San Luis Valley: Well rules heading into home stretch — Valley Courier

August 15, 2014

San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Years in the making, rules to govern wells in the San Luis Valley are likely one meeting away. In Alamosa yesterday Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe told the advisory group assisting his office in developing the rules that he expects next month’s meeting to be the last one before he submits groundwater rules to the water court.

“We have been working at this a long time now,” Wolfe said. “We would like to get this through.”

One of the goals of the rules is to reach sustainability in the confined (deep) and unconfined (shallow) aquifers in the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. The state legislature has set that sustainability benchmark as the time period between 1978 and 2000, and the rules specify how that goal will be determined and reached.

Wolfe said the peer review team, which has overseen the technical aspects associated with the rules, will be meeting again on Monday to finalize changes to the g r o u n d w a t e r m o d e l t h a t will be used to implement the rules. They will finalize response functions within the next few weeks, Wolfe added, and the final draft of the rules should be ready about this time next month.

Wolfe said anyone with further comments at this point should submit them to Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan.

“I envision about a month from now will be the last meeting and would envision very shortly thereafter being in a position to submit these to the water court for their consideration,” Wolfe said.

After Wolfe submits the groundwater rules to the court, objectors and supporters will have 60 days to file responses. If there are objections to the proposed rules, the judge will have to set a trial date to deal with objections that have not yet been resolved by that date. Wolfe said in Division 2, there were 21-22 objections filed , but the state was able to resolve all of the issues raised in the objections short of a trial.

“I hope we get to do that on these. We would like to get these implemented and operational,” he said.

The rules will become effective 60 days after publication or after all protests have been resolved, in the event there are protests.

Trying to minimize the objections that might arise over proposed groundwater rules, Wolfe set up an advisory group at the onset of the rulemaking process. In January 2009 he signed an order establishing the advisory committee, which includes representatives from senior and well user associations, residents from the basin’s various geographical areas, canal and irrigation companies , municipality and county designees, federal and state agencies, engineers and water attorneys. The initial group, comprised of 56 members , met for the first time in March of 2009. At that time Wolfe told the group he hoped to submit well regulations to the water court by the end of that year.

The process took longer than initially expected, in part due to the laborious development and revision of the groundwater model, the Rio Grande Decision Support System.

The arduous process may soon be over, however. Advisory group member LeRoy Salazar told Wolfe yesterday he hoped the rules would be ready by October so the farmers and ranchers could have time to review them in the winter months when they are not as busy.

“I think we are almost there,” Salazar said. “We appreciate all the work so many of you have done getting these rules.”

Wolfe explained as he went through changes in the proposed rules yesterday that most of the modifications now are for the purpose of clarity, consistency and flexibility within the document.

One new definition introduced into the document during yesterday’s meeting was composite water head, the metric by which sustainable water supplies will be evaluated and regulated. The composite water head represents water levels or artesian pressures of an aquifer system within specified areas. It is derived from the annual measurements collected outside of the irrigation season of multiple monitoring wells, water level or artesian pressure and applies weighting within the specified areas. The metric will refer to the change in the composite water head from a baseline rather than an aquifer’s absolute elevation.

Water Division 3 Assistant Division Engineer James Heath explained that this is not based on individual wells but composite water head representative of different areas throughout the Valley that have been divided into four response areas: Conejos Response Area; Alamosa La Jara Response Area; Saguache Response Area; and San Luis Creek Response Area.

“Each well would have its own percentage based on the area it represents,” he said. Wolfe said the water division has been working with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to add new monitoring wells in areas where there might not be sufficient existing wells to provide representative data.

Those are scheduled to be in place by March 2015, which will serve as a baseline for the groundwater rules. Wolfe said the model would utilize the data that has been gathered over time as well as the new data, which will fill in some gaps that have existed in data collection. He added within 10 years after the effective date of the rules his office, using the model and all of the collected well monitoring data, should be able to establish with a fair amount of confidence the historical average composite water head for each response area for 1978-2000 , the sustainability target set by the state legislature.

“That’s what we are building back to,” Wolfe said. Heath said the new data would be calibrated into the model, which can go back in time to extrapolate the 1978-2000 ranges not available in existing data.

“This 10-year time frame gives us time to add in additional information ” that will better give us confidence when estimating the water levels in these locations going forward.”

The rules require that after five years the composite water head in each response area must be above the minimum level it was in 2015, the starting point.

“If not, there’s a provision they’ve got to reduce their pumping levels back to what they were in the 1978-2000 period,” Wolfe explained. The next benchmark is at 10 years and the next at 20 years, Wolfe added. Between the 11th and 20th years, composite water levels must be maintained above the 1978-2000 range for at least three out of 10 years, Wolfe explained.

“Once we reach the 20th year, they’ve got to meet absolutely that sustainability requirement from that point forward ” This is just the first step in that process getting there.”

Salazar said the 1978-2000 target set by the legislature may have been based on faulty assumptions and may need to be modified.

“I guess in the end we may need to go back to the legislature and say it didn’t make sense to do what you did,” Salazar said. “We didn’t have the database we needed.”

Wolfe said the data collected from this point on may confirm the need to go back to the legislature, but “what this does is gets us started on the path so we can collect data we need.”

He added, “We may have to come back and amend the rules at some point.”

He said the primary purposes of this plan are to protect senior water rights and reach sustainability, and if the plan needs to be modified in the future, the state can go back to the court to do that.

Pat McDermott from the water division office said the state is recognizing this basin has finite water supplies.

“We have to learn to live within our means,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Fountain Creek: “It seems to me at some point there will be a balance between water rights and property rights” — Steve Witte

July 23, 2014
Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Would a dam on Fountain Creek make a difference in a situation such as last week’s drainage along the Arkansas River?

“It is something we need to talk about,” Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte said Monday, looking back at a wild ride of a week on the river. “It’s a discussion that needs to take place. It seems to me at some point there will be a balance between water rights and property rights.”

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable earlier this month turned away a grant request from the Fountain Creek Flood Control and Greenway District to study the practical effects of building a dam or system of detention ponds on Fountain Creek.

Chief among objections: the damage to junior water rights. By changing the peak flow on Fountain Creek floods — delaying the time it takes water to reach points downstream — junior water rights might not come into priority.

On the other hand, the peak flows that came crashing off the prairie into already full canals caused three of them to blow out after storms early last week.

“We already have an example, Pueblo Dam, of how we can reduce flood damage,” Witte said. “On the South Platte, they already are using upstream, out-of-priority storage. They use the water where it exists and determines who gets it later.”

Answering the basic question of whether those types of programs might work on Fountain Creek — the largest single tributary to the Arkansas River in Colorado — needs to be explored. Otherwise the only option to catch floodwater below Lake Pueblo is John Martin Reservoir, Witte said.

“I hope they’ll come back with a revised request,” he said.

One of the problems with last week’s storms is that much of the water was flowing in from unmeasured creeks and gullies. There are no gauges on Chico Creek or Kramer Creek, both a few miles east of Pueblo. Chico Creek boosts flows past the Avondale gauge, but no one can be sure just how much is being contributed to the river. The break in the Colorado Canal was caused by heavy flows on Kramer Creek near Nepesta.

“We were just flying blind,” said Witte, who witnessed the flooding at Nepesta.

The water from several tributaries hit the Arkansas River at the same time, creating “waves” that peaked quickly and then subsided. Some falsely high readings caused unnecessary worries downstream, where no major flooding occurred.

While the system of satellite river gauges has grown in the past 25 years, and provide easy access to information on the Internet, some malfunctioned during last week’s storms. Division of Water Resources staff scrambled to find out what was happening.

“I think we’ve improved, but there is still an element of human judgment,” Witte said. “We need to have people on the ground to verify if our gauges are accurate.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.


Colorado Water Officials Association (CWOA) conference October 1-3

July 21, 2014
Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

From email from the Division of Water Resources (Laura Kalafas):

Hello, we are having our annual Colorado Water Officials Association (CWOA) conference October 1-3, 2014, in Steamboat Springs, CO. Please let me know if your company/organization is interested in being an event sponsor…We would be happy to list your company/organization in our conference program and other publications.

Click here for the agenda
Click here for more information
Click here for the registration form
Click here for the sponsorship form

More Colorado Division of Water Resources coverage here.


A look at Rio Grande Compact administration this season #RioGrande

July 20, 2014
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

After years of drought, more water in the San Luis Valley’s rivers is a welcome change, but it comes with a price.

With higher stream levels comes a higher obligation that must be paid to downstream states. Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for Division 3 Craig Cotten reminded Valley residents of that fact during his report on Tuesday to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.

When the forecasts increased for the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems, so did the curtailments on irrigators, he explained, because Colorado’s obligation to New Mexico and Texas also increased.

Cotten said the annual forecast for the Rio Grande has increased every month since May because more water is expected now than forecasters predicted this spring. The May forecast for the Rio Grande was 475,000 acre feet. In June the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) increased the projected annual index for the Rio Grande to 545,000 acre feet and this month bumped it up even higher to 590,000 acre feet.

“That’s up significantly from what we had projected earlier on in the season,” Cotten said. The obligation to downstream states from the Rio Grande is 158,400 acre feet from that new 590,000-acrefoot forecast. With the water that has already been delivered , estimated deliveries for this winter, and a contribution from the Closed Basin Project, the water resources division is projecting it must deliver about 22,000 acre feet during the remainder of the irrigation season. To reach that goal, the division is curtailing irrigators 25 percent, which is significantly higher than curtailments earlier in the irrigation season. Curtailments in April and May were 7-10 percent, with curtailments increasing to 15 percent in June, 21 percent by July 3 and 25 percent July 4th.

“That’s just because of the increased forecast amount and needing to deliver quite a bit more to the downstream states,” Cotten said.

“We are watching that pretty closely,” he added. “Depending on the monsoon season, if we do get a significant amount of rain and rain events, there’s a possibility we may have to go up a little higher than that.”

Curtailments on the Conejos River system are even higher. Since July 4, the curtailment on the Conejos has been 32 percent with only the #1 and #2 ditches in priority right now, according to Cotten . The curtailment on April 1 was 12 percent, decreasing to 6 percent by April 4 and 1 percent by May 7, but then increasing to 14 percent on June 7 and jumping to 27 percent by June 21.

“Curtailment of the ditches is indicative of raising the forecast every month,” he said. The projected annual index for the Conejos River system was 185,000 acre feet in May, 210,000 acre feet in June and is now estimated at 220,000 acre feet.

Of the 220,000 acre-foot annual flow , the Conejos River system owes 57,000 acre feet to New Mexico and Texas. To reach that goal, the Conejos will have to send about 8,000 acre feet downstream during the remainder of the irrigation season, according to Cotten.

Cotten shared the threemonth precipitation outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for August, September and October.

“For the first time in quite a few years we are in the above-average range,” he said. “It’s looking like we are going to have a pretty good monsoon season.”

Temperatures during that three-month period will be another court case where the fine could top that.

“We are watching the well meter usage and metering and making sure everybody has active and accurate meters on their wells,” he said.

In his report to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday, District Engineer Allen Davey said both the unconfined and confined aquifers had shown some improvement recently, but the basin has a long ways to go to re-establish the kind of aquifer levels the state legislature mandated, reflecting the levels of the period from 1978-2000 .

The confined aquifer, or deeper aquifer, has improved this last year by an overall total of about 2.66 feet in the wells included in Davey’s study. He said if the weather returned to a wetter cycle, with improved run off, irrigators would not need to pump as much, and the aquifers would naturally improve.

He added, “If we have bigger water years and the pumping stays the same, the aquifer will recover, and if the pumping is reduced, the aquifer will recover more.”

Since 1976 the unconfined aquifer, or shallow aquifer, in an area representative of the area now covered by the first groundwater management sub-district has declined a total of more than one million acre feet. Davey said the study area showed some improvement this spring with the aquifer level increasing by 105,000 acre feet during June, for example. “equal chances” of being in the average range.

Cotten said his office has had to file four or five court cases in the last month or so against well owners who did not comply with the well use rules, specifically not turning in well usage numbers or not having valid well meters in place. Fines could range from a few hundred dollars in simple cases to thousands of dollars. One irrigator is looking at a fine of more than $8,0000, Cotten said, and his office is currently working on He reminded the group that the target level required by legislators is -200 ,000 to -400 ,000 acre feet for a fiveyear running average.

“Right now it’s about 500,000 acre feet below that -400 ,000,” he said.

He said it’s like gas in a vehicle’s tank, and the more the vehicle uses, the lower the gas level is.

“What we need to do in order to recover is reduce the amount of ‘driving’ we are doing ,” Davey said. “Well users need to ‘drive’ less, pump less water, irrigate less land.”

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Arkansas Basin Roundtable approves $175,000 for tailwater study

July 14, 2014
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The state is being asked to help fund a study that looks at farmers’ contentions that estimates for return flows to the Arkansas River are inflated. A standard of 10 percent for tailwater — water that sheets off fields during irrigation before it can soak in — is used in mathematical models adopted during the 24-year Kansas v. Colorado U.S. Supreme Court case under the Arkansas River Compact. Those models also affect consumptive use rules that apply to surface water improvements such as sprinklers or drip irrigation.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable last week forwarded a $175,000 grant request to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to determine if that number is too high.

“Farmers on the Fort Lyon did not believe 10 percent was really happening,” said Leah Martinsson, a lawyer working with the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which is applying for the grant.

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

The ditch is more than 100 miles long and irrigates 94,000 acres and usually water short. That increases the likelihood that the estimate of tailwater runoff is too high, since much of the water never makes it back to the river, she explained. The higher the tailwater number, the greater the obligation from farmers to deliver water to the Arkansas River. So, reducing the figure in the group augmentation plans filed with the state would mean a reduction in the amount of replacement water.

While the concern of Fort Lyon farmers is the model used in the consumptive use rules, it also could affect the hydrologic-institution model that guides Colorado’s obligation from wells.

“If we are prepared with good technical data, we will go in and try to change the H-I model,” said Bill Tyner, assistant division engineer with the Division of Water Resources.

It would not be the first attempt to change the model. The state also is funding an ongoing lysimeter study at Rocky Ford to determine if evapotransporation rates in the Arkansas Valley are higher than assumed in the model.

Another study is looking at whether ponds that feed sprinklers leak more than the model assumes.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here and here.


Audit: Division of Water Resources needs to step up pace of dam inspections

June 3, 2014
Barker Reservoir

Barker Reservoir

From The Denver Post (Joey Bunch):

State engineers should move faster on inspecting Colorado’s largest and most critical dams, according to an audit made public Monday. Despite the tardiness, however, the dams in question weathered last September’s record floods in good shape, according to the report. Auditors reviewed paperwork on 213 high-hazard dams and found that the Division of Water Resources failed to inspect 27 during the 2012 “water year,” measured as Nov. 1 to Oct. 31. Twelve others were at least six months past their annual inspection dates, auditors found.

“Regular inspections help ensure that dams operate safely and identify when a dam’s water level should be restricted for safe operation,” the Office of State Auditors said in a statement about the review.

Only 27 of the more than 1,800 dams under the state’s authority were affected by the rainfall and flooding, resulting in an estimated $5 million for repairs related to cracking, erosion and collected debris.

Auditors and representatives of the state engineer’s office agreed on the findings and recommendations for improvement during a hearing before the legislature’s audit committee Monday morning.

“So the public knows, what we’ve found here is we don’t have an issue regarding public safety for our dams, but we can work on our process, our paper trail, to make sure we have them inspected in a timely manner,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.

Inspectors also need to pick up the pace on reviewing dams that could be reclassified for their hazard risks. The review completed last July that elevated Droz Creek Dam in Chaffee County from low risk to significant risk, for example, took 14 years to complete, auditors found.

“Delays in reclassifying dams to a higher hazard rating could pose a risk to public safety,” auditors stated.

And although state regulations require dam owners to update emergency action plans annually, those on file with the division are, on average, 7½ years old, and one had not been updated in 31 years, according to the auditors.

The agency also has not updated some of its fees for dam design review since 1990, so taxpayers pick up about 80 percent of the cost. Auditors recommended that the agency work with legislators to find a solution.

More Division of Water Resources coverage here.


Well augmentation enforced by the Colorado Division of Water Resources

May 12, 2014
Typical water well

Typical water well

Domestic and irrigation well pumping both come with augmentation requirements under Colorado Water law. Here’s a story about augmentation education and enforcement in the Blue River watershed from Alli Langley writing for the Summit Daily News. Here’s an excerpt:

As water commissioner for District 36 of the state Division of Water Resources, [Troy Wineland] manages water rights in the Blue River basin. This runoff season, he will focus on getting residents using “exempt wells” illegally to change their ways.

“I’m just continually optimistic,” he said, that “if given the information people will make better choices, the right choices.”

Of the county’s 2,500 wells, three-quarters are exempt, meaning the prior appropriation system that governs Colorado water rights doesn’t apply to them…

Exempt wells aren’t shut off during shortages because they require special sewage systems that return used water to the ground. If done properly, the water loss is about 5 percent, which the law says isn’t enough to impact those with senior water rights.

Permits for exempt wells say water must be used only inside the walls of a single-family housing unit and restrict the amount used per year. Owners can pay to use water in ways that violate their permit as long as they augment the water, or ensure that the used water won’t affect the surrounding watershed and senior water rights.

Summit well owners can buy augmented water through the county or Vidler Water Co.

In the next six weeks, Wineland will knock on hundreds of doors where people without the right permits are irrigating, filling hot tubs or using water in other illegal ways. If the well owners are home, he’ll talk with them about the rules and why they’re important.

“You have to back out from the micro level. ‘Oh, this is my own little fiefdom, and what I do here is not going to affect anyone else,’” he said. Remember the long-term drought and projected shortages, he said. Think about the hundreds of nearby wells and cumulative impact on local streams and rivers. They feed the Colorado River, which supplies seven states.

He’ll explain the options: Stop the illegal use or get an augmentation contract. Most people are responsive, he said. They just didn’t know or didn’t think it was important.

In a couple of weeks, if well owners haven’t done anything, he’ll issue a courtesy warning and deadline. After that deadline, violators will receive an injunction and be fined for unpermitted uses: $500 a day.

People who contact Wineland by July 1 with the necessary information will have until June 1, 2015, to get into compliance.

“I’m going to put it in their hands and say, ‘Hey, you can do this on your own time line,’” he said, “‘or if I come and knock on your door, you can adhere to my time line,’ which is much tighter, more than likely 30 days.”

Meanwhile groundwater sub-district 1 implementation rolls on, with state approval of their augmentation plan, in the San Luis Valley. Here’s a report from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier:

Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe approved the 2014 Annual Replacement Plan for Subdistrict No. 1 on Monday. The state decision will be submitted to the Division No. 3 Water Court today, April 29. Wolfe determined the plan adequately identified sources and amounts of replacement water and remedies the subdistrict would use to make up for injurious stream depletions this year.

The sub-district plans to use up to 2,806 acre feet of transbasin water; up to 5,608 acre feet of Santa Maria Reservoir water; up to 2,500 acre feet of Closed Basin Project water; and up to 4,300 acre feet of forbearance water to meet its obligations this year.

The forbearance agreements are with the Rio Grande Canal Water Users Association (up to 2,000 acre feet); San Luis Valley Irrigation District (up to 1,000 acre feet); San Luis Valley Canal Company (up to 400 acre feet); Prairie Ditch Company (up to 100 acre feet); Monte Vista Water Users Association (up to 300 acre feet); and Commonwealth Irrigation Company-Empire Canal (up to 500 acre feet.) Water currently in storage will be released from the Rio Grande, Santa Maria and Continental Reservoirs at the direction of the division engineer to replace injurious stream depletions in time, location and amounts that they occur, beginning May 1.

Wolfe approved the annual replacement plan with about a dozen terms and conditions including daily replacement water accounting every month to the local division office and replacement water deliveries in a manner acceptable to the division engineer.

The terms also excluded the use of “Big Ruby” water, water purchased from Navajo Development Company (John Parker II) in the last two years and held in Rio Grande Reservoir but previously stored in Big Ruby Reservoir. Wolfe stated his office had not yet received all of the information it required to approve a Substitute Water Supply Plan application so he was denying the use of Big Ruby water in the Annual Replace Plan.

“The approval of this ARP is made with the understanding that if the ARP proves insufficient to remedy injurious stream depletions, the State Engineer has the authority to invoke the retained jurisdiction of the Division No. 3 Water Court,” Wolfe stated.

Wolfe’s approval followed approval locally by the subdistrict board of managers and the board for the subdistrict’s sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The plan is required each year to show how the water management sub-district will replace injurious stream depletions caused by well pumping in the sub-district area. The sub-district encompasses more than 3,400 wells pumping about 230,000 acre feet annually on about 163,500 irrigated acres. The amount of pumping in the sub-district has decreased from nearly 308,000 acre feet in 2010 and nearly 325,000 acre feet in 2011 to about 259,000 acre feet in 2012 and approximately 228,500 acre feet last year.

The Annual Replacement Plan anticipates well pumping this year to be about what it was last year.

A groundwater model is used to calculate depletions the sub-district must remedy each year. The only river for which the groundwater model predicts depletions from Sub-district No. 1 is the Rio Grande. This year the estimated total depletions affecting the Rio Grande due to past and projected pumping is 3,971 acre feet. The total lag stream depletions from prior and projected pumping total more than 30,000 acre feet. The sub-district is required to make up those depletions over time in addition to the ongoing depletions.

The state is holding the sponsoring water district financially responsible to make up those lag depletions if Sub-district No. 1 goes under. In previous years Subdistrict No. 1 has offered fallowing programs, with more than 8,200 irrigated acres fallowed to some extent last year. This year the sub-district is not offering that program but is relying on other measures such as the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) re-authorized in the new Farm Bill and administered through USDA Farm Service Agency offices. FSA offices have informed the sub-district that sign-up for the Rio Grande CREP would resume sometime in May.

More groundwater coverage here.


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