NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – "World Nature Conservation Day" occurs annually on July 28, yet the holiday bears little resemblance to its federally recognized cousins. It isn't marked by parades, bank closures or celebratory picnics. There's nothing you can buy for it. And, most significantly, it's an occasion that isn't bound by national borders or historical figureheads. Instead, "World Nature Conservation Day" is a single day that asks the citizens of the world to consider how to help the habitat around them survive, flourish and sustain future generations.
For the Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit in Alamosa, Colorado, that surrounding habitat, and many of the participants' service placements, are linked to the Rio Grande River.
The Rio Grande starts north-west of Alamosa, in the San Juan mountains, and winds its way down the San Luis valley and through the city itself. The river's eventual destination is the Gulf of Mexico, and on its way there, it serves as a crucial water source for seven Mexican and U.S. states. For Alamosa, close to the river's headwaters, the water makes farming, ranching and fishing possible in an area that is otherwise a high mountain desert.
"The river is really the lifeblood of the whole community," said Emma Reesor, executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP). The non-profit works closely with local farmers, ranchers and community members to restore and conserve the function of the Rio Grande "for the ecosystems, but also for recreation, for agriculture, for the communities and the general public."
Like the river itself, RGHRP's long-standing relationship with MVS has allowed both programs to thrive in the community. For the past ten years, RGHRP has brought MVS participants on staff as restoration project managers. Reesor served in this role in 2013.
"I was kind of blown away, when I started as a volunteer, by how much responsibility I was given," recalled Reesor, who served with the Alamosa MVS unit 2013-2015. "[So] many folks just were willing to explain to me how things worked and answer my questions and take me under their wings."
After her service term ended, she was hired by RGHRP into a paid position, and eventually, became executive director of the organization. "My MVS term really set in motion my career to date."
Reesor and her husband, also an alum of MVS, continue to stay connected to the Alamosa unit by serving as an informal host family for participants.
Erin McWilliams, the current MVS participant with RGHRP, began the program after finishing her master's in environmental engineering. While her schooling focused on wastewater and groundwater quality work, McWilliams has relished the opportunity to put her degree into practice through tangible water projects and community education.
"I feel like I've learned so much about water here [with RGHRP]," McWilliams said. "It's just been super different and interesting to be immersed in that whole other side of water issues ... out here, I could see the engineering work play out, but it's in a completely different application."
One of those real-world applications is project monitoring, which involves visiting project sites and documenting the progress made. The projects include installing play waves and boat ramps in underserved communities, safety improvements on diversion dams, and placing native plants and rock structures along stream banks to combat erosion and restore habitat. Some of the documentation is done through drone photography, for which McWilliams recently got her license. Afterwards, she will sometimes post photos and videos on RGHRP's social media, as well. "That's been an unexpected [but] fun thing to do," she said.
A bird's-eye view of a bend in the Rio Grande. Erin McWilliams: "This is the Rio
Grande #2 Ditch, one of the project sites for the Five Ditches Project. This
project involved replacing aging agricultural infrastructure followed by
riparian restoration work on nearby river banks, improving agricultural
efficiency, reducing erosion, and providing habitat." Photo by Erin McWilliams.
"Spending time in the beauty God created, especially in such a gorgeous place as the San Luis Valley, makes you value our earth and water more and feel even more motivated to restore it," said Leah Weaver, who served with RGHRP through the Alamosa MVS unit from 2018-2019.
Weaver described how witnessing people from different backgrounds and political beliefs come together through the work of RGHRP "gave me so much hope." They were united by the work of restoring the watershed that ran through each of their lives, making farming, ranching, fishing and greater community possible.
"In this time of such division and polarity, living in [the Alamosa] community and witnessing their sincere collaboration gave me faith in humanity and our ability to save this planet God gave us."