Heading a water solutions team, San Luis Valley resident LeRoy Salazar told those attending a groundwater advisory meeting on Wednesday it is time to get beyond the blame game and work together to preserve Valley communities and the agricultural livelihoods that keep them alive. Part of a group trying to find solutions to affordable, equitable and successful water sustainability, Salazar said a year ago he was only 20 percent convinced “we would be able to make this thing work.”
He said he is presently up to 60 percent and hopes by the time the state well rules are in place, “I will have an 80 percent probability we are going to be able to keep this thing going.”
He added, “We are all working really hard.”
He commended the state engineer’s office for working hard to develop a groundwater model that would work and rules that would work for everybody.
“The well owners want these as bad as surface users,” he said. “We want to know what hand we are going to be dealt with.”
He said some flexibility may be required in the next year or two as water users work through some of the challenges they will come up against in complying with the state’s new rules.
“Some of those things may take us five to six years to work out,” Salazar added. “We may not be able to live at exactly the letter of the law. We can create a little bit of flexibility in there.”
He said it might not be possible to always replace depletions to the river in exactly the right time and place that the regulations will require.
“Think about how we can work together to keep this community alive.”
State Engineer Dick Wolfe said he believed “our greatest successes come from our greatest challenges,” and he is at an 80-percent confidence level. The well rules Wolfe hopes to submit to the water court yet this spring will require wells to make up for the injuries and depletions they have caused senior water rights and the aquifers.
Salazar said he has both senior water surface rights, which date back five generations , in addition to wells, which are junior water rights. He said wells are part of the reason that rivers are drier and aquifers diminished, but they are not the sole problem. The multi-year drought and the demands of the interstate Rio Grande Compact are also responsible, he said.
However, he said those trying to reach solutions must get beyond the blame game “and think what’s in the best interest of keeping our communities alive and keep them going.”
He said he could see at least 100,000 acres of land going out of production, and if solutions cannot be reached to the Valley’s water problems, that total could be twice that.
“Think what that will do to communities,” he said.
He said the two main issues to address are sustainability and depletions.
He said some of the solutions to sustainability are fairly easy. Changing farming practices to use less water would be a better solution than shutting wells down, he said. For example, while alfalfa requires 28-30 inches of water annually, barley only requires 20 inches, so a switch from alfalfa to grain would cut water usage by one third.
“We can do a little bit better than that,” Salazar added. “A lot of us that are raising grain and potatoes, there are a lot of conservation crops that can apply 6-8 inches that will raise some pasture for cows.”
A crop like sorghum sudan grass would only require 6-8 inches but would still provide pasture for cattle, for example.
“There’s alternatives without having to shut a bunch of wells down to increase sustainability,” Salazar said. “We know we have to reduce the drain on the aquifers. I think sustainability can be dealt with fairly easily if we all agree we need to cut back. I don’t think there will be too many farms go out of business if we cut back.”
Addressing the issue of replacing depletions is a bit trickier, Salazar said. He explained it would take on the order of 20,000-30 ,000 acre feet to replace those depletions throughout the Valley, with the Conejos system owing about 6,000 acre feet. If the drought continues, however, that number could increase to 8,000-10 ,000 ace feet on that river system, he said.
Forbearance is one key way to deal with the depletions , he said. Some senior water users who have been injured by well pumping may be willing to accept money instead of water, Salazar explained. However , there will be water right holders who will want “wet water,” and that will not always be easy to provide, he said.
“A lot of depletions we are seeing are owed on the lower Conejos might owe 10,000-15 ,000 acre feet of depletions. How do we get 10,000 acre feet down to that lower part if we have to replace it exactly in time and place and we can’t find enough forbearance agreements ?”
Another obstacle is reservoir storage in that area. Salazar said the Platoro Reservoir would be a good place to store water that could later be used to replace depletions. However, that reservoir is often restricted under the Rio Grande Compact on whether it can store water or not.
“It’s a Compact reservoir and a post-Compact reservoir , which means we can’t really store water from one year to the next ” which is what we really need to do if we are going to make this thing work. Trying to find storage is going to be a big issue.”
Dry riverbeds create other obstacles, Salazar added. If water has to move from one part of the stream to meet depletions on the other end, but there’s a dry riverbed in the middle, “we lose it all.”
Folks have four options in responding to the state’s pending groundwater rules, Salazar said. One option is to join a sub-district ; another is to formulate an augmentation plan; a third is to take the rules to court and try to keep them there as long as possible “that’s not a real good solution;” and a fourth option is to seek legislative mandates to force polices on the well users. Salazar said he would rather see the Valley work out its own solutions than to go to the state legislature.
The solutions committee, or team, has been trying to develop alternatives since last April, Salazar said. The team set up technical and legal sub groups and has held numerous meetings in the past year.
The team has looked at several alternatives such as diverting numerous junior water rights to pay for depletions and replenish the aquifer. Some of the people who own those junior water rights are not producing that much with them and would just as soon get paid for them. The San Luis Valley Well Owners own some junior water rights that produce a lot of water on certain years, Salazar said. That could be a source of replacement water.
The solutions committee is looking at many options and trying to find the most affordable and efficient ones, Salazar said.