing wetlands in the valley.

‘The education comes one landowner at a time,’ says de la Vista.

‘Usually if you just change the water distribution, you get the desired plants.’

Catherine McNeil is one of the private landowners who cares. She and her husband, Mike, farm and ranch near Monte Vista. She is also a cofounder of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and the Rock Creek Project, both of which aim to preserve land.

‘We feed a lot of birds,’ she says. ‘We try to time our planting and harvesting to make that habitat better. It benefits the animals and it benefits the McNeils.’

The couple also uses conservation easements as a way to preserve their land for the future. They're part of the Fish & Wildlife Service's Private Land Partners program.

‘Fish & Wildlife is great,’ says Cathy McNeil, ‘and because of our easements, this land will never be developed.’
Even groups who don't focus on wetlands are pitching in. The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project is working to restore the river from its source to the New Mexico border. Riparian areas, narrow strips of habitat along the river, are important to the birds living in the wetlands. Project manager Mike Gibson tries not to lose sight of that.
‘If we have the opportunity, we try to restore an area naturally,’ he says, ‘mostly by changing or preserving the hydrological system in the area.’

Chris Canaly runs the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, whose mission is to protect and restore the ecosystems of the upper Rio Grande bioregion through education, research and advocacy. It has been in existence since 1995. A 15-year veteran of ecological battles in Colorado, Canaly values the cooperation of public and private entities for the greater good, and is a member of the Wetlands Focus Committee.

‘Rio de la Vista has done a great job of bringing people together,’ Canaly says. ‘She's a wonderful team builder.’
After battling water developers who sought to export the valley's water, and battling the federal government into protecting it through legislative fiat, Canaly is happy and relieved to be part of this cooperative effort.

‘This is an exciting time to be in environmental work,’ she says. ‘We can accomplish so much more together.’

The wetlands' circle of care is completed by Ducks Unlimited (DU). The international wetlands conservation organization has been very successful in the San Luis Valley. Bob Sanders is the regional biologist for the valley chapter of DU.

‘We're like a general contractor,’ he says. ‘We do hands-on management of wetlands on private and public lands.’
Sanders' group has contracts to manage the wetlands on several public lands, including the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge, the emerging Baca refuge, and three state wildlife areas: the Higel, the Rio Grande, and Russell Lakes. Ducks Unlimited also maintains about 12,000 acres of wetlands under easements, and provides advice on managing another 20,000 acres in the valley.

The group mows and irrigates acreage and, on request, helps landowners with assessments and advice.

‘We'll get in there and we'll find grazing and check the vegetation,’ Sanders says. ‘We evaluate the land practices and the landowner's objectives, then advise.’

That advice can include timing of harvest and grazing to protect wildlife, over several years if the owner requests it.

‘Ducks hatch in mid-June,’ he explains, ‘so that means they lay eggs in early May. If you can delay haying or grazing in that area until July 1, the ducks can hatch and grow safely.’

Ducks Unlimited also writes grants, garnering about $10 million over the last decade, and buys easements, trying always to keep water rights with the land. The group also helps landowners make some money from conserving, so a farmer or rancher can protect the open space and still pay off their home or send their children to college.

‘Colorado has a great tax credit system for conservation,’ Sanders says. ‘It's head and shoulders above the rest of the nation. My counterparts in the Dakotas and Carolinas marvel at what we're able to do here.’
What makes the San Luis Valley unique, ultimately, is its people. The cooperative efforts of government, business and private citizens are greater than the individual.

‘We have such a conservation ethic here,’ says Sanders. ‘For me, it might be a focus on wildlife. For a rancher, his family's way of life. For someone else, it might be open space. But we work together. The ag community and the water community make a cohesive team.’

Rio de la Vista agrees. ‘Because of the cooperation and the resources,’ she says, ‘education is a good investment here.’

‘In other parts of the country, getting people to participate in wetlands management is hard,’ says the refuges' Garcia, ‘but here in the San Luis Valley, it's easy.’

It's that conservation attitude, and the work ethic that goes with it, that makes the San Luis Valley a great home. Even for the birds.

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