Agua es Vida. Water is life. This sentiment resonates with the people of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico who depend on the Rio Grande (River) for their livelihoods. The river has supported people and wildlife for tens of thousands of years. On November 17, 2022 in Santa Fe New Mexico, a group of ecosystem scientists and local conservationists, led by the World Wildlife Fund, met to discuss the health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Colorado Senator Cleave Simpson, also General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, attended and was asked to present the Colorado “Rio Grande water user” perspective as a guest speaker. The group gave the Rio Grande an overall “C” on the River’s first-ever report card, warning that there is not enough water to sustain the current population living along the river, while maintaining a healthy river ecosystem. The data from this “report card” reinforces the urgency for the San Luis Valley to consider Designation of a National Conservation Area (NCA) in southern Colorado’s Conejos/Costilla counties river area, also known as the Rio Grande Natural Area, to ensure financial and technical assistance is directed toward resource protection and needed management expertise.
Report Card Data:
The report card, designed to help local residents and policy makers better understand the health of their local waters, scored the basin’s health at 54% out of 100. They evaluated and scored: water quality and quantity (47%); management and government (49%); and landscapes and ecology (61%). The report highlighted the continuing lower water flows each year. The annual flow was given an 18%, which is an ‘F’ (Wadas, 2022). The report emphasizes that improvements must be made to ensure people and wildlife have continued access to water resources (WWF, 2022).
A View Toward a Healthy, Living Lower Rio Grande Corridor, Including its Adjacent Lands:
On October 1, 2022, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) published another report that examined the Rio Grande from the south end of the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge to the New Mexico State line. The report, titled: A View Toward a Healthy, Living Lower Rio Grande Corridor, Including its Adjacent Lands, in Colorado, explores the various legal and policy instruments under which the area is currently managed and recommends the designation of the southern Colorado “Rio Grande Natural Area,” 33 miles of river corridor, as a National Conservation Area, or NCA. SLVEC aims to ensure that the ecologically and culturally significant values and other attributes in this area are conserved and understood, for present and future generations to learn and benefit from.
The project area focuses on the area surrounding the Rio Grande in Colorado from the southern boundary of the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge to the New Mexico State line in Alamosa, Conejos, and Costilla Counties, comprising approximately 192,000 acres. Of this, about 82,000 acres are managed by BLM, 26,900 acres are other public land (mostly state land or county land managed by the state), and 82,800 acres are private land.
The Rio Grande in southern Colorado and the land surrounding it has many outstanding values of considerable interest to the public. These include: riparian (streamside) areas and high-quality wetlands; many species of wildlife; big game wintering areas and habitat for two threatened or endangered species; recreational opportunities, including boating, hiking, and fishing; and cultural and historic properties.
An extensive array of wildlife depends on the concentration of wetlands along the Rio Grande north from just south of Los Sauces. The bald eagle, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, black bear, wild turkey, canada goose, american white pelican, great blue heron, and greater sandhill crane all depend on this habitat for their survival. In addition, there are two species listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act: the western yellow-billed cuckoo bird and southwestern willow flycatcher. Two BLM sensitive species found in the area include Gunnison’s prairie dog and the Fringed myotis bat, which occupies a wide range of habitat. Multiple fish and amphibian species are also present in these areas, such as the northern leopard frog and Rio Grande chub.
There are also significant historical and archaeological resources in the project area. Types of artifacts already discovered, and likely to be discovered with further investigations,include, but are not limited to: stone enclosures, camps, projectile points, and rock art. Indigenous people, especially the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches, lived within and throughout the San Luis Valley landscape, migrating at certain times of the year. They and others, including the early Spanish explorers, visited the project area, especially where the rivers (Rio Grande and Conejos) converge.
National Conservation Area:
SLVEC believes that the best way to ensure coherent management of the project area and to establish a management plan for the area that recognizes one connected landscape, is to designate parts of it on federal land as a National Conservation Area (NCA). BLM can work with local communities, private landowners and interested parties to determine what provisions and priorities need to be included in a law establishing an NCA.
A National Conservation Area (NCA) requires an act of Congress and Presidential signature. This means the legislation would have to be sponsored by Colorado’s congressional delegation and supported by local communities in order to move forward. The designation would provide additional funding for BLM to adequately and appropriately manage the area through educational outreach; interpretative signage; monitoring of recreational use; monitoring of wildlife use; habitat restoration, including riparian habitat; law enforcement oversight; and additional management approaches as determined in the Management Plan, which local communities would have much influence over, in terms of language adopted within the plan.
As drought across the West continues to increase, the health of our watersheds becomes increasingly important to consider. SLVEC strongly advocates for the adoption of a National Conservation Area (NCA) along southern Colorado’s Rio Grande Natural Area, to protect the variety of species that depend on the river, celebrate the historical significance of the area, and the communities that continue to sustain the area; to improve wetland water quality, and provide exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities.