The Crestone Eagle, June 2004:

Wetlands at Lago de Oro being restored
by Mary Lowers

If you are a Crestone/Baca resident, you can’t help but have noticed that the Lago Del Oro wetlands restoration project, just past White Eagle on Road T, has been underconstruction. Scott Johnson, who leases the property from the Baca Grande Property Owners Association (POA), in conjunction with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is restoring what were natural wetlands from the man-made “lake” constructed in the 1970’s.

The original idea for restoring the wetlands was proposed by the NRCS, who work restoring “isolated” wetlands nationwide, due to the adverse environmental impact the dry lake was having on the land and surrounding area.This restoration of the natural, spring fed, boggy wetland, includes the planting of 900 trees, along with a variety of grasses, and the reclamation of the natural spring that was covered long ago. It’s very exciting!

Johnson’s five year lease of the property from the POA began in 2001. It included a stipulation that the wetlands be developed along with the NRCS, who the POA was already working with on this project The restoration, Johnson explained, was held back a few years due to drought conditions. “It is impossible to grow, let alone restore anything during a drought,” Johnson pointed out. Wetter, more favorable weather, sent Johnson and Ron Gilbertson, the NRCS administrator of the project, who is headquartered in Center, into action on the wetlands restoration.

Last fall tractors tilled the north and east sides of Lago Del Oro. This prepared the earth for planting over $1000 worth of native seed. Varieties of grasses planted include native needle and thread grass, blue grama, and western wheat and rye grass. NRCS recommendations were, and will be, followed for all planting at the site. Ron Gilbertson informed me, “Seeds and plants are chosen on the basis of soil surveys.” These surveys give a good idea of what the earth will sustain at a particular location.

As the project progresses, shrubs—including Sumac, Coton-easter, Skunk Brush, Caragana, and Nanking Cherry—will be planted. Trees to grace the new wetlands will include Rocky Mountain Juniper and Cedar. Gilbertson informed me that, “ The tallest tree will only reach fifteen feet in height, and the trees and shrubs were chosen for erosion and sediment control.”

Along with taking on the role of technical advisor on the restoration project, the NRCS is taking on a substantial share of the costs, according to Gilbertson, 75% of the price of establishing a spring-fed pond and planting grasses, shrubs and trees to create wildlife habitat will be funded by the NRCS.

Before the Lago Del Oro lake could be developed, there needed to be tons of fill soil and rock carted in; the soil there naturally was too sandy, and wouldn’t hold a lake.The lake, by the way, cost the POA $35,000 annually in upkeep, and covered a natural spring-fed bog. Johnson said, “Bulls wallowed in the natural spring.”

The wetlands restoration project hired Rocky Mountain Septic, an Alamosa outfit that does lots of work in Crestone and the Baca, to remove the fill, which was carted across Road T from the site. Johnson said Rocky Mountain Septic was the company for the job. “Having heavy machinery on the road for weeks was just not an option. Also we were not able to find another excavation company that could provide: a two track hoe excavator, a bulldozer, a bobcat, a screening plant, a motor grader, two dump trucks and two loaders.”

An additional plus, the job was done in a week’s time! Local residents, worried about a new eyesore caused by the new rock pile from the restoration work, can lay concerns to rest. Johnson told me, some of the rock will go in trade for excavation work, and some will be used at another reclamation project in the Baca Grande.

The NRCS is involved in wetlands restoration projects throughout the continental USA, Alaska and Hawaii. The group works particularly to protect and restore so-called “isolated wetlands”. These seemingly random bogs, springtime ponds and marshes are usually linked to large wetland and water systems, through water overflow or by ground water. A vital environmental function is provided by these wetlands. They absorb floodwater and filter pesticides and other pollution, protecting downstream rivers, tributaries and wetlands. In addition to providing needed habitat for many birds and beasts, “isolated” wetlands are critically necessary to the healthy functioning of the ecosystem.

They keep the flow going. Because the NRCS works with private landowners to restore isolated wetlands, the specific location of other projects in the area couldn’t be disclosed by Gilbertson. However, he was able to tell me there is one other site in Saguache County besides Lago Del Oro, consisting of 340 acres, three sites in Rio Grande County, encompassing 469 acres, three Alamosa County restoration locations at a total of 560 acres, and one site in Costilla County of approximately 100 acres.

Incentives for private land owners, like the POA, to team up with the NRCS, include: preserving the environment, tax breaks, ease in handing down the property or selling it, and owner controlled access to property. In other words private property doesn’t become public land as the price an owner pays for restoring wetlands through the NRCS.

Both Gilbertson and Johnson, feel the Lago Del Oro restoration stands a good chance for success. Bringing the spring back to feed the wetlands is the first concern, after it had been blocked for so many years by the fill dirt and rock that created the man-made lake. Plans are to allow water to flow into the wetlands, to keep newly planted vegetation alive, until the spring can take over. The water will also be used to prime the spring so the water will start up again, just like you prime a well pump that’s been unused for awhile. Gilbertson said,”The odds of the spring coming back are good. It may be reduced, but it will come back once it starts flowing.” While as Gilbertson pointed out, “You can’t expect the trees to grow up in a year,” the 900 trees planted by Scott Johnson and a crew of volunteers on May 20, promise a harvest of beauty and a positive step toward preserving water quality, wildlife and the environment, not to mention the view while driving down Road T.