This blog was co-authored by Emma Reesor, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project and Fay Hartman, Conservation Director Colorado River Basin with American Rivers.
In south central Colorado, the Rio Grande River ties together generations of people and communities across the San Luis Valley. Braided together by shared ethics of caring for land and water, everyone in the San Luis Valley depends deeply on the Rio Grande – for their livelihoods, the rich diversity of wildlife, and activities they enjoy, as well as their connection to the rich history of people who have come before them. Water management has always been a challenge in this arid region, and our new film, Through Line, showcases a new generation of water managers, who are facing challenges like climate change, growing pressure to the water supply, and renewed water export threats head on.
“Everything we do revolves around it. The river is the community. It makes us whole. It completes us,” says 4th generation San Luis Valley farmer Doug Messick in Through Line.
Today, the Rio Grande is more important than ever, providing critical benefits for the community from water for agriculture and recreation to important wildlife habitat and clean drinking water for local and downstream communities. Like many other southwestern rivers, the Rio Grande faces many challenges, including degraded habitat, over appropriation of water, and decreasing flows caused by drought. Communities across the San Luis Valley recognized these threats and developed the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) in 2001, to restore and conserve the health of the Rio Grande for the diverse ecological and human communities who depend on it. Over the past 20 years, the Restoration Project has partnered with farmers and ranchers, state and federal agencies, local communities, and other non-profits to address challenges facing the river through holistic restoration projects that improve fish and wildlife habitat, agricultural water use, recreation opportunities, and overall river health.
The San Luis Valley community has come together to restore the Rio Grande because the region depends on this shared and finite resource. Through Line showcases the many ways the river provides for the community – benefits that extend beyond the river corridor across the entire Valley, as water flowing in rivers and streams is inherently linked to the groundwater below.
Today, a new challenge faces the river and community, in the form of a water export proposal. Renewable Water Resources (RWR) is proposing to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley’s confined aquifer and export it from the Valley to urban communities on Colorado’s Front Range. This proposal would reduce aquifer sustainability, permanently dry up at least 20,000 acres of farmland, and negatively impact the rivers, streams, and wetlands that give life to the local communities and wildlife populations. The San Luis Valley is united in opposing the water export because it threatens the very backbone of the community, its water supply.
Through Line celebrates the importance of protecting and restoring the Rio Grande. It describes both the history and future of water management in the Valley through the voices of modern managers—specifically a growing number of women in a historically male-dominated profession— working together to ensure that the needs of communities are met alongside the needs of the river itself, underscoring that while the challenges may be many, “the future health of the Rio Grande is in good hands” as Karla Shriver describes. The film touches on just how detrimental the water export proposal would be for the Valley, the river, and all that depend on it.
“If our little community doesn’t work together to protect our land and water, everything’s lost,” says Ronda Lobato in Through Line. And she’s right. The Rio Grande and San Luis Valley are a magical part of Colorado and the southwest. A healthy, flowing Rio Grande ensures this special place will continue to thrive today and in the future.