Locals drink in water information

ALAMOSA—For 22 interested in water and environmental issues concerning the San Luis Valley, the 20th annual five-day spring Rio Grande Leaders Course had no shortage of presentation of history and ins-and-outs regarding the local economy and solving the problems and obligations faced here.

Begun in 1998, the presentations by SLV water agency leaders and their longtime legal advisors brought up facts that even those who have been attending Rio Grande Roundtable meetings virtually every month for years were probably not familiar.

The course was held at the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District’s new building at 8805 Independence Way near the Alamosa County administrative facilities.

At least one participant was taking the course for the second year in a row "because there is just so much to absorb," Frankie Wills, an official of the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District Board commented.

The fifth day of the Monday-Friday presentations was held the evening of March 31 with a dinner at the Bistro Rialto Restaurant on Main Street in Alamosa, beginning after a social hour with a speech by Chief of Resources Management of Great Sand Dunes National Park Fred Bunch. He far and away took care of any shortage of humor found in previous presentations with rollicking stories, but also a very fact-filled outline of what brought the park into existence, including controversial political issues being solved by a purchase of a Baca Ranch area. Previous owners seemed to be potentially shipping water out of the Valley, and only a combination of forces and decisions brought about by those such as 1998 U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit and then Attorney General of Colorado Ken Salazar helped bring about the existence of the current park that now draws as many as 380,000 annual visitors and has a $28 million yearly economic impact.

Gold mining attempts in the 1920's brought about the first preservation of the Sand Dunes, Bunch explained. Began by local woman-in-education PEO clubs, Bunch joked that what that abbreviation stands for is a closely guarded secret. The result was President Herbert Hoover signing a designation near the end of his term in early 1932 creating a National Monument to protect the area.

Whether it is partly because of some unusually warm weather in March is difficult to declare a certainty, but Bunch said that so far in 2017, "Tourist flow in Great Sand Dunes Park is better than last year."

An especially enlightening aspect of the Rio Grande National Forest was explained in a presentation Thursday, March 30 by RGNF Forest Hydrologist Ivan Geroy. After explaining the history of its creation over a period going all the way back to federal legislation in the 1890's and in the first decade of the 20th Century, he emphasized that while the national forest covers 37 percent of the SLV land area,"The primary purpose is to help water management in the entire San Luis Valley."

Earlier presentations in the course, such as one conducted by Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration official Emma Reesor and Colorado Restoration Foundation's Andrea Bachman, brought out results of studies, including ones done both in 2001 and 2016 revealing river problems such as degraded habitat, altered hydrology, and extensive erosion, disconnected flood plain, and impaired water quality. Both the McDonald Ditch restoration project were cited as an "excellent sample of beneficial rebuilding," and the present Del Norte Riverfront Project was noted as a good example of the promise of cooperation between numerous organizations, "including those specific to the town itself, the Del Norte Trail Organization," to specify one.

Another feature of the course was to have a discourse by Bethany Howell of the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative on how she leads area tours and school presentations for kindergarten to twelfth grade students throughout the SLV. She noted one comment made by a sixth grader from the Sargent area: "The way water moves is so fascinating and interesting and how it effects [SIC] life is also pretty cool."

Information given by attorneys Bill Paddock and David Robbins that together covered an entire three-hour session were extremely enlightening. One observation that can be safely made is that on the other four days of the course, all speakers used a large screen to show highlights, while the lawyers did not. Praise has to be given in how thorough the knowledge of each was, helped by 30 to 40 years of legal experience in water law, and exhaustive awareness of how some current water laws and extremely impactful court decisions were made. The upshot is that both were there when these happened, so play-by-play knowledge of the history is amazing.

The overall impression of attendees was there was a huge amount of learning available. Tom Culler, a farmer in the Conejos County area, said, “I like the lawyers the most. They helped me sort out everything I heard from my dad and others about the past. I have been following water matters on the Conejos since I was a kid and was old enough to carry a shovel."
He added, "I hope as the class puts forth that the districts and people involved will all work together to improve our aquifers and then sustain them of the levels put forth by the rules and regulations."

The sponsors of the spring 2017 Rio Grande Leaders Course are the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, the Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative, and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Cost of the course to each participant was a $30 fee.