Keeping the Wet in Wetlands: A Colorado Community’s Strategy for Securing Water

Beneath the valley floor is a vast aquifer system that has long sustained extensive wetlands in the San Luis Valley.

At the headwaters of the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley (SLV) of South Central Colorado, wetlands and water issues are inextricably linked. The legendary Rio Grande originates in the high country of the San Juan Mountains, which form the Continental Divide to the west. The river then flows out across the broad, flat valley floor, which sits at about 7,500-8,000 feet in elevation 

Beneath the valley floor is a vast aquifer system that has long sustained extensive wetlands, identified as marshes by early Spanish and Anglo explorers in the area. Astonishingly, in this high, dry region, where the average rainfall on the valley floor is 6-8 inches per year, the aquifers and snowmelt from the mountains has sustained over 200,000 acres of wetlands, per historical estimates. These internationally important wetlands range from the lush riparian zone along the Rio Grande and its tributaries to extensive playas and expansive wet meadows, often watered by agricultural water diversions. The diverse wetlands support vast numbers of waterfowl, waterbirds and shorebirds including nearly the entire Rocky Mountain flock of Greater Sandhill Cranes.

In communities like the SLV that seek to keep land intact and to secure water for the future, the role of land trusts is vital. The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) was founded in 1999, in large part to achieve these goals: to help secure the region’s water for working lands and the associated wildlife habitat that exists with senior water rights and adequate aquifer levels.

The 4UR Ranch supports habitat for many migratory birds as well as a wide array of other species.

RiGHT’s community outreach made it clear that protection of the river corridors and senior water rights were a priority across the region. So with the help of many partners, including The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, in 2007 RiGHT launched the collaborative, landscape-scale conservation effort, the Rio Grande Initiative.  Initial analysis indicated that there were approximately 54,000 acres of private land in parcels over 80-acres within the river’s floodplain. So we set the ambitious goal to protect at least 25,000 acres of private land, along with their accompanying senior water rights along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. 

In 2015, with funding from the Standard North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant supporting the Initiative, as well as from Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, RiGHT surpassed that 25,000-acre threshold with an easement on 1,100 acres of the spectacular 4UR Ranch.  The 4UR is essentially surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness and encompasses over five miles of Goose Creek, an important tributary to the Rio Grande, with a broad flood high altitude flood plain that supports many migratory birds as well as a wide array of other species.

While we celebrate that success and deeply appreciate the support of so many landowners, partners and funders, we are still far from the full sustainability we envision. Ever increasing demands on limited water supplies in the San Luis Valley, across Colorado and the entire West make the future of our wetlands and their water supplies uncertain. Clearly, a key to sustainability will be to learn to work ever more collaboratively with the owners of water rights in ranching and farming communities.  To a large degree, RiGHT’s success has been based upon this key strategy. Such approaches are discussed in the resource materials noted below, including the recent Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan and in the soon-to-be-finalized Colorado Water Plan. 

In the time ahead, RiGHT aims to build upon the momentum of the Rio Grande Initiative:  to protect additional land and water and to continue our work with the owners of already conserved lands, to help provide resources to enhance both their wildlife habitat and agricultural operations, and to sustain and grow the culture of conservation that thrives here in our community.  As water leader, and farmer, Doug Shriver, used to put it, “A healthy river looks the same to a farmer, to a duck, to a fish.”  With the help of many partners, including the vital science and support with NAWCA grants provided by the IWJV, RiGHT continues its work to conserve our land, our water and our way of life at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and in the process, to keep the wet in our wetlands.

For additional information please visit the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust website and the Land Trust Alliance’s source book, Land Trusts and Water. Click here to find the Rio Grande Basin Water Plan and the Colorado Water Plan. 


Read more articles from the Fall 2015 e-Newsletter: