Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. "Sawatch Lake" at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake, via Wikipedia.
1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake, via Wikipedia.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Finding out where the San Luis Valley’s wetlands and irrigated acreage used to be could help determine where they should be in the future.

Chronicling that history to chart a future course is one of the focuses of a proposed watershed assessment project that Wetland Dynamics is seeking funding for. How those wetlands relate to wildlife habitat is another big component.

Cary Aloia and Jenny Nehring of Wetland Dynamics made an initial presentation and request for $37,000 to the Rio Grande Roundtable this week. The formal presentation and decision will be made next month. The project total is $164,000.

Although no one objected to the project, it sparked discussion about whether or not the roundtable should fund a project through an individual business, rather than a nonprofit organization, as previous funding requests have been made.

Aloia and Nehring said they were simply cutting out the middleman, and the costs for the project would probably increase $4,000-10 ,000 if it had to go through a nonprofit, which would take its portion and then contract with Wetland Dynamics to perform the work.

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Program Manager Craig Godbout said individuals and businesses are not eligible for statewide account funds, but individual roundtables have discretion with regard to basin-allocated funds.

“There are no restrictions that I am aware of on what type of entity can be awarded basin accounts,” Godbout said.

Wetland Dynamics is seeking funds allocated to the Rio Grande Basin.

Funding for water projects around the state through CWCB and the basin roundtables is derived from severance tax revenues.

Nehring said this project will provide a Valleywide perspective about how drought and other changes have affected the wetlands that provide habitat to a variety of wildlife. She said several agencies and groups are monitoring their portion of the picture, but this would encompass the entire Valley and bring those agencies and groups together.

Aloia added that this project meets many of the environmental , recreational, agricultural and water administration goals of the roundtable.

She explained that this project will be completed by two entities: Intermountain West Joint Venture, which already has funding in place to provide historic and current wetland and agricultural uses in the Valley through its GIS model (and has completed similar projects in other parts of the western U.S.); and Wetland Dynamics, which will coordinate the project and bring everyone together to identify priority species, future water delivery projects and the best way to use water and land to benefit habitat.

“We are working cooperatively and collaboratively,” Aloia said.

Nehring said historical information is available as far back as the 1870’s through General Land Office surveys, which can be coupled with imagery captured from 1984 to the present. She said this information will show how wet areas in the Valley have ebbed and flowed through the years.

This information will help determine where habitats still exist and areas that can be targeted for conservation.

Nehring said Intermountain West Joint Venture will begin its work next month and will complete its part of the project in 18-24 months. Wetland Dynamics plans to complete its portion next year and will spread the $37,000 over a two-year period.

Aloia said there is a great deal of information, but it is in different places and with different agencies.

“We need to compile all of that,” she said.

Then priority species lists will be compiled and habitat areas identified for those species. All of the groups will then be able to cooperatively manage their water better to serve those habits, Aloia explained.

Brian Sullivan, wetlands program coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the department sees many benefits for this project and is firmly behind it. For example, it will provide information on the quantity and quality of wetlands for wildlife habitat and will help justify financial investments in the basin, he said.

Sullivan said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has pledged $46,000 towards this project, and he urged the roundtable to also support it. He said this project would be a great tool, “and you can’t have too many tools in the tool box.”

Kevin Terry, Rio Grande project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, added his endorsement of the project. One of the benefits , he said, would be consolidation of data in one place where it would be accessible to the different agencies.

Aloia said another outgrowth of the project will be identification of knowledge gaps, which can be the basis for future projects.

“It will highlight things we still don’t know,” she said. “It’s really a stepping stone for future projects.”

It will identify, for example , places where there could be restoration projects in the future to help bring back water resources that were present historically but are no longer present, she explained.

The information gathering and assessment will encompass the Valley floor up to 8,500 feet. Roundtable member Ed Nielsen said this sounds like a good project, but he believed it needed to encompass the mountains and headwaters too. He said it seems fragmented at this point.

Nehring said this a joint venture, and Intermountain West Joint Venture is setting the scope of this project. Aloia added that agricultural use, which is a key component of this project, is centered on the Valley floor.

Sullivan explained that the focus is on the irrigated landscape, which is where the biggest changes in wetlands have occurred.

Former Rio Grande Roundtable Board Chairman Mike Gibson said he personally had a problem with the roundtable funding an individual entity, because requests in the past have come through nonprofit organizations or state agencies. He said it had nothing to do with Wetland Dynamics, but he was concerned about the roundtable losing control over how money is administered and spent if the roundtable starts funding individual entities. He said he believed the roundtable had more oversight over projects going through nonprofit groups.

“I have a real concern,” he said.

Roundtable member Travis Smith said this is a worthy project, but it sounded like the roundtable needed to clarify some protocol issues.

“This application is about shared partnerships and getting agencies to talk to each other about water resources,” Smith said.

Roundtable member Dale Pizel said this seemed like a good project and he would hate for it not to be conducted simply because the roundtable had never funded projects through individual businesses before.

“If we need to have that discussion, let’s have it,” he said.

Roundtable member Judy Lopez agreed the discussion needed to be held. She also agreed this was a good project but was taking the roundtable into uncharted territory.

She asked if Billy Bob’s Excavating came in with a request for river restoration funding, would the roundtable fund it?

Pizel said if it fit with the roundtable’s goals, he did not have a problem funding “Billy Bob.” He said every project needs to have oversight to make sure it is performed correctly and fiscally responsibly.

Lopez said she did not think anyone had a doubt about how fiscally responsible Wetland Dynamics would be, but the roundtable needed to determine if it wanted to open this door and decide who could go through it. She said Aloia and Nehring are people of integrity, and this project meets many of the roundtable’s goals.

Godbout said his office requires reports and specific information, and he reviews that information carefully. He said he makes sure that the invoices match the work completed.

Roundtable member Rio de la Vista said, “So there is some oversight I think we can feel good about.”

Roundtable member Ron Brink said he was apprehensive about opening the gates to this type of funding.

Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs said, “The door can be opened. Just because it has not been opened doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We should look at the project on its merits, if it accomplishes our goals.”

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