Colorado Water Trust has been around since 2001, and we have a lot to show for it, with over 11.5 billion gallons of water restored to 444 miles of rivers and streams. That’s no small feat. So what are some of the projects that provide benefits to rivers year after year? The Instream Flow/Terrace Spillway Project on the Alamosa River has kept water in the river since 2015 (and was our largest project by volume last year). It is a shining example of how we leverage a network of partners to help rivers. I got on the phone with Cindy Medina of Alamosa Riverkeeper, under the auspices of the Alamosa River Foundation, who is one of our partners on the Instream Flow/Terrace Spillway Project, to talk about the collaboration that helped revitalize a community.
Cindy lives near Capulin, a city in the historic San Luis Valley, along the Alamosa River. When I spoke with her, she was busy planning the Alamosa Riverkeeper community programs for kids. She excitedly described to me how the local youth are loving the fishing programs. She sees kids running down to the riverside, fishing poles in hand, and hears about families spending their days down by the river. “The river gives the community a sense of pride,” she said to me. But things weren’t always this way in Capulin.
About 40 miles upstream from Capulin, the Summitville Mine is located at the headwaters of the Alamosa River. The mine operated until 1991 when it was shut down because of contamination problems that were killing off the fish and making the water unsafe for the communities along the river. The site was designated as a superfund site and a cleanup and mitigation program began. Cindy, when reflecting back on those times, said, “The unhealthy river robbed the dignity of the community.”
By 2005, the cleanup effort had produced an extensive plan called the Alamosa River Watershed Restoration Master Plan and Environmental Assessment. But that was just the beginning. Former US Senator, United States Secretary of the Interior and Attorney General of Colorado, Ken Salazar, suggested that the community look into what is called the Instream Flow Program (ISF) through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), to help get some water flowing through the river. Flowing water would provide the basis for restoring the river and, in turn, the community. But the Alamosa Riverkeeper didn’t know where to start or how an ISF water right worked. Someone suggested to her a group called the Colorado Water Trust, so she picked up the phone.
In 2008, Cindy and the Alamosa Riverkeeper began working with Colorado Water Trust to plan out flow restoration for the river. The Water Trust provided guidance and technical assistance, and connected them to people who could help, so that the community could secure water rights to get the river flowing. The federal grant for the cleanup effort and a number of organizations provided money to team up with the Terrace Reservoir Irrigation Company to repair the reservoir spillway and to set aside storage space for ISF water rights, which the Water Trust helped secure. The repairs got started and the network of partnerships invested in revitalizing the river grew. By 2015, stored water was released after the irrigation season to extend the river flows, supporting the fishery and replenishing the aquifer. Paired with mining site cleanup and a new water treatment plant, the water now flowing through the river has improved and it supports the local community and fisheries.
It took a network of concerned and dedicated citizens, government agencies, and nonprofits to get the river flowing clean and healthy again. Throughout my call with Cindy, she emphasized how many people worked together to realize the dream of a healthy river flowing through Capulin. Colorado Water Trust relies upon these networks of partnerships and engaged local communities that inspire and partner in our work. As Cindy said during our call, “It takes a village.” Thanks to the collaboration of the Alamosa Riverkeeper, the Alamosa River Foundation, the Capulin community, the CWCB, Terrace Irrigation Company, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, this project now runs year after year. It provides enough clean water for families to splash around in and for parents to watch the smiles on their children’s faces as they pull in their first trout. It is truly special to know that this generation of children playing in their local river will remember the memories created on the river and will grow up to cherish their rivers, like we do. Working together to keep Colorado’s rivers flowing is what we are all about here at Colorado Water Trust.