Environmental and Recreational Water Use - Working together to plan our water future
This is the fifth article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, regarding the implementation of the Basin Water Plan.
For our water resources to meet a variety of needs—from agriculture and municipal uses to wildlife habitat and recreation—collaboration is essential.. That’s what the Basin Implementation Plan is all about. Here’s how to get involved.
The collaborative process to develop a Basin Implementation Plan (Basin Plan) that identifies the water values and needs of the San Luis Valley is well underway. This plan will become the heart of “our” section of the State Water Plan that Gov. Hickenlooper has requested by executive order. Therefore, this is an opportunity for Valley residents to come forward with ideas and information to create an all-inclusive water plan that establishes a pathway for our collective water future. The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable is the platform for this community discussion and the roundtable has created subcommittee teams to reach out and spread the word, and to capture the diversity of our water needs now and into the future.
Considering the variety of Non-Consumptive, Environmental, and Recreational water uses in the San Luis Valley will provide a useful way to think about goals and processes in the Basin Plan. Non-Consumptive uses are a component to most water uses in the valley. This is the water that remains in the river or returns to the river via groundwater recharge. Populations of fish depend on the availability of this water as do wetlands and the birds and other wildlife that use them. The water that is not consumed by crops in agriculture soaks into the ground and returns to the river and groundwater aquifers to maintain the whole system. Recreational and commercial boaters rely on water in the rivers, and these uses do not consume water. Municipalities clean up wastewater and return it to the system. Many non-consumptive uses with environmental and recreational benefits are the products of water that also has a consumptive use component. For example, water that is delivered from reservoirs specifically for downstream irrigators also benefits fish and boaters on its way to the point of diversion. Water that remains in the rivers to pay Colorado’s share of the Rio Grande Compact has non-consumptive benefits, too.
Finding creative solutions that maximize our water for the benefit of the environment and recreation while simultaneously protecting water rights, agriculture, municipalities, and other water users is the goal. These kind of “win-win” water uses offer opportunities to get more bang for our water buck.
Projects that partner consumptive and non-consumptive needs are not necessarily new to the SLV. The Rio Grande Roundtable has been very successful in identifying projects and bringing in grant money to get them done. For instance, the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, which owns and operates Rio Grande Reservoir, is partnering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to explore water delivery scenarios that will have an environmental and recreational benefit while ensuring water delivery to its irrigators. The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration project is bringing in funding to help irrigators update diversion infrastructure to their benefit, while boosting environmental health through river habitat restoration. The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust is providing incentives for landowners to conserve their ranches and tie water rights to those lands and the Rio Grande Basin forever. The Conejos Water Conservancy District has secured funding to introduce new technology to improve river forecasting that will assist the Division 3 engineer in administration of the Rio Grande Compact. These are just a few examples of current collaboration and multiple-use benefits.
The Rio Grande Basin enjoys a reputation for outstanding fisheries. The Valley’s lakes and streams provide habitat for a variety of game fish. Trout fishing in the Rio Grande contributes substantially to the local economy and to our quality of life. From lodging to restaurants to fishing shops and outfitters, the fishing business has valley-wide impacts.
Trout Unlimited (TU) has taken an active role in the State Water Plan as a voice for healthy rivers and streams and the outdoor way of life they support. TU is a grassroots non-profit organization founded more than 50 years ago by 16 anglers on the banks of the Au Sable River in Michigan. TU is guided by the principle that “if we take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.” Today there are over 140,000 members in 400 chapters nationwide, and together these volunteers contribute over 500,000 hours every year to conserve, protect, and restore coldwater fisheries. The San Luis Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited has been active in the community for over two decades. The chapter has been involved in habitat projects on the Rio Grande and the Conejos River, and they developed a fishing map that shows access points and key fishing locations along the Rio Grande River. The chapter has been a strong advocate for restoration and protection of the native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout.
In addition to the chapters, TU has a staff of over 120 professionals working to provide a national context to these local efforts. One of TU’s national programs is the Western Water Project, which works to restore healthy stream flows and habitat to the West’s best places. The Colorado Water Project has 8 staff members working around the state in key basins. In June 2013, TU hired Kevin Terry to be the new Rio Grande Basin project manager for the Colorado Water Project. The objective is simple and straightforward: seek out partnerships and funding for restoration projects that benefit the streams, the fish, and the water users. There is a wide range of opportunity for projects in the San Luis Valley, from restoring habitat and stabilizing stream banks, thereby reducing erosion and land loss, to replacing old head-gates and implementing new irrigation technologies, to studying reservoir operations scenarios. In each case the outcomes must have multiple beneficiaries, including but not exclusive to the fish. The Rio Grande River Basin is a perfect venue for TU’s work because it has tremendous trout fisheries famous in the West, and it also has a vibrant agricultural community that drives the local economy and is strongly rooted in the culture of the San Luis Valley. There is tremendous potential for forging partnerships that deliver pragmatic, real-world conservation benefits while improving agricultural operations.
Kevin Terry is Rio Grande Basin Project Manager for Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.