Blanca Wetlands Restoration

Science Center Objects

For thousands of years, much of the San Luis Valley basin of south-central Colorado was made up of a series of lakes, marshes, and shallow playa basins that were integral to the lives of indigenous peoples. By the mid-1900s, the basins had dried up from the diversion of water sources for irrigation and became known as the “Dry Lakes.” In 1965, BLM began a series of wildlife habitat projects to restore some of the historic wetland characteristics and processes, and 9,600 acres of the former “Dry Lakes” area became known as Blanca Wetlands. BLM designated the Blanca Wetlands Area (BWA) as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) in 1991, due to its high importance for wildlife and recreational values. Today the BWA and the South San Luis Lakes system are managed by BLM to restore wetland habitat and provide wetland connectivity in the valley. BLM conducts wetland restoration activities across a 14,000-acre landscape, providing habitat for over 160 species of birds and 13 threatened, endangered and sensitive species, including bird, amphibian, fish, and plant species.

A view of Blanca Peak in western Colorado's San Luis Valley.

Wetland restoration in the BWA includes drawing water from an irrigation canal and a series of artesian wells and developing an infrastructure system of ditches and dikes to promote water movement through the area. BLM also has an active science program, collecting and analyzing a variety of data to continually improve wetlands management. These activities have resulted in the restoration of over 200 playa lakes, ponds, and marshlands. This area that was once dry due to human-induced dewatering has now become a nationally significant migration and nesting area for many wildlife species, including Colorado’s largest breeding population of Western snowy plover. In FY 2011, BLM started investigating the possibility of enlarging the boundary of the ACEC to promote focused efforts toward wetland connectivity and restoration on a landscape scale.

Economic Impacts of Restoration. Restoration and monitoring activities in the BWA have been ongoing since the 1960s. Annual expenditures have been about $75,000 ($2011). Annual activities include site maintenance and infrastructure development, weed management, well certification, monitoring (to collect bird, amphibian, fish, macroinvertebrate, groundwater and water quality, soils, and vegetation data). These annual expenditures provide local firms with a reliable stream of work and support an average of over $29,000 in local labor income (salaries, wages, and benefits) each year. Over the next 10 years, BLM anticipates increased expenditures on deferred maintenance for wells and structures. Economic impacts in these years could support as much as$150,000 in labor income per year for local well-drillers, welders, and heavy equipment operators.

This case study was first published in the FY2011 DOI Economic Contributions Report and is available at: https://www.fort.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/products/publications/23407/23407.pdf

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