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RG Headwaters Restoration Project moving forward

The residents of the San Luis Valley are fortunate to be part of a community that recognizes the value of the local abundant natural and cultural resources. It was this community of forward-thinking water leaders that identified the need to improve and protect the Rio Grande in order to sustain the way of life in the San Luis Valley, improve recreation opportunity, enhance critical fish and wildlife habitat in the riparian areas, and meet the needs of downstream neighbors.

In 2001, the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District sponsored a 90-mile study of the Rio Grande, the 2001 Study, which identified causes of concern and potential methods of remediation. The 2001 study was completed with guidance from a Technical Advisory Committee composed of representatives from local, state, and federal entities. The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) was formed to implement the recommendations of the 2001 Study.

In 2004, the Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation (Foundation) was formed to act as the governing body and fiscal agent of the RGHRP. The Foundation is a Colorado 501(c)(3) organization. Since establishment, the RGHRP has accrued a successful record of performing projects on the Rio Grande through the Streambank Stabilization and Riparian Restoration Program, In-Stream Structure Repair and Replacement Program, and Outreach and Education Program.

As prolonged drought and continued demands amplify the pressures placed on the Rio Grande, the need to improve the condition of riparian areas and aging infrastructure is elevated. Such projects have been completed and are underway through good-faith partnerships between the RGHRP and landowners, agencies, and local governments.

For example, the RGHRP is currently working with landowners in Alamosa County to restore 1.5 miles of streambanks. The streambanks in the project area are in very poor condition. Changes in hydrology and loss of anchoring vegetation have resulted in accelerated erosion, loss of critical riparian habitat, and high amounts of soil input, which decreases water quality. Groundwork on the project sites will begin in Fall 2012. The methods utilized have proven effective in previous efforts. The streambanks will be sloped, rock and log structures will be installed, and willows, grasses, and cottonwoods will be reestablished.

This cost-share project is funded by landowner contributions and grants from the Colorado Nonpoint Source Program and the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Watershed Supply Reserve Account, which is accessible through the Rio Grande Inter-basin Roundtable. This project is one of six major projects completed in Alamosa and Rio Grande Counties with 50 landowners on 7.5 miles of riverbanks through the Streambank Stabilization and Riparian Restoration Program. These projects have resulted in improved water quality, reduced streambank erosion, increased sediment transport capacity, enhanced quality of riparian areas, and proper functioning floodplains. These improvements truly enhance the overall condition of the Rio Grande in Colorado.

Another instance where meaningful partnerships have made a great difference is the Plaza Project in the Sevenmile Plaza area northwest of Monte Vista. The Plaza Project is being completed through the RGHRP’s In-Stream Structure Repair and Replacement Program. The McDonald Ditch (McDD) Implementation Project is the first phase of implementation of the Plaza Plan, a restoration master plan for the Sevenmile Plaza Reach of the Rio Grande, completed in 2011.

The McDD Project will include reclamation of a damaged 2-acre wetland, restoration of 2,000 feet of streambanks, and McDD diversion dam and headgate replacement. The current diversion dam and headgate are aging, inefficient, and hazardous. The new diversion will contain wildlife and boat passage, which will improve the fishery and river recreation. The headgate will contain solar-power automated gates, which will enhance the accuracy of water diversion. The McDD Implementation Project will be funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Colorado Partnership Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, and the Watershed Supply Reserve Account.

Community partnerships have been critical to the success of this project; the McDD and the landowners have championed these efforts tirelessly, the NRCS has provided excellent technical expertise and resources, and entities such as San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, Rio Grande County, and the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District have pledged in-kind contributions. This project, which began as an effort to improve the condition of a poorly functioning diversion, has many additional benefits including improved diversion efficiency, headgate function, streambank and floodplain condition, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunity.

The RGHRP seeks to bring people together and build relationships, which result in projects that enhance the ecological, cultural, and agriculture value of the Rio Grande. Although great progress has been made in addressing the issues identified in the 2001 Study, the need continues for projects to improve the condition of the Rio Grande Basin. The RGHRP is always interested in developing new projects and partnerships. If you would like to work with the RGHRP or would like more information about program activities please contact Heather Dutton, Coordinator, at 589-2230 or visit the RGHRP website at riograndeheadwaters.org.

For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit www.rgwcei.org or www.water2012.org. This month, the Rio Grande Round Table meeting will be held on Tuesday, September 18th at 2 p.m. at the Ramada, former Inn of the Rio Grande Grande, in Alamosa. Light refreshments will be served and this meeting is open to the public. Also coming up this month on September 20th is Water Fest, a hands on, conservation education event for all 4th graders in the SLV. This event is sponsored by the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative. For more information on this event, please visit the website or contact Judy Lopez, 754-3400.

Anti-discrimination Policy: The Rio Grande Watershed Conservation Education Program prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program.

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