Drought hit Southwest Colorado hard in 2018. Since mid-April, the United States Department of Agriculture has classified all of Montezuma county as experiencing “exceptional drought,” its most severe classification. The area has experienced “abnormally dry” conditions or worse nonstop since Oct. 2017.
As drought conditions around the county began to worsen this year, the Mancos Conservation District stepped in to respond.
In March, the organization began a regular river monitoring program to keep Mancos landowners and other locals up to date with the health of the Mancos River watershed, a major source of water for local properties. Monitoring includes sampling river water, nearby plants and wildlife, riverbank soil and other indicators of the health of the water system.
The purpose of the program, according to Mancos Conservation District’s assistant executive director, Erin Kuhlman, is to effectively measure the health and functional conditions of the watershed as a guide for ecological restoration, conservation and monitoring efforts in the area.
The Conservation District’s work has always included regular stakeholder meetings, as well, where the organization provides updates regarding public concerns, including the agricultural water consumption, water shortages, water rights allocation and others. The next such meeting will take place on Dec. 7 at the Mount Lookout Grange at 680 Grand Ave. in Mancos.
The new monitoring program will provide better information to local residents and landowners who depend on the health of the watershed for their well-being.
Revived riverbank monitoring effortsOne part of the new monitoring program is observing the health of Mancos riverbank and in-stream wildlife habitats. These riparian assessments, as they are called, look at a wide variety of measures related to the livability of the river system, including direct measures like the count of certain species of aquatic and terrestrial life living in the Mancos River.
Riparian assessments provide data that are most useful when collected over an extended period of time. Jeff Fowlds, district technician for the Mancos Conservation District, is in charge of doing the monthly assessments.
He says useful findings from the assessments will take time to develop.
“It’s following up on past stuff that’s been done,” Fowlds told The Journal in an interview. “A lot of this stuff was done five years ago, and we’re just trying to get back into it to keep that data stream going.”
Riparian assessments look closely at indicators such as shading near streams and the shape of the riverbed, both of which impact how well bugs in particular can survive near the river.
Measures like these can provide information to local water consumers of the impact their consumption is having on the health of the watershed, and how they can respond to localized ecological events such as drought.
Citizen science in drought monitoringBeyond looking at the livelihood of bug and animal life in and around the Mancos River, the Conservation District has also started regularly sending water and soil samples to the River Watch of Colorado, a statewide water quality-monitoring program run primarily by volunteers and an educational nonprofit Earth Force.
River Watch collects volunteer-submitted samples from rivers around the state in an effort to monitor the amount of dissolved metals in the water, the amount of nutrients in the water and the livelihood of bug species affected by the health of the water system, among other watershed health indicators.
Data collected through this program are used in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a state government institution dedicated to “perpetuat(ing) the wildlife resources of the state,” to inform decisionmaking on matters of conservation and water management around the state.
While the River Watch program is focused primarily on conducting citizen science to engage the public with efforts to maintain the health of Colorado water systems, many entities can submit water quality data to the organization.
Fowlds frequents six sites around the Mancos area monthly to collect water, soil and other samples from points along the Mancos River and some of its tributaries.
These measurements are collected into River Watch’s database, alongside measurements from volunteer groups, to give better insight regarding specific measures of water hardness, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen and other vitals.
These measurements, which are shared openly with Mancos residents at the Conservation District’s meetings and other contexts, contribute to informing the responses local residents make to drought in the area.
Drought birthed the Mancos Conservation DistrictThe Mancos Conservation District traces its start to the 1930s, when drought conditions were severe enough that the era gained a local colloquialism: the Dust Bowl.
During this time, dust storms damaged American and Canadian agriculture and ecology across a wide swath of land that included Southwest Colorado.
Experts say that part of what exacerbated the severity of the droughts of the 1930s was a lack of understanding by local farmers and landowners regarding the ecology of the plains they were cultivating.
In response to the severe conditions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Soil Conservation Service, which designated Soil Conservation Districts across the nation for monitoring soil conditions and encouraging conservation of the quickly eroding resource.
As these services evolved, they became more involved with community outreach and education, providing farmers and landowners with a better understanding of agricultural best practices in the plains.
Today, the Mancos Conservation District provides public assistance in maintaining the health of the Mancos watershed, such as preventing agricultural water loss through seepage and leakage. These efforts seek to increase the amount of water that reaches the properties of Mancos landowners and keep the local ecosystem as healthy as possible despite harsh circumstances.