Efforts continue to restore Lower Blanco River

In an ongoing plan to reclaim the Blanco River to its former glory, members of the Lower Blanco Property Owners Association are hoping to engage property owners along the river, full-time and part-time residents, for a fourth phase of the project that includes 1.4 miles of the river.

At a meeting scheduled April 28 from 7-9 p.m. in the south conference room of the Pagosa Springs Community Center, project supporters will present plans for further restoration of the river. According to Dave McDonough of the Lower Blanco Property Owners Association (LBPOA), there are 26 property owners who would be affected by the project.

“Raising the money is not an issue,” McDonough said. “We’ve done that. We need the property owners to engage with us. Ultimately, we need their permission to work in their back yards.”

When the Chama river diversion was opened in 1971, removing about 70 percent of the Blanco’s water to be sent to New Mexico, portions of the Lower Blanco were impacted, with diminished fish and wildlife habitats as well as changing the overall dynamics of the river.

With the third phase of the project completed last year, about five miles of the total nine miles of the project have been finished. Reaction to improvements on the river so far completed have been unanimously positive.

“It’s lovely,” said Kathy Keyes, a Lower Blanco resident. “There’s bigger fish habitat and last year, when my niece was here, we just took off our sneakers and would slide through the cross-vanes. There’s definitely an improvement.”

Although expanded fish habitat is a primary goal of the project, the restoration boasts several other merits from slowing down the river through the narrowing and deepening of channels, essentially making the most of available water resources that were depleted by the Chama diversion. The project also includes the construction of flood plains that can protect the integrity of river banks as well as mitigate flood issues with private properties.

“The flood plains will help keep the water off of pastures and properties and put it back into the river,” said McDonough. “Ultimately, what this project does is keep more water in the river. It creates a healthier watershed, healthier riparian environments, vegetation, and fish habitats.”

McDonough reports that one benefit of the project has already been seen. After the Chama diversion, numbers of the spotted leopard frog, a “species of concern” designate, dwindled as habitats dried up from decreased water in the river. “We’re seeing more of them, now, with better habitats built into the portion of the river we’ve completed.”

The LBPOA also reports that improvements on the river have not only provided safer environments for fish — along with increased numbers of fish — but also increased numbers of turtles, crayfish and birds. Furthermore, wells monitored along improved portions of the river have not only shown increased levels but water collected from those wells has been reported to be clearer and cleaner.

With permitting from the Colorado Department of Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers contingent on the project securing easements, McDonough hopes to contact property owners as soon as possible, either by meeting with them at the scheduled April 24 meeting or through phone or e-mail.

“Communication with the property owners is essential,” he said, “The funding is there but we need the easements. This is not going to cost the property owners any money.”

In fact, with funding from state and federal sources, the Southwestern Water Conservancy District, the San Juan Water Conservancy District, the Colorado Water Conservancy Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and donations from LBPOA members, the project has met the funding requirements for its estimated $364,000 budget.

“Not only is this not costing property owners any money,” McDonough said, “but it’s putting money back into the community by providing jobs when we get into the construction phase.”

According to project engineer Chris Phillips of Riverbend Engineering, crews “Should start construction in late August, early September,” with the project taking about six weeks.

Should construction be completed this summer, the LBPOA will begin the process of securing funding to begin the fifth and final phase of the project. That phase would include about 2.5 miles of the river.

Lower Blanco residents interested in the Lower Blanco river restoration project should contact Dave McDonough at 264-0596 for more information.

jim@pagosasun.com