Sandhill cranes have been migrating through the San Luis Valley of Colorado for thousands of years. The Rio Grande River likely attracted the first cranes to the Valley, providing the ideal habitat and abundant food resources that they required to complete their migration.
Early settlers brought agriculture to the San Luis Valley with them. To irrigate fields to grow hay, farmers diverted water from rivers onto the land, mimicking natural wetlands and effectively expanding habitat for cranes to thrive. When wheat and barley farming began in the valley in the 1900s, it also provided a high-calorie food resource that buoyed crane populations that were dwindling throughout North America.
More than 50% of land in the valley is now publicly owned, but over 90% of existing wetlands are on private farmlands. Although these lands and the water on them are managed as part of private business operations, they provide critical habitat for sandhill cranes.
However, we in Colorado relate all too well to the sentiment that “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting.”
The battles are fought on many fronts: agricultural versus municipal users; rural towns versus urban centers. Water often flows towards money.
Water in Colorado’s rivers and streams is sometimes diverted from one river basin to meet the demands of another. These exports take water from once-productive agricultural lands and dry them up in the process, and the wildlife that depend on these lands are often left out of the discussion entirely.
In the San Luis Valley declining groundwater and extended drought have already left the land thirsty for water. But even now, as Colorado knocks on the door of a third decade of consistent drought conditions, other interests are eyeing water from the valley’s underground aquifer to export to growing cities on the Front Range of Colorado.
Farmers and ranchers across the valley have been working together with partners like Colorado Open Lands and other local coalitions for decades to protect and conserve their water. As they come together once again to fight the threat of water export, they are fighting to make sure that there is a future for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin. And as long as there is a future for agriculture there will be a future for sandhill cranes.
Max Ciaglo is the Grain for Cranes Fellow at Colorado Open Lands, a statewide land and water conservation nonprofit. The Grain for Cranes program aims to support sandhill crane habitat by supporting agriculture in the San Luis Valley. Find out more at ColoradoOpenLands.org