*3/23/17 update: In a follow-up interview, Beck confirmed that PRID is contributing an at-this-time undisclosed dollar amount to the fund, alongside five or more organizations with interest in Vallecito's recreation. Trout Unlimited is among these organizations. Conversations are ongoing with the Bureau of Reclamation to see what sort of financial support they may contribute as well.
In order to keep its public boat ramp open this season, Vallecito Lake is raising funds for mandatory inspection and decontamination procedures on all motorized watercraft, in the wake of a severance tax dispute.
Inspection for aquatic nuisance species (ANS) is required in order to prevent infestation of waters by invasive species capable of hitchhiking on pontoons, motorboats, and jetskies, among other watercraft.
Of particular concern to Vallecito Lake are Zebra and Quagga mussels.
These mussels are capable of proliferating quickly and can “cause significant impacts and damage to operation and maintenance of water storage, water delivery, and hydropower structures and systems; recreational use; and aquatic ecosystems,” according to a Bureau of Reclamation fact sheet.
Introduced to the Great Lakes by overseas freighters, these mussels are prolific breeders, capable of infesting freshwaters rapidly.
If introduced to Vallecito, they threaten to clog and undermine Vallecito Hydroelectric as well as Pine River Irrigation District infrastructure, which services municipal and agricultural ditches downstream, Joe Lewandowski, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Southwest Region public information officer, said.
The current line of defense against ANS introduction to new waters--Colorado is at this time free of Zebra and Quagga Mussels--is manual inspection of all motorized watercraft and decontamination, if it’s found to be a risk.
The inspection sites around Colorado have traditionally been set up at reservoirs and funded by CPW through severance tax, collected from oil and mining companies, according to Lewandowsky. Those funds have dried up.
“We were receiving severance tax, I think around 6 million dollars, and BP … protested about how much they were being charged by the state for severance tax and went to Colorado Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and that source of funding is gone,” Lewandowsky said.
The burden of this financial deficit is falling, in part, to the organizations and communities involved with these reservoirs and lakes such as Vallecito, which has had onsite inspection and decontamination administered by a private contractor in previous years.
At Vallecito Lake, the Pine River Irrigation District (PRID) is the local governing body responsible for maintaining waters. Their primary role is to collect, manage and distribute water on behalf of municipal and agricultural ditches downstream. With this comes an obligation to protect the infrastructure involved with this process.
As a result, PRID has jurisdiction, and responsibility, to close Vallecito Lake to motorized vehicles if inspection and decontamination aren’t facilitated.
Jim Schank is the president of the Vallecito Conservation and Sporting Association (VCSA) Marina and, along with four other members of the marina board, manages the public dock and boat ramp.
“We control the marina up there ... We borrowed money to put the marina together, which makes us very responsible and adds an element of ‘oh s***’ for us right now because, if we can’t get that open, we stand to lose some revenue at our marina,” Schank said. “I don’t think that’ll break us or anything but it does affect us in a desperate way.”
Schank and the VCSA aren’t the only one’s concerned about the economic implications of the situation on Vallecito.
“We’re talking to the irrigation districts to try to get them to fund some of this,” Lewandowski said. “If we don’t, the irrigation districts can say ‘no motorized craft on lakes and reservoirs’ and that would be a big blow for the local economy for Vallecito Lake and other places.”
Because PRID’s primary role is irrigation, however, their funding isn’t necessarily appropriate to use towards inspections, which are necessary solely due to recreational motorized watercraft, Ken Beck, PRID dam superintendent, said. Their funds are reserved for maintaining and administrating water collection and distribution, not for recreation.
Despite this, they too recognize the impact it would have on Vallecito to lose it’s 2017 boating and waterskiing season, which is why they’re working with the VCSA and CPW to gather donations, Beck said.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors and we’re trying to do the things that are philanthropic,” Beck said. “We’re trying to step up and we hope that some of the community businesses would donate to help us to fund this program.”
In 2016, ANS inspections at Vallecito Lake cost roughly 48 thousand dollars, which is serving as the benchmark for how much money is needed to operate at regular capacity this season.
Between VCSA and PRID, they’re trying to fundraise 24 thousand dollars. Allegedly, CPW has indicated to the VSCA and PRID that it will match up to, and including, 24 thousand dollars raised, equalling the 48 thousand total needed for full inspection and decontamination, according to both Beck and Schank.
Lewandowski couldn't confirm CPW's contribution agreement at the time of publishing.
In the event that the full 48 thousand isn’t raised, however, they’ll have to make due with whatever is raised.
“If we don’t reset we’re going to have a program that the funding can service,” Beck said.
If, for example, VCSA and PRID are able to raise 12 thousand dollars, CPW will purportedly contribute an equal 12 thousand, giving them a 24 thousand dollar operating budget, he said.
In that case, they’d be left to work with half of the budget needed, based on previous years, and would expect to see half the watercraft traffic through the season, he said.
Weekends and high-traffic periods may be prioritized use of available funds, however, some folks may need to travel to Arboles, roughly 39 miles away, in order to be decontaminated and permitted to enter Vallecito Lake.
Both VCSA and PRID are hopeful they can hire Vallecito residents, who have previously been trained on inspections and use of the decontamination equipment, in order to operate the program this season.
The labor is the major expense of inspection and decontamination, Schank said.
As for the decontamination equipment, Schank wasn’t sure if CPW would make it available for use, except by the private contractor hired by CPW in previous years.
Lewandowski has indicated, however, that the decontamination unit will remain available for use within whatever solution is reached.
“Some of [Vallecito’s residents] have already been trained on it and they've probably used it,” Lewandowski said “We wouldn’t be taking equipment away from them, that’s what it’s for. That isn’t something that would go away.”
The primary issue lies in paying for the labor to run the inspections and decontamination.
Looking to the Future
There is some certainty at this point that this problem will be resolved for 2018.
“Next year we’re almost 99 percent sure that these fundings will be back in place. And there’s also some legislation ... that’s going to be proposed, I should say authored, and presented for approval for putting taxation back on boaters,” Beck said. “That’s how it should be. We’re hoping for some relief coming in 2017 that will be reflected into 2018.”
Schank wants to encourage people to reach out to their state representatives to bring attention to the situation and push Colorado government to find a solution that prevents this from happening again in the future.
“They’ve gotta be willing to protect their lakes too, across Colorado. We don’t want an epidemic,” he said.
In the meantime, PRID, VCSA, and CPW are all working to contribute funds to keep motorized watercraft running at full-tilt this season.
Donations can be made to both PRID and VCSA, according to Schank. The benchmark to reach is 24 thousand dollars in order to get the maximum donation match from CPW.