#Drought news: “Blob of warm Pacific water threatens ecosystem, may intensify drought” — CNN

April 23, 2015

From CNN (Steve Almasy, Dave Hennen and Jennifer Gray):

A University of Washington climate scientist and his associates have been studying the blob — a huge area of unusually warm water in the Pacific — for months.

“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year,” said Nick Bond, who works at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean in Seattle, Washington.

Bond, who gave the blob its name, said it was 1,000 miles long, 1,000 miles wide and 100 yards deep in 2014 — and it has grown this year.

And it’s not the only one; there are two others that emerged in 2014, Nate Mantua of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — said in September. One is in the Bering Sea and the other is off the coast of Southern California.

Waters in the blob have been warmer by about 5.5 degrees, a significant rise.

Persistent pressure

A recent set of studies published in Geophysical Research Letters by Bond’s group points to a high-pressure ridge over the West Coast that has calmed ocean waters for two winters. The result was more heat staying in the water because storms didn’t kick up and help cool the surface water.

“The warmer temperatures we see now aren’t due to more heating, but less winter cooling,” a recent news release from the University of Washington announcing the studies said. The university has worked with NOAA on the research.

According to New Scientist magazine, some marine species are exploring the warmer waters, leading some fish to migrate hundreds of miles from their normal habitats.

The magazine cited fisherman and wildlife officials in Alaska who have seen skipjack tuna and thresher sharks.

Pygmy killer whales have been spotted off the coast of Washington.

“I’ve never seen some of these species here before,” Bill Peterson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle told the New Scientist.

And he was worried about the adult Pacific salmon that normally feed on tiny crustaceans and other food sources that are not around in the same numbers off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

“They had nothing to eat,” he told the magazine of last year’s conditions in the blob. It appears that food has moved to cooler waters.

In January, Bond told the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Washington, that his concern is for very young salmon that are still upstream.

“In particular, the year class that would be going to sea next spring,” he said.

NOAA said in a news release last month that California sea lion pups have been found extremely underweight and dying, possibly because of an ocean with fewer things to eat.

“We have been seeing emaciated or dehydrated sea lions show up on beaches,” Justin Greenman, assistant stranding coordinator for NOAA on the West Coast, told CNN.

The numbers are overwhelming facilities that care for the stranded sea lions, most of whom are pups, local officials said.

Record number of sea lion pups stranded in California

Warmer water, less snow

The blob also is affecting life on land. For the past few years, that persistent ridge of high pressure has kept the West dry and warm, exacerbating the drought in California, Oregon and Washington.

One of the primary problems is small snow accumulation in the mountains.

In early April, officials measured the snowpack in California at a time when it should be the highest. This year it hit an all-time low at 1.4 inches of water content in the snow, just 5% of the annual average. The previous low for April 1 had been 25% in 1977 and 2014. (pdf)

Gov. Jerry Brown, in announcing water restrictions the same day, stood on a patch of dry, brown grass in the Sierra Nevada mountains that is usually blanketed by up to 5 feet of snow.

Low California snowpack ushers mandatory water restrictions

The heat has caused rising air, which can lead to conditions that produce more thunderstorms. With warmer air in California, areas at higher elevations that usually see snow have seen rain instead. That has led to the lower snowpack and helped compound the drought. The storms also mean more lightning and more wildfires.

And the blob affects people on other areas of the country.

That same persistent jet stream pattern has allowed cold air to spill into much of the Midwest and East.

This stuck pattern has led to the record cold and snow in the Midwest and Northeast over the last two seasons with record snows we have seen in Boston and Detroit, and the most snow we have seen in decades for cities such as Chicago.

Still a mystery

The weather pattern is confusing the experts.

There are some that think it might be a Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a long-lasting El Nino-like pattern in the Pacific.

Dennis Hartmann, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, doesn’t believe the answer is clear.

“I don’t think we know …” he said in the university’s news release. “Maybe it will go away quickly and we won’t talk about it anymore, but if it persists for a third year, then we’ll know something really unusual is going on.”

From The Produce News (Kathleen Thomas Gaspar):

With an ongoing drought a major factor in the San Luis Valley’s potato industry, planting this coming season could be down between 8 and 10 percent from last year’s 55,000 acres.

Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee based on Monte Vista, told The Produce News in mid-April he had “no way of knowing” going into planting, but he said given circumstances he looks for it to be down.

“It could be between 50,000 and 52,000 acres, but right now we just don’t know,” Ehrlich said. Acreage in 2014 was bumped up from the previous year’s 49,700 acres, and Colorado’s largest potato production area saw an overall better growing season. Summer hail hit just under 4,000 acres, but nonetheless shipments year-to-date for March 2015 were up from the previous year.

Rio Grande National Forest federal reserved water right decree a “huge success story” — The Pueblo Chieftain

April 23, 2015


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Few things heighten the blood pressure of water users like a federal reserved water right.

Around the American West they’ve been used to secure water supplies for Indian reservations, national parks and other federal lands, occasionally overturning the pecking order defined in water law by the maxim “first in time, first in right.”

But local water users in the San Luis Valley have spent the last couple of months urging the Rio Grande National Forest to protect one that’s believed to be the only one of its kind ever granted to an entire national forest.

“It’s a huge success story, not only for the federal agency, but for the water users in the San Luis Valley,” said Travis Smith, who represents the region on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Local groups and forest officials spent more than two decades negotiating the decree that protects in-stream flows on the 1.9 million-acre national forest before hammering out an agreement in 2000.

The decree established 303 quantification points on the headwaters of streams and rivers in the eastern San Juan and La Garita mountains and the northern Sangre de Cristos.

Each quantification point includes minimum high flows and maximum high flows that vary depending on the time of year.

The in-stream flows, which don’t involve the removal or consumption of any water, are designed to protect stream function and fish habitat.

The decree also gave forest officials the right to an unspecified amount for fighting fires.

But the upcoming revision of the forest’s management plan has prompted the federal agency to examine its existing management practices — including those for water — and collect public opinion on whether change is needed.

The plan-revision process is expected to last four years, but U.S. Forest Service officials want the feedback before they begin devising management alternatives later this year.

Toward that end, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, a 21-member panel representing users from around the valley, voted earlier this month to submit comments calling for the decree to stay the same.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District followed with a similar vote Tuesday.

Such consensus would have seemed unlikely in the 1970s when the Forest Service began seeking federal reserved rights for in-stream flows at water courts around the state.

The trials for those efforts in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins were sprawling affairs with each ending up in the Colorado Supreme Court before being sent back to their respective trial courts.

Neither water court, in the end, granted in-stream-flow rights to the national forests in those basins.

And, initially, there was plenty of opposition in the Rio Grande Basin as 35 parties filed objections to the Forest Service’s filing.

Steve Vandiver is director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District but he was involved in negotiations for the Rio Grande’s decree as the division engineer at the time.

He said the lack of development in the headwaters of the Rio Grande compared to other river basins made it much easier to reach a deal.

“If you look at the other basins, there’s a lot of private ground in and above the forest,” he said. “If you’re Vail, or you’re Aspen or Copper Mountain, you don’t want a dedicated flow below you that has to be met every day.”

The decree signed by Judge Robert Ogburn mirrors Vandiver’s point, noting that there are only four large reservoirs and 181 other water rights located on or upstream of Forest Service lands.

Still, local water organizations secured important concessions in the decree.

The priority date for the forest’s water right was pegged at 1999, even though the lands covered by the decree were brought into the national forest between 1902 and 1938.

Another point in the agreement holds that if the Forest Service impeded on the exercise of other water rights or increased its stream flows through the use of its land-use authority, the decree could be reopened.

Jim Webb, who served as forest supervisor for the Rio Grande at the time of the decree, credited Vandiver and other local water leaders at the time for being forward thinking. “There was a high degree of trust,” he told The Chieftain in a phone interview.

Moreover, he said the failed efforts by American Water Development Inc. and Stockman’s Water Co. to take water out of the valley made water managers more amenable to locking down in-stream flows on the forest.

He, like Vandiver, wants the decree left untouched, adding that there’s no unclaimed water left on the forest to increase the in-stream flows or become available for downstream users.

He also doesn’t want to see anyone mess with the decree because of the impact it would have on the forest’s relationships with its neighbors in the valley.

“Politically, it would be a bomb,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

Well rules closing in — The Valley Courier

April 16, 2015
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Imminent well rules for the San Luis Valley are now being refined for clarity, consistency and defensibility against potential court challenges.

State Engineer Dick Wolfe reviewed the latest draft of the groundwater rules Tuesday in Alamosa with the group of local residents and water attorneys serving on the groundwater advisory committee. He said although he had hoped the April 7th meeting would be the last one, he expected there would be at least one more next month to review changes related to comments received on Tuesday and within the next couple of weeks.

Other actions that must be completed before the rules can be submitted to the court include: complete statement of basis and purpose; finish the response functions peer review; and complete/gather supporting documents that must be submitted to the court along with the rules. These documents will comprise the evidence that would be presented in court proceedings , should the rules be challenged, Wolfe explained.

The Attorney General’s office is reviewing the rules to make sure they will be defensible in court, Wolfe said. The modelers who would have to testify in court have also been working with the state engineer’s office to make sure the language in the rules is accurate and properly defined.

Wolfe has tried to minimize, if not eliminate, potential objections to the proposed rules by involving a wide variety of folks in the rulemaking process. Each of the advisory committee meetings throughout the multi-year process of formulating the well rules has been public, with crowds generally running from 50-100 people.

The audience was a little smaller Tuesday than the month before, and the questions fewer, with one of the concerns revolving around what happens if efforts to replenish the aquifers do not work, even with everybody giving it their best shot.

The state legislature has mandated that the artesian pressure in the Rio Grande Basin (the Valley) must get back to the level experienced between 1978-2000 , and the well rules are designed, in part, to meet that requirement . Because it is difficult to pinpoint what those pressure levels were, and should be, the state engineer’s office is incorporating data collection in the well rules to better understand the 1978-2000 pressure levels. The state engineer’s office will work with water conservation and conservancy districts, sub-districts and water users to collect data about the confined aquifer system and will release a report within 10 years from the time the well rules become effective.

Based on that investigation and report, the state engineer will determine what’s the best method to achieve and maintain the sustainable water supply in the confined aquifer system that the legislature is requiring.

The new draft on Tuesday included a paragraph giving the state engineer latitude to allow greater pumping in areas of the Valley that might exceed that 1978-2000 level at some point in the future.

“No one knows for sure if that will in fact happen ” if they can demonstrate they are replacing injurious stream depletions, they are in a sustainable condition ” and not interfering with the compact,” Wolfe said.

However, if the opposite is true and efforts to reach that 1978-2000 goal are not successful it might mean going back to the drawing board.

“If pumping levels don’t get them there, then we have to evaluate what else do we need to do,” Wolfe said.

Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the information that will come out of the data collection within the next 10 years, if not sooner, will determine if additional restrictions might be necessary to get the aquifer to the mandated sustainable level. If additional restrictions become necessary, he said, “that will be a new rule making process.”

Division 3 Assistant Engineer James Heath added, “That’s where we would have to come back and do another rule making and redefine additional parameters to reduce pumping more, recharge more “”

Well Rules Advisory Committee Member David Frees suggested that rather than going through the lengthy rule-making process again in 10 years or so, if it turned out that was the necessary course, it might be better to include some provisions in the current rules to allow the state engineer to enact stricter curtailments if necessary to meet the water sustainability goal mandated by the state legislature.

“We want to be careful we don’t specify one solution to that problem if that’s what happens after 10 years,” Wolfe said.

Frees said he was not recommending that only one provision be included, “but I think there ought to be a provision in these rules if we don’t meet that sustainability the state will take some action or require further provisions.”

Wolfe said the rules do provide for that: “Not later than 10 years from the Effective Date of these Rules, the State Engineer must prepare a report concerning the results of the investigations.” Based upon the results of the investigations, the State Engineer must determine the preferred methodology to maintain a Sustainable Water Supply in the Confined Aquifer System and recover Artesian Pressures and thereafter propose any reasonable amendments to these rules.

Wolfe said, “We created these rules. We can amend them.” Another advisory committee member suggested that the rules include a default provision if the sustainability goal is not met so the state and folks in the basin don’t have to go through another 6-8-year process to develop more rules.

Attorney Bill Paddock disagreed that a default provision should be included in the rules. He said the default provision might not work either , which would just create more problems in the future. He recommended collecting the data that will provide a better understanding of how the system operates before setting up a default provision. Advisory Committee Member Norm Slade said, “Some of these sustainability plans might be impossible ” I would like to see you put something in there so you could regulate these wells if it’s impossible to reach sustainability . If a state engineer deems a sub-district can’t or won’t meet sustainability standards, those wells may be regulated.”

Wolfe said that is in the rules, and any well owner who does not comply will ultimately be curtailed.

Slade asked if the state had to wait 10 years if it looked like it would be impossible for a particular plan to meet the requirements. Wolfe said the rules state that the engineer’s office will prepare a report and proposed amendments no later than 10 years but do not specify a time period.

“I agree we shouldn’t be waiting until the 10th year,” Wolfe said.

He said the state would continue monitoring and evaluating the various plans set up to comply with the rules to make sure they are working.

“These things are set up to allow people to adjust as they go along,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe explained that the rules’ assumption is that hydrological conditions in this basin will return to what they were in 1978-2000 , the period of time the aquifers are mandated to recover to. However, the new normal may be drier conditions, as they have been in more recent history, Wolfe explained, and people cannot just wait and hope things get better on their own.

He pointed to the first subdistrict , which is going into its fourth year of operation, and said in his opinion it has proven that water plans can be successful.

He and other Division of Water Resources staff explained that the well rules and the models the rules rely on provide flexibility and ranges to account for variables such as wet years and dry years. That helps water planners like sub-districts decide what they might need to do, for example providing enough water storage to make up for drier years.

Advisory Committee Member LeRoy Salazar said not all of the tools are in place yet, but he liked the direction things were moving and believed the work being undertaken with the rule implementation process would provide more tools for the future.

Wolfe agreed. “Even though there’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point, in some ways this is the beginning ” The state’s going to be working closely with the users as we go forward ” There’s going to be better and better tools to predict the future.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

Rio Grande Forest water right is working — Rio Grande Roundtable

April 16, 2015
Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative

Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

If it ain’t broke ” don’t let the government fix it.

That’s the gist of San Luis Valley residents’ message yesterday to representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and their consultant who are gathering input to revise the Rio Grande National Forest’s plan.

In fact, members of the Rio Grande Roundtable who represent varying water interests throughout the Valley went so far as to make a motion to write a letter to the Forest Service urging it not to change the Forest’s plan regarding federal reserve water rights. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from Charlie Spielman.

“There’s no need to change it,” said Travis Smith, who sits on state and local water boards and manages the SLV Irrigation District. “It is a huge success story not only for the federal agency but for the water users in the San Luis Valley. Don’t change it. I think we have demonstrated over the last 30 years it is a very workable situation.”

Rio Grande National Forest Deputy Supervisor Adam Mendonca said he was not aware of any other National Forest that had anything like this. He said in 1977 the process began to develop a federal reserve water right that would provide in-stream flow for such purposes as fish and other wildlife habitat. The water right decree was filed in 2000 and is specific solely to the National Forest. The decree requires minimum flows in many riparian areas. Mendonca said the flows are so minimal they do not impact other uses and in fact provide benefits to those uses.

“I have yet to have anyone tell me the decree we have today is bad,” he said. “We don’t have monitoring data that would indicate it is not working.”

He said many people were unaware the federal government had a water right in the forest, which is probably a good thing because they have not seen any detrimental effects resulting from it.

“If you hadn’t noticed a real impact, I would say it’s working,” he said. Unlike the process in other basins in the state, the water right in this basin was accomplished without litigation thanks to the forest supervisor at the time, Jim Webb and then-Division Engineer Steve Vandiver, Smith said. He added that the decree that is in place provides a certainty for water rights for the Forest Service in addition to providing certainty for the water users.

“I would strongly support that it needs no change,” Smith said.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson agreed.

“My understanding is it was a monumental accomplishment for the Forest Service and local water users ,” Gibson said, “something that was not accomplished in any other basin.”

He added, “It worked. We have demonstrated it works.”

Mendonca explained that the Forest Service is currently working under a plan approved in 1996, and the parts of that plan that no one wants to change will just roll over into the new plan. The Forest is not starting over with a new plan but is revising the 1996 plan, he added.

“We will use the 1996 plan until we have a new one filed ,” he said.

He said the revision plan is a four-year process, with this being the first year of that process. This year, which ends this summer, is a time of assessment when the Forest Service and its consultant Peak Facilitation Group are gathering input from residents throughout the area on what they believe should be kept and what should be revised in the current plan. The Forest Service has held numerous public meetings already, many of which focus on specific parts of the plan such as timber use, water and livestock grazing.

The Forest Service also wants input on what people believe should be changed under the standards and guidelines specified in the plan, particularly since the Forest’s budget has decreased drastically in recent years so it is more difficult to meet the “have to” requirements as opposed to “it would be good to” guidelines.

Mendonca said the budget for the Rio Grande National Forest has decreased from $14 million to $8.5 million over the last eight years. When the budget declines that significantly , he added, “something doesn’t get done.”

That is why it is important for the forest plan’s standards and guidelines to be “sustainable and attainable,” Mendonca said. The Forest Service will prioritize what it focuses its resources on according to those mandates and guidelines.

The next two public meetings regarding the Forest Service plan revision are scheduled Monday and Tuesday , April 27 and 28, with the first on April 27 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Alamosa County Commissioners Building, 8900-A Independence Way, Alamosa, specifically related to vegetation, timber and fire issues, and the second on April 28 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Saguache County Road and Bridge, 305 3rd Street, Saguache, with a focus on current issues and foreseeable trends concerning water and soil management.

For more information, visit the RGNF plan revision website at http:// riograndeplanning .mindmixer.com/ or contact Mike Blakeman at the Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 852-5941.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

Mosca wastewater project progressing — the Valley Courier

March 27, 2015

Wastewater Treatment Process

Wastewater Treatment Process

From the Valley Courier (Phil Ray Jack):

Alamosa County Commissioners (ACC) received an update on the Mosca Wastewater Infrastructure Improvement Project Wednesday.

“The project is moving forward,” Rachel Baird reported , “and we are in the process of applying for the additional funding it will take to complete it.”

In January, the commissioners approved a $1.4 million plan for a new wastewater treatment system in Mosca. For years now, the small community located in northern Alamosa County has wrestled with a failing sewage system and the threats to public health caused by it.

According to some reports , the system has been in disarray for two nearly two decades, threatening residents’ health because the sewage is not being adequately treated before being discharged, and leaching into the area surrounding existing septic tanks. Seven of the 10 septic/leach fields systems have wells located within the minimum 100 foot setback distance, which makes them highly susceptible to contamination.

A preliminary engineering report describing the proposed system had been presented to the county during a previous meeting. Mosca’s new wastewater system will consist of three parts: a collection system, a wastewater treatment facility and a discharge system.

Ken Van Iwarden, who is representing Alamosa County in the process, explained that groundwater tests were conducted on March 17 by the Colorado Water Association. The results will not be known but will provide more information that will help with determining what type of system will be appropriate for the project.

Until the project is completed , the county will continue to regularly pump the failing system because there is no other option, costing county taxpayers upwards of $50,000 annually.

More wastewater coverage here.

Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meeting recap

March 16, 2015

Kerber Creek

Kerber Creek

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Scars from the San Luis Valley’s mining days are slowly healing.

Kerber Creek in the northern part of the Valley is one of the places where mining provided a temporary income and left a permanent scar on the area’s land and water.

Trout Unlimited and several partnering organizations are gradually working to revive the soil and water along Kerber Creek, which flows through Bonanza and Villa Grove, where mine tailings rendered land and fishing streams lifeless for many years. Yesterday the Valley-wide water organization, Rio Grande Roundtable, approved $30,000 out of its basin funds towards a $277,677 project covering about six acres in the middle portion of the Kerber Creek Restoration Project. Project Manager Jason Willis explained this would tie together restoration efforts already conducted in this section.

There are 13 tailing deposits in this small area alone, Willis explained, seven on one side of the creek and six on the other.

Work will begin in conjunction with 5,900 feet of in-stream improvements by Natural Resources Conservation Service this summer and wrap up this fall to improve vegetation and water quality on this stretch of Kerber Creek.

Willis explained that amendments such as limestone provided by the Bureau of Land Management will be added to the soil in phytostabilization efforts, and metal tolerant native species will be planted. The goal is to create a self-sustaining system similar to the undisturbed landscape that existed before the mining occurred, Willis explained.

He shared videotaped comments of landowner Carol Wagner who has owned a ranch along Kerber Creek since 1986. She explained how the quality of water in the creek had improved from extremely poor and unable to support fish habitat when she bought the property to a much more vibrant and beautiful state since restoration efforts began. Landowners such as Wagner contribute towards the restoration project , which includes several partners such as BLM, NRCS and the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety.

In addition to providing funds for the ongoing Kerber Creek restoration, the Roundtable yesterday heard a preliminary funding request , which will be brought back next month for formal action, from Judy Lopez for $45,300 over a three-year period from the basin account for education and outreach efforts such as newspaper articles, radio shows, educational videos, web page updates, project tours and administration. The roundtable also voted to establish an executive committee to help manage roundtable business such as planning the meetings, agendas and speakers and reviewing applications. The committee will consist of the three officers, who until the end of the calendar year will continue to be Chairman Mike Gibson, Vice Chairman Rio de la Vista and Secretary Cindy Medina, as well as roundtable members Peter Clark, Ron Brink, Judy Lopez , Heather Dutton, Steve Vandiver, Charlie Spielman, Nathan Coombs and Karla Shriver. Also during their meeting on Tuesday the roundtable members heard a presentation on geophysical and hydrophysical logging tools and techniques by Greg Bauer of COLOG who shared various tools to learn what’s going on beneath the surface. He said many of these tools could be used for well logging that could be accurate and cost effective. Theroundtablealso heard a report from Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten that the snowpack in the Rio Grande Basin is now up to 87 percent of average, about where the basin has been at this time of year for the past couple of years. The National Weather Service forecast through the summer calls for above-average precipitation.

Sandhill Cranes making spring migration through the San Luis Valley; Festival this weekend — CPW

March 10, 2015

Frome email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

The annual spring migration of greater sandhill cranes is in full force in southern Colorado. If you’ve never seen this beautiful event, be sure to put it on your bucket list.

“People in Colorado should take time to see the cranes; the migration is truly one of nature’s wonders,” said Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the San Luis Valley.

The annual San Luis Valley Crane Festival is scheduled for this weekend, March 13-15.

The cranes start arriving in late-February, flying from their winter nesting grounds, primarily in New Mexico. The large wetland areas, wildlife refuges and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds. The cranes stop in the valley to rest-up and re-fuel for their trip north to their summer nesting and breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Cranes are among the oldest living species on the planet: Fossil records for cranes date back 9 million years. The birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies standing 4-feet tall with a wing-span of up to 7 feet and weighing in at 11 pounds. Besides their imposing size, the birds issue a continuous, distinctive and haunting call. At this time of year cranes are engaged in their mating ritual and the birds perform an elaborate and elegant hopping dance to gain the attention of other birds.

The birds are most abundant at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, located 6 miles south of the town of Monte Vista on Colorado Highway 15. The birds also are easily seen in farm and ranch fields around Monte Vista.

Wildlife watchers can also see the birds at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge located southeast of the town of Alamosa, and at the Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas. Plenty of birds can also be seen in the many agricultural fields near Monte Vista and Alamosa.

The cranes are most active at dawn and at dusk when they’re moving back and forth from their nighttime roosting areas. Be sure to dress warm as temperatures can be very cold in the valley.

During the three days of the festival, free tours are offered at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the birds are most active. Visitors take buses to various spots on the wildlife refuge, and local experts talk about the migration and the refuge. If you want to take a tour, be on time because the buses leave promptly.

The festival headquarters and starting point for the tours is the Ski Hi Park building located near U.S. Highway 160 on Sherman Avenue on the east side of Monte Vista. Visitors can pick up maps, schedules and information at the headquarters.

Besides the tours, a variety of workshops are put on by bird, wildlife and photography experts. An arts and crafts fair continues through the weekend at the headquarters building. The crane festival is organized by the local crane festival committee, with help from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rio Grande County, SLV Ski Hi Stampede, Monte Vista school district, and the city of Monte Vista.

The number of cranes in the valley peaks in mid-March and many linger through the month. So even if you can’t go the weekend of the festival there’s still plenty of time to see the birds.

Birdwatchers who travel on their own should be cautious when parking, getting out of vehicles and walking along roads. People are also asked to view birds from a distance with binoculars and spotting scopes, and to observe trail signs and closure notices.

Many other bird species – including eagles, turkeys and a variety of waterfowl – can also be seen throughout the San Luis Valley.

Approximate distances to Monte Vista: Denver, 220 miles; Colorado Springs, 182 miles; Salida, 85 miles; Vail, 175 miles; Durango, 135 miles; Grand Junction, 230 miles.

For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, see: http://www.cranefest.com.

To learn more about sandhill cranes, see: http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/SpeciesProfiles.aspx.

For more information on State Wildlife Areas in the San Luis Valley, go to: http://wildlife.state.co.us/LandWater/StateWildlifeAreas/Pages/swa.aspx.

For more information about the San Luis Valley wildlife refuge complex, see: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/monte_vista.


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