In my family, the holiday season usually involves a healthy dose of puzzle time. Mom rummages through the garage and breaks out the ancient folding card table that still smells like Grandma’s basement and sets it up close to the fireplace and football games. From Turkey Day to X-Mas and sometimes even into the new year, it stays there, the table top shared between cardboard puzzle pieces and festive food and drink.  This tradition is inclusive, with the little ones and visiting friends making random contributions, and everyone bringing their own strategy and experience. In the end, one or two of us find ourselves at the table long after others have moved on, but almost always the jigsaw is completed.

I’ve come to think of the efforts to restore stream flows below working reservoirs in the Upper Rio Grande Basin of Colorado as puzzle time, with an extended family of water partners filling in the pieces. The Winter Flow Program was established on the Conejos River in 2014, and since then has grown to include 5 reservoirs and a diversity of water partners. It’s now an award-winning program that has restored flows and habitat over hundreds of stream miles.

Collectively, we developed this effort along with many other conservation and collaborative projects, because we have long overused the resource, and the impacts of doing so have caught up to us.  Like water supply and weather, this puzzle is dynamic, and the pieces look different every year. The goal is to get the most out of every drop, to diligently account for the various uses of water while optimizing benefit for both the human community uses and the ecosystems we all depend on.

The Context

On Colorado’s portion of the Upper Rio Grande and its tributarites, the immediately usable surface water (i.e. direct diversions from the river to farms)  was completely appropriated by the year 1900, mostly for farming and ranching in the flat and very dry (< 7 inches of rain) San Luis Valley. These early farms – with the old and most senior water rights – are mostly downstream of the legendary fisheries in the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers that help drive our recreation economy today, and thus don’t directly impact these fisheries.

The early 1900s marked the next phase of water development in the basin, which involved the capture of water supply during the winter for irrigation use the following year. This development happened quicky, and several high elevation reservoirs were built before 1920. The resulting storage of  water that would otherwise have been in the streams for a 150-day period (Nov. 1 to March 31) set in motion a large-scale degradation of trout habitat. Not only were the streams depleted for 40% of the calendar year, but arguably the harshest 40%. The impacts on the fish habitat could not have been more significant.

More recently, the overuse of groundwater has become an immense problem in the San Luis Valley, challenging the administration of a shared resource and creating yet another challenging hurdle for achieving sustainable water use in our community.

A New Puzzle Piece: The Winter Flow Program

With these challenges facing us, Trout Unlimited developed the Winter Flow Program  as a way to restore stream flows by re-timing water and identifying multiple uses for every drop. The program is funded by establishing a restoration-based marketplace for businesses seeking to offset their water impacts. For example, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs uses approximately 16 million gallons of water every year. In addition to on-zoo water conservation efforts, they want to acknowledge and off-set their water use by benefiting wildlife elsewhere.  They donate to the Winter Flow Program by sponsoring a water lease of 16 million gallons every year. This program of reciprocity gives Trout Unlimited the capacity and funding to be a day-to-day contributor within the San Luis Valley water community.  It provides us the financial ability to cost-share with our water partners in order to re-time water for multiple uses, including restoring stream flows and aquatic habitat during the harsh winter months.

We recently completed another year of the Winter Flow Program, from November 1st, 2021 through March 31st of 2022. The 2021-2022 program had 13 different water leases enrolled, adding 1,855 acre-feet of water (~ 605 million gallons) of flow which was delivered out of four on-channel reservoirs in the Upper Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers. Water from nine out of the 13 leases traveled at least 114 miles, and three of them made it more than 175 miles. Each lease has more than one purpose, from delivering water to livestock to providing augmentation water for sub-districts and water conservancy districts.

The Winter Flow Program is one restoration strategy that puts water where it is needed, when it is needed, through a community of stakeholders working together and stretching the resource for as many benefits as possible. Our San Luis Valley family of puzzle solvers includes: the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, various federal agency land and water managers, Groundwater Management Sub-Districts, water rights owners and too many local experts to name.

In every community throughout the west there are water puzzles to solve.  We are fortunate to have active, forward-looking partners here in the San Luis Valley. Everyone can help and you are always welcome at the puzzle table!

Written by Kevin Terry.