by Emma Savage

As you approach Crestone on T Road you may notice that North Crestone Creek, which runs into the Wildlife Refuge, is dry; and you may also notice that most of the many cottonwood trees that follow its course are dead or dying. As the raven flies across the North Crestone Creek watershed, from the peaks surrounding Ground Hog Basin and the Venable Cirque which drain into the North Fork, across the two great basins that drain off the sides of Comanche and Fluted peaks into the Middle Fork, to the peaks surrounding North Crestone Lake and North Crestone Creek, is a distance of five miles. Yet that figure belies the vastness of the area with its steep mountain sides whose winter snows and summer rains drain into North Crestone Creek. Why, you may ask, do we have a landscape that includes dead trees, a creek that goes dry by late July and a Wildlife Refuge scrambling to maintain habitat for Colorado state-declared endangered fish when we have such a watershed as North Crestone’s? The answer may lie in something you will encounter as you drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a channel you cross brimming with water headed for the Rio Grande, water pumped from our end of the valley, water that is the product of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamations Closed Basin Project (CBP). “Closed basin” refers to the condition that exists in the Northern San Luis Valley, in which no surface water runoff from either the San Juan or the Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges is tributary to the Rio Grande, and thus is presumed to stay in the San Luis Valley by way of the two aquifers which lie beneath the valley floor. While historically San Luis Creek, fed by all its tributaries including North Crestone Creek, did flow south into the Rio Grande, today there is no natural surface flow into the river. A subsurface lip of rock and clay contains the runoff from the surrounding mountains which recharge the aquifers of the upper valley, thus making the resulting basin “closed.” The Closed Basin Project was designed in the 1960s, legislated in 1972, funded in 1982 and implemented in 1988 to address two problems, neither of which pertains today.

According to a report delivered by Peggy Godfrey on September 9, 2019 to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board (RGWCD), of which she is a member and the northern valley’s representative, the first was the problem of saturated soils and their ensuing seepage into ditches which constituted what was termed “salvage water.” Historically the northern valley was a much wetter place than it is today. Water tables were so high that surface water couldn’t be absorbed. One can hear anecdotes of skaters skating from Saguache to Hooper, of duck hunters hunting in the fall when standing water near Rito Alto Creek attracted ducks, and of native hay being mowed between Moffat and Hooper. Today if you mowed, the only crop you would reap would be greasewood and sand. However, even before the CBP went into effect, the introduction of pivot irrigation systems in the early 1970s replaced flood irrigation, drew down the water tables and dried up the surface soils. Flood irrigation systems recycle water back to the land while pivot sprinklers remove it. The subsequent implementation of the CBP almost certainly has augmented and exacerbated the trend towards drier soils and lower water tables.

The second issue the CBP was designed to address was that of Colorado’s compact obligations to downstream users of the Rio Grande. At the time the CBP was conceived, Colorado was running a “compact debt.” But in the mid 1980s Elephant Butte Reservoir spilled twice into the Rio Grande, thus releasing Colorado from its debt. Again, by the time the CBP was implemented, the reasons for the implementation no longer existed. Still, annual compact obligations to down stream users of the Rio Grande must be met and therein lies the continued justification for keeping the Closed Basin Project viable.

It has taken me years to wrap my head around water policy in the San Luis Valley. It never seemed to make sense and the reason it didn’t make sense was that it didn’t make sense. What has transpired with the CBP in its implementation is a system of robbing Peter to pay Paul, Peter being the ranchers and home owners, the Wildlife Refuge, the animals and birds and landscapes of the northern valley, and Paul being agriculture with its pivot irrigation systems in the middle and southern valley. Agriculture takes out enough water from the Rio Grande River to again create a potential deficit in our compact obligations. Mitigation of the deficit is assisted through introducing waters taken from the north end of the valley by the CBP. However, in its design, it was explicitly stipulated that the only waters available to the CBP would be “salvage waters.” At no time was the project designed to authorize the “mining of water” when salvage waters were no longer available. Further, the project was not to cause a drop greater than two feet in the 1972 water table in wells at the edge of the project. Yet when the project was implemented, pivot irrigation systems had already exceeded this drop by half a foot.

At no time was the Closed Basin Project supposed to do injury to neighboring lands. Yet even with considerable evidence that it may be doing just that, no environmental impact studies have followed its effect on our landscape. Since 1988 to the present the CBP has pumped over 600,000 acre-feet of water out of the northern San Luis Valley, 48% of its current production comes from wells on the Baca Wildlife Refuge, while the lowered water table beneath San Luis and Saguache Creeks has rendered these waterways unable to deliver water to downstream users. Their water simply sinks into the ground. Through the 1980s San Luis Creek flowed through Moffat but it hasn’t flowed past County Road U-60 since 1999. Anecdotally it was observed that following a high production year of CBP pumping in 1997, acres of cottonwood trees died along Rito Alto Creek.

For years since the CBP was implemented ranchers in the north end of the valley haven’t been able to spread enough surface water to grow grass to feed their animals. The drop in water table is perhaps most telling south of Moffat where the water table has dropped from one foot to six and a half to seven feet; in 1986 the water table half way between Mosca and Hooper was at eight feet, now it is at nineteen feet; the water table on a ranch just north of Moffat was at the surface up until 1988 but since then has dropped to seven feet. Native grasses have been replaced by thistle, knapweed and wire grass, rendering a landscape that was once verdant, now high desert. One Crestone resident who grew up here says that North Crestone Creek used to flow year-round. Another describes large flocks of birds that could be reliably seen in the dense cottonwood greenbelt next to the creek.

In early October of this year, North Crestone Creek at the trailhead is still full of water. But because there may be no water table to sustain its flow, by the time it arrives at T Road, the creek bed is dry. Surface water rights to a dry creek are useless to the Wildlife Refuge. But North Crestone Creek isn’t the only creek where cottonwood trees are dying. Trees at the western end of the Willow drainage look like they’ve had the water table pulled right out from under them. About two years ago a healthy stand of about thirty-year old trees all died at once and nearby, a grand healthy specimen tree also died inexplicably. Big trees on the greenbelt near Badger Road whose green canopies I used to enjoy are now a scramble of dead branches. Deadman Creek looks like a war zone with dead limbs and trees strewn about on the ground and flailing at the sky. Bird life in the drainages has declined noticeably since I moved here in 2011.

While the opinions are mine, most of the information in this article comes from Peggy Godfrey’s September 9 presentation to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board. In it she requests that the board cease production of all Closed Basin Project wells in Phases Four and Five by the end of 2019, wells that directly affect us here in Crestone and our adjacent ranching neighbors and the Wildlife Refuge. The landscape that suffers most is the Wildlife Refuge as the Closed Basin Project wells are located on the refuge at the convergence of what used to be San Luis and Saguache Creeks and our local creeks draining off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The Closed Basin Project was implemented in 1988; the Wildlife Refuge wasn’t established until 2003. Thus, it inherited a difficult and awkward balancing of its own mandate to conserve and protect habitat and wildlife and the pre-existing claims on the area’s water by the Federal Bureau of Reclamations Closed Basin Project, the State of Colorado Water Conservation Board and its concerns over compact obligations, and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board, the three entities that currently monitor the operation of the CBP. I asked Peggy if she would make an abbreviated version of her presentation to our Baca Grande Property Owners Association and to the Town of Crestone’s Board of Trustees. It is my hope that these bodies will also make formal requests to the RGWCD that the wells in Phases Four and Five be closed down. In addition, individual members of our community can attend these meetings and write letters as well. Peggy will be speaking to the Town of Crestone Board of Trustees November 11 at 11, at the Friends of the Wildlife Refuges meeting at the Baca Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on November 13 at 7pm and at the POA board meeting on November 21 at 10am. Peggy Godfrey is our advocate on the RBWCD board and really the first person brave enough to initiate this vital conversation. I hope everyone in our community will support her in her efforts to reverse the damage being done to our landscape.

But as individuals there is something else each of us can do that is equally important. Attention, Mary Oliver says, is the beginning of devotion. We can pay attention. Our landscape isn’t just a scenic backdrop. It demands respect, attention, engagement and yes, devotion. Why are the cottonwood trees dying? Why are the creeks dry? Why are bird numbers down? We need to ask the questions before we can find the answers.

Letters to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board can be addressed to: C/O Cleave Simpson, General Manager, RGWCD; 8805 Independence Way, Alamosa, Colorado, 81101 or to cleave@rgwcd.org