Water, wetlands & habitat—the cranes are back, & water pumping is always a concern

The Crestone Eagle • March, 2020

by Lisa Cyriacks

The Sandhill Crane migration may be one of the last great animal migrations in America. Every year, the cranes converge in the San Luis Valley—in the spring on their way to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

Their stopover in the San Luis Valley is to build stores of energy by consuming massive quantities of food, much provided by the grains in the fields and aquatic invertebrates in wetlands along the Rio Grande.

Ruled by natural rhythms of the earth, over eons of time the Sandhill Cranes have had to adapt to human activity, even the ebb and flow of water in the valley. Without a doubt, migratory waterfowl—including the Sandhill Cranes—look for water, for roosting and foraging. They will follow the water where it flows, when it flows.

The Rio Grande Basin contains thousands of miles of riparian areas. The Basin also has a diversity and abundance of wetlands located throughout the valley.

The most recent addition to the San Luis Valley Wildlife Refuges complex is the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

Historically the lands included in the Baca NWR were used as a cattle ranch. Water use patterns were developed and varied little for over a century. Creek water from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was diverted through ditches and continuously redistributed further and further out to low-lying areas.

After the wildlife refuge was

established in 2004, natural creek flows were diverted to primarily provide water for wet meadow habitats. Over the past fifteen years, modifications have resulted in minimizing irrigation of upland habitats to restore hydrologic conditions to natural wetland areas.

Although there is no way to control how much or how long water is available, the goal is to promote vegetative diversity, promoting habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, secretive marsh birds, colonial waterbirds and upland birds—a primary objective of the Baca NWR.

Recently the Rio Grande Water Conservation District took up the discussion of the impact of pumping water in the watersheds of lower Saguache Creek and San Luis Creek. Peggy Godfrey, Saguache County representative to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board, is requesting an independent engineering study of groundwater depletion on lands that include the Baca NWR.

The Friends of the SLV National Wildlife Refuges took the opportunity to weigh in with concerns of the impact of continued groundwater withdrawals on the Baca NWR. Their letter advocates for a collaborative approach to studying water use and prioritizing ways to minimize impacts to habitat on the Baca NWR and throughout the San Luis Valley.

The Baca NWR has seen the groundwater table substantially lowered and much of the available wet acreage in 1984 has been lost—at least partially due to continued withdrawals from the Closed Basin Project. The playa wetlands on the downstream end of the drainages that flow out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rarely receive water anymore.

In their letter the Friends of the SLV National Wildlife Refuges point to the approximately 48% of water for the Closed Basin Project that is pumping water from directly under the Baca NWR. The hope expressed is that with decreased groundwater pumping, the wetlands habitat can be restored over time. But they also advocate for a collaborative approach, knowing that water use has changed for multiple reasons.

Water management in Colorado is complex and closely regulated. Migratory patterns for birds have shifted following the flow of water.

Today in the midst of debates about climate change, along with changes in precipitation over the years, it does not seem to be too much to ask that decisions made 50 years ago about groundwater be re-visited today.

To hear the cranes calling to each other, visiting each spring in timeless rituals of courtship on their way to breed and to raise their young, is to take a step back time.

Is it too much to ask to take a different step back in time and restore water resources and wetlands in support of wildlife and waterfowl?