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Celebrate SLV reservoirs

In 1907 people of the San Luis Valley saw a bright future for themselves and their children. After many years of petitioning and pleading with the federal government, a ban on building storage projects in the Rio Grande Basin was lifted to allow some reservoirs to be built. The 2007 celebration of “100 Years of San Luis Valley Reservoirs” emphasized the major accomplishments in producing a series of reservoirs that to this day provide water for irrigation, recreation, wildlife habitat, and flood control.

The San Luis Valley, inhospitable in many ways such as climate (cold winters, windy springs) and elevation averaging 7500’ with surrounding mountains isolating it from the rest of Colorado, was blessed with rich soil and seemingly unlimited water over 100 years ago. Melting mountain snow rushed down into the valley in spring, filling rivers, streams and irrigation ditches that had been constructed all across the valley. There was no way to control the water. It was used when it was available, which was not usually when farmers needed it most; then the severe drought of the 1890s affecting all the other communities dependent on the Rio Grande as much as the San Luis Valley caused an international crisis. The United States government, hoping to avoid a lawsuit from Mexico, imposed an embargo on reservoir construction.

With its removal, the floodgates of hope and ambition opened to initiate an amazing number of projects on the upper Rio Grande or its tributaries. Although sites had been located and water rights secured earlier, in 1907 engineering plans were drawn, financing arranged which was all private — no government money involved — workers hired, and the construction began. By 1914 nine major storage projects had been completed and were in operation.

The people of the San Luis Valley recognized what they needed, seized the opportunity and with great vision and foresight, back breaking labor and incredible financial sacrifices completed these projects. This is the first part of the story told at the “100 Years of SLV Reservoirs” celebration – how people working together solved problems and made a better life for themselves and future generations.

The second part of the story concerns the current usage and condition of the reservoirs. These reservoirs are by far the most efficient within the entire Rio Grande Basin with evaporation rates near zero due to being at such high altitude and frozen over many months of the year. For the last 25 years the reservoirs on the upper Rio Grande have been used at less than 50 percent of their capacity even though the Basin experienced five of the largest river flows on record. There are a number of reasons for the under use of these reservoirs — mostly need of repairs and rehabilitation and how the river is managed. Local reservoir companies and districts have provided all of the operational and maintenance costs, money coming directly from the farmers although these structures benefit all.

Another major issue is the how the Rio Grande Compact is administered. Much more emphasis needs to be made on protecting this valuable resource from the ravages of evaporation. This is not just a Colorado problem. Huge water losses affect all three compact states and they all need to work together to solve the problem.

In the past few years there have been some changes. Government entities have recognized the value of these reservoirs and are providing more financial support for much needed rehabilitation.

The future of the San Luis Valley reservoirs, a third area of concern, could present the most challenges of all. Where can enough money come from to help repair them? Is it possible to change the way the river is administered to allow more water to remain in high mountain reservoirs through the hot, dry summer months of extreme evaporation in Project Storage of the Rio Grande Compact — Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs in southern New Mexico? Are we overlooking the most efficient reservoirs of all — the underground aquifers — now seriously depleted by well pumping? Some other states, particularly Arizona, have made great strides in using underground water storage. Could the Rio Grande Basin follow Arizona’s lead? And, the most serious question of all — can people of the valley — and the entire Basin for that matter — recognize their need, seize the opportunity, and work together to develop an improved system of water storage that will better utilize this precious resource?

Speakers involved in all three aspects of the 2007 “100 Years of San Luis Valley Reservoirs” celebration were chosen for expertise in their subjects. Symposium and banquet speakers provided a background to early practices and accomplishments, current information on the state of the reservoirs and their use, and offered a forum for solving future water needs of people of the Rio Grande Basin. The talks were all recorded and are available on DVD for view at Adams State University Nielsen Library.

Melvin and Camille Getz, who spend the summer months on the upper Rio Grande and are current partners with the Rio Grande Reservoir 100th Anniversary Celebration.

For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit www.rgwcei.org or water2012.org. For more information on the Rio Grande Reservoir, please visit www.slvid.org.

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