ALAMOSA — A multi-ditch rehab project on the Rio Grande received unanimous approval from the Rio Grande Roundtable on Tuesday but not from a couple of the neighbors who sent attorney Gordon Bosa to the meeting to deliver their concerns.
Neighboring property owners Scott and Megan Dugan, who own a ranch along the Rio Grande, and Steve Massey, manager of the River Valley Group that owns River Valley Ranch III, and San Luis Valley Group LLC that owns San Luis Cottonwood Ranch, asked the roundtable to postpone a funding decision on the Five Ditches Improvement Project until they had more time to review it.
The Dugans, whose letter was read by Bosa at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, said they were not necessarily opposed to the project but felt they had not been properly notified about it and needed time to review it to make sure it would not negatively affect their ranch.
Massey stated through his letter read by Bosa that he was concerned this project would affect the property rights of the ranches he represents, as he claimed an earlier river project in that area had. Massey asked that the funding approval be postponed until: adjacent landowners consented to it; a sampling could be conducted on the sensitive Rio Grande Chub species; a current needs assessment could be conducted, since this project was based on a 2001 river study Massey maintained was outdated; and the recently completed plaza project could be evaluated, since Massey said the Five Ditches project seemed to mirror that one, with which he had issues.
Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project Executive Director Emma Reesor, who had presented the Five Ditches project earlier to the roundtable, made the formal funding request to the Valley-wide water group on Tuesday. The Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation will serve as fiscal agent for the $3.1 million project, which is seeking $98,000 from the Rio Grande basin account and $882,000 from the statewide water funding account. The ditch companies are also financially supporting the project as their match towards the basin and state funding.
The ditch company shareholders will benefit by more efficient water delivery and less maintenance, explained Greg Higel, Roundtable member who abstained from voting because he is a member of the participating Centennial Ditch.
The roundtable unanimously approved the Five Ditches request, which will now proceed to the state level.
Reesor explained that this multi-ditch project would serve multiple purposes including improving irrigation efficiency and improving riparian conditions. With boat and fish passage capabilities figured into the project, it will also improve recreational opportunities, she added.
This project will encompass a stretch of the river downstream from Del Norte to an area around the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area.
Reesor explained that this project had been in the works for years, and the ditch companies that came together to propose this project were Rio Grande Ditch #2, Consolidated Ditch (which actually encompasses multiple ditches), Pace Ditch, San Luis Valley Canal Company and the Centennial Ditch. Each of these ditch companies has had problems with old and deteriorating infrastructure. In addition, the Rio Grande along the reach of this project has suffered from stream bank instability, sedimentation and other issues, Reesor explained.
Reesor said these were issues outlined in a 2001 study of the Rio Grande from South Fork to Alamosa. Roundtable board member Mike Gibson, who spearheaded that study, responded to Massey’s concern that the 2001 study was outdated by saying although landowners along the river may have changed since that time, the problems with the river itself had not.
Gibson suggested that Reesor and others involved in the project meet with Massey to review his concerns.
“I think we can address each of the issues he’s raised,” he said.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Riverbend Engineering have designed the Five Ditches Improvement Project to correct problems with the Rio Grande as well as diversion dams and headgates on the ditch systems involved in this project.
Reesor explained that 143 individual shareholders will benefit from this project, which encompasses almost 36,000 acres.
She outlined the improvements that will be completed, including: on Rio Grande #2, replacement of existing diversion structure, new headgate box, river channel shaping; on the Consolidated and Pace Ditches, replacement of diversion dam, new automated headgate, stream bank stabilization and channel shaping; on the San Luis Valley Canal new automated headgate and stream bank stabilization and channel shaping; and on the Centennial, new automated headgate, replacement of diversion dam and stream bank stabilization.
Rick Basagoitia, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) area wildlife manager, shed some light on the Rio Grande Chub issue raised by Massey. He said CPW works hard to keep such species from being listed as endangered by protecting them so they do not have to be listed. He said to that end CPW has put more than 600,000 Rio Grande Chub (basically minnows) from other places into the Rio Grande over the years, and if the Rio Grande Chub found in this stretch turned out to be a genetically distinct population of fish, CPW would rescue them, put them in a hatchery as brood stock and breed them to be stocked back into the river.
“Why do we keep putting those fish in there?” he asked, answering, “to prevent listing, keep that population in place, ensure it can at least subsist in the system and it’s not gone.”
Basagoitia said the five-ditch project “is all about fish passage and allowing fish that are there to move back and forth” in addition to providing more efficient irrigation for the farmers using these ditches.
He said this is not a bad project and will not negatively affect the Rio Grande Chub.
Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited, added, “This is a good project from a fishery perspective.”
“I think it’s a great project,” said Roundtable member Travis Smith who made the motion to approve the funding application.
Fellow Roundtable member Heather Dutton said some of the main goals of this basin’s plan are to protect watershed health and watershed uses. “That’s exactly what this project does.”