Public Lands, Public Water
This is the sixth article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, regarding the implementation of the Basin Water Plan.
When thinking of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, what comes to mind? Is it livestock ranching? Oil and gas development? Maybe its rock climbing at Penitente Canyon, or watching wildlife and birds at Blanca Wetlands. Perhaps it’s a trip to BLM lands every fall to sight in your rifle in the hopes of dropping a trophy bull on the opening morning of the first elk season.
The mission of the BLM is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. This mission is remarkably complex. As the San Luis Valley Field Office Manager likes to say – “it’s not rocket science – it’s more complicated.” It requires the BLM to not only balance “multiple uses” in the present day, but also consider how the American people may need those resources far into an unknown future.
Here in the San Luis Valley, the BLM manages just over 500,000 acres of land according to this mission. Dozens of livestock ranching operations depend on the health of the BLM land; so too dozens of threatened, endangered, and special status wildlife and plant species. Some public lands have been set aside to be studied for future preservation, such as the San Luis Hills, while others have been designated for development as solar energy sites to serve future energy needs for the nation. And many uses share the same acre of public land – like the new gravity-assisted mountain bike trail at Zapata Falls, but keep an eye out for the cattle on the same trail. And wear a helmet!
But like every other person or entity that manages land in the San Luis Valley, there is one resource in short supply for the BLM – water. It may surprise some to learn that the BLM (and every other federal land management agency) is required by federal law to adhere to the state-managed water appropriation systems. When it comes to water management, the BLM plays in the same sandbox as every other farmer, rancher, city, and conservation district.
Many people might think of the BLM’s water needs as “non-consumptive,” that is, resources need water but don’t “use” it the way a farm might use it. For some areas, this is true. People who enjoy float-boating on the Rio Grande depend on water to get from Las Sauces to the Lobatos Bridge, or further south into the Rio Grande Gorge. Similarly, aquatic species, such as trout, depend on certain water conditions at particular times of the year to breed and sustain their populations. People who enjoy fishing depend on the water as well.
But the San Luis Valley Field Office also uses water, within the appropriation system, to support a diverse array of habitats and uses. The BLM holds dozens of water rights across the SLV for the benefit of livestock grazing operations. These rights generally stem from natural springs and utilize small infrastructure systems to make them useful. Perhaps more dramatically, the BLM also irrigates thousands of acres of land for the benefit of many plant and wildlife species. That management not only sustains those critical species habitats, but also leads to incredible recreation opportunities, such as wildlife viewing and waterfowl hunting.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Blanca Wetlands, a habitat restoration effort that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. The BLM uses over 40 wells and some water from the Closed Basin Project to wet and dry about 2000 acres of historic and restored wetland playa habitat. These acres support 13 threatened, endangered, and sensitive species and over 160 species of birds. The wetlands are also an important calving and fawning area for big game species. Blanca Wetlands maintains Colorado’s largest population of western snowy plover and supports a number of waterbird species of regional, national, and even hemispheric importance.
But the Blanca Wetlands isn’t just for the birds. One of the great joys of the BLM staff is watching the public engage these incredible resources just 20 minutes from Alamosa. Whether it is a kindergartener walking out into a playa barefoot to catch a fairy shrimp in a bucket, or a high school student receiving national recognition for her research, a living laboratory like the Blanca Wetlands connects people to the natural world in ways that no iPad app can.
But like every water user who pumps groundwater to stay in business, the BLM faces an uncertain future with augmentation requirements from the State of Colorado. The BLM is not currently a party to any of the subdistricts, but we have worked with the state to define our augmentation responsibilities for our groundwater pumping and we will meet those responsibilities. These habitats are too important to dry up. They serve not only the diversity and health of the public lands, but also the American people.
As the Rio Grande Basin goes through an era of unprecedented change, the BLM is committed to partnering with other water managers to ensure the Rio Grande Basin of the future enjoys the same broad array of natural resources that contribute to our quality of life and a strong and diverse economy. The habitats and resources we manage will be as important 100 years from now as they are today, and water will continue to be the defining feature of these resources.
Paul Tigan, Assistant Field Manager, San Luis Valley Field Office, BLM