The 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 Grants.

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 salt-grass.

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 water course.

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 soils.

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.

Chemical contamination
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 Geographic News.

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 Wetlands:
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.