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Water 2012: Refuges protect the Valley's natural resources

Posted: Wednesday, Nov 28th, 2012

Antelope enjoy the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge earlier this month. The mission of the refuge system is to administer and conserve lands, water and habitat for the benefit of present and future generations. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

This is the 48th in a weekly series celebrating Colorado Water 2012.


Project Leader, San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

Alamosa, Colorado

VALLEY — The World Wide Web is an amazing place.

Quick perusal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website www.fws.gov indicates the San Luis Valley is home to four units of the National Wildlife Refuge System: Alamosa, Baca, Monte Vista and the recently established Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.

The viewer also learns the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to “administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

One of the eight principles guiding management of this system of lands is: “We are land stewards, guided by Aldo Leopold’s teachings that land is a community of life and that love and respect for the land is an extension of ethics. We seek to reflect that land ethic in our stewardship and to instill it in others.”

Aldo Leopold was the father of wildlife management. This visionary of the 1930’s and ‘40’s observed that land, water, wildlife, humans and their prosperity were inextricably linked and remarked that “Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and cut off his left.”

Few will argue with these values but residents are learning that although “harmony” may provide a clear vision, it is a daunting goal for land and water management in the San Luis Valley.

Take for example, Spring Creek on Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Springs at the base of Greeny Mountain about 0.5 miles west of the Gunbarrel on the refuge supplied between 5 and 8 cubic feet per second in the early 1950’s. This perennial source of water provided habitat for tens of thousands of waterfowl along its six-mile meander through the refuge and was one of the major natural features that drew interest in establishment in the refuge in 1953. Recent archaeological investigations provide strong evidence of continuous human use of this site for hunting ducks in the early 1900’s to hunting Pleistocene camels and horses 11,000 years ago.

By 1965 flows from these springs stopped with the proliferation of confined aquifer wells off and on the refuge. The drought of 2002 killed so much plant life that the former springs area is now a source of wind erosion, leaving behind an archaeological trove but virtually eliminating the biological value of this ancient, once verdant hunting ground.

During the last 10 years management of water on Alamosa, Baca and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges has become dramatically more challenging, just like the experiences of most other water users in the Valley. Surface water supplies have been crippled by climate and depletions from ground water use. Artesian flows are a small fraction of what they were, even as recently as the 1980’s. In some cases simply moving water from a well down a ditch is now futile due to water loss to the parched soil profile.

Maintaining wet soil for wetland plants and wildlife is clearly more difficult than it used to be. Waterfowl nesting levels are chronically depressed. Several noxious weeds seem to be one of the few groups of species actually flourishing in this drying environment.

These symptoms are just local examples of what farmers, ranchers and wildlife managers are experiencing across the Valley. The harmony once taken for granted may not be gone but is clearly strained.

But all is far from lost. During these same 10 years of decline water managers in the Valley have recognized that recent rates of groundwater use are not sustainable. The Valley is witnessing dramatic action by water users and government essential to the long term economic and biologic viability of the San Luis Valley. Formation of ground water management sub districts of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and drafting regulations for well use are far along.

Of course these are new, often painful and contentious actions. They are also litigious. After all, restoring harmony with each other and the land humans depend upon is at stake.

There may be some that only value potatoes or only care about alfalfa. A few may only hope there are Sandhill cranes to photograph or a few ducks to shoot. They are likely the minority while most cherish the whole “community of life” caring for their friends’ left and right hands.

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

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