Subdistrict remedies stream depletions — the Valley Courier

October 21, 2014
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier (Rob Phillips):

This is the 15th article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, regarding the formation and implementation of the Basin Water Plan. The primary goal of Subdistrict No. 1 is to remedy injurious depletions to senior surface water rights and keep those water users whole.

The Subdistrict has several methods to do this. First, the subdistrict has purchased and leased water, both native to the Rio Grande Basin and water imported from the West slope. This water is stored and released as directed by the Division Engineer to replace stream depletion replacement within stream reaches of the Rio Grande as they occur. By doing this, the river itself is kept whole with wet water replacing the depletions in time, location and amount.

The subdistrict can also use what are known as forbearance agreements. Colorado law allows the subdistrict to remedy injurious depletions by a means other than supplying wet water. The subdistrict can do this by agreeing with a ditch that, rather than replace depletions with water, the subdistrict will pay the ditch some amount of money for each acre-foot of water the ditch does not receive because of depletions caused by subdistrict wells.

Each day the Division Engineer tells the subdistrict which ditch is “on the bubble,” that is the most junior ditch that is in priority that day and that is not receiving its full water supply under that priority. The subdistrict then looks at the Annual Replacement Plan to see the depletions caused by subdistrict wells on that day, water that the ditch on the bubble would have received. The subdistrict keeps track of the total amount of water due to each ditch that has a forbearance agreement and pays them at the end of the year. The ditch can then do what it wants with the money, for example upgrading the ditch or simply dividing it up among the ditch users. Forbearance agreements allow ditches and water users to remain whole, while not locking up scarce water resources. So far, the subdistrict and the forbearing ditches are very happy with this arrangement and look forward to continuing working together to reach the best solution for everyone. How the subdistrict is working towards aquifer sustainability

Throughout the recent drought, the aquifer has been shrinking as producers pump more water than is recharged back to the aquifer. The other primary goal of Subdistrict No. 1 is to recover and sustain the Unconfined Aquifer below the subdistrict to the level that existed in the early 1980s. The primary way the subdistrict plans to do this is by reducing the amount of irrigated acres within the subdistrict, which will reduce the amount of pumping from the aquifer. This concept is built into the Subdistrict’s Plan and requires 20,000 acres be retired by the fifth year from judicial approval of the plan, 30,000 acres less by the end of the seventh year, and up to 40,000 acres less by the end of the tenth year all from a base year of 2000.

One tool the subdistrict has to meet these goals is financial incentives and participation in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to retire up to 40,000 irrigated acres. Currently, 1,970 acres were enrolled in the program in 2013 while another 1,370 acres are currently proposed in 2014. However it is not just CREP acres that count towards the 40,000-acre goal, any program or change that retires acres reduces pumping and assists in achieving and maintaining sustainability . But remember, the subdistrict can only provide incentives, it does not have the power to require wells stop pumping.

Conclusion

The producers of the closed basin area within the San Luis Valley stepped forward when no one else did and created a subdistrict and imposed fees on themselves to replace their wells’ depletions and work to recover and sustain the unconfined aquifer. They did this not because rules or regulations were in place requiring this action, but because they believed these things had to be done.

The process has never been easy and the debate about the best way to achieve the subdistrict’s goals continues. But the subdistrict, led by its board of managers, has continuously worked towards those goals and they remain the leaders in the Valley for replacing depletions and working towards sustainability . Currently, other proposed subdistricts within different hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley are going through the same processes in an attempt to have their plan up and running before the state engineer’s ground water rules are approved within the Rio Grande Basin.

These forming subdistricts have watched and learned from Subdistrict No. 1’s struggles and accomplishments . Those other subdistricts will provide the same protection to their wells, a locally based and operated group that provides an alternative to state administration of ground water withdrawals in Division 3 while protecting senior surface water rights and providing for a long-term , sustainable ground water system.

The Plan of Water Management, Annual Replacement Plans and other information on the subdistrict and the aquifers are available on the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s website: http:// http://www.rgwcd.org/page9.html

Meanwhile Sub-district No. 2 is gearing up for operations according to this report from Lauren Krizansky writing for the Valley Courier:

Well owners residing in the Valley’s second sub-district are ready to push forward with a petition after months of voluntary work.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Cleave Simpson updated the Alamosa County Commissioners (ACC) Wednesday morning on the latest happenings regarding the creation of the next sub-district , which sits in both Alamosa and Rio Grande Counties.

Sub-district No. 2, also known as the Rio Grande Alluvial Sub-district , is comprised entirely of unconfined wells, and is taking on a different form than Sub-District No. 1, he said. The zone is much smaller, only 300 wells compared to 1,000, participation is voluntary and there is no “sustainability requirement” because the wells do not tap into the confined aquifer.

“We are not drawing a boundary,” Simpson said. “We will go to each individual landowner… There are not the same benchmarks to meet.”

Out of the second sub-district’s 300 wells, 152 average more than 10 acre-feet a year, making them subject to the state’s demand to either join a sub-district or to develop an augmentation plan. There are 10 non-private wells in the mix and 60 private well owners.

“It will be a patchwork of parcels,” Simpson said.

Out of those well owners, he said between 12 and 15 have regularly participated in the workgroups over the past few months, and they represent more or less half the wells in the second subdistrict .

In addition, the City of Monte Vista, the Town of Del Norte, Homelake, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and two school districts are in the zone, but will not join the second sub-district because government entities cannot legally be assessed.

They will be held, however, to the same standards, he said, and have the option to contract with Sub-district No. 2, which would include them in its Annual Replacement Plan.

Although assessment methods and fees to replace depletions are still to be determined, he said Subdistrict No. 2 is ready to petition for legitimacy.

“They are ready to go to the public,” Simpson said. “They are ready to start these discussions.”

It depends on where the state is with its pending water rules and regulations in coming months, he said, but the second sub-district hopes to submit its petition to the district court in January 2015.

“The (water) model and rules and regulations are not final ,” Simpson said. “That could cause a delay.”

Once Sub-district No. 2 is established, he said a board of managers (BOM) will be appointed via a court-approved process.

If there is no opposition to the to the second subdistrict’s formation, he said the BOM’s first task will be to draft a management plan, and, if it is also goes unchallenged , fees assessments will begin in late 2015 with collection notices delivered to Sub-district No. 2 participants in conjunction with their January 2016 county issued tax documents.

Due to its uniqueness, he said the second sub-district has options when it comes to mitigating its groundwater depletions.

“There could be some reduction in irrigated agriculture,” Simpson said, “but we might see changes in technologies, crops requiring less consumption and increases in (water) efficiency.”

He added the value of the zone’s water could also increase, but that is also to be determined.

Sub-district No. 1 has resulted in increased values, in some cases almost double, and is drawing interest from buyers from outside of the Valley. The Rio Grande Alluvial Sub-district is the second out of six identified in the Valley to come to fruition under the watch of the RGWCD. Alamosa County will eventually have three within its borders. In addition to Subdistricts No. 1 and No. 2, the fourth sub-district will also fall within its jurisdiction, but it is still in an infant stage.

“It’s good to see the well owners come together,” said Alamosa County Chair Michael Yohn. “Everyone has to be accountable for their water use.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Blanca wetlands provide prime habitat

September 25, 2014
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The most important resource at the Blanca Wetlands greets visitors the moment they get out of their cars. Mouths, ears, eyes and loose pant legs are all inviting targets for the bugs, which, more importantly, play a critical role in making the 10,000-acre wetlands a magnet for migrating shore birds and songbirds.

“That’s really our job, I think, out here, is to grow bugs,” Sue Swift-Miller, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said.

Swift-Miller and fellow wildlife biologist Jill Lucero help oversee the wetlands, which sits 8 miles northeast of town, and manage the complex interplay of water management with the timing of bug hatches and bird migrations.

The bird species that come in the largest number include the Wilson’s Phalarope, Baird’s Sandpiper and the American Avocet.

But the wetlands and their bugs also attract species such as the western snowy plover, American white pelican, and the white-faced ibis. Those species and 10 others that visit the wetlands are designated as sensitive species by the agency, meaning they or their habitat are either in decline or projected to do so.

Overall, more than 163 mammals use the wetlands.

That the birds and the bugs are here in such numbers is the result of the BLM’s decision in the 1960s to restore the wetlands by drilling 43 wells into the confined aquifer, the deeper of the San Luis Valley’s two major groundwater bodies. The water, which averages out to roughly 5,000 acre-feet annually, is then funneled into a series of basins that range from fresh water ponds that support both cold- and warm-water fisheries to shallower basins that have a higher salt content than the ocean.

After years of study, Swift-Miller said it’s become evident that bugs need specific water-quality parameters, depending on the species. BLM officials can, with the help of hundreds of miles of canals and culverts, funnel fresh water to certain basins to dilute the salinity or withhold to emphasize it.

The intermittent use of water is particularly important in habitat areas known as playas, which are generally saline basins with clay dominated soils that historically went through wetting and drying cycles in the valley.

While drought and diversions for agriculture have cut wetting cycles, the BLM has found a jump in insects such as fairy and brine shrimp when it’s added water to the playas.

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

“We’re getting macroinvertibrates that have been in cyst stage for years,” Lucero said. “Nobody’s seen them for 50 years and suddenly they’re coming out as we wet an area.”

But choosing when to apply water is just as critical.

“If you’ve got bugs available when the birds aren’t here, you really haven’t done yourself any good,” Swift-Miller said.

The agency’s use of groundwater will soon be coming under a new set of state regulations, as is the case with all groundwater users in the valley. Those regulations, which remain in draft form, are expected to require groundwater users to obtain surface water to offset the injury their pumping causes to surface-water users.

But the BLM’s augmentation efforts began even before the draft regulations thanks to 20 illegal wells the agency drilled in the late 1970s.

While the agency will still have to get more augmentation water, Swift­Miller said it’s possible the agency will get enough to avoid shutting down any wells at the wetlands.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape for that,” she said.

Before the agency and other area water users began pumping groundwater, the Blanca Wetlands was the endpoint in a string of marshes, playas and lakes that extended to the north end of the valley. A map from 1869 shows the Blanca Wetlands as part of a large lake. Aerial photos from the 1940s in the agency’s possession show a string of connected wetlands that run to where the current San Luis Lake State Park sits, at the southwestern edge of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Earlier this year, the BLM approved a proposal that would allow it to buy property from willing landowners in an effort to expand the Blanca Wetlands and improve habitat connectivity. The search for willing sellers would focus on the area that extends north and northeast from the Blanca to the west side of the state park.

Another focus area for expansion sits further north on the western edge of Baca National Wildlife Refuge and runs east to Mishak Lakes.

While expansion funding would need to navigate the gridlock that has dominated congressional budget proceedings, the proposal did make it into the White House’s budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


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.


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.


San Luis Valley: Pumpers worry about augmentation water debt

April 28, 2014
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Paying past water debts while trying to keep up with current ones could be a make-or-break proposition for new water management sub-districts throughout the San Luis Valley. the Valley, members of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) began developing an alternative several years ago that it hoped would allow Valley farmers to stay in business while complying with state regulations. The larger water district sponsored sub-districts for various geographical areas of the Valley, with the first lying in the closed basin area in the central part of the Valley. The sub-districts’ goals are to make up for depletions well users have caused in the past and are causing in the present , plus rebuild the Valley’s aquifers. One of their objectives is to take irrigated land out of production to reduce the draw on the aquifers.

The first sub-district is operational now with fees collected from farmers within the sub-district paying for water to offset the depletions and injuries to surface Background Knowing the state would soon be regulating the hundreds of irrigation wells in users caused by their well pumping. As the late RGWCD President Ray Wright described the effort, it was a “pay to play” proposition. For example, those who did not have surface water rights would pay more to continue operating their wells than those who had both surface and groundwater.

The first sub-district is also putting water in the river to replace injurious depletions its well users have caused to surface rights. One of the methods the sub-district has used to meet its goals is to purchase property. Another has been to support the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is included in the farm bill. That program pays folks to fallow land either permanently or for a specific time period, with cover crops planted for ground cover and erosion Sub-district #1 submitted its annual replacement plan to its board, its sponsoring district and the state engineer and court this week. The subdistrict board of managers and RGWCD board approved the plan, and RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver personally presented it to Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten on Tuesday.

The 2012 annual replacement plan was challenged, with some of those legal challenges still pending in court. (The 2013 plan was not contested.) RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told the board on Tuesday the Colorado Supreme Court has not yet set the matter for arguments, and if it does not do so in the next week or two, it will probably not schedule the arguments until September or October. The local water court upheld the plan, but objectors appealed to the Supreme Court, which has received briefs from the parties in the case but has not yet set a time to hear arguments.

Robbins said there are three issues involved in the court case regarding the 2012 annual replacement plan: 1) use of Closed Basin Project water as replacement water, “that’s a good legal argument ;” 2) the way augmentation plans were accounted for in the 2012 replacement plan, “that’s a slap my hand argument;” and 3) when the annual replacement plan becomes effective, a procedural argument. Current activity

Now that the first subdistrict is operational and the state’s groundwater rules likely to be filed in the next month or two, the sponsoring water district is fervently assisting sub-district working groups from Saguache to Conejos and everywhere in between. One of the proposed sub-districts , for example, lies along the alluvium of the Rio Grande.

RGWCD Program Managers Rob Phillips and Cleave Simpson are working to get the new sub-districts formed.

Vandiver told the RGWCD board on Tuesday that Simpson is working hard with working groups for Subdistricts #2, 3, and 4 to get petitions ready to be signed by landowners in those subdistricts and to draft a plan of management and budget for each sub-district . Those will be presented to the water court when they are completed. Simpson told the RGWCD board on Tuesday all three of those sub-district working groups plan to present their completed petitions to the sponsoring water district board before the end of this calendar year.

Vandiver added that Subdistricts #5 and 6, Saguache Creek and San Luis Creek, are not as far along. The Saguache Creek group has held numerous meetings but is waiting on final numbers from the state’s groundwater model to know how much it will owe in depletions before it can proceed much further. The working group for the San Luis Creek sub-district fell apart, Vandiver said, but a few well owners in that area are getting back together and will meet next week for the first time in a long time.

Vandiver also told the RGWCD board on Tuesday that a group of federal and state agencies that own wells in the Valley are meeting to discuss their options. They will also have to comply with the groundwater regulations, as will municipalities with wells. Vandiver said state, federal and local agencies/ municipalities will have to join/form a sub-district or create augmentation plans to comply with the pending state rules. Many of the agencies are interested in joining subdistricts , he added. In doing so, they would either have to pay with cash or water, and many of them have water they could contribute, which would be helpful for the subdistricts . Water debt challenges RGWCD Director Cory Off brought up the issue of the district having to provide a guaranty to the state for lag depletions from past pumping , which was determined in the case of Sub-district #1 to be 19 years. Off said District Judge O. John Kuenhold in 2008 ruled the sub-district had to pay lag depletions to the river but did not say the sub-district had to provide a guaranty. The first plan of water management, which the state engineer approved, required the sub-district to have two years of wet water in storage, Off added.

The state engineer did not say anything about a guaranty in 2011, but in 2012 the state required the district to sign a letter of guaranty, which it did, Off added. He said he believed the water district board needed to rethink this matter because he did not believe the district had an obligation to file a guaranty, particularly for Sub-district #1 since it had already been approved by the court, or any future sub-districts. By signing the letter of guaranty for Subdistrict #1 the district was putting future sub-districts in a precarious position, he said, because subsequent sub-districts do not have the economic ability to cover lag depletions like Sub-district #1 does. Off said the first sub-district is comprised of a large number of farmers, but some of the other sub-districts have a fraction of the populace but even greater depletions to make up.

RGWCD Director Lawrence Gallegos said that was true of the two sub-districts in Conejos County, and if those sub-districts had to provide a guaranty for lag depletions, their fees would be astronomical.

“I think it could be make-it or break-it especially for the two sub-districts that are in the county I represent,” he said. “I think we need to have the sub-districts working ” We don’t want to set anybody up to fail.”

He said the RGWCD board needs to ask its legal counsel to talk to the state engineer about other arrangements that wouldn’t break the subdistricts .

RGWCD Director Dwight Martin said Sub-district #4, with which he has been involved, has been trying to determine what its obligation will be. It does not have firm numbers yet. Martin said if the depletions are 22,000 acre feet, it is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible to meet that obligation. If the depletion repayment is 8,000 acre feet, the sub-district can put together a workable budget with the approximately 400 wells involved in that sub-district .

Robbins said Sub-district #1 is close to having enough water or cash to pay its lag depletions if it went out of business today, and each area of the Valley where depletions have occurred must make up for its depletions either cooperatively through sub-districts or individually through augmentation plans. He said the district does not yet know what the lag depletions will be for the rest of the sub-districts because they are hydrologically different than Sub-district # 1. For example, Sub-district #2 is right along the river.

“The state engineer cannot approve a plan of management unless he’s given assurance the depletions that are caused by the pumping will be replaced so that there is no injury to senior water rights,” Robbins said.

Cotten agreed. He said it is like getting a 20-year loan. If someone told the bank he would pay the first year but provided no guaranty he would pay the next 19 years, he would probably not get the loan. He added that this is not the only basin where the state engineer has required this type of thing.

Off said he was not saying the depletions should not be replaced.

“Paying depletions to the river obviously has to happen ,” he said.

His problem was with the guaranty for lag depletions, he said.

Robbins said there might be several ways those lag depletions could be covered . It could be through a permanent forbearance, for example, he said.

“There are a lots of ways to solve the problem other than simply putting money in escrow,” Robbins said.

RGWCD President Greg Higel said as a senior water owner he wanted to see lag depletions paid back and wanted to see some sort of guaranty in place that they would be.

Vandiver said the state engineer’s responsibility is to protect the surface water users that the sub-district plan was designed to protect. He said the senior/surface water users drove the point home to the court and the state that replacement of depletions was a critical issue that must be addressed. “The objectors from the very beginning have said it wasn’t enough, it just wasn’t enough.”

Vandiver said he was not opposed to going back to the state engineer to talk about lag depletions, but he believed the district must present some options.

Robbins said, “If the board wants me to talk to the state engineer, we can come up with the options.”

He added he was not opposed to having a preliminary discussion with State Engineer Dick Wolfe to see how much flexibility he might be willing to provide.

The RGWCD board unanimously voted to have Robbins speak with the state engineer about the lag depletion guaranties and alternatives.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


‘There’s a real urgency to this. We only have two years before wells are shut down’ — LeRoy Salazar

January 20, 2014
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos

Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

A water purchase nearly four decades ago may provide a major solution in the current challenge to keep farmers in business in the San Luis Valley. Representatives from the San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners Inc. received unanimous support from the Rio Grande Interbasin Roundtable on Tuesday to perform a feasibility study to see if surface water rights they own can be used to offset depletion requirements for various groundwater management sub-districts throughout the Valley. The budget for the study is $180,000, with the local roundtable approving $8,000 of its basin funding for the project and supporting a request for $142,000 in statewide funds, which will be considered at the state level in March. The well owners group will provide $30,000 as its match.

The nonprofit well owners corporation was formed in 1973 to address groundwater rules and regulations that appeared imminent at the time, SLV Irrigation Well Owners Vice President Monty Smith told members of the Valley-wide roundtable group on Tuesday. In preparation for the rules/regs at that time, the well owners group, comprised of people who own irrigation wells, began an augmentation plan that incorporated the purchase of Taos Valley #3 water rights on the San Antonio River for augmentation water, Smith added.

“The augmentation plan was never completed and never needed to be used,” Smith explained.

“Thirty eight years later we find ourselves in a situation where we need to use that water and we need to complete the project.”

He added, “We feel this water is an absolutely crucial piece of our replacement for not only the Conejos area but it provides benefit for the entire basin. We need to figure how it can best be used.”

Agro Engineering Engineer Kirk Thompson provided more information about this potential water project and its importance to Valley water users, especially now that state groundwater rules and regulations for the Rio Grande Basin will soon be promulgated. Thompson said the Taos Valley #3 water rights were a relatively junior water right on the San Antonio dating to 1889. They were originally adjudicated for 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) and used for irrigation and storage. Since that time, however, a portion of the water rights was abandoned, leaving 245 cfs, which is what the well owners bought in 1976 for their augmentation plan. They converted 230 cfs of the 245 cfs total from irrigation to augmentation water and left the remaining 15 cfs in irrigation, Thompson explained. The well owners are considering converting that 15 cfs into augmentation water as well.

The well owners bought the water for the purpose of augmenting injurious depletions in the streams resulting from well pumping, Thompson said. Since 1976, the 230 cfs, also known as the Middlemist water, has been left in the San Antonio for the benefit of the entire river system, Thompson said. Since the state did not promulgate groundwater rules in the 1970’s , there was no formal requirement for augmentation in the intervening 38 years, he added.

Since this was a junior water right, some years the Middlemist water produced zero effect on the river system, and in other years it provided as much as 29,000 acre feet, Thompson said. Most years averaged about 10,000 acre feet of water from this water right to the river systems.

“This is a significantly large amount of water we are talking about and a valuable consideration as we move forward,” Thompson said.

Thompson reminded the attendees at the Tuesday roundtable meeting that the state is in the process of promulgating rules governing groundwater use in the San Luis Valley, and wells will no longer be allowed to pump unless their injurious depletions to surface rights are covered in a groundwater management sub-district or augmentation plan. Thompson said the state engineer’s goal is to have the rules/regulations to the water court by this spring, and Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten confirmed that in his report to the roundtable.

Cotten also confirmed that the well owners’ augmentation plan would have to go back to court, since it never was finalized in the ’70’s . The plan would have to be more specific on how it would provide augmentation and would have to prove it could deliver water where it needed to go, he said.

Thompson said the well owners group wants to perfect its Middlemist/Taos Valley #3 water right so that water can be used for augmentation purposes in a way that will benefit well owners in sub-districts throughout the Valley. Individual augmentation plans for every well owner would not be realistic at this point, so most well owners plan to join sub-districts as a means of meeting the pending state regulations. The purpose of the well owners’ project is to consider ways in which their surface water right could benefit those sub-districts , Thompson explained.

“As of today, there’s certainly not enough augmentation water currently perfected to go around and ” will be in very short supply and probably at high value,” Thompson said.

He said the average total depletions that well owners throughout the entire basin will have to replace will be about 30,000 acre feet every year. If the approximately 10,000 acre feet the Middlemist water produces every year could be used to offset those depletions, it could amount to about a third of the annual requirement.

Smith said, “This is a way to carry on our living and our way of life that we all enjoy in this Valley and to keep the Valley a viable place to live. I have farmed my entire life. I am third generation. My goal is to be able to continue to preserve my wells, to replace my injuries to the streams. This is one piece in that puzzle to bring that all together.”

The group asked the roundtable for help in funding a hydrologic feasibility study to consider the potential for using the Taos Valley #3 water for either surface water storage or groundwater recharge. Thompson said storage options are limited, so he believed recharge was a more viable option. The feasibility study would look at how the recharge could be accomplished so the water would go into the ground where it was needed to replace injurious depletions. The study would look at both confined and unconfined recharge options..

Those who will be involved in conducting the feasibility study will be Thompson of Agro Engineering, Eric Harmon of HRS Water Consultants, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering and in an advisory capacity, Steve Vandiver of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District , the sponsoring entity for the water management sub-districts .

The study would be the first of a multi-phased project . Phase 2 would look at physical infrastructure to get surface water where it needs to go, and the third phase would involve the court process to perfect the water right as an augmentation right, Thompson explained.

He said the well owners want to begin some wintertime well monitoring right away, using their $30,000 match. They want to begin this study as soon as possible since Harmon envisions the feasibility phase as taking a full year.

“If we don’t have the feasibility done this year we are talking another one or two years to get into the courts,” Thompson said. “If rules are released this spring, the subdistricts are under the gun to get formed and under the gun to find sources of water to replace injurious depletions in short order.”

LeRoy Salazar added, “There’s a real urgency to this. We only have two years before wells are shut down ” We don’t have a lot of time.”

Salazar said this project is key to replacing injurious depletions to surface water rights; creating a sustainable water table; and maintaining the Valley’s economy.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap: Pumping down 30,000 acre-feet from 2012

December 16, 2013
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From the Valley Courier (Lauren Krizansky):

VALLEY Pumping in the Valley’s first sub-district is down 95,000 acre-feet from 2011, and 30,000 acre-feet from last year. Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program General Manager Steve Vandiver said during the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting on Tuesday afternoon the fees for the 2013 irrigation year were tallied up last month, totaling $7.1 million, down a touch from last year. About 168,000 irrigated acres were charged for 230,000 acre-feet of water pumped.

Sub-district No. 1 affects 175,000 irrigated acres and 500 or more individual property owners, and lies north of the Rio Grande in what is known as the Closed Basin area within Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties . Its purpose includes repairing the damage from well users to surface water rights, helping the state meet its Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states and replenishing the Valley’s underground aquifers.

“It’s not like the well owners in that area aren’t doing something,” Vandiver said. “It is working well.” One problem unveiled this year, he said, was found in some well metering systems, but alternative methods were used to obtain pumping data.

One problem solved this year, he added, was figuring out how some government entities like the Center Conservation District existing within the sub-district pay their dues since they are tax-exempt. The Colorado State University San Luis Valley Research Center, however, has not reached an agreement with the sub-district .

The pumping decline complements the snowfall of late, which Division 3 Water Engineer Craig Cotton said is between 130 and 140 percent of the annual average.

“We are looking better than we have in a number of years,” Cotton said. “We still have a lot of winter to go… hopefully we will get more snow.”

While the Valley waits to see what will happen this season, preparations for water challenges in the future are being addressed. Vandiver said the RGWCD is moving forward with meetings regarding the creation of more Valley sub-districts and groundwater rules and regulations, which are scheduled for adoption next spring. “We are pushing really hard to get started (with the new sub-districts ),” Vandiver said. “Those participating in a sub-district or participating in an augmentation plan need to pay attention (to the groundwater rules and regulations). It is a pretty important time.”

He added, “There is power in the sub-district . We can do it as a group instead of one-on-one , and it makes a lot of sense.”

The Division of Water Resources (DWR) will conduct meetings today regarding several proposed Valley sub- districts. The meetings will discuss the modeling results and the replacement and sustainability requirements of the sub-districts , and are as follows:

  • Saguache and San Luis Creek Sub-districts , 9:30 a.m., Saguache County Road and Bridge Department
  • Alamosa La Jara Subdistrict , 1:30 p.m., Monte Vista Coop
  • Rio Grande Alluvial Sub-district , 7 p.m., Monte Vista Coop The San Luis Valley Advisory Committee to the state engineer concerning rules and regulations for ground water use in the Rio Grande Basin meets tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Inn of the Rio Grande in Alamosa, and, Vandiver said, all water users are encouraged to attend.
  • In addition, the RGWCD purchased a property within the sub-district boundaries with two irrigation wells and Rio Grande Canal water rights, he said. The parcel will be placed in a permanent forbearance plan.

    “This is certainly very helpful to Sub-district No. 1,” Vandiver said. outdoor recreation opportunities . A complete list of grant awards is available at goco.org.

    GOCO invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife , rivers and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created by voters in 1992, GOCO has funded more than 3,500 projects in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support . The grants are funded by GOCO’s share of Colorado Lottery revenues, which are divided between GOCO, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Conservation Trust Fund and school construction. Projects in Saguache County have received more than $13.1 million in GOCO funds over the years.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


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