Restoring the Rio Grande River: Needed, but no easy task
Ryan Summerlin May 11, 2014
Taking on a river project such as the Rio Grande is challenging and capital-consuming.
However, these projects are vitally important to hundreds of different stakeholders in the San Luis Valley.
The Rio Grand Headwaters Restoration Project was formed to implement the 2001 study that was performed to improve the river.
“A whole bunch of people came together and realized that the Rio Grande was degraded, and they wanted to know what they could do about it. It wasn’t meeting the functions that we put on it. We need water for agriculture, for recreation, for wildlife habitat and to meet the needs of the Rio Grande Compact,” said Heather Dutton, executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.
She continued, “The river wasn’t meeting all those needs, so they wanted to know why, and what they could do about it. Our goal is to help improve the Rio Grande for everyone that depends on it.”
The 2001 Study was sponsored by the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which cost $250,000 at the time.
The mission of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project is to restore and conserve the historical functions and vitality of the Rio Grande in Colorado for improved water quality, agricultural water use, riparian health, wildlife and aquatic species habitat, recreation and community safety while meeting the Rio Grande Compact.
The RGHRP has several programs they administer. This includes Riparian Restoration and Streambank Stabilization, Instream Infrastructure Improvement, Watershed Stewardship and Outreach and Education.
According to the their website, The RGHRP has worked with partners and 50 landowners on 6 Projects to improve the condition of over 9 miles of streambanks on the Rio Grande. The projects have utilized a multi-faceted approach and have resulted in improved water quality, reduced streambank erosion, increased sediment transport capacity, increased quality of riparian areas, and proper functioning floodplains. These improvements truly enhance the overall condition of the Rio Grande in Colorado.
A typical riparian stabilization project includes bank shaping and installation of streambank stabilization structures. Structures include willow bundles and clump plantings, rock structures, including “J” hooks, weirs and rock barbs, and log structures such as root wads and tree revetments. These structures move the flows away from the bank, thereby halting lateral movement of the stream channel and reducing sediment loading; this allows for vegetation to become reestablished in the riparian zones.
Grazing management and bioengineering enhance the riparian habitat and further stabilize the streambank,” according to the RGHRP.
One of the areas of the steam they worked on is just outside of Alamosa at a river bend area.
“This site had vertical banks, that were caused my changes in hydrology and loss of anchoring vegetation. We have these important riparian areas that were eroding every year, and we were losing habitat for species, including endangered ones. It was also obstructing our ability to move water down the river to meet the needs of the Rio Grande Compact. This was the number one issue that was noted in the study,” Dutton said.
So she went to work, raising funds and working with stakeholders. Then they began construction.
“Our first concern was steam bank instability. We sloped the bank back so the river is reconnected with the flood bank. We also put in rock structures to anchor the bank while it heals itself, and while the vegetation gets established. Now we have stabilized the bank, and are rebuilding habitat and improving water quality,” she explained.
The restoration was paid for by multiple parties. Twenty percent was paid by the landowner.
“We get a lot of landowners that want to do the work, but it’s pretty cost prohibitive. Multiple sources help to improve the area and share the cost,” she said.
She continued, “We never do a project where the landowner doesn’t pay something, because we want to make sure there is ownership and there is long-term management. We have pretty good luck. We’ve done 50 different projects with 50 different landowners.”
The area was also improved in terms of weed management.
“We look at how we can improve things from a broad standpoint, and this was a really successful project,” Dutton said.
Another project the RGHRP is working on is the McDonald Ditch Diversion.
“The McDonald Ditch Diversion is a really senior ditch. So senior, in fact, that if the river is at 20 feet, they can take 16. Because they are so senior they are on every day,” she explained. The project started in 2010, when the ditch president came to Dutton and said he had a problem. “It’s a mess. It doesn’t work for the river because it pushes the river into the bank and it is constantly eroding. The county is worried about the road and the power company has had to move their pole three times. The river is pretty wide down below and above this point, so it’s a choke point and can cause flooding,” Dutton explained.
This area of the river has problems in high waters, but also in low waters.
“The way the water moves through here in low conditions, there is so much rebar and nasty stuff that you can’t get past it in a boat, and the fish have a hard time getting through here,” she said.
The RGHRP was pleased to hear the ditch company wanted to work to improve the diversion.
“This was one of the top three specific areas in the study that needed to be improved. It’s an almost three mile project area, and now we have several ditch companies and many different stakeholders involved,” Dutton said.
One of the issues they have faced was with trash removal. Right above the McDonald Ditch diversion is a riparian area that was covered in trash.
“Rio Grande County pulled out as much as they could, but it damaged the area. They got in trouble because it was a riparian area, and could have had up to a $1 million EPA infraction through the Core of Engineers. We worked with the Core and restored the wetland, and the Core signed off on it and Rio Grande County didn’t owe any infractions. That was important because this is a rural county that doesn’t have that kind of money,” Dutton explained.
The McDonald Ditch Diversion is now finishing up going through the planning process, and Dutton hopes they will start construction soon.
“So far it’s been a really fun community project. We have had 30 stakeholders in every meeting for discuss potential alternatives, and I’m confident we will fix this area,” she said.
The Rio Grande watershed in Colorado covers 8,200 square miles. The Rio Grande Headwaters Project area includes the 200 miles of the Rio Grande Corridor in Colorado, including the 20-mile reach of the South Fork of the Rio Grande that originates near the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass, and Willow Creek, which originates near the Continental Divide on the north side of the basin. It runs to the Colorado border with New Mexico. ❖