In November 2013 I had the opportunity to interview Heather Dutton, executive director of the Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation. The Foundation was established in 2004, pursuant to a holistic study completed in 2001 to evaluate the health and efficiency of the Rio Grande. The findings of this study helped design what is now the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.
At this time, the Rio Grande Headwaters Task Force was formed to prioritize the recommendations from the 2001 Study and commence a number of cooperative projects.
The 2001 Study identified that the number one cause of degradation in the Rio Grande is sediment input from eroding banks, at rates that far exceeded historical rates. There were also many structural issues with the stream such as faulty and inefficient dams and diversion structures, unsafe bridges, and disconnected flood plains. In terms of non-structural issues, the Task Force needed to address riparian health (which would in turn improve stream bank degradation), rebuild aquatic habitats, and focus on community outreach and education. Needless to say, the Force had their work cut out for them.
Being an Alamosa native, The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project is close to home for executive director Heather Dutton. Rio Grande restoration began when Heather was in high school. Her father was a member of the restoration Task Force, and after completing her undergraduate degree, she began to work part-time on the project while in grad school. Heather started work full- time on the Rio Grande Watershed Restoration project in 2010, focusing on the Riparian Restoration and Steam Bank Stabilization Project, and became coordinator and executive director in 2011. The most recent portion of the project to be completed is Phase 4: Stream Bank Stabilization (completed in October 2013). This portion of the project was completed over the duration of two years; one year for planning, and one year for construction. The construction team was able to restore a mile and half of the Rio Grande… that’s a ton of rock-moving and shrub-planting!
Before the restoration began, stream banks ranged from 8 vertical feet to 20 vertical feet tall. These sandy banks had lost all of their anchoring vegetation due to land use change or hydrology changes. Changes in historic hydrologic regime also caused the banks to lose their stability. In times of high water, anywhere from 2 to 10 feet of land would be swept away, trees toppled in, and sediments were swept downstream. When this happened, critical habitat was lost for vegetation, fish species, and bird species.
What was the plan to fix this mess? Reduce erosion to historic rates.
How was this accomplished?
Step #1: Slope stream banks so that the river could reconnect with the flood plain.
Step #2: Plant lots of vegetation to hold stream banks in place.
Step #3: Form rock structures that hold the bank in place and create habitat for fish.
Photo courtesy of RGHRP
With the completion of Phase 4: Stream Bank Stabilization, Heather was able to begin some concept work on Phase 5, an important project for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Phase 5 adds an agriculture component, whereas Ag has been indirectly effected in the previous phases. Phase 5 will address issues of erosion and non-point source pollution from sediment in two areas that happen to be in two state wildlife areas near Buena Vista. Carrying the same goals as Phase 4, Phase 5 is focused on stabilizing a stream bank that supports a diversion dam, which will then irrigate those two state wildlife areas. Updates on this project to come.
While all of the technicalities of rebuilding a healthier and more efficient Rio Grande is significant and life-changing for the surrounding populations, Heather shared with me that her most favorite aspect of this project has been working together with so many different aspects of the community- players you would never expect to come together and work for the greater good, benefiting consumptive and non-consumptive uses.
Another Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project that illustrates just how eager these communities are to cooperate is the Diversion Repair and Replacement Program, more specifically, the Plaza Project. Throughout this project, four different ditch companies collaborated on three different diversion structures on a seven mile portion of the Rio Grande.
The main goal of the Plaza Project is to replace and enhance diversions in order to improve irrigation efficiency. The project also strivers to incorporate fish and boat passage into these diversions and improve habitat and recreation potential, while simultaneously restoring stream banks and wetlands in the project area. This project is a great example that it is possible to benefit consumptive and non-consumptive uses all at one, and the neat thing is that people gravitate towards a project that helps improve the river for everyone, and they want to work together.
Photo courtesy of RGHRP
While different parts of the community in Alamosa may have diverse goals, whether it be farming, wildlife conservation, or recreation, they all seem to share a common value; hard work and cooperation. Alamosa and the Rio Grande Watershed Restoration Project understand that a healthy river benefits everything it touches.