Rio Grande cooperation aids irrigation and wildlife

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Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

A cooperative agreement among water users in the San Luis Valley this summer helped assure that water was delivered to agricultural producers and domestic users, and that river and stream flows were maintained for the benefit of wildlife and recreationists.

The Rio Grande Cooperative Project, a public-private partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, proved crucial during 2012 because snowpack reached only 15 percent of average in the mountains of south central Colorado.

“The agreement was critical because it enhanced flows in the Rio Grande and provided water during the critical low-flow period during October,” said Steve Baer, a state water commissioner in the San Luis Valley.

During 2010 representatives of the two agencies started discussions on how they could use their storage facilities to make water supplies in the area more reliable. The result was the formation of the Rio Grande Cooperative Project and plans were implemented for the first time last summer. The project is being supported by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Moving water around effectively in the upper San Luis Valley has always been a complex exercise and water users have always cooperated when possible. But the work done this summer shows that water can be used, stored and delivered more effectively than in the past.

“This agreement has opened the door wider for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to make a variety of exchanges,” said Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager in Monte Vista.

In previous dry years, agricultural and domestic users have had to divert all surface water and engage in extensive pumping of ground water. That often left the flows in numerous streams and the Rio Grande extremely low. Water experts from Parks and Wildlife and the irrigation district determined that their water could be shared more effectively for mutual benefit.

The irrigation district owns Rio Grande Reservoir high in the drainage which has a capacity of 54,000 acre feet.

Parks and Wildlife owns water rights throughout the Rio Grande drainage, including trans-basin supplies that are diverted from west of the Continental Divide. In all water years in the Rio Grande basin storage occurs in a complex of small reservoirs, some of which are owned by other users. However, secure storage and timely releases of water at Rio Grande Reservoir in harmony with Beaver Park Reservoir are essential to ensuring the most effective and efficient use of the diverse menu of rights owned by Parks and Wildlife and those of other water users.

Normally, the small reservoir owners, through agreements with Parks and Wildlife, keep their reservoirs full. In exchange, Parks and Wildlife releases replacement water from Rio Grande Reservoir and Beaver Park Reservoir to supply irrigation needs of the small-reservoir owners.

But this year because Beaver Park Reservoir–which is owned by Parks and Wildlife–is drawn down due to problems with the dam, the agency stored more water in Rio Grande Reservoir and released the replacement water from that location. Consequently, water needed for wildlife throughout the valley was maintained while Parks and Wildlife was able to supply agricultural and domestic users with water from its reliable sources.

Because of the complexity of water right holdings in the San Luis Valley, the Rio Grande Cooperative Project now makes achieving exchanges easier than in previous years.

“Through these agreements we were able to coordinate water releases to improve conditions for fish and wildlife through the drought, and we were able to deliver water to other users who needed it throughout the valley,” Basagoitia said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is a major water-rights owner in the valley. By working closely with other owners, water can be used more efficiently to enhance agriculture, domestic supplies and wildlife resources.

Tom Spezze, recently retired from Colorado Parks and Wildlife as the southwest regional manager, has worked for years on water issues in the San Luis Valley. He said that cooperation is vital to everyone in the area.

“The Rio Grande Cooperative Project exemplifies a new way for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to conduct its water business,” Spezze said. “In one of the most water-critical times in our state’s history, we can’t afford to do business as usual. We have to be collaborative and more willing than ever to think outside the box. We can manage our collectively diverse water rights in the Rio Grande Basin as business partners in a way that is creative, transparent and responsible.”

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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