Rabbitbrush Rambler: Natural and unnatural infrastructure

It’s easy to see that Ma Nature created canyons where streams could be impounded, whether the work was to be done by rock slides and beavers or by investors in irrigation projects. Most of the dams have been here so long that we take their scenery, human enterprise, and recreational opportunities for granted.

Before I start describing our dams, though, I want to pay homage to the Melvin Getz, who died recently. He worked hard to inform ordinary citizens like me about these infrastructures, and I’m gratefully remembering an educational bus trip he arranged several years ago when we saw firsthand the existing need for repair work at Rio Grande Reservoir’s dam.

At that time, the dam’s owners, the SLV Irrigation District, were concerned about the costly work that was needed. It was only one of several structures, publically and privately owned, that have needed work around the Valley and several have received it in recent years.

A small one that I visited about 30 years ago, La Jara Reservoir, was in the process of being drained. Being a birder, I was there to see a huge number of raptors scavenging dead and dying fish, but I soon got interested in learning about the importance of keeping the Valley’s dams in good repair to prevent floods and to provide the economic uses of the water they impounded, as well as their popular recreational opportunities.

Let’s take a trip around the Valley to appreciate how many there are and to whom they belong. At Trujillo Meadows Reservoir near Cumbres Pass, for instance, the reservoir is in Rio Grande National Forest, where Colorado Parks and Wildlife also has facilities for the avid fishermen, but last year it had to be drained, cleaned up, and repaired, while the fishermen fretted.

If that seems sort of simple, look at Platoro Lake, which is in the national forest, but the dam’s infrastructure belongs to the U.S. Bureau of Recreation but the Conejos Water Conservation District manages the irrigation water and flood control. It can get complicated, trying to keep everyone happy.

On the Alamosa River, draining and repairing the flood control/irrigation dam was not just about the   owners’ interests. They also had to be thinking about the concerns of the Alamosa River Watershed Conservation District, which was working on ambitious projects to improve the stream and its total environment.

Around the corner of the Rio Grande, the Beaver Creek sinkhole repairs have just been finished in the Rio Grande National Forest, and that took longer than was originally expected because the problems were bigger than expected. Not long before, the dam extensive work at the SLV Irrigation District’s Rio Grande Dam got wrapped up.

Then there are impoundments like Santa Maria and Continental while across the Valley there are Mountain Home and Sanchez, all of which are important for irrigation and recreation, and out in the middle is Reclamation’s San Luis Lakes that figures in the Rio Grande Compact. Or else.

There also are a host of private lakes with dams and summer places on the west side, and numerous pretty subalpine lakes with no infrastructure except Ma Nature’s kind that stores water unless a storm takes out the lakes, fallen trees, and boulders, destroying poorly located buildings, towns, and roads in the process. Then, whose job is it to clean up after a washout or a mudslide? Local, county, state, or federal government tax moneys?

Except during the political campaign in 2016, Trump seems to have had little to say about infrastructure, and Congress seems unable to accomplish anything except pass the buck or authorize tax breaks for the rich and famous. At least statewide in Colorado, the problems are being recognized and addressed, at taxpayers’ and private owners’ expense.

But if we were to get one of those 100-year-or-more disastrous cloudbursts or droughts, which have happened before you know, then we would demand some really big federal money. Probably too late.