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.”