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River restoration project complete, celebration planned

Since “it” began, “it” had to happen.

“It” being the San Juan Chama Diversion Project. “It” being the diversion of 70 percent of the Lower Blanco water. “It” being the Lower Rio Blanco Restoration project. Finally, “it” being the completion of that project.

“The whole thing is amazing, in that a group of volunteers got together and worked really hard to get this river restored,” Bob Hemenger says of the restoration project. Hemenger was president of the Lower Blanco Property Owners Association when the restoration project was finished.

Some people date the project’s beginning to the Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956, which was enacted to regulate the flow of the Colorado River and to enable the storage of water for beneficial consumptive use. Under this act fell such environmentally popular developments as the Glenn Canyon Dam, the Navajo Dam and Reservoir, Curecanit Dam and Flaming Gorge Dam. Also under this act fell the San Juan-Chama Project.

Other people would date its beginning to when the San Juan Chama Project was completed and began diverting water (110,000 acre-feet of water from Upper San Juan tributaries annually according to the Bureau of Reclamation) in 1971.

“You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on to you,” that’s what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said in the fifth century BC. The river never stops flowing, the waters ever changing. But for the Blanco River, it wasn’t just the water that was changing after diversion began. Every part of the river began to change — the depth, the width, the temperature, the ecology, the fauna and habitation.

That’s why the Lower Blanco Property Owners Association got together and decided to restore the river that flowed along their yards, where feet would occasionally step in, in the heat of summer, looking for a nice place to be submerged. For decades, though, those spots were tough to find.

According to Val Valentine’s account, documented in his book, “A River Once More,” homeowners along the river began to complain of a reeking that came from the river.

It did not take long for the homeowners to act. According to Valentine, the first was Morton P. Chiles, Jr. who started a letter-writing campaign to state government claiming, “… I believe that the Bureau of Reclamation has gone beyond their legal rights in diverting the water from this river and are not abiding by Public Law 87—483.”

The letters did bring awareness of the problem to state government, however, it was not until 1989 that anything was really done.

The LBPOA decided to begin the Lower Blanco River Restoration Project. The project’s goals: oxygenate the river, stabilize the bank, do flood mitigation work and create fish habitat. While not getting paid or seeing a dime for their efforts, they worked together to get the project fully funded.

In 1989, the Lower Blanco Advisory Committee (LBAC) was formed and chaired by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). In 1991, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized funding for a complete river morphology study by Dave Rosgen of Wild Land Hydrology. The work was the foundation for the 1996 National Park Service grant for a rehabilitation demonstration project for 2.2 miles of the 5.5 mile stretch. That became Phase I of the five-phase project. The work was completed in 1999, costing a total of $124,000, partially funded by grant, but with $30,000 from the pockets of the LBPOA.

“After the mid-ninties, the project tapered off,” Hemenger said. Phase 2 did not begin until 2004.

And then there was another down period. The LBPOA was looking for funds, grants, a way to complete the project.

“It doesn’t make sense to do a partial river restoration project,” said Stacey Fitzwater, secretary of the LBPOA. So, in 2008, the restoration project started again. The last three phases, covering approximately six miles of the river, were completed by Riverbend Engineering between 2008-2010.

“If the river were left to its own, it would adopt to the change in hydrology,” Riverbend engineer Chris Pitcher said. He added, though, it would take a long, long time. Riverbend engineering designed the restoration work of the river, which included altering flows in river, reshaping of the channel.

Working within the original stream geometry, Pitcher said the river was made narrower and deeper to support ecology. Since the diversion the stream had become wide and shallow, a lovely habitat for algea but not for fish.

Large rock structures were also added to the river in strategic places to provide for an increase in fish habitat. The rocks provided a certain amount of protection and a nice hole in which fish could live and swim.

Pitcher said he was amazed at the commitment of the people involved with the project. “A bunch of neighbors got involved and said, ‘let’s get this thing going,’” Pitcher said. “It’s an impressive accomplishment.”

After so many years of working towards completion, the LBPOA has decided to celebrate.

“We are very happy and relieved,” Fitzwater said. For those still living on the river, she says the completion of the project makes a huge difference. “Now we have a nice, little river.”

The celebration is Saturday night, June 25, at the Pagosa Lodge. Dinner begins at 6 p.m., but reservations through the LBPOA are required. A dance, which is open to the public, begins at 9. Trina B. and the Blanco Boys will perform. A few of the band’s songs have lyrics about the Blanco River itself.

At the celebration there will be three speakers dealing with three separate phases of the project, providing the history of the project. One speaker, Jerry Curtis, will be coming from his home in Texas. Curtis “spearheaded” the first phase and acted as a liaison between the LBPOA and government agencies. The other speakers will be J.R. Wilson and Hemenger.

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