By Zaylah Pearson-Good
In early February and again in September, grey feathers fill the crisp blue sky of southern Colorado. Chortling birds rush towards the San Luis Valley (SLV) in flocks of over 20,000, looking to refuel and rest. The migration of the Sandhill crane is a true spectacle. These elegant creatures are an iconic marker of seasonal change, inspiring onlookers with their incredible beauty, charm, and endurance. Feeding in wetland habitats and open agricultural fields, the species also reminds us of the importance of protecting our natural resources. As with all life in the San Luis Valley, the health of the cranes depends on the conservation and protection of our most precious resource: water.
Sandhill cranes fly thousands of miles to reach their winter and summer destinations, which comes at a tremendous energetic cost. A successful migration does not simply depend on a bird’s arrival to a healthy habitat, but also on the availability of resources along its flyway. For this reason, Sandhills migrate along the Rio Grande Corridor, connected by riparian and wetland habitats. The San Luis Valley is considered to be one of the most important stopovers along this route. In the fall and spring, cranes coat the Valley’s vast agricultural fields and pristine wetland ecosystems, stocking up on high calorie grains and nutrient dense aquatic invertebrates. Without this important stopover, the cranes’ journey would be greatly stressed—low body weight, nutrient deficiencies, and potential fatalities could result.
While the SLV has supported crane migrations for thousands of years, water scarcity in the region has left the birds’ future here unknown. Receiving roughly 7” of precipitation each year, water is a limited resource in the San Luis Valley. In the past decades, record high droughts, below average annual snowpack, and high water demands on behalf of agriculturalists have greatly lessened the Valley’s water reserves. Water shortages have reduced the area and health of the region’s wetland and riparian habitats. These highly productive ecosystems offer countless species food, water, and shelter. Whether providing migration, nesting, and breeding grounds, high quality foraging opportunities, or invaluable habitat for seasonal and resident species, wetlands are an imperative resource for all of SLV’s wildlife.
With demand already exceeding supply, the Valley does not have water to spare. For this reason, it is of great concern that SLV hydrology be protected from massive water diversion projects such as Renewable Water Resources (RWR). RWR, a nonlocal investor, has proposed to pump thousands of acres of feet of water out of the SLV each year to sell to the Front Range. With fewer wetland and riparian habitats, a shrinking water table, and climate change projected to bring more severe and prolonged droughts, the Valley cannot afford to lose one drop of water. Removing large sums of water would compromise the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers and ranchers in the Valley, destroy critical habitats and ecosystems, and eliminate many wildlife populations. Additionally, it is likely that the Valley would no longer support the seasonal migration of countless bird species, such as the Sandhill crane.