By Emma Reesor, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project

Rivers are the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley. The Rio Grande and its many tributaries transport snowmelt and rainfall from the mountains through the arid valley floor, supplying water for agriculture, downstream towns, recreation, and wildlife, making life in the valley possible. In addition to supplying water, the ecosystems surrounding the river filter the water, purify the air, fertilize the soil, and support a diversity of wildlife. These invaluable benefits to the environment are collectively called ecosystem services.

Changing land use practices, human disturbances, and prolonged drought has left many of the rivers in the San Luis Valley significantly degraded and unable to adequately preform these vital ecosystem services. River restoration, or the process of restoring damaged river systems, can help the ecosystem recover and function in the beneficial manner that it had before it was degraded.

River restoration in its many forms includes stabilizing eroding stream banks by installing stabilization structures, managing grazing practices, replanting the area with native vegetation, and more. When successful, these restoration practices directly benefit the local and downstream community by providing improved water quality, flood protection, and wildlife habitat, all services that the river historically provided.

The benefits of river restoration extend far beyond these valuable ecosystem services. Because funding for restoration projects often comes from Federal, State, and private grant monies, river restoration contributes significantly to the local economy. Government and private dollars are transferred to project sites in local communities where they support new jobs and provide income to local contractors and other industries. This money is then re-circulated through the local community, creating more jobs and multiplying its economic impact. In addition, successful restoration projects create and enhance tourism and recreation in the Valley. Improved river vegetation and fish habitat provides greater fishing and boating opportunities.

There are several local organizations working to restore rivers throughout the valley, each bringing in substantial money to the local community in the process. The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was one of the first organizations to do river restoration work in the valley. They have been cost-sharing with landowners and designing river restoration projects since the 1990s.

Similarly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW) partners with private landowners to provide funding, supplies, and technical resources to improve habitat, including river and wetland habitat restoration. Many of their projects emphasize the improvement of cottonwood and willow cover along the river, enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.
The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) is a small non-profit with the mission “to restore and conserve the historical functions and vitality of the Rio Grande in Colorado for improved water quality, agricultural water use, riparian health, wildlife and aquatic species habitat, recreation, and community safety.” The RGHRP was formed by multiple stakeholders to implement the findings of the 2001 Study, a river restoration master plan for 91 miles of the Rio Grande that documents degraded sections of the river most in need of restoration work. In addition to river restoration projects, the RGHRP programs include irrigation infrastructure improvement projects, wildfire mitigation projects, and educational events.

The Willow Creek Reclamation Committee (WCRC) grew out of a small group of concerned citizens in Creede dedicated to improving the water quality in Willow Creek, which is heavily polluted from a legacy of mining. The WCRC’s mission is “to improve water quality and habitat, reduce flood risks, reclaim areas impacted by mining, and preserve historic structures in the Willow Creek watershed in ways that are practical, cost effective, and beneficial to the economic sustainability of the Creede community.” WCRC has received substantial federal and state grant money to implement reclamation projects that improve water quality in Willow Creek and, subsequently, protect the high quality fisheries in the upper Rio Grande.

Through the process of river restoration, these organizations work to improve the ability of the rivers to support vibrant communities throughout the San Luis Valley.