Conejos River Infrastructure & Habitat Restoration
The Conejos River flows from the remote San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado, spills onto the floor of the San Luis Valley, and eventually meets the Rio Grande upstream of the New Mexico state line. The river provides surface water for agriculture, sustains riparian and wetland habitat for a variety of birds, elk, and other wildlife, and supports robust fisheries. However, portions of the river are facing issues of aging and inefficient diversion infrastructure, channel instability, disconnected floodplains, and fragmented aquatic habitat. To improve river health and function for agricultural producers and wildlife, this project will rehabilitate five irrigation diversion structures and restore surrounding riparian and aquatic habitat.
The North Eastern, New JB Romero, Sabine School Section, Fuerticitos, and Elledges ditches divert water from the Conejos River to irrigate a combined 1,129 acres of agricultural land. The headgates and diversion dams for each ditch are in poor condition and cannot efficiently divert their associated water rights. The diversions also disrupt natural sediment transport regimes and are negatively affected by streambank instability and a lack of riparian vegetation and river-floodplain connection. In addition, three of the diversion structures associated with these ditches form barriers to fish passage.
The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project is working with the Conejos Water Conservancy District, ditch shareholders, and landowners to address these issues through a multi-benefit approach to infrastructure upgrades and river restoration. By replacing the diversions and headgates associated with each structure, diversion efficiency and ditch adjustment capabilities will be improved and maintenance needs will be reduced. This will afford more flexibility in flow delivery, allowing water managers to deliver water rights efficiently while also meeting environmental streamflow needs. By removing three fish barriers, over nine miles of aquatic habitat will be connected, benefiting fisheries and other aquatic life. Additionally, floodplain reconnection will increase groundwater recharge during high flow events and bank stabilization and riparian revegetation will enhance wildlife habitat and improve water quality by reducing sediment input and increasing stream shading.
When complete, the project will help ensure the Conejos River continues to support diverse human, agricultural, and ecological communities.
* Project supports agricultural water use efficiency to reduce the amount of water withdrawn from surface or groundwater sources.