Crestone Eagle, May 2005:
Sustainability, ecology and responsible development:
Threats to wetlands in the Baca Grande
by Kim Malville, Crestone/Baca Land Trust
The health of wetlands in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge
and the migratory birds that rely upon them depends on responsible
development in the Baca Grande.
Spanish Creek Wetlands
By far the largest wetland of the Baca Grande lies at the
western portion of Spanish Creek where it enters an area known
as Lovesy Pasture. The major seasonally flooded pond of the
area lies in designated open space, but it is surrounded by
private parcels of land that are also occasionally flooded.
When flooded, the pond has abundant aquatic life. During 2005
the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, funded by a grant that
the Crestone Baca Land Trust received from Colorado DOW, will
perform a biological survey of the major riparian corridors
in the Baca Grande. The survey of the Spanish Creek Wetlands
will be especially valuable to establish a base line for documenting
possible environmental degradation due to development in the
The Spanish Creek wetlands consist of a half-mile of wetland
that extends eastward from the boundary of the Baca National
Wildlife Refuge. The area contains Baltic rush, several species
of grass, cattail, iris and willow. The eastern edge of the
area is dominated by halophytic species of greasewood and
From the time of spring run-off until mid-summer (and into
the fall when there are heavy rains) there is a pond of open
water 100 feet by 200 feet averaging 4-5 inches in depth.
The area provides habitat for ducks and shorebirds, including
mallards, killdeer, great blue herons, and Canada geese. Mallard
families have been observed on its margins, and the pond has
been described as an ideal location for establishing duck
nesting habitat, provided that water from Spanish Creek and
local springs can be assured throughout the breeding season.
The wetlands fed by Spanish Creek extend from the Baca Grande
to approximately 4 miles into Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
With only 6-7 inches of rainfall in the floor of the valley,
wetlands are so rare and vulnerable that the Baca Grande community
has a responsibility to protect their health and viability.
South Branch of Spanish Creek
Although the second largest wetland in the Baca Grande, the
Oxbow Pond Wetlands, has largely been protected though a GOCO
grant to the Manitou Institute and the Crestone Baca Land
Trust, it still is threatened by upstream development along
the ancestral South Branch of Spanish Creek. For perhaps 100
years, water has occasionally been diverted by the Baca Ranch
from the main channel of Spanish Creek into a secondary channel
known historically as the South Branch of Spanish Creek. As
evidenced by multiple stream terraces and by ancient trees
along its winding natural course, this channel is natural,
clearly neither a ditch dug by the ranch nor a flash-flood
The annual flows of diverted water sustained a meandering
ecosystem of large old junipers, small meadows of flowers,
and a continuous corridor for a variety of wildlife. There
are springs in the upper portions of Spanish Meadow, which
flow for several months of the summer and fall. There is also
evidence of underground water flow along part of the corridor.
However, water diversion in some form, either pulses or a
continuous flow for 1-2 months, is probably necessary to maintain
the health of the Meadow, the South Branch ecosystem, and
the Oxbow Pond Wetland. If the annual diversion were to cease
entirely, the fragile riparian corridor and the Oxbow Pond
Wetlands could be irredeemably damaged.
Global principles of sustainability applied locally
The larger issue with respect to protection of these wetlands
is the sustainability of the ecosystem that contains the Baca
Grande community. We hope that the community can be exemplary
in its approach to sustainable development, which may be defined
as development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs. The community needs to develop a master plan for
growth that will benefit present and future generations without
detrimentally affecting the local resources, especially those
of the aquifer or the biological systems of San Luis Valley.
Principles of sustainability
1. The interdependence be-tween ecological, social, and
economic factors: Landowners need to recognize the dangers
to the fragile ecosystem by excessive development.
2. The reduction and elimination of waste products:
Septic systems, no matter how well-designed, can generate
long-lasting chemical contamination of the wetlands and the
aquifer. The community should also be alert to the possibility
of contamination of the aquifer by the water treatment plan
of the Water and Sanitation District.
3. Healthy natural systems as the basis for sustainable
communities: The dynamics of healthy wetlands involves
complex biochemical feedback mechanisms, degradation of certain
waste products by microbial action, and equilibrium between
inflows and outflows. Pollution can be biologically mitigated
as long as the system is not overloaded. Equilibrium, balance
through feed-back, and sustainability are also the characteristics
of the kind of healthy community that is desired by most residents
of the Baca.
4. Future generations considered in decision making:
The long-term consequences of development on the ecosystem
need to be carefully evaluated. Baseline biological surveys
are needed to monitor change in the wetlands.
5. Local decisions have regional and global implications:
Since wetland contamination will be carried into the wetlands
and playas of the National Wildlife Refuge, poor land use
planning can have consequences for migratory bird populations
throughout the hemisphere. The motto “Think Globally
and Act Locally” has special meaning in this situation.
Definitions of wetlands
The federal regulatory definition of a jurisdictional wetland
is found in the regulations used by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers (Corps) for the implementation of a dredge and fill
permit system required by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act
Amendments. According to the Corps, wetlands are “those
areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater
at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that
under normal circumstance do support, a prevalence of vegetation
typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”
For the Corps, in order for an area to be classified as a
jurisdictional wetland (i.e., a wetland subject to federal
regulations), it must have all three of the following criteria:
(1) wetland plants; (2) wetland hydrology; and (3) hydric
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines wetlands from
an ecological point of view, i.e. “wetlands are lands
transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where
the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land
is covered by shallow water." Wetlands must have one
or more of the following three attributes: (1) at least periodically,
the land supports predominantly hydrophytes (wetland plants);
(2) the substrate is predominantly undrained hydric soil;
and/or (3) the substrate is non-soil and is saturated with
water or covered by shallow water at some time during the
growing season of each year. This definition only requires
that an area meet one of the three criteria (vegetation, soils,
and hydrology) in order to be classified as a wetland.
Septic systems on lands adjacent to wetlands pose serious
threats, even if the systems are well designed and functioning
properly. We are concerned not only about fecal contamination,
but also about contamination from complex hydrocarbons that
are flushed down household drains but not broken down by bacteria.
Concerns include organochlorines, household cleaners, substances
excreted in urine such as antibiotics, birth control pills
and hormonal replacements, and substances that affect endocrine
systems such as those given off by certain types of plastics.
The U.S. Geological survey has recently released a list of
82 septic system chemicals that are being studied for long-term
effects. Most of these substances are so new to the world’s
ecosystems that natural removal mechanisms involving microbes
and enzymes are not in place. Chemical contaminates can be
absorbed by and concentrated in plants and animals low on
the food chain. Some trace chemical compounds can cause ecological
changes. For example, triclosan, a disinfectant found in liquid
soaps and plastics, increases antibiotic resistance in bacteria
and decreases the diversity of algae in streams and wetlands.
Contaminants can and do move up the food chain and affect
the amphibian and bird populations of the National Wildlife
Refuge (NWR). Since the wetlands of the neighboring NWR are
important stopovers for migratory birds, accidental contamination
of the Baca’s wetlands will acquire national significance.
Hormone pollution of rivers and wetlands
The following information about endrocrine contamination of
rivers appears in the November 3, 2004 issue of National
David Norris, a professor in the University of Colorado's
Department of Integrative Physiology, has specialized in environmental
endocrinology for over 35 years. He is leading an ongoing
research project looking into hormone pollution in three rivers
in the Denver area. He has been looking at fish above and
below where sewage treatment plant effluents are being added
into the rivers.
While the best data he has acquired is from Boulder Creek,
in terms of numbers of individuals, reproductive abnormalities
were found in fish downstream from the effluent in all three
sites. The culprits according to Norris are endocrine disrupters
that come from birth control pills, plastics, and detergents.
These disrupters settle into cell receptors meant for hormones
and confuse the body’s chemical communication system.
Norris focused on white suckers, a species of fish not known
for exhibiting intersex characteristics under normal conditions.
"Our impression is that some males are being feminized
[because] of the nature of the chemicals that are in the water,
and most of them are estrogenic [meaning they stimulate development
of female sex characteristics]. Some of [the estrogenic chemicals]
are natural urinary estrogenic products from humans, and some
of them are pharmaceuticals—birth control pills."
Norris has also found large concentrations of compounds called
alkylphenols—common substances often associated with
household detergents and personal-care products, which are
the same kinds of compounds that have plagued fish in England
and Europe. The difference between Boulder Creek and Europe
is that the source of chemical contamination is domestic sewage,
not industrial sewage. Similar phenomena have been found in
the headwaters of the Potomac River, where scientists have
discovered that some male bass are producing eggs.
Implications for the Baca Grande Master Plan
Spanish Creek Wetlands:
Adjacent to the wetland of Spanish Creek wetlands there are
9 lots along Stallion Trail that have been occasionally flooded
(Grants 1060-1069), which should never have been platted in
the original subdivision for that reason. Human activity on
these lots could negatively impact wildlife, and, more seriously,
septic systems could imperil the water quality in the wetlands
within both the Baca Grande and the Baca National Wildlife
Refuge. A conservation easement should be placed on these
wetland lots to prevent further development.
Within 500-1000 feet of the pond there are lots along both
sides of Homestead Road between Camino Del Rey and Beaver
Road that should be included in a buffer zone of minimal development.
There are already some homes in the area, but additional development
should proceed only with careful consideration of the ecological
impacts of people and septic systems. Since individual septic
systems can not remove many of the new chemical contaminants,
a vault to be pumped appears to be the only responsible option
at this time. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the water
treatment system of the Water and Sanitation District is sufficiently
sophisticated to handle these chemicals, and it may be discharging
contaminants into the Baca NWR.
We suggest that no construction be permitted on Stallion
Trail and that a moratorium be placed on new construction
along Homestead Road between Camino Del Rey and Beaver Road
until standards are established for appropriate housing density
in that area and for non-polluting septic systems.
South Branch of Spanish Creek & Oxbow Pond
The South Branch of Spanish Creek, which lies between Spanish
Meadow and the Oxbow Pond Wetlands, appears to be an ancient
water course, which now flows underground except when fed
by a seasonal diversion of Spanish Creek across Spanish Meadow.
Evidence of continuing underground water flow along the corridor
has unfortunately been provided by the pollution of a well
adjacent to the corridor in the winter of 2001. Analysis of
the water indicated the presence of fecal matter evidently
due to an improper septic system in Spanish Meadow, some 1000’
upstream. The fact that this contamination event occurred
during winter indicates that underground water flow, not surface
water, must have been responsible for carrying fecal coliform
matter along the South Branch corridor. This disturbing information
should alert all property owners with wells to the hazards
of poorly functioning septic systems. In particular, it thus
appears that all wells along that corridor between Spanish
Meadow and OxBow Pond wetlands (as well as the wetlands themselves)
may be at risk due to upstream septic systems.
There are a few remaining undeveloped lots that overlie the
old watercourse. New septic systems should be allowed on those
lots only after careful analysis of the soil and the proposed
septic system. To the extent that inspections can be arranged,
the septic systems along the South Branch should be re-inspected
to verify that they conform to county standards.
Contamination of wetlands by complex hydrocarbons that are
flushed down household drains but not broken down by microbes
are a potential threat to wetlands and water courses, no matter
how carefully neighboring septic systems are designed. Household
cleaners and substances excreted in urine, such as antibiotics,
birth control pills and hormonal replacements will flow through
a septic system and leaching field to be concentrated in the
soil and perhaps eventually reach ground or surface water.
The ultimate environmental hazard in our area is contamination
of the aquifer. As one of the major communities overlying
the confined aquifer, the Baca Grande has considerable responsibility
to avoid such far-reaching and long-lasting contamination.