In Colorado’s high-altitude San Luis Valley, the need to protect limited water supply for people, agriculture, and wildlife brings diverse groups together to creatively solve their water challenges.

Growing up on a ranch in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Jim Gilmore gained an appreciation for the abundant waterfowl and songbirds that use the ranch’s wetlands along the Rio Grande. In the 1980s, Gilmore traded in running cattle to pursue art full time, sculpting the animals and ranch scenes he grew up with. He still lives on the ranch along the Rio Grande, which he owns with his brother.

“My brother and I really have a love of wildlife,” says Gilmore. “I just see so much land being swallowed up with development and I think it’s important to keep corridors open for wildlife so they have a free run.”

Senior Water Rights Keep Wetlands Working

To make sure their land is always a wildlife haven, the Gilmore brothers put it into a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. In the San Luis Valley, ranches like Gilmore’s are important not only for their open land and habitat, but for the water secured with them. Snowmelt from the surrounding mountain ranges is the region’s main water source. The valley’s surface and groundwater supplies are tight. Eight-four percent of the valley’s extensive wetlands exist today on private land and are largely supported by irrigation. In drought times, water is most secure on the oldest ranches with the most senior water rights.

“Wherever there are senior water rights there are working lands with wetlands,” says Rio de la Vista, Associate Director of Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT). “Conservation easements help ensure that the water will always be tied to agricultural lands and the habitat they sustain.”

In the late 1990s, developers tried to export groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s rapidly growing and water-hungry Front Range. This major threat to the rural valley’s water supply was one of the first events that brought water users and conservationists together…

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