Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With less money from severance taxes flowing into the pools that fund water projects in the San Luis Valley and around the state, those fishing for funds may have to string some pretty good bait from now on.

In the 10 years the Rio Grande Roundtable has been in operation, it has funded thousands of dollars worth of projects from studies and assessments to ditch and river repairs.

Colorado Water Conservation Board Program Manager Craig Godbout reported to the roundtable board on Tuesday that the local group still has more than $300,000 in its basin fund but needs to keep in mind it may not see any more funding until July of next year. In addition to basin-allocated funds, there is a statewide fund from which requests may be made.

In light of the tighter funding outlook, Godbout said the state water conservation board was asking for affirmation from the local board regarding its earlier approval of $67,000 towards an Upper Rio Grande assessment. The state board has to sign off on projects and is fine with the assessment project but wanted to make sure the local board was still willing to commit to it, in light of funding challenges.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs said there was no question about the value of the project.

“We are just re-evaluating that we want money from our basin still going to this project,” he said.

Roundtable member Charlie Spielman had been opposed to the original approval of the Upper Rio Grande Assessment because he believed it was outside the primary scope of the roundtable, and he voted against it again on Tuesday, but the rest of the board affirmed their support of it.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the Rio Grande Roundtable had $345,156 in its account, according to Godbout. The group on Tuesday approved $39,000 towards a $228,000 wetland wildlife assessment project that will take the basin’s fund balance down to $306,156.

The SLV chapter of Trout Unlimited is the fiscal sponsor and Wetland Dynamics the contractor for the assessment , which will gather and compile species, habitat and water information from public land agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks & Wildlife, develop conservation goals and identify potential projects. Wetland Dynamics principals Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia explained that this project will help the separate entities better coordinate their efforts in providing wildlife habitat, specifically regarding water resources.

The project will be completed by January 2019. Other pending or acquired funding sources include the SLV Conservation Connection Initiative and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

No one opposed the wetlands /wildlife project, and funding for it was approved unanimously, but a couple of the roundtable members said they had a problem funding something that benefitted government agencies but was not being funded by those government agencies.

Other roundtable members said this project, like the SLV Habitat Conservation Plan and similar projects, would help protect private lands for traditional uses such as farming by identifying ways for public lands and water resources to be used more efficiently for wildlife habitat.

“You do anything for any species, you are benefitting lots of species,” added Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the San Luis Valley.

In improving habitat, projects like this also keep species from becoming listed as endangered, he said.

The news that funds might be tighter did not deter the board from approving funds for the wetland wildlife project or a subsequent $2,500 request from Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies Executive Director Jeff Derry for help with dust-on-snow monitoring. The information about dust storm events and their effects on snowpack are helpful in determining how fast snowmelt might occur. Derry will be seeking funds from other basin roundtables as well as the state water fund.

Coombs said less money did not mean the roundtable board should panic. He said there is nothing wrong with tightening up requirements for funding and making sure “t’s” have been crossed and “i’s” dotted.

“We have good projects,” he said.

Mike Gibson, who served as the chairman of the roundtable until retiring from the SLV Water Conservancy District, was voted back on as a board member on Tuesday following the group’s vote through a bylaw change to increase its at-large board representation.

Gibson said the roundtable board should not be secondguessing itself about whether or not to fund worthwhile projects because a better one might come along later and the roundtable wouldn’t have the money for it.

“I think it’s irrelevant because in the past we have said if money’s available and it’s a worthwhile project, we should approve it,” he said. “Speculating or considering what may come forward we may wish we had the money for at that time is irrelevant. What this roundtable has done all along if the money is available and it’s a good project we have approved it and moved forward.”

Gibson added that while the group still has $300,000 “which is an amazing amount of money available to us” “if there’s a worthwhile project out there, it needs to be brought forward while the money’s available.”

Cleave Simpson, who represents the Rio Grande Roundtable on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), said he is now serving on a guidelines/criteria subcommittee that is working on tightening up criteria that projects must meet to receive funding, since funds are tighter. Projects will have to more closely align with the legislature’s intent when it approved the roundtable structure and severance tax funding. Projects will also need to align with basin plans and the Colorado Water Plan, which was recently developed and approved by the governor.

Simpson said the IBCC also discussed other funding sources for water projects, such as instituting a container fee on human-consumed liquid beverages in containers . That is at an initial discussion stage, he added.

Travis Smith, who represents this basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said there is a real shift from when the roundtables began 10 years ago to more stringent requirements and closer scrutiny before approving projects now.

“Funding is tighter, but good projects still get funded,” he said.

Jay Winner, who was visiting from the Arkansas Valley Roundtable, said, “The message is they are going to tighten it up ” The last 10 years were a lot of fun. The next 10 years are going to be a little bit different.”

In a side note during Tuesday’s meeting, Smith pointed out that the River Valley Group, which had been the recipient of a large roundtable request in the past, had filed a Colorado Open Records Act request for information on projects the roundtable has approved and communication between roundtable members and state water board members. Steve Massey from the River Valley Group was present at the Tuesday meeting. The group states its purpose is “too match the needs of wildlife, agriculture, and human beings in a coexistent environment while enhancing opportunities for all, both for current and future generations.”

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