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.


Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust: Garcia Ranch Conservation Easement Completed!

December 24, 2013
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust website:

The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust is proud to announce the completion of a conservation easement on the beautiful Garcia Ranch on the Conejos River. Thanks to the generosity of owners Dr. Reyes Garcia and his daughters Lana Kiana and Tania Paloma, their working ranch will remain intact with its senior water rights in perpetuity. In addition, RiGHT greatly appreciates the funding from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, through the Rio Grande Basin Round Table, the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and the San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program Committee which all made this wonderful conservation project possible.

Fulfilling the opportunity to conserve this exceptional property has been a labor of love for both the landowners and the land trust over the past two years, with roots that go back much, much further. As a retired professor of philosophy, environmental and indigenous studies, Reyes Garcia is deeply attuned to the legacy of his family’s land and the way of life it has provided for generations. With the Garcia family having originally settled in Conejos County in the 1850’s, he has a long history rooted in the special area between the Conejos and San Antonio Rivers.

In an article for RiGHT’s spring newsletter, Dr. Garcia wrote that he chose to conserve the land in honor of his older brother, Jose, who worked the land for 50 years until his recent passing. “Surely, a conservation easement agreement is a recommitment to a more original contract between humanity and the whole of the natural world …. as a sacred promise to cherish and safeguard one another. Surely, an easement agreement is a prism through which to envision a future much like the past many of us have known during our best years here in El Valle de San Luis – a future also much like the present in which we face so many of the challenges of a period of transition and big changes – a future that will continue as far as possible to be sustainable and wholesome.”

Conserving the land and water is a way “to make my own small contribution to preserving the family legacy of ranching and the land-based culture of the ranchero tradition,” Garcia wrote. “After my brother gave me the responsibility for irrigating in 1983, I came to understand this tradition includes putting into practice ecological values by virtue of an instinctual love of the land that engenders good stewardship and a deep respect for all life forms, the seasonal rotation of livestock and their humane treatment, the acequia irrigation system especially, the transmission of skills which make self-reliance possible, along with an emphasis on cooperation with neighbors and mutual aid.

“How can we not hope that another seven generations will lay up a treasure of similar experiences and memories? How can we not bring ourselves to do what is necessary to make this possible for those who come after us?” Garcia wrote.

“Conserving a spectacular property like the Garcia Ranch truly fulfills the core purpose of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust,” said Rio de la Vista, Co-Coordinator of the trust’s Rio Grande Initiative. “The rare opportunity to protect such a beautiful confluence of working lands, important water rights and exceptional wildlife habitat is always fulfilling. And this easement is all the more special due to the long-lived legacy of the Garcia family in Conejos County. We are immensely grateful to them for working with RiGHT to provide this ‘gift to the future’, of intact land and water that can sustain life and livelihoods far into the future.”

For a short film about the Garcia Ranch by co-owner Lana Garcia, click this link.

More conservation easement coverage here and here.


‘In water, we never use the word fair. It is not part of the vocabulary’ — Nathan Coombs

November 30, 2013
Students pulling samples

Students pulling samples

From the Valley Courier (Lauren Krizansky):

Colorado youth are tomorrow’s water leaders, and in the Valley they are getting a head start. Natural resource education opportunities are abundant between the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans, and teachers are connecting their students to one of the Valley’s most priceless resources – water – through Colorado Academic Standards approved lessons in nature’s classroom.

“Water, where it comes from affects us and what happens in our community,” explained Conejos Water Conservancy District Manager and Conejos County Conservation District Supervisor Nathan Coombs to a group of North Conejos School District students earlier this year. “And we have to measure water to know if it is going to the right places… the value of water is tremendous.”

After breaking down water management in the Conejos District to a few key vocabulary words – priority, compact, curtail, diversion, aquifer, ground water and surface water – Coombs brought it to life standing over the Conejos River on the Manassa Ditch No. 1 with the 65 middle school students, discussing the 97 diversions between the Platoro Reservoir and where they were standing. “In the river, it doesn’t matter where you are,” Coombs said. “It’s all about your number.”

He added, “In water, we never use the word fair. It is not part of the vocabulary.”

After detailing how the rivers in Colorado deliver water to seven states, Rio Grande Compact obligations and how it takes 44 hours in a raft to float on the Conejos River from the reservoir to Las Sauces, the students couldn’t stop asking questions and volunteering answers.

Water leaders like Coombs make these experiential lessons an option for Valley teachers with help from interested classroom teachers and environmental educators like the Rio Grande Water Conservation Education Initiative (RGWCEI) specialist Judy Lopez.

“This gives the students a real life connection,” said Conejos science teacher Andrew Shelton while watching his students turn on to their natural environment this fall. “This is a farming community , and it really hits home with them.”

RGWCEI works with the Valley’s conservation districts , school districts, community members and producers with a goal to create an educated populous that not only respects the Valley’s natural resources, but also understands the big part agriculture plays in conserving those resources, Lopez said.

“Not only are they getting lectures, but hands on experience that will ultimately build an intrinsic value system,” she said. “Science today tends to be taught within the context of labs and boxes. These experiences create problem solvers.”

About 85 percent of Valley students either stay here or return after college, she added, making natural resources lessons during younger years much more important .

“The youth are going to value the Valley more,” Lopez said. “They will be responsive to the natural resources as citizens, parents and families.” Students of all kinds Natural resource education in the Valley isn’t limited to the K-12 classroom. Last spring, the Rio Grande Leaders Course graduated a number of locals looking to understand and protect the Valley’s water. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD), Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) and RGWCEI sponsored course provided 25 community members the opportunity to engage in education and networking to prepare to take a future role in safeguarding , developing and managing the Valley’s water resources. It included information on Valley hydrology, water rights administration, notable court cases, current events and local partners and projects. Course attendees included young farmers, federal agency employees and other interested individuals , making for interesting dialogue and numerous perspectives on water use.

“It opened my eyes,” said Aliesha Carpenter, originally from La Jara and now married to a fourth generation Center potato farmer during the course’s closing ceremonies in March. “It wasn’t just about agriculture. It was about wildlife, the Sand Dunes and life for people. Without it, our agricultural economy would disintegrate. There needs to be a younger generation in agriculture.” Bureau of Land Management (BLM) assistant field manager Paul Tigan added, “I think the course helped with the understanding of the long term context of water management in the Valley. Federal employees have a tendency to come into a place, stay for a few years and then move on. This is a good opportunity to develop a context and to understand .”

RGWCEI is also reaching out to education professionals through its annual teachers workshop series. The series, now in its seventh year, offers educators from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn how to teach in the outdoors and from the outdoors. It includes a one-week experiential learning course annually over a three-year timeframe. The series is broken into three sectors: From Watershed to Cup Year One: Following Water Through the “Creekulum;” From Watershed to Sustainability Year Two: Building a “Stream” of Consciousness; and From Watershed to Table Year Three: Following Water Down the Food Chain. The series is based out of the Trinchera Ranch in Fort Garland, but uses the entire Valley as its classroom.

“It’s a way for teachers to reconnect,” Lopez said. “They learn how to teach in the outdoors, and it gives them a background. A teacher’s biggest fear is that they don’t know enough. They get to be on the ground with natural resource specialists and leave with hands on lessons , creating more confident educators.”

Completion results in three graduate credits, an extensive education in the Valley’s natural resources and their systems and the ability to build natural resources-based activities through the K-12 Project Wet curriculum, an outdoor environmental education tool. State supported initiative

In May 2010, the Colorado Kids Outdoors Grant Program Legislation, HB10-1131 was signed into law, recognizing the importance of the outdoor environment on the health of the state’s residents, especially youth.

It aims to prepare students to address present and future environmental challenges and innovations that impact quality of life, according to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) Colorado Environmental Education Plan (CEEP) published in 2012. Colorado’s environment , economy and communities depend on informed citizens who can make decisions about air and water quality; the health of farms, ranches, forests and wildlife; how to meet energy and other resource needs; how to create and sustain healthy communities; and how to provide opportunities for residents to partake in the state’s natural beauty while protecting it for future generations.

In 2011, a partnership was born between CDE and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to write CEEP, and to foster awareness needed to promote, coordinate and sustain standards-based environmental education across the state.

The plan is designed to support implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards while developing students’ knowledge and skills related to the environment and getting students to spend more time outside, according to CEEP. The timing of this plan is advantageous as districts, schools and teachers are revising curricula and improving instructional practices to address the strategic imperative of developing all students’ postsecondary workforce readiness. Its strategies support teachers in addition to encouraging the integration of high quality environmental education opportunities and use of the outdoors in ways that are relevant, connected and meaningful for their students.

More education coverage here.


New series of articles from the Valley Courier will focus on Colorado’s supply gap

July 24, 2013

riograndebasin.jpg

Here is Part I of the The Valley Courier’s new series about Colorado’s water supply gap, written by Judy Lopez. Here’s an excerpt:

The Rio Grande Basin encompasses approximately 8,000 square miles, including the San Luis Valley. This high mountain valley extends approximately 100 miles from north to south and 50 miles from east to west.

Water in the Rio Grande Basin is currently over appropriated (and has been since the 1890s). All of the waters of the Rio Grande and Conejos River and their tributaries are subject to the terms of the Rio Grande Compact. This combined with the fact that the Valley’s groundwater resources have been over used and areas across the basin face groundwater depletions mean that the need for decision making is increasingly urgent. By 2050, a shortfall of 180,000 acre feet (AF) is expected, which includes the agricultural groundwater shortage which is being addressed by pending rules and regulations and fallowing farm land via the groundwater sub-district. The goal of each of these actions is to achieve sustainable aquifers through better management and reduction of groundwater pumping.

The whole case revolves around the fact that water is recognized as one of the most vital substances to sustain life. Then why is it one of the most undervalued resources in the world? Universally people do not understand the variety of services that water provides to sustain a nation’s economic development and the health of its population. Where would the manufacturing, electronics, or agriculture industries be without water?

Water helps to provides psychological benefits, too. In a report from the American Waterworks Association, “People derive pleasure from recreational activities and find comfort knowing that the water they drink is of the highest quality”. With this said, in developed countries, knowledge of water resources by the majority of the population is at best minimal.

Why? One reason could be that water utilities have been successful in providing high-quality water on demand. They are so good at in fact that the process of sanitizing and delivering water remains of little or no concern. So much so that most of the developed population is complacent about water resources, by valuing the outcomes and giving little regard to the inputs. One could predict that the misuse and abuse of water is the direct result of the perception that water has little or no value at all.

The real value of water is not the price or cost associated with its production – the real value of water is related to the services it provides. While water to sustain human life can be assigned a particular value; water used for environmental purposes, such as developing and maintaining wetlands, is assigned another value. The value is dependent upon a person’s background, belief system and interests.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.


The Rio Grande Roundtable approves $237,000 streamflow forecasting pilot project

July 13, 2013

conejosriver.jpg

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

The state water board, Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), is so interested in how the project will affect stream flow forecasts in the future it is willing to put $215,000 into it.

The local basin-wide water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable, on Tuesday unanimously approved the Conejos Water Conservancy’s $237,000 request for basin and statewide funding: $200,000 from statewide funds and $37,000 from basin-allocated funds. The conservancy district is taking the lead in sponsoring the project.

The total project cost is about half a million dollars with funds coming from state and local water grants, the CWCB match, local match and other grant funds.

Conejos Water Conservancy Manager Nathan Coombs and Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson said this project would provide more information to the Colorado Division of Water Resources and others to more accurately predict stream flows. The project will ultimately assist area irrigators as well because it will improve management of the Valley’s river systems. If the project is successful here, it will likely be installed in other parts of the state.

Joe Busto, with the CWCB Watershed Protection & Flood Mitigation Program, said improved forecasting translates to real dollars for irrigators. Improved forecasts assist the state in better managing water resources, which is even more critical in times of drought. Busto said this type of project is a high priority for the state.

Currently there are gaps in this basin and others where snowfall data is lacking…

The project would use radar mounted by Red Mountain west of La Jara Reservoir to collect more information about snowfall and snowmelt. Busto said SNODAS (Snow Data Assimilation System) spatial modeling provides 100,000 data points in Colorado, with 4,000 of those in the Rio Grande Basin. The radar data will enhance those data points, he explained…

The pilot project will focus on the watershed in Conejos and integrate radar data with other forms of snowfall measurements and modeling systems. Complete coverage for the basin would require radar on the top of Bristol Head and in Center, Busto explained. That could be a long-term goal but would be more complicated to install. Busto said the Conejos watershed is simpler, so it is a good place to test this out.

The pilot will run seven months, he added, with the radar installed in November…

David Gochis, National Center for Atmospheric Research, said additional measurements are needed on the ground to verify how well the radar is working. If the radar is validated, it would prompt more confidence in applying the radar precipitation estimates elsewhere, Gochis said.

He said a SNOTEL site is currently located at Lily Pond, and the state has survey sites at Platoro and a couple more sites further west, but additional measurement instruments are needed to verify that the information the radar is providing is correct. One obstacle to installing more measurement instruments is the wilderness boundary, Gochis said, because instruments cannot be placed in the wilderness area. They could be clustered around Platoro, however, he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.


Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting recap: ‘My mantra has been let’s try to solve and not fight’ — Scott Verhines

March 31, 2013

riograndebasin100thmeridianorg

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Alamosa hosted the annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting, which rotates among the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Although the states are currently involved in litigation over compact administration, pending lawsuits were hardly mentioned during the meeting, and state engineers said they hoped the states could resolve their differences.

In January, Texas filed suit against New Mexico over Rio Grande Compact disputes, with Colorado caught in the middle since it is part of the compact. The suit alleged New Mexico was not delivering to Texas the water owed that state under the compact.

“I am just hoping the three states and the commission continue to endeavor to work in a cooperative way,” said Dick Wolfe, compact commissioner for Colorado and the state water engineer.

Scott Verhines, Wolfe’s counterpart in New Mexico, said, “My mantra has been let’s try to solve and not fight … It behooves all of us to look for an opportunity to solve rather than fight.”

Pat Gordon, Texas’ compact commissioner and state engineer, said although he could not elaborate on all of the litigation issues, he agreed with Wolfe’s desire “that hopefully we can resolve all these issues.”

He said, “Water would solve a lot of issues.”

That seemed to be the consensus of all three states, which are entering yet another substandard water year.

“This is our fifth year in a row, consecutive year in a row, of below average conditions,” Commissioner Wolfe said. “We are seeing some pretty sustained below average conditions which certainly makes it difficult not only for users in Colorado but our downstream states as well.”

He said in the last 10-12 years, there have only been two or three years above the long-term average.

Wolfe reminded the water commissioners that 2012 experienced below average flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems, with the Rio Grande producing 65 percent of average and the Conejos system 56 percent. He said 2013 will continue in a similar fashion but may be slightly better than last year. The March 1 forecast predicted 70 percent of average flows on the Rio Grande and 69 percent on the Conejos system, he reported.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.


San Luis Valley water is safe from the USFWS and the southwestern willow fly-catcher

March 23, 2013

southwesternwillowflycatcher

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A federal wildlife manager assured Colorado officials Thursday that the protection of habitat for an endangered bird would not lead to demands on the state to relinquish water.

In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher along 23 miles of the Rio Grande and a 2.9mile stretch of the Conejos River. “The designation itself does not affect water delivery or water users,” Wally Murphy, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s protection of endangered species in New Mexico, told the Rio Grande Compact Commission.

San Luis Valley water officials had been alarmed by the January designation after spending years working on a habitat conservation plan to protect the bird’s habitat on private land in the valley. The service excluded 114 miles of private stream bank along the Conejos and Rio Grande that were covered in the conservation plan.

But State Engineer Dick Wolfe, who represents Colorado on the commission, pressed Murphy on whether the operations of Platoro Reservoir or the Closed Basin Project might be impacted. “Habitat is ultimately driven by water to some extent so it seems like there is a nexus there,” Wolfe said.

Murphy said there would be no call for water. Platoro, which has a capacity of 59,000 acre-feet and sits near the Continental Divide, provides flood control and irrigation water for farmers and ranchers along the Conejos. The Closed Basin Project draws groundwater from the northeast corner of the valley and sends it downstream to assist with Colorado’s requirements under the compact.

More endangered/threatened species coverage here and here.


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