Healing the Alamosa
CAPULIN, Colo. – The Alamosa River valley is a place where history is neither distant nor abstract. People mostly do what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did. Consequently, they know a lot about what their forefathers’ land and lives were like.
Without this community’s organic connection to its own history, the Alamosa River would be a dead and poisoned ditch. Because of it, an impoverished county has taken on the task of reviving a damaged, 53-mile-long waterway. The project is ambitious in its own right, irrespective of the community’s poverty. Perhaps more important, it is an illustration of what it means to know a place, and to care for it.
Conejos County, in the southwestern corner of the San Luis Valley, is the second poorest county in the state of Colorado. Settlement here is organized along the Alamosa. By the early 1990s, water still flowed but the river effectively had died.
“Nineteen-ninety was the last year you saw fish in the stream,” Alan Miller explained as he led me beneath a canopy of mature cottonwood trees. “It killed everything: snakes, frogs, water spiders.”
One-fifth of the Conejos County population lives below the poverty line. Household income is half the state average. Farmers here plant oats, barley, potatoes. Ranchers raise a few cattle.
In this desert rift valley, 7,000 feet high in the rain shadow of the San Juan Mountains, only 7 inches of precipitation fall annually. The Alamosa, Colorado’s only official dead-end river, is essential to agricultural life. Its green thread of cottonwoods and willows weaves between low benches of alluvial cobblestones before vanishing into wetlands near the town of La Jara.
The southern reaches of the San Luis Valley were the high-water mark for Mexico’s 19th-century expansion to the north, before this region became part of the United States. The land here was good; many of the settlers who came, stayed. Miller’s great-great grandparents emigrated here from Taos, and like him they were farmers. Residents today speak a comfortable mix of Spanish and English, and a visitor could easily believe he or she were in northern New Mexico, rather than Colorado.
A river ruined
When the Summitville mine opened in 1987 in the San Juan Mountains in Rio Grande County, some downstream locals worried that such an operation, at such an altitude, was a potentially disastrous combination. Nobody ever had built a heap-leach mine so high before – above 11,000 feet. Heap-leach technology is gold mining at its most brutal: A mountain is methodically stripped away, the rubble piled onto a pad and drizzled with a dilute cyanide solution. The cyanide dissolves and picks up microscopic gold, which is retrieved from the liquid leaching out of the pile. The cyanide is captured and reused – unless it escapes.
The poisoning of the Alamosa began soon after the mine opened. Evidently, the heap pad leaked from the beginning. In 1992, the mine’s executives, who worked for a Canadian gold mining company, fled the country after the mine’s holding ponds failed and released a toxic stew of cyanide and heavy metals into the river’s headwaters. Everything in the waterway died. The Environmental Protection Agency rushed in to try to stop the damage. A decade and $160 million later, life is beginning to return to the river.
Yet, by the time the Summitville mine failed, the Alamosa wasn’t much of a river anyway. “Summitville really kicked us in the pants,” Miller, 44, said as he surveyed the muddy Alamosa from an eroded cutbank. “It made us wake up and realize we have really screwed up this watershed. It made us think, `even if we do things wrong, it will be an improvement.'”
The river’s problems truly began in 1970, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran bulldozers down its bed to create a channel. The Corps did this to alleviate winter flooding of Capulin, a roadside hamlet centered on a turquoise-hued adobe post office along two-lane state Highway 15. The flooding was caused by ice dams and silt buildup, which were themselves the result of the human mismanagement of the Terrace Reservoir near the river’s head.
By turning the Alamosa into a ditch the Corps solved the flooding problem, but it created new ones. Where once it had meandered, the river now moved quickly, cutting into the Ice Age alluvial gravels beneath it. In places the riverbed dropped 10 feet into the ground, and the water table underlying the surrounding lands fell with it. Riparian areas dried up. Riverside fields grew parched. The dozens of agricultural ditch companies that pulled from the Alamosa found that their headgates – the structures that divert river water into irrigation ditches – were perched above the stream.
Banks began eroding and falling into the river. To try to stop the erosion, people lined the banks with old vehicles, bales of hay and even railroad cars, according to John Shawcroft, 78, a cattle rancher who raises beef near where the river vanishes into wetlands. “We have really polluted this river,” he said.
The problems caused by the Corps of Engineers manifested themselves almost immediately. In the late 1970s, Alan Miller’s uncle tried to pull together a community group to fix the river, but no one could agree on the solution. When he died a decade later, the momentum to do something went with him. A few years later, the Summitville mine failed.
Ignacio Rodriguez, 76, remembers when he could catch his limit of brown and rainbow trout in the few hundred yards of river that run through his ranch.
Others here recall the rich growth of willows, the kids floating in inner tubes.
“We don’t have a bowling alley in this county, or a theater,” said Rodriguez over weak coffee at his kitchen table. “This river was a big recreational thing.”
A community effort
Rodriguez and Miller and ranchers like Shawcroft, who heads up the local water conservancy district, concluded that outsiders – the Summitville mine, the Corps of Engineers, the EPA officials who had treated residents, as Rodriguez said, like “ignorant bumpkins” – had done more harm than good. The energy to fix the river, and the answers to questions about what that meant, would have to come from within.
They formed a working group that eventually brought together more than 100 stakeholders in the stretch of river around Capulin. “It’s not a bunch of 30-something yuppie environmentalists,” Miller says. “We’re farmers and ranchers. This is not an agency doing this. This is allowing people to figure it out.”
This summer, after years of false starts and debate, the group – the Alamosa River Restoration Foundation – is preparing to restore 4.5 miles of the waterway. The restoration will involve moving 9,000 refrigerator-sized rocks into the streambed. The rocks won’t be used as riprap to channel the stream further. Instead, they’ll be set as vanes and cross-vanes and J-hooks, all designed to help the river use its energy to return to its former meanders, to slow and pool and rise, to build up sandbars where willows and cottonwoods can gain a toehold.
If the project works, then the Alamosa will begin to look, and to behave, more like a natural river. In another sense the project is already a success, for it has illuminated the ownership locals feel for the river, and it is showing them what they can accomplish.
Miller grows passionate when he talks about the reality of rebuilding the waterway, and the metaphor of doing so in a way that brings a community together.
“You’ve got to give the resource back to the people,” he said. “They’ve got to manage it. Who’s going to take care of it in the future? If we do that, there probably won’t be another Summitville.” His passion has a lot to do with the fact that he has become the Foundation’s field coordinator, in charge of a $1.1 million budget.
That money comes from many sources, mostly as grants: the Environmental Protection Agency, Ducks Unlimited and the Colorado Water Conservation District, among others. From Miller’s point of view, however, the in-kind contribution of time and energy from locals, valued at more than $300,000, is critical to the success of the restoration. Sweat equity is necessary to give people a sense of ownership, he explains.
This is the sort of project that typically would be headed by a federal agency, a Big Brother able to get the funding and bring in the experts. The logical candidate, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has offices down the road at La Jara. Many urban and suburban Americans never have heard of the NRCS, a Great Society response to the 1930s Dust Bowl. (The NRCS formerly was known as the Soil Conservation Service.) In counties such as Conejos, where 45,000 acres of land are in agriculture, the NRCS is an important and visible federal agency.
Feds stand aside
Ben Rizzi sits behind a neat, government-issue desk in the cool stillness of the NRCS office and explains why he has taken a back seat as the Alamosa project has bounced along. He has seen how the Corps and the EPA and the state have behaved here, and evidently he has learned something.
“All along, I thought it would be better for it to be community-based,” he said laconically. He needs no reminding that nothing is so political in the West as water. Samuel Clemens, after all, is apocryphally credited with the observation that this is where “whisky is for drinking, and water is for fighting.”
So Rizzi has been helpful. He’s scared up some money and staff time, but he hasn’t tried to take charge.
The community, after all, is comprised of people who remember what this river was like, and they are the ones who will live with the results of its restoration. It is possible that, had such damage been done to a waterway in a place where most of the residents are newcomers, the absence of collective memory might have made it impossible to visualize the river as it had been.
Today, there is more agreement along the Alamosa on what people here don’t want – the polluted ditch they have been living with – than on what they do. The latter agreement, people here say, will come with success on the ground.
Miller leads me out to a headgate across from Ignacio Rodriguez’s horse ranch to show me his vision. “You can’t exclude the human out of the equation,” he says. “I think so many environmental movements and so many corporations and so many government agencies have good ideas, but they leave something out.”
The Foundation completed a small demonstration of restoration techniques beside Rodriguez’s ranch in 2000, and the results are starting to show. In a few years, Miller says, he hopes so much new growth will be here that we won’t be able to see across the river. Behind us, unirrigated grazing land has been beaten down to dust by years of drought. In front of us, water purls through the gate and young willows are beginning to sprout along the banks of the river.
“This is what the river is about,” Miller says. “We’re using it. We’ve got to use it. This is our livelihood, But we can use it more wisely.”
Hal Clifford lives in Telluride, where he can hear the San Miguel River through his bedroom window.
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