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 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.

    Dick Wolfe to San Luis Valley pumpers — [Lacking sub-district plan or augmentation] ‘You are going to get shut off’

    November 4, 2013
    San Luis Valley Groundwater

    San Luis Valley Groundwater

    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Wells will be shut down. Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe and Deputy State Engineer Michael Sullivan reminded the large crowd attending a well rules advisory committee meeting on Thursday they mean business about implementing groundwater regulations.

    “You are going to get shut off,” Wolfe responded to a question on Thursday about what will happen to irrigators who neither have an augmentation plan in place nor belong to an organized water management sub-district after the grace period for the groundwater regulations is over.

    “That’s the intent of the rules. We made it very clear. There are three options: groundwater management plan accepted by the court, like a sub-district; augmentation plan; or you get shut off.”

    Sullivan reiterated, “You form a sub-district, get an augmentation plan or you turn the wells off and go to Hawaii or wherever you go and quit irrigating.”

    Although it has been two and a half years since the well rules advisory committee met, the timeline for state regulations of groundwater use in the Rio Grande Basin is now moving rapidly forward.

    Wolfe and Sullivan said they expect to have all the pieces of the rules in place in about six months. The rules would then be submitted to water court for approval. The groundwater rules will affect thousands of wells throughout the Rio Grande Basin, encompassing the San Luis Valley. Domestic wells are exempt, but most irrigation, commercial and municipal wells will be covered under the rules.

    Whether or not there are protests to the rules and delays through the courts, the time clock for compliance with the rules starts ticking when they are submitted to the court, they said. That is when they are considered promulgated, Wolfe and Sullivan explained. Wolfe said the rules are effective 60 days after they are published with the water court. The state engineer has built in timelines for people to comply with the rules. For example, irrigations have one year following the promulgation of the rules to get an augmentation plan filed with the court or join a sub-district .

    “We have built into this some realistic and achievable benchmarks people can meet,” Wolfe said. He recognized that many people are already making decisions about what they are going to do to comply with the state rules.

    “These rules are coming. They are going to be put in place, and if you don’t meet these benchmarks, drastic things are going to happen.”

    “You can start now,” Sullivan encouraged irrigators in regards to becoming a part of a sub-district or submitting their own augmentation plan. He said if someone gambled on court delays holding the rules in abeyance, that person would probably lose.

    “If you don’t meet your benchmarks, you are basically done,” he said.

    Wolfe said he hoped there would not be any protests to the rules because he has given the public every opportunity to be involved in the rule-making process. He added, “and the legislature told us this is what we have got to do. If this fails, something will happen. The legislature will have to step in. I am very confident we will get through this.”

    He said it is possible the court could remand the rules back for corrections and refinement, but he was hopeful that all of the work upfront and all of the public involvement beforehand would result in success.

    Wolfe also encouraged those who are forming subdistricts throughout the San Luis Valley to get them organized and not wait until the groundwater rules are promulgated. Data is available now, or will be in the next few months, for the remaining sub-districts to become organized and develop plans for water management.

    One of the biggest factors for the delay in subdistrict and groundwater rules implementation has been the refinement of the Rio Grande Decision Support System, the computer model used to calculate depletions from well users to surface water rights, streams and the aquifers. The groundwater model now has most of the data available for the sub-districts to proceed.

    Wolfe encouraged those attending Thursday’s meeting to email his office with suggestions on how the proposed regulations could be improved. He and his staff reviewed the proposed rules and the changes that had been made since the last advisory committee meeting more than two years ago.

    Wolfe and his staff will return to the San Luis Valley the end of November or first part of December for another advisory committee meeting.

    More San Luis Valley Groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley Advisory Committee Meeting October 24

    October 22, 2013
    Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

    Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

    Click here to go to the Division of Water Resources website to view the agenda and draft rules.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Understanding augmentation plans

    October 8, 2013
    Augmentation pond photo via Irrigation Doctor, Inc.

    Augmentation pond photo via Irrigation Doctor, Inc.

    From the Valley Courier (Steve Gibson):

    In the discussions of water in the San Luis Valley we hear of wells being augmented. What does this mean and what is an Augmentation Plan? These are important concepts that are applicable throughout Colorado. This article is intended to describe these concepts as there are Augmentation Plans in the San Luis Valley it is anticipated that we will continue to hear this term as the Colorado Division of Water Resources promulgate Well Rules and Regulations for irrigation wells.

    According to the “Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law”, published by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, in 1969, the Colorado General Assembly allowed development of augmentation plans. An augmentation plan is a Water Court-approved plan designed to protect senior water rights, while allowing junior water rights to divert water out of priority and avoid State Engineer shutdown orders. Injury occurs to senior water right holders if the out-of-priority diversion intercepts water that would otherwise be available under natural conditions to the senior water right.

    In over appropriated basins, such as the Rio Grande and Conejos River, or where no unappropriated water is available, individuals or businesses wanting to have a well are unable to obtain a well permit for tributary groundwater without an augmentation plan. This does not apply if the new well is for household use only.

    Augmentation plans allow for out-of-priority diversions by replacing the water a new well owner (junior water right holder) consume, which in turn depletes the hydrologic system by an equal amount of water. The replacement water must meet the needs of senior water rights holders such as being available at the time, place, quantity and suitable quality they would enjoy absent the out-of-priority diversions. Having an augmentation plan allows a junior water user, for example, to pump a tributary groundwater well, even when a Rio Grande and Conejos River Compact call exists on the rivers.

    Replacement water may come from any legally available source and be provided by a variety of means. An augmentation plan identifies the structures, diversions, beneficial uses, timing and amounts of depletions to be replaced, along with how and when the replacement water will be supplied and how the augmentation plan will be operated. Some augmentation plans use storage water to replace depletions. Others include the use of unlined irrigation ditches and ponds during the nongrowing season to recharge the groundwater aquifers that feed the river. A person who wants to divert out [of priority] must file an application with the regional Water Court. Under certain circumstances the State Engineer may approve temporary changes of water rights and plans to replace out-of-priority depletions using Substitute Water Supply Plans. This allows well pumping to continue while Water Court applications for changes of water rights or augmentation plans are being approved. A Substitute Water Supply Plan requires adequate replacement water to cover depletions of water that would injure senior water rights.

    What does this mean in the San Luis Valley? There are irrigation companies that have augmentation plans and decrees that allow them to recharge the groundwater so that their members can pump water. This recharge may take place during different times of the year. Individuals and commercial or industrial well users can have augmentation plans for their specific wells.

    The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Conejos Water Conservancy District (Districts) have augmentation decrees that allow them to provide augmentation water to offset the water consumed by different entities that need to use wells for their homes or businesses, but not for agricultural irrigation wells.

    Without the availability of these services a person or company wanting to put in a well would have to have their own individual augmentation plan, which can be very time consuming and expensive to complete. The Districts sell the augmentation water to the well owners and make a commitment to provide the actual augmentation water back into the hydrologic system on an annual basis. This is achieved by determining how much water each well owner will consume each year, which will typically be less than the amount they pump as some of the water will typically return into the ground. The Districts will replenish into the Rio Grande and Conejos River an equal amount of water as that consumed by the users of their clients’ wells. This is done by releasing into the river systems water that the Districts own. This water in turn has come from the yield of water rights the Districts have acquired over time. These water rights were surface water rights or irrigation water rights that have been through Water Court to change the beneficial use from irrigation to the Districts’ augmentation programs. The Districts provides these services to individuals who require a well for their homes and gardens, to commercial businesses and industry, such as restaurants, solar companies, who need water to wash down their photovoltaic panels, and potato storage operators.

    It is anticipated the future Well Rules and Regulations to be promulgated by the Colorado Division of Water Resources will require owners of agriculture irrigation wells to either individually augment the well if the well is not included in a Groundwater Management Subdistrict.

    More water law coverage here.

    A look at the management of water in the San Luis Valley

    May 8, 2013


    From the Valley Courier (Virginia Simmons):

    In the 1860s the legislative branch of the Territory of Colorado had already made provisions about water use in the relatively small ditches by appropriation. The first ones created in the early 1850s were soon followed in the 1860s and 1870s by ditches that diverted water from the main stem of the Rio Grande River itself. In 1876 the constitution of the State of Colorado established appropriation of water rights in the order of priority, the doctrine of prior appropriation, and by the 1880s Colorado was making considerable headway in organizing the state government. The filing of ditch rights began in 1881.

    In 1881, the Judicial Branch of the State of Colorado was granted final authority over priority, amount, location, and use of water rights. The judicial branch of Colorado’s government still has the authority over water matters relating to water, from district courts up to the Colorado Supreme Court.

    Much later, in 1969, seven judicial districts would be established, overlapping with the seven major river basins of Colorado. The Colorado Twelfth Judicial District is in the Third Water District, the same geographical area as the San Luis Valley. Besides being a water court, the district court deals with many other types of cases, of course, so district judges get assistance of water referees, attorneys who examine cases related to water and make recommendation to the district judge. In Colorado Judicial District 3, District Judge Pattie M. Swift is the water judge.

    Since 1881 also, the state has had an Office of the Water Engineer, our Colorado water pooh bah. Beginning as a one-man office, it was responsible for such activities as records of surface and ground water rights, decrees, stream flow and water use, and dam safety. The state engineer also serves as Colorado’s commissioner on the Rio Grande Compact Commission. The Division of Water Resources (DWR) is currently headed by Director Dick Wolfe.

    Division 3 of the Division of Water Resources (DWR) was established in 1969, whereby the state designated seven divisions, one for each of Colorado’s major water basins. Division 3 occupies the San Luis Valley, the drainage of the Rio Grande River in Colorado and the same geographical area that is served by the judicial District Court, District 3.

    In the DWR’s Division 3, Rio Grande Basin Division, the division engineer is Craig Cotten, with his office at 301 Mullins, Alamosa. He oversees monitoring stream flow, water use, well permits, ditch repair, and dam repair, and files reports with the Denver office. Local water commissioners’ offices are located at present at Monte Vista (District 20), Antonito (22), and Saguache (25, 26, 27). Water commissioners measure stream flows at gaging stations, coordinate calls for users with senior and junior rights, and send reports to the division engineer. Ditch riders are hired by ditch companies to maintain ditches and headgates, open headgates, and other on-the-ground jobs, some of which may get touchy.

    Municipalities must comply with DWR regulations, water quality policies of the Colorado Water Quality Commission, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the Colorado Water and Wastewater Facility Operators Board Certification, and the local code of ordinances, and federal laws. In a large town such as the City of Alamosa, the contact is the Director of Public Works, whereas smaller towns may have a water and sewer department. Residents of rural areas and small villages use domestic wells.

    Not until 1957 and 1965 was legislation passed regarding wells, ground water, and augmentation. Permits for ground water wells were then required and are administered by DWR. Statutes also were passed that included tributary water in wells that were affecting surface water rights. Since 1972, DWR has administered domestic well permits on property of less than 35 acres. Restrictions on permits may differ from one county to another, but they still must comply with DWR’s state regulations.

    Over all, then, administration of the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) for the entire, diverse state is a large responsibility. And this is just one division within the present Colorado Department of Natural Resources (CDNR), where some other divisions are also related to water. Mike King is director of CDNR.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: State Engineer Approval of the 2013 Annual Replacement Plan for Subdistrict No. 1

    May 1, 2013


    From email from the State Engineer’s office (Kathryn H. Radke):

    On April 30, 2013, State Engineer Dick Wolfe approved the Annual Replacement Plan for Subdistrict No.1.

    This approval will be filed with the Division No. 3 Water Court later today.

    All documents are located on DWR’s website at the following location:

    Note: these documents can also be downloaded from the DWR’s FTP site:

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    State Engineer Dick Wolfe approved a water replacement plan Tuesday aimed at mitigating harm from groundwater pumping in the north-central San Luis Valley.

    Wolfe’s approval made few changes to the proposal from Subdistrict No. 1, which is required to lay out what sources of water it will use to replace water lost by the pumping of nearly 3,400 wells in the subdistrict’s boundaries.

    He did bar the use of 86.5 acre-feet of water from Ruby Reservoir southwest of Creede until a substitute water supply plan is submitted to and approved by his office.

    But that still leaves the subdistrict with a pool of more than 7,500 acre feet of water it can release into the Rio Grande to mitigate the injury to surface water rights holders.

    A state computer model estimated that pumping would cause 5,389 acre-feet in depletions that the subdistrict must replace.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Water court: Subdistrict No. 1 pumpers can claim water from Reclamation’s Closed Basin Project

    April 12, 2013


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    A water court judge ruled Wednesday that groundwater irrigators in the north-central San Luis Valley can claim water from a federal reclamation project to offset their pumping. The 45-page order from Judge Pattie Swift allows Subdistrict No. 1 to claim water from the Closed Basin Project, which pumps groundwater from the east side of the valley and sends it to the Rio Grande.

    Objectors, which included five parties, argued, among other points, that the use of water from the project injured surface rights owners who were dependent on the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

    Swift’s order said the project developed and delivered water to the Rio Grande that would have otherwise never made it to the river. “Thus the court cannot presume that pumping the Closed Basin Project wells causes injury to senior surface water rights,” the ruling said.

    The subdistrict, which takes in more than 3,000 irrigation wells in the north-central valley, was created primarily to replace depletions to the river caused by pumping. The subdistrict purchased and leased over 10,000 acre-feet in 2012, including the Closed Basin Project water, and was ordered by the state engineer to return 4,724 acre-feet to the river.

    In this year’s annual replacement plan, the subdistrict has again proposed using up to 2,500 acre-feet from the project toward its replacement obligations, although the proposal still requires approval of the state engineer.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Dick Wolfe hopes that the Rio Grande Decision Support System will be ready next month

    March 9, 2013


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Wolfe said the computer groundwater model, the Rio Grande Decision Support System, is still being updated, and the new target date for that model to be ready to go is April. The San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district depended on the model calibrations to determine how much it owed senior surface water rights, and future sub-districts will depend on the model for those numbers as well.

    Wolfe said he wanted to make sure the model could be used to accurately determine the amount of depletions each sub-district needed to replace to surface water rights before moving forward with the rules.

    “We want to make sure it’s done right,” Wolfe said.

    He added he would like the model to be ready in April, but if it still needs work, he would rather wait than use incomplete information.

    “We have a lot of hours, man hours, and people working on getting the task accomplished,” he said.

    “I am optimistic we are getting closer to final numbers.”[...]

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver said the model could have been completed more quickly if those working on it had not had to take time for court hearings and trials over the sub-district. Vandiver said after the first sub-district was approved in 2006, two lawsuits were filed that bound up resources including engineers, modelers and attorneys. They have had to prepare for three major trials and a Supreme Court decision. Those legal challenges were the reason the model has not been completed more quickly, Vandiver said…

    As soon as the model is satisfactorily updated, the groundwater rules advisory committee will begin meeting again, Wolfe said. This group is now in its third year of working on the regulations, he added. Two pieces of the regulations still need to be finalized, the phase-in portion and the sustainability portion, Wolfe said. The phase-in portion lets each sub-district get a plan of water management approved by the court and an annual operating plan in place. The sustainability portion was difficult, Wolfe said, because the group had to determine how to measure sustainability.

    Once the rules are completed, they will be submitted to the water court for final adoption, Wolfe said. If the rules are opposed, they will go through an appeal process, so the effective date of the rule implementation would depend on how quickly and smoothly that process went.

    More San Luis Valley Groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley irrigators await CRP funds ahead of fallowing land

    February 9, 2013


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    Groundwater irrigators in the San Luis Valley are awaiting a pair of approvals for a federal program that would pay some to retire farmland and conserve water use. Tim Davis, a consultant for the groundwater subdistrict that hopes to fallow 40,000 acres in the northcentral part of the valley, said Thursday that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack still must authorize the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for the area. Moreover, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget also must authorize spending for the program, which could send up to $109 million in federal funds over 15 years to subdistrict farmers who fallow land. “We’re getting very close to putting this thing on the ground,” Davis told farmers at the Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Fair.

    The subdistrict, which is entering its second year of operation, would add up to $27.3 million in fallowing payments over the same period. The subdistrict was designed, in part, to reduce the use of groundwater from the unconfined aquifer, which is at its lowest level since monitoring began in the 1970s. The federal payment would be $175 per acre per year and allow farmers to use 18 inches of water over a 36­month period to establish a cover crop. The subdistrict also would pay a share but will include bonuses to farmers who choose to fallow and sit just north of the Rio Grande between Monte Vista and Del Norte. The subdistrict’s goal there is to restore a groundwater formation known as the hydraulic divide, which it hopes will reduce losses to the river caused by groundwater pumping.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    ‘The water levels in the San Luis Valley aquifers are dropping, and have been dropping’ — Craig Cotten

    November 9, 2012


    Here’s the latest installment in the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series, written by Craig Cotten. Here’s an excerpt:

    The Rio Grande is in the fourth year of below average streamflows. Other parts of Colorado are also in a severe drought this year, with some areas having a more severe single year drought than the San Luis Valley. However, much of Colorado had very good precipitation and streamflow last year which filled their reservoirs and aquifers. In fact, some areas in the northern part of the state had one of their best years ever last year in terms of precipitation and streamflow, while this basin languished in the midst of a multi-year drought. Since the extreme drought year of 2002, there have only been three years of above normal flow on the Rio Grande and only two years on the Conejos River. Some smaller streams around the valley have fared even worse, with only one year of above normal flows in the last ten.

    The water levels in the San Luis Valley aquifers are dropping, and have been dropping, over the last several years. This drop is in response to the lower than normal recharge into the aquifers from the area rivers, streams, and ditches. After seeing modest gains during the years of 2007 to 2009, the unconfined aquifer is once again dropping substantially.

    According to the aquifer study conducted by Davis Engineering, the unconfined aquifer in the West Central part of the San Luis Valley has lost nearly 500,000 acre-feet of water during the last three years. There is not a formal, comprehensive study of the confined aquifer throughout the Valley, but this aquifer is also seeing significant declines in the amount of artesian pressure. While it is not known exactly how much water is in the aquifers, it is obvious that the San Luis Valley cannot continue this drastic drop in the aquifers without severe long-term consequences…

    In order to address the problem of injury to surface water users and the decline in the aquifers due to well pumping, the State Engineer is in the process of developing Rules and Regulations concerning the withdrawal of groundwater in Division 3. The State Engineer is being assisted in the development of these rules by a 55 member advisory committee made up primarily of area water users.

    While these rules are not completed yet, we do know generally what they will require. In general, the rules will require that large capacity wells in the San Luis Valley repay the injury that they are causing to senior water rights, which are generally ditch and canal rights. In addition, the rules will have a sustainability component which will require that well owners ensure that the underground aquifers are brought back to a sustainable level.

    The repayment of injurious depletions and ensuring sustainability can be accomplished by a well owner in two ways. A well owner may choose to implement an individual augmentation plan in which that owner will cover his individual well or wells. Otherwise, a well owner may choose to join a subdistrict, which, in exchange for monetary payment, will provide the repayment of injurious depletions and the sustainability of the aquifers for that owner.

    More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.

    San Luis Valley: Groundwater sub-district #1 trial concluded

    November 2, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    A couple of points in the sub-district’s operating plan, which was implemented for the first time this year, were the focus of the two-day trial this week before Judge Swift. Most of the discussion revolved around the inclusion of augmentation plan wells in the sub-district’s 2012 operating plan and the use of Closed Basin Project water in the 2012 plan…

    In his closing argument on Tuesday afternoon, RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the district acknowledged it made two errors of omission in the 2012 Annual Operating Plan (ARP): 1) list of augmentation wells; and 2) map of those wells’ locations. Robbins said the un-augmented well depletions from those wells within the sub-district were identified and replaced, however. Robbins suggested the way to handle the compliance errors this year would be for the court to enjoin the sub-district in the future to ensure it complies with the required information.

    Attorney Tim Buchanan, representing surface water users who filed objections in this case, said he believed the court should go a step further. He said a message must be sent that the court decrees must be complied with. “The 2012 plan did not comply with the plan as decreed by this court and as approved by the Supreme Court,” Buchanan said. “Therefore in my view we need to fashion a remedy that does not approve the plan but directs the plan be amended to reflect the augmentation wells were not properly included, that they should have been separately identified and they should be separately accounted for.”[...]

    The other contested topic in this trial was the use of Closed Basin Project water to replace well depletions to streams this year.

    In his closing argument attorney Bill Paddock, representing sub-district supporters, reminded the court the judge’s October 4 order resolved the question of legal suitability of Closed Basin Project water for use in the plan of management. The question argued during the trial was a factual question regarding whether the water was an appropriate source of replacement water for injurious depletions, he said. Paddock argued the project water was appropriate to replace depletions and said the state engineer agreed.

    When [State Engineer Dick Wolfe] was on the stand on Tuesday, he said he and his staff, with advice from their legal counsel, determined the sources of replacement water in the sub-district’s 2012 ARP, including the Closed Basin Project water, were suitable. Wolfe said the water court’s May 2010 decree stated this possible source of replacement water was not prohibited. He testified the sub-district’s plan of water management approved by the water court and Supreme Court specifically referenced Closed Basin Project water as a replacement water source.

    More SLV groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: Groundwater sub-district #1 trial update: Use of closed basin water still a sticking point

    October 26, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    When the afternoon was concluded, objectors and supporters had agreed in concept to the 2012 annual replacement plan (ARP) for the sub-district and the underlying methodologies and technologies used to develop that plan. That made one of the remaining motions to strike expert witnesses and their reports a moot point because there is now no longer the need for a number of witnesses to present extensive testimony.

    Proponents now plan to call only three witnesses, Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager (RGWCD) Steve Vandiver, RGWCD engineer Allen Davey and Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

    This first sub-district, which was designed to repair injurious depletions from well pumping to surface water rights and reduce the draw on the aquifer, operates under a management plan that is effectuated each year through an annual replacement plan. The annual plan spells out how depletions will be replaced…

    The sponsoring water district approved the annual plan, as did the state engineer. Objectors challenged it and asked the judge to prohibit wells from pumping in the sub-district boundaries until those challenges were resolved this year. She denied that motion.

    Objectors subsequently asked for their claims to be withdrawn and the October trial to be vacated. Judge Swift told objectors they could either withdraw their challenges to the 2012 replacement plan on the condition they could not bring those challenges back again or withdraw them with the opportunity to re-file them only if they paid the supporters’ costs for preparing for trial. They chose the first option, except for Schwiesow whose client the Costilla Ditch Company chose not to withdraw its claims.

    One issue still remaining for trial is the use of Closed Basin Project water as one of the sources to replace depletions. Davey in particular will testify to that issue next week. He will also testify about augmentation wells, another issue still pending before the judge…

    One of the controversial topics before the judge on Wednesday revolved around the possibility of challenging sub-district water plans in the future. Proponents said they would like some definitive rulings from the judge regarding the foundation of the water plan so they would not have to go through all the time and effort they did this year every year to defend the sub-district’s plan.

    “We want the court to be in a position to be able to make factual determinations about the adequacy of the replacement plan because it was so broadly challenged,” [David Robbins, attorney for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District ] said.

    [Attorney for the objectors Tim Buchanan] said the objectors raised broad issues “because we didn’t want to be foreclosed in the future from raising those issues.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap: The impending water court trial and conservation issues dominated

    October 20, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Now that the culmination is in sight for the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) the water district has spearheaded for about eight years, it looks like some of the San Luis Valley counties may not sign off on it, Robbins told the board on Tuesday. If they do not, the residents in their counties will not be covered by it.

    The first of its kind in the U.S., the HCP was designed to permit the routine maintenance by farmers, ranchers, city and county crews in areas that might otherwise be up for critical habitat designation for endangered species such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Under the plan, farmers could still clear ditches and ranchers could still graze their cattle.

    Without an HCP to provide mitigating habitat to allow the counties incidental take permits for those routine activities, individuals, cities and counties would have to apply for individual permits or stay out of the willows.

    Robbins said this plan has been the subject of dozens of public meetings, but now some of the county officials or their legal counsel are raising questions that might mean some deal breakers with them signing off on the plan.

    “It’s entirely possible one or more counties may decide they don’t want to take advantage of the benefits afforded by the habitat plan, which is unfortunate,” Robbins said.

    He added, “We can’t make cities and counties participate if they do not want to. We will tell the Fish and Wildlife Service they are not covered by the HCP and Fish and Wildlife can determine critical habitat and take whatever actions it wishes.”

    One of the issues being raised now, he said, was concern over federal jurisdiction, which is what the plan is attempting to avoid.

    “It is absolutely beyond my comprehension why anyone would not want to take a very low cost way to avoid interactions with the Fish and Wildlife Service and why governments within the Valley would not want to avoid having to deal with that,” Robbins said.

    Another issue is the multi-year clause in the HCP, Robbins explained. Some counties argue they cannot enter a contract encumbering county funds for more than one year at a time. The HCP is a 30-year agreement.

    Robbins said all of the counties and their attorneys have had questions about the HCP. The county attorney for Conejos County wants to reserve the right to litigation. Robbins said governmental entities regularly enter into agreements in which they state they will not sue each other.

    Robbins said the water district staff, board and legal counsel will do everything they can to get the HCP approved and implemented, especially given the time, effort and money involved in developing it, “but if it doesn’t work, there’s not much we can do about it.”

    The HCP should be final in November or December.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

    Rio Grande River Basin: The State Engineer is cracking down on over-pumping

    October 18, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    This week [State Engineer Dick Wolfe] issued a draft policy concerning pumping limits for large-capacity wells in the Rio Grande Basin, Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten announced to those attending the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting yesterday in Alamosa.

    The draft policy involves pumping limits for wells, specifically nonexempt large capacity wells, which have been required to meter usage for a few years now. Some of these wells have exceeded the pumping limits in their permits or decrees, Cotten explained, so they may be required to curtail or shut down pumping next year.

    “We have actually started ensuring those limitations are complied with,” Cotten said on Tuesday, “but this policy sets it more in stone how we are going to do that and what steps we are going to take to ensure the wells are pumping within their limitations.”

    He said this was something that needed to be handled, and this policy will set limits in black and white “so there’s no question.”

    He described the bases that will be used to determine if a well has exceeded its limits. Some wells have maximum annual production they cannot exceed in any one year, such as 200-300 acre feet. On that basis, the water office has already ordered some wells to shut down, Cotten said.

    “We do know there have been several that have exceeded their maximum annual production, and we have issued orders on those,” Cotten said…

    The “volumetric pumping limits of nonexempt wells in the Rio Grande Basin” draft policy refers to the extreme multi-year drought in the basin as one of the main reasons this policy is under consideration. It says the drought years have affected the recharge and storage in groundwater aquifers serving as the water supply for municipal, domestic, irrigation and other water users throughout the Valley. The policy states that during this summer alone, for example, water table elevations declined up to six feet in some areas, and the unconfined aquifer storage in the closed basin, which has been measured over a period of 30-plus years, decreased by about 166,000 acre feet.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: Groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 implementation plan trial scheduled for October 29

    October 12, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    One of the main groups objecting to how irrigators in part of the San Luis Valley mitigate the harm caused by groundwater pumping has chosen not to withdraw a number of its claims from court. The move by surface water users from the Conejos River basin and the northwestern corner of the valley, which came in a Tuesday filing to the water court for the Rio Grande basin, means a scheduled trial is still on for Oct. 29.

    The objectors reaffirmed their claim against the use of water from the Closed Basin Project, which pumps groundwater from the east side of the valley and sends it down the Rio Grande River to assist Colorado in meeting the Rio Grande Compact.

    Subdistrict No. 1, which includes just under 3,400 groundwater wells in the north-central part of the valley, had proposed using up to 2,500 acre-feet from the federal reclamation project to replace an estimated 4,700 acre-feet in depletions this year.

    The subdistrict also has leased rights to roughly 5,500 acre-feet from reservoirs and trans-basin diversions near the Rio Grande’s headwaters to meet the depletions.

    Judge Pattie Swift said last week the issue concerning the reclamation project could not be decided without a trial since there were issues of fact that were in dispute.

    Swift also said the proposal from objectors to have a special master appointed likely would not be decided until after the trial.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: Groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 implementation plan trial scheduled for October 29

    October 6, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Chief District Judge Pattie Swift on Thursday decided some of the pending motions in the water cases involving the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district operating plan and the state’s approval of it. She scheduled another hearing for October 24 to deal with more of the pending motions and is still planning to go forward with the scheduled October 29th trial to hear evidence and testimony.

    This is the first year of operation for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District sponsored sub-district that involves hundreds of irrigators in the Valley’s closed basin area north of the Rio Grande. The sub-district was designed to repair injuries to senior surface water rights and replenish the Valley’s aquifers, and to that end the sub-district board developed an annual replacement plan for this year.

    Objectors asked the court to invoke retained jurisdiction over the sub-district and deal with concerns they have over its first annual replacement plan. Judge Swift earlier this summer denied a motion from objectors that would have shut down wells in the sub-district until concerns over the operating plan were resolved.

    Given that decision by the court, the objectors recently filed a motion to amend their invocation to retain jurisdiction and asked the judge to vacate the trial. Sub-district supporters and the state engineer’s office asked the judge to make an immediate decision on these motions and argued in favor of going forward with the trial.

    Since the trial is scheduled for the end of this month, Judge Swift agreed to make a quick decision.

    “The objectors seek to amend their claims, to remove them from consideration of the court and vacate the trial because they believe the primary issues remaining to be determined are contained within the amended motion before the court,” Judge Swift summed up the situation Thursday afternoon in court.

    She said there are two motions for summary judgment: 1) concerning augmentation plan wells; and 2) concerning the Closed Basin Project.

    Two other motions are also outstanding: 1) to strike expert witness designations and reports; and 2) to appoint a special master…

    Also on Thursday, Judge Swift ruled on the objectors’ motion opposing the use of Closed Basin Project water for replacement water for the sub-district. She denied the objectors’ motion, “as I find there are disputed issues of material fact that must be determined to decide whether the Closed Basin Project water is adequate and suitable to prevent injuries to senior water rights under the district plan.”

    The judge outlined objectors’ concerns with Closed Basin Project water being used to replace injurious depletions to senior water rights, with the objectors arguing that the 1963 Closed Basin Project itself represented a junior water right that in the priority system of water administration was causing injury to senior water rights so could not be used to replace injurious depletions in the sub-district…

    Also on Thursday the judge asked attorneys from both sides to give her some guidance by Friday, Oct. 19 on how they believed the retained jurisdiction process should work. She said she saw the court’s primary functions in its retained jurisdiction over the sub-district as reviewing: 1) whether the plan of water management is operated in conformance with the terms of the court’s decree; and 2) whether injury is prevented in conformity with the court’s decree.

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    Water Court Judge Pattie Swift ruled Thursday that opponents of a groundwater plan could withdraw some of their claims if they were willing to pay the attorney costs for the supporters. The court has scheduled a five-day trial beginning Oct. 29 to examine the state’s approval of a plan that laid out how groundwater irrigators in the north-central part of the San Luis Valley would mitigate the harm their pumping caused to senior surface water rights owners during the current irrigation season. One group of objectors made up of surface water users in the southwestern and northwestern parts of the valley had asked the court to rule on their clams without trial in the name of saving time and expense.

    But Swift pointed to one issue — the proposed use of groundwater from the federal Closed Basin Project as a source of replacement water for the plan— as one that could not be resolved without trial. “I can only decide that issue after hearing evidence,” she said.

    Opponents have argued against the plan’s call to use up to 2,500 acre-feet of water from the project, which pumps groundwater on the east side of the valley and sends it to the Rio Grande to help the state comply with the downstream obligations to Texas and New Mexico.

    The opponents have until Tuesday to inform the court of whether they will withdraw any of their claims.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    USDA and Colorado Announce Rio Grande Basin Water Conservation Project Agreement

    September 21, 2012


    Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar today announced that Colorado and USDA have agreed to the terms of a new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to help conserve irrigation water and reduce ground water withdrawal from the Rio Grande Basin. The project will enhance water quality, reduce erosion, improve wildlife habitat and conserve energy in portions of the Rio Grande watershed in Colorado. Vilsack and Salazar made the joint announcement at the 2012 Colorado Water Conservation Board Statewide Drought Conference.

    “USDA is proud to work with the state of Colorado to enroll up to 40,000 acres of eligible irrigated cropland in an effort to address critical water conservation and other natural resource issues within portions of the Rio Grande watershed,” said Vilsack. “USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program continues to be one of our nation’s most successful voluntary efforts to conserve land, improve our soil, water, air and wildlife habitat resources—and now producers in Colorado have even greater incentives to enroll in efforts to protect the Rio Grande Basin.”

    This agreement is for the establishment of permanent native grasses, permanent wildlife habitat, shallow areas for wildlife and wetland restoration on up to 40,000 acres of eligible irrigated cropland with a primary goal of reducing annual irrigation water use by approximately 60,000 acre-feet.

    The sign-up date for this voluntary conservation program is expected to be announced soon after an agreement is formalized later this year. Farmers and ranchers in portions of Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties will then be able to apply for this program at their Farm Service Agency (FSA) service center. FSA will administer the Colorado Rio Grande CREP within these counties, working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the state of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources through the Division of Water Resources, Subdistrict Number 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and other state and local CREP partners.

    After the agreement is formalized, participants will (1) voluntarily enroll irrigated cropland into specialized 14-15 year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts, and (2) enter into water use agreements with Subdistrict Number 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. An additional perpetual irrigation water retirement agreement also will be an option for producers to help achieve long-term water savings.

    The following national CRP conservation practices will be made available for eligible land focusing on water resource conservation:

    - Establishment of Native Grasses and Forbs – CP2
    – Establishment of Permanent Wildlife Habitat, Non-easement – CP4D
    – Establishment of Shallow Water Areas for Wildlife – CP9
    – Restoration of Wetland Habitat – CP23 and CP23A

    CREP is an option under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that agricultural producers may use to voluntarily establish conservation practices on their land. The project will provide land owners and operators financial and technical assistance. Under this CREP, participants will receive annual irrigated rental payments, cost share and incentive payments for voluntarily enrolling irrigated cropland into contracts and installing the approved conservation practices. USDA also will pay up to 50 percent of the cost of installing the conservation practices. Additional special incentives and cost share will be provided by the WAE for land enrolled within a designated focus area within the project area. Additional incentives will be provided by the subdistrict’s WAE to producers who elect to retire water permanently. Participants will establish permanent vegetative covers on enrolled land according to CRP conservation plans developed by NRCS.

    To be eligible, cropland must meet CRP’s cropping history criteria, which includes cropping history provisions, one-year ownership requirement, and physical and legal cropping requirements. Marginal pastureland is also eligible for enrollment provided it is suitable for use as a needed and eligible riparian buffer. Producers who have an existing CRP contract are not eligible for CREP until that contract expires. Producers with expiring CRP contracts who are interested in CREP should submit offers for re-enrolling their land into CREP during the last year of their existing CRP contract.

    In 2011, as a result of CRP, nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields were reduced by 623 million pounds and 124 million pounds respectively. The CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. CRP also provides $1.8 billion annually to landowners—dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs. In addition, CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the country. By placing vulnerable cropland into conservation, CRP sequesters carbon in plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.

    In 2011, USDA enrolled a record number of acres of private working lands in conservation programs, working with more than 500,000 farmers and ranchers to implement conservation practices that clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, and prevent soil erosion.

    For more information about the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program or CRP, contact the local FSA service center or search online at

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

    Drought news: Rio Grande River Basin — Record drawdown of San Luis valley aquifer

    September 19, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The irrigation season in the San Luis Valley is limping to a close with low stream flows and a record drop in the area’s most heavily used groundwater aquifer. Craig Cotten, the state’s division engineer for the valley, said Tuesday that stream flows on the two biggest rivers in the area have dropped to near 2002 levels. That was tempered by the fact that rivers ran much higher this spring. “We had significantly more stream runoff this year than we did in 2002,” Cotten told the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

    San Luis Valley groundwater sub-district plan garners nearly a hundred pages of objections from surface water users

    May 27, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    …opponents have said the plan fails to show the work leading to its conclusions.

    The filings argue that it lacks data and used a faulty methodology in producing a groundwater pumping estimate of 308,000 acrefeet for the upcoming season. Nor does the plan detail recent adjustments to a state computer model designed to project groundwater use and depletions to surface water. Moreover, the objectors request an explanation of how the projected injury to surface water users was reduced from 5,016 acre-feet in a draft of the plan to 4,706 acre-feet in the final version.

    Opponents of the subdistrict also argued in a Friday filing that the standard of review adopted by the court requires the implementation of the subdistrict’s plan be delayed until objections are resolved.

    Also, without a plan in operation, the objectors argue that groundwater wells that injure the rights of senior surface users must be curtailed, a move that would break with nearly a century of unregulated groundwater use in the valley.

    A status conference in the case has been set for Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande River basin: The State Engineer has approved the groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 Annual Replacement Plan

    May 3, 2012


    The State Engineer has approved the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s annual replacement plan for groundwater Sub-district No. 1.

    From email from the State Engineer’s office:

    On May 1, 2012 State Engineer Dick Wolfe approved the Annual Replacement Plan for Subdistrict No. 1. This Approval was filed with the Division No. 3 Water Court.

    All documents are located on DWR’s website at the following location:

    Note: these documents can also be downloaded from the DWR’s FTP site:

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande River basin: Groundwater Sub-district No. 1 fallowed acreage at 9,100 acres for this season

    April 20, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Steve Vandiver told the water board during their meeting in Alamosa on Tuesday that some of the irrigators who were going to fallow their land in the first sub-district area this year opted to go with prevented planting instead because it would pay them more than the sub-district.

    Vandiver said the sub-district ended up with about 9,100 acres under contract for fallowing this year.

    “It was higher than that, and as insurance programs kicked in for prevented planting, people started withdrawing their contracts,” Vandiver told the board. “A number of people withdrew their offers to fallow.”

    Farmers could receive $500-600 per acre under prevented planting, while the sub-district was only paying $200-300 per acre, Vandiver explained.

    He said at least 18,000 acres would be fallowed to some extent under the prevented planting program, and although that would not entail 100 percent dry up, “there’s a considerable amount of ground that’s going to have a lot less growing on it this year than it has before.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande River basin: Subdistrict No. 1 public hearing April 19, come by and see the latest groundwater model run results

    April 14, 2012


    Click here for a copy of the letter from State Engineer Dick Wolf to the SLV Advisory Committee.

    More coverage from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier. From the article:

    Groundwater users will begin to pay back surface water users for the harm they have caused them on May 1, at least in the closed basin area north of the Rio Grande where the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district was formed.

    Before that happens, however, area residents will have an opportunity to comment on the sub-district’s annual replacement plan detailing how it will begin to replace depletions this year.

    The state engineer’s office plans a formal public hearing on the replacement plan next Thursday, April 19, at 10 a.m. at the Ramada Inn (formerly Inn of the Rio Grande) in Alamosa.

    Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for Division 3 Craig Cotten said the sub-district board at its meeting on April 3 took comments on its replacement plan and voted to send the plan on to the state engineer’s office with some minor modifications and additions. The sub-district has to have its final annual replacement plan to the state engineer by April 15.

    The state engineer will then hold a formal public hearing on April 19. People may sign up that morning to speak, and comments will be recorded. State Engineer Dick Wolfe will likely make a decision soon afterward and must make a decision prior to May 1, when the replacements must begin.

    Here’s the link for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Annual Replacement Plan from the Division of Water Resources.

    More San Luis Valley Groundwater coverage here and here.

    The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has a little over 8,000 acre-feet in storage to meet augmentation requirements for groundwater Sub-district one

    March 30, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The annual [groundwater Sub-district 1] replacement plan, which still requires the approval of the State Engineer, will be the subject of a public meeting Tuesday. One of the main impacts from pumping has been to deplete stream flows and a court-approved computer model has determined the subdistrict will be responsible for paying back 5,016 acre-feet to the Rio Grande this year…

    To meet that demand, the subdistrict has amassed 8,072 acre-feet in three reservoirs near the Rio Grande’s headwaters. The division engineer will determine when those releases will be made, starting May 1…

    The subdistrict also has contracted with 39 growers to fallow 10,312 acres, a move the plan predicts will reduce consumptive use by roughly 12,700 acre-feet. The subdistrict’s goal is to add between 300,000 to 500,000 acre-feet back into the aquifer from its current level.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: Fallowing of acreage irrigated by pumping to start this season, reduction of 5,000 acre-feet is the target

    March 19, 2012


    The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has been working diligently for several years to set up groundwater subdistricts to reduce pumping from the aquifer underlying the valley. The hope was to avoid having the State Engineer’s office come in a shut down wells as has happened in the South Platte and Republican River basins. The effort in the Valley has led to the creation of groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 which will start operations this season with a goal (set by the State Engineer’s office) of a 5,000 acre-foot reduction. Here’s a report from Matt Hildner writing for The Pueblo Chieftain Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    The unconfined aquifer, or shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies, is recharged every spring when irrigation canals pull water from the Rio Grande River to fields in the district where it percolates down. Farmers pump it back up later in the growing season. But drought and largely unregulated use have seen the aquifer drop by 740,000 acre-feet, down to its lowest level since water managers began monitoring it in 1976. The subdistrict aims to reverse that trend by retiring up to 40,000 acres of farm ground over the next decade, a move they hope would return between 340,000 and 540,000 acre feet to the aquifer.

    While the subdistrict doesn’t expect to finalize all of ifs fallowing contracts until April 1, up to 10,000 acres could be pulled from production this growing season, said Steve Vandiver, manager of the subdistrict’s parent organization, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “That will probably be 20,000 acre feet we’re not pumping,” he said. “That’s a big start.”[...]

    The subdistrict’s other main task will be to replace the injury pumping of wells causes to surface water users. The valley’s aquifers and streams are connected to varying degrees depending on where one is in the area. And for more than four decades the valley’s surface users have had to bear the burden of the state’s compliance with the Rio Grande Compact as irrigation ditches were curtailed so water could be sent downstream. Groundwater wells faced no such burden. But that will change this season. State computer modeling has determined that the subdistrict will have to return 5,000 acre-feet to the river to make up for the injuries caused to surface water owners. While the subdistrict will have to formally submit its replacement plan to the Office of the State Engineer next month, Vandiver said the subdistrict could have between 6,500 acre-feet and 7,000 acre-feet at its disposal. Most of that water is stored in reservoirs on the Rio Grande upstream of the subdistrict.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    State Engineer Dick Wolf tells San Luis Valley sub-district one irrigators that they need to deliver 5,000 acre-feet of replacement water this year

    March 12, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    A few days ago the Valley reached another milestone in its sub-district journey with Wolfe’s expectation letter telling the sub-district and its sponsoring district the Rio Grande Water Conservation District how much replacement water must be delivered this year — 5,000 acre feet.

    Rio Grande Water Users Engineer Jim Slattery clarified the 5,000 acre feet is the amount of depletions a groundwater model determined must be replaced this year, but it does not begin to replenish the Valley’s greatly reduced aquifer.

    Wolfe said the first sub-district must submit a plan to the state by April 15 that includes the specified water replacement amount, and the state will hold a public hearing in April before acting on the plan. The sub-district’s plan must be updated and approved annually…

    The groundwater model Slattery and other engineers and scientists have spent countless hours developing is designed to help sub-districts determine how much water they need to replace, and until recently the model was not calibrated to a point where that number could be specified.

    Wolfe said now that the groundwater model is refined enough to provide specific data about the kind of water replacements required in the Rio Grande Basin, the first sub-district and several other sub-districts in various stages of formation can move forward more rapidly.

    In addition, Wolfe and a large advisory group can begin moving forward again on groundwater rules and regulations for the Rio Grande Basin. The well rules advisory group has not met since last August but will resume its meetings soon, Wolfe said.

    His goal is to submit well regulations to the water court before the end of the year. How long between his promulgation of the rules to their implementation will depend on how many objections there are to the rules and whether or not a trial becomes necessary, he said. Wolfe said in similar regulation promulgations in other basins in the state, the time frame was about a year between the time the rules were submitted to the court and implemented.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Colorado Water 2012: San Luis Valley groundwater sub-districts are designed to protect senior surface rights holders and take some irrigated cropland out of production

    March 9, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Steve Vandiver):

    In 2004, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) supported legislation (SB04-222) that granted the State Engineer wide discretion to permit the continued use of underground water consistent with preventing material injury to senior surface water rights and ensuring sustainability of the unique aquifer systems in the San Luis Valley.

    The district, as well as other water interests and well owners in the San Luis Valley, undertook this effort to try and reduce the severe negative economic impacts that have come about in other basins as the result of strict priority administration of groundwater by the state. The bill was signed into law in 2004, and codified as section 37-92-501. It prevents the State Engineer from curtailing groundwater withdrawals so long as those withdrawals are included in a groundwater management subdistrict and the withdrawals are made pursuant to the subdistricts’ properly adopted and approved groundwater management plan.

    The district supports the development of subdistricts in the Valley as a flexible and innovative alternative to a strict priority administration by the state, as they can ensure protection to senior surface water rights, the viability of the aquifer systems and ensure the protection of the local economy that is dependent upon sophisticated agricultural practices. Water users developing subdistricts determined that subdistricts could be formed in communities of interest with relatively uniform hydrologic conditions that would reflect a local system, all the while protecting senior vested rights and sustaining the aquifer.

    More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.

    Colorado Water 2012: Craig Cotten — ‘Approximately one-half million acre-feet per year are pumped from the [San Luis] Valley’s aquifers to support agricultural, livestock, commercial and residential needs’

    February 29, 2012


    Here’s the latest installment in the Valley Courier’s (Craig Cotten) Colorado Water 2012 series. From the article:

    Early settlers to the Valley relied on both shallow and artesian flowing wells for household and livestock use and even today, more than 90 percent of the Valley’s domestic water supply comes from wells.

    But all that groundwater use does not come without an impact to the stream systems and vested water rights within the Valley.

    The State Engineer is currently working on developing rules and regulations for the administration of groundwater here in the San Luis Valley to mitigate injury caused by groundwater use. This development has been going on for several years, but the story of rules and regulations actually begins in 1969. That is the year in which the Colorado legislature passed the Water Rights Determination and Administration Act. This Act, for the first time ever, gave the State Engineer the legal authority to administer wells within the priority system, which is based upon the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Prior to the 1969 Act, the use of groundwater was not linked to surface water rights.

    The State Engineer at that time, C.J. Kuiper, wasted no time in developing rules and regulations for various parts of the state. He first developed rules for wells within the South Platte Basin, then rules for wells within the Arkansas Basin, and then he moved on to the Rio Grande Basin.

    In 1975, rules and regulations were developed for wells within the San Luis Valley. These rules mandated that all large capacity wells (greater than 50 gallons per minute) were to be shut down unless they had an augmentation plan to replace their depletions. Needless to say, the SLV well owners were less than thrilled with the new rules. Many individuals and groups objected to the rules, and so, those rules were the subject of years of debate, a 12-week trial, and finally a trip to the Colorado Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court ruled that the State Engineer did have the authority to establish rules and regulations, but that there might be some better options rather than shutting all of the wells completely off. They encouraged the State Engineer to look at alternatives, specifically mentioning the Closed Basin Project. At that time, there was a belief that the Project could produce enough water to cover all of the depletions from the wells.

    More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.

    2012 Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Fair recap: Groundwater subdistrict one was on everyone’s mind

    February 9, 2012


    From The Valley Courier (Lauren Krizansky):

    The management plan’s purpose is to recharge the Valley’s aquifer, and one way to fill it back up is to stop taking water out. The RGWCD Subdistrict 1 is offering a tiered district fallowing program to persuade water users to do just that.

    Water users qualify for the program if they have a three-year average of 50 percent reduced pumped groundwater. Contract prices for the 2012 irrigation begin at $300 an irrigated acre for zero groundwater use, $200 an irrigated acre for up to six inches of groundwater use and $100 an irrigated acre for up to 10 inches. The program is not offering incentives for more than 10 inches.

    The deadline for fallow acreage bids is Wed., Feb. 15, but the board could extend the deadline if interest grows.

    RGWCD Manager Mike Mitchell said that the program is calling for a significant irrigation reduction.

    “Twenty-four inches is what is used on the common crops,” Mitchell said. “The whole focus of this is to see how much we can save.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Southern Colorado Water Forum recap: Steve Vandiver — ‘We’ve issued too many well permits, and now we’re trying to unscramble the egg’

    February 2, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    “We’ve issued too many well permits, and now we’re trying to unscramble the egg,” Steve Vandiver, manager of the Rio Grande Conservation District, told the Southern Colorado Water Forum Tuesday. More than 6,000 high-volume irrigation wells have been drilled in the Rio Grande basin in the rich farmlands around Alamosa, Center and Monte Vista over the past 50 years. “These wells have had an impact that was not recognized by anyone when they were drilled,” Vandiver said.

    Part of the problem is that one-third of the water in the San Luis Valley has to be sent to New Mexico, in an arid region that gets only about 7 inches of precipitation annually. Since the 1940s, wells have improved and expanded agriculture in the Rio Grande basin.

    The greater harm is to senior surface irrigation rights, which date back to the 1850s in the Rio Grande basin. The valley is economically dependent on agriculture, and the farmers themselves have taken up a solution which they hope to implement before the state imposes rules, Vandiver said. “Six subdistricts are being created as a market-driven approach,” Vandiver said.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    The San Luis Valley unconfined aquifer depleted to lowest level since record keeping started in 1976

    January 19, 2012


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    High commodity prices and a below-average snowpack prevented the normal recharge of the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies from bouncing back during runoff as it customarily does. “This last year has been pretty brutal,” Allen Davey, an engineer who monitors groundwater for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said at the district’s quarterly meeting Tuesday…

    From January of last year pumping has reduced the aquifer by 200,000 acre-feet, according to the district’s monitoring wells that are clustered in the north-central part of the valley. It’s down 740,000 acre feet from when officials started charting the aquifer’s levels in 1976…

    “I’ve talked to several users who have indicated they’re having trouble with their wells at this level, which is really no surprise,” Davey said.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    San Luis Valley: First groundwater sub-district grappling with replacing surface water depletions this spring

    January 18, 2012


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    The board of managers for Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) held a special meeting on Monday to wade through some of the complicated issues facing the sub-district as it navigates the waters ahead. The Valley’s first sub-district affects 175,000 irrigated acres and 500 or more individual property owners in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties north of the Rio Grande. Its goals include replacing injurious depletions from well pumping to surface water users, restoring the Valley’s aquifer levels and ensuring compliance with the Rio Grande Compact. By court order, the sub-district must begin replacing depletions to surface water rights this spring…

    Water district attorney David Robbins said the judge required any wells not originally in the sub-district to go to the peer review committee to make sure any depletions they were causing would be accounted for in the groundwater model and replaced by the sub-district…

    The board on Monday decided to extend to February 15 the deadline for applications from those wishing to enter fallowing contracts with the sub-district this year. The initial deadline was January 31. The board said by extending the deadline into February they could give farmers one last push during the potato grain conference in early February.

    In addition, the board is still working out rules that will govern fallowing contracts and plans to review a draft of those rules on Monday morning, Jan. 30, at 8:30 a.m. in the Bureau of Reclamation office just east of Alamosa. The sub-district board will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    San Luis Valley: Area growers try to assess the potential impact of withdrawing acreage irrigated by groundwater pumping

    January 17, 2012


    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    …the commercial agriculture that built up the valley is large-scale and competitive, and relies on center-pivot irrigation devices that pump heavily from underground aquifers. Commercial production of potatoes and hay — using 6,000 wells and 2,700 center-pivots to irrigate 120-acre crop circles — exploded after the 1950s. The pumping has depleted aquifers by more than 1 million acre-feet since 1976 and now is affecting surface streams…

    By May, center-pivot farmers must activate a plan to reduce the water pulled from the aquifer by about 30,000 acre-feet a year. “They’ve got to start to restore it,” state engineer Dick Wolfe said. To avoid state shutdowns of wells — as happened in 2009 in northeastern Colorado — commercial farmers propose to pay to pump or purchase new surface-water rights and use these to offset pumping from aquifers…

    “These communities, and no doubt other communities around the world, are coming to the realization that business as usual has to change,” said Mike Gibson, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and chairman of the Rio Grande roundtable that participates in statewide planning…

    But the time has come for commercial farms “to pay for the impacts they are causing to the river,” said Steve Vandiver, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the leader of efforts to find water to replace water pumped from wells.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    San Luis Valley: Steve Vandiver — ‘The commodity markets are going to drive this (retiring acreage irrigated by groundwater)’

    January 12, 2012


    Farmers and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been working for a number of years now on rules for groundwater sub-districts that will incent farmers to remove land irrigated from the Valley’s aquifers. The Colorado Supreme Court recently blessed their work so all is well, right?

    The short answer is nope. Senior surface irrigators are still claiming injury and now, it appears, high commodity prices are affecting farmers decision process when it comes to removing acreage from production.

    Here’s a report from Brett Walton writing for Circle of Blue. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    Simply put, the San Luis Valley no longer has enough water to support the abundant farm production that is becoming increasingly supercharged by rising prices for the crops grown here.

    There may be a way out. Water officials in the region’s six counties are working with the federal government on a voluntary plan that would pay farmers to take land out of production. If things turn out as planned, up to 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of the valley’s roughly 240,000 irrigated hectares (600,000 acres) will not be farmed.

    Though it is still being negotiated, the plan has a significant obstacle: the explosive rise in food prices, which are making the sums offered by the water-conservation program less enticing. Prices for the valley’s mainstay — potatoes — have increased 25 percent in the last five years. Wheat, alfalfa, and barley prices have done even better, more or less doubling over the same period.

    “The commodity markets are going to drive this,” said Steve Vandiver, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, in an interview with Circle of Blue. “If prices stay high, it’s going to be harder to get farmers to sign up.”

    If the voluntary program does not work, Vandiver went on to say, the result would be worst for farmers. The state, he said, would then step in — like it did in not long ago in the nearby South Platte Basin — and force well owners to shut down, without compensation. “We’re trying to keep that from happening here,” he said. “We’re trying to provide a soft landing.”[...]

    Climate change plays a role in the new river patterns, Gibson told Circle of Blue. Wind storms from the deserts in Arizona and New Mexico are more frequent, and they drop dust on the mountain snowpack, which is the primary water source for the valley’s rivers. The warming effect of the dust, combined with higher temperatures, means that the spring melt has moved several weeks earlier in the year. With a longer dry period in the summer, more groundwater is required to balance the changes in the river.

    New reservoirs to store the altered flows are prohibited under a compact between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, Gibson told Circle of Blue, but existing reservoirs are being renovated to maximize their storage capacity.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    The Colorado Supreme Court affirms water court ruling for the first groundwater sub-district in the San Luis Valley

    December 20, 2011


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The ruling, written by Justice Greg Hobbs, declined to uphold any of the eight objections to the plan and cleared a path for the valley’s first groundwater subdistrict, which could be followed by as many as six others. “This truly is a historic moment in the San Luis Valley,” said Steve Vandiver who is manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and also spent more than three decades in the valley working for the engineer’s office.

    The efforts of Subdistrict No. 1 mark the first large-scale effort by groundwater users to compensate senior surface water rights owners who draw water from the valley’s streams, all of which are hydrologically connected, in varying degrees, to the valley’s two main aquifers. Subdistrict No. 1, whose management plan was modified then approved in two local water court decisions, takes in roughly 174,000 acres of irrigated farmland and roughly 3,000 groundwater irrigation wells.

    Its plan imposes fees on its members to buy replacement water. It also calls for the retirement of up to 40,000 acres of farm ground with the help of the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program as a means to restore the unconfined aquifer or shallower of the valley’s two big aquifers. Most of the valley’s farmers use some combination of surface water and groundwater, relying on the latter to finish off potato, barley and other crops late in the season.

    Here’s the letter from State Engineer Dick Wolfe to the San Luis Valley Advisory Committee Members:

    I hope this finds you and your families well in this holiday season. I wanted to give another update on the progress we are making in the rulemaking process. As always, my goal continues to be to advance the many earlier efforts in Division No. 3 water administration with the promulgation of the Rules Governing the Withdrawal of Ground Water in Water Division Three (“Rules”).

    As you all know, one of the most important aspects of our rulemaking efforts centers on continuing to refine the data used in the RGDSS ground water model (“Model”), to ensure it is updated with the best and most accurate data available. We have spent a significant amount of work and effort in the past few months on evaluating and updating data inputs, which are pivotal to calculating depletions from ground water pumping in the San Luis Valley. The RGDSS Peer Review Team (PRT) has met 18 times since January 2011. At these meetings, the PRT has made headway in evaluating and refining various data sets including irrigated acreage assessments, water level and artesian pressure data from San Luis Valley wells, crop characteristics and coefficients, farming practices relying on subirrigation, winter diversions, sprinkler efficiencies, return flows, rim recharge, and the geology underlying the Valley.

    These efforts have called for the input of many experts, such as agronomists, geologists, computer specialists, and farmers from the San Luis Valley with “boots on the ground” irrigation experience. Our experts want to assure that we include as much new and/or upgraded data as possible, so that the Model reflects ground water movement in the San Luis Valley as closely as possible. These refinements in the data that are uploaded to the Model give us more calibration data points, which in turn, give us more confidence in the accuracy of the predictive capacities of the model. The members of the RGDSS PRT continue to meet and work out the final details on the Model. Once these refinements are completed, our experts will re-run and calibrate the Model. Then we plan on making model pumping impact runs. Pursuant to the San Luis Valley Advisory Committee Member’s (“Committee”) stated desire, we plan to schedule our next meeting when the impact results are available for review. As with any project that combines the efforts of many people, we do not currently have an exact “end” date.

    Our team has also been actively exploring the ideas of defining the metrics of a “sustainable” water supply. Currently we are looking at water levels and artesian pressures found in the wells across the San Luis Valley to establish sustainable water supply baselines. We are looking closely at well data logs and creating overlying maps for both the confined and unconfined aquifers to determine areas of correlation. This will assist us in creating “trigger points.” You may recall from previous Committee meetings that these are the points at which we consider the aquifer to be sustainable, less than sustainable, and not sustainable, triggering different degrees of administration. We are also considering the many good ideas on sustainability that have come from the Committee, by way of letter or other communication.

    At our last meeting in May 2011, we asked for volunteers to help assist us in defining the important benchmarks, or tasks, which need to be accomplished for the creation of a subdistrict, an augmentation plan, and/or a substitute water supply plan. Examples of “benchmarks” include estimating the time it would take to circulate a petition to form a subdistrict, or the steps involved and the necessary time to nominate and form a Board of Managers for a new subdistrict. A small Benchmark Subcommittee was formed to assist us in this exercise. My staff identified all the statutory time requirements that are involved in these processes, and worked to determine the reasonable time it takes to accomplish each of these tasks. This information was presented to the Benchmark Subcommittee on September 8, 2011. At that meeting, the Benchmark Subcommittee provided insight and recommendations on “real life” steps that are not reflected in the statutes. This gave my staff a more accurate timeline for accomplishing the formation of one of these three methods, by which individuals can replace injurious depletions. Steve Vandiver from the RGWCD also provided insight into what Subdistrict No. 1’s experience has been in setting up the first groundwater management plan. Collectively, these meetings and benchmark exercises will help us craft the section of the rules that addresses the time necessary for a subdistrict to get up and running.

    We are working very diligently to finalize the refinements to the Model and to present the results to the Committee. As always your input on these issues is essential, so any thoughts you have are welcome.

    Thank you for your patience. I wish you and your family a happy holiday season.

    More coverage from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier. From the article:

    “The General Assembly has adopted a series of statutes applicable to confined and unconfined aquifers within the San Luis Valley and Water Division No. 3, empowering the subdistrict to adopt and implement the plan. The plan as approved and decreed adequately addresses the replacement of well depletions that injure adjudicated senior surface water rights, along with restoring and maintaining sustainable aquifer levels in accordance with the applicable statutes,” the court stated in its Dec. 19 decision.

    “The subdistrict bears the burden of going forward and the burden of proof to demonstrate that annual replacement plans prevent material injury to adjudicated senior surface water rights caused by ongoing and past well depletions that have future impact…

    “Because the subdistrict must replace all injurious depletions, and bears the burden of proof of non-injury, we expect the subdistrict, in order to avoid needless controversy, will replace all predicted injurious depletions … If the subdistrict does not adhere to the plan, or the plan is not preventing material injury to senior surface water rights, the State Engineer must curtail groundwater withdrawal in the subdistrict as necessary to prevent material injury to senior surface water rights, even in the absence of rules and regulations.”

    At the conclusion of its 70-page decision the Colorado Supreme Court acknowledged the work of the San Luis Valley residents, including objectors to the plan, who had a hand in shaping the final plan and the General Assembly that developed statutes specific to the Valley’s unique hydrology, “accomplishing a balancing of land and water resources.”

    Sponsored by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), the sub-district was set up to replace injurious depletions to surface water users by well pumping, ensure Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states and help restore the San Luis Valley’s aquifer…

    With the court decision in place, one of the few remaining pieces of the sub-district puzzle now is the groundwater modeling efforts, which are still being finalized. The model will be crucial to determining how much water groundwater irrigators must pay back. Vandiver said a couple more peer review sessions will probably be held between now and the end of the year, and hopefully soon after the first of the year the model will be fully operational. The first sub-district’s board of managers meets the second week of January, and the sponsoring RGWCD board meets on January 17…

    Those appealing the case to the higher court were: San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association; Save Our Senior Water Rights, LLC.; Richard H. Ramstetter; and Peter D. Atkins. Objectors alleged trial court failures to abide by Colorado statutory and case law applicable to augmentation plans…

    Referring to the late Ray Wright who as RGWCD board president spearheaded the sub-district efforts for years, Vandiver said, “he ought to be dancing on his grave this morning.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    The San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district plan fees are being collected for the second year in a row and are being escrowed awaiting the Colorado Supreme Court

    October 30, 2011


    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Since the plan is still pending in the courts, the fees collected this year have been held in escrow by the sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), which continues to upfront the costs of its first sub-district as well as other pending sub-districts throughout the Valley. The purposes of these sub-districts include 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…

    The Valley’s first sub-district, affecting 175,000 irrigated acres and 500 or more individual property owners, lies north of the Rio Grande in what is known as the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley. The sub-district lies in three of the Valley’s six counties (Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache.) RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the sub-district plan of management case on September 28. He expected a ruling from the court in two to four months. Groups forming other water management sub-districts throughout the Valley are waiting for the court’s ruling before finalizing their sub-districts. Meanwhile, they are accumulating data required to form their sub-districts…

    [Rio Grange Water Conservancy District Manager Steve Vandiver] reported during the water district board’s quarterly meeting this week that so far expenses for the first sub-district have totaled $1.37 million, with expenses on the other five sub-districts totaling about $350,000. One of the expenses for the first sub-district is water acquisition to replace injurious depletions to surface rights. The sub-district by court order must begin replacing those depletions in 2012. The sub-district is acquiring several options on water that can be used for replacement water in 2012 and is looking at several other possibilities, according to Vandiver. He said the sub-district has options on 3,500 acre feet for 2012 with another 1,500 acre feet being held for the sub-district if it is needed. Until the groundwater model runs are completed, the sub-district does not have a total for the amount of replacement water that will be required in 2012, he explained…

    Well users who are not part of management sub-districts face the potential under pending state well regulations of having to shut down their wells or develop individual augmentation plans. Robbins said individual plans are no easier to develop than the sub-district plans, and some Valley residents have already begun that process. “If you are going to change water rights from irrigation to replacement, the same sort of responsibilities exist to surface streams,” [RGWCD Attorney David Robbins] said. “The same standards apply … the same obligation applies to make up projected depletions with the replacement supplies.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Colorado Supreme Court to hear San Luis Valley groundwater sub-district rules appeal September 28

    September 8, 2011


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The valley’s local Water Court signed off on the plan of management for Subdistrict No. 1 in May 2010, but three parties made up largely of surface irrigators have appealed that ruling. They argue that the management plan does too little to protect the owners of senior surface water right from injury caused by the pumping of the subdistrict’s roughly 3,000 irrigation wells…

    The appellants include two groups — The San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association and Save Our Senior Water Rights which are represented by Arvada attorney Tim Buchanan. Richard Ramstetter and Peter Atkins have joined as individual appellants, who are represented by Alamosa attorney Stephane Atencio.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande River basin: Valley water managers are considering applying for Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program funds to jumpstart the groundwater sub-district #1 process for retiring acreage

    June 11, 2011

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    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program funds are being looked at by valley water managers to help retire up to 40,000 acres of irrigated land in the north-central part of the valley. “I think it’s something that would be in that priority class for us,” [U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo] said after a meeting with potato farmers Thursday. The first-term congressman had campaigned on cutting the federal budget, but he told the farmers that his spending preferences would be prioritized around energy, self-sufficiency and boosting America’s ability to feed itself…

    Tim Davis, a Sterling-based consultant who has shepherded farmers in Nebraska and northeastern Colorado through applications to the program, said that so far there have been no rumblings on Capitol Hill about cutting the program…

    Davis is helping Subdistrict No. 1 apply to the federal program, which pays a rental rate to farmers to retire ground…

    The district’s assessments of its members would go to compensate for injury caused by pumping and it also would be coupled with the federal dollars to retire ground. But the local dollars likely would be used to sweeten the federal payments and increase the incentive for farmers to retire ground that would more helpful in reducing the pumping of groundwater, said Steve Vandiver, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Vandiver said the subdistrict had yet to decide how much money it would add, and it has not chosen the targeted acreage…

    An appeal of a local court’s approval of the subdistrict’s management plan is before the Colorado Supreme Court. Vandiver said oral arguments in the case likely would come in the fall, with a decision possibly by next year. Two other pending subdistricts — one along the Rio Grande between Monte Vista and Alamosa and another that would take in the Carmel and Waverly areas — are also considering applying for the federal funds but have yet to write management plans while the court ruling is pending.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly meeting recap: Closed Basin Project operation questioned

    April 21, 2011

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Saying continued pumping of the project “is creating an enormous hardship on north Valley ranches,” [Moffat area rancher Peggy Godfrey] asked the water board to request of the Closed Basin operating committee and/or Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to modify the project. She referred to a section governing the project that allows it to be modified, curtailed or suspended to eliminate adverse effects.

    The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) board indicated it would not grant her request. “We will continue to operate this project within its boundaries and within the constraints put on it,” said RGWCD Board President George Whitten who also sits on the Closed Basin Project operating committee. Whitten, who ranches in the northern part of the Valley, told Godfrey although he appreciated her comments, “I respectfully disagree with your findings.”

    RGWCD District Engineer Allen Davey, who also sits on the Closed Basin Project operating committee, said, “There is no clear evidence that the Closed Basin Project is causing depletion of the aquifer in the Moffat area.” He said the project was developed to capture salvage water that was being lost. He said pumping has been reduced from project wells when evidence showed they were violating statutory criteria.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    Rio Grande River basin: San Luis Valley’s first groundwater management sub-district update — accounting growing pains

    April 12, 2011

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    In its annual meeting this month, the sub-district board of managers struggled with some of those kinks, most of them surrounding water accounting issues. Although the sub-district itself has been approved, its plan of management is currently under appeal at the Colorado Supreme Court level. Because of the court appeal, fees collected for the sub-district for the first time this year must essentially be held in escrow. If/once they are freed up, funds can be used for such purposes as sub-district staff and water acquisition…

    In addition, several potential water sellers have already approached the district and sub-district to sell replacement water, which the sub-district cannot buy until its funds are cleared, assuming the state court appeal goes in the sub-district’s favor. One of the main purposes for the sub-district, which lies in the Valley’s closed basin area, is to replenish well-pumping depletions to surface rights. Vandiver said a number of people have offered replacement water, including the San Luis Valley Conservancy District and a local real estate company with a ranch for sale on La Jara Creek. The ranch comes with senior water rights. Jim McCullough, who attended the sub-district board’s April 5 meeting, also offered for consideration shares he owns on the Excelsior Ditch. He said he would like to find a way to use that water to replace the depletions he owes within the sub-district. Vandiver said he had fielded several inquiries from people who wanted to use surface water that is not part of the sub-district as augmentation water…

    Recharge credits are another area where the sub-district board is fine tuning the details. Board and audience members questioned how recharge would be credited to farmers who had recharge reservoirs, flood irrigated or in other means replaced water to the aquifer. For example, Monte Vista area farmer Dick McNitt said he felt like he was being penalized for his conservation efforts through reservoirs on his property. The board and audience also talked about reconsidering how surface water credits are calculated, and Sub-district Board Chairman Lynn McCullough appointed a committee to review that portion of the plan and develop recommendations. The committee includes board members and some of the audience members who requested to be a part of the discussion…

    One issue that was easy to resolve during the board’s annual meeting was the election of officers. The board unanimously voted to keep the same slate of officers, with Lynn McCullough as chairman.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar talks ag and the economy

    March 3, 2011

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    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    Salazar said he was not against the curtailing of wells as long as it followed the best available science and replaced depletions to surface water. While wells would not be subject to curtailment inside the subdistricts, should they go forward, there will be a reduction to the valley’s 622,000 irrigated acres, which ranks second among the state’s river basins behind the South Platte. After the 40,000 acres proposed for retirement by Subdistrict No. 1, the amount of acreage facing retirement won’t become clear until the other subdistricts come up with their management plans. But last year’s update of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative estimated that an additional 40,000 acres could be retired in the valley by 2050.

    The changes could take place at a time when agricultural markets are poised to boom. Salazar noted that wheat growers are contracting for over $7 per bushel, while cattle prices could be up $2 in the coming year. Those circumstances could make agriculture the state’s top economic driver, but Salazar worries the state won’t realize what it has. “I always worry about agriculture in this state,” he said. “We need to continue the ability to produce food in this state.”

    As for how the changes to the valley’s water policies will affect Salazar’s ranching and farming operations, the commissioner, like the rest of the valley’s water users, is waiting to see what the computer modeling says. Once he has that information he’ll see if joining a subdistrict in the Conejos River Basin is the right move.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    2011 Colorado legislation: The State Engineer’s office decides against backing bill that was designed to allow the State Engineer to approve groundwater sub-district management plans as substitute water supply plans in the San Luis Valley

    February 10, 2011

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    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The measure, which was never introduced at the Capitol, would have allowed groundwater users to apply for a substitute water supply plan, thereby avoiding shutdowns while they await court approval of groundwater subdistricts. A statement issued by the engineer’s office said moving forward with the measure would create undue controversy and possibly result in amendments that hindered the proposal and complicated rule-making efforts for Rio Grande basin well users…

    …letting go of the temporary plans could leave some of the valley’s 6,000 groundwater wells vulnerable to being shut down. Wolfe has said the engineer’s new rules, which would require shutting down wells that do not have replacement water, are expected to be in place by 2012. The subdistricts would tax its members to help buy replacement water to make the senior surface users whole, but the first subdistrict remains under review by the Colorado Supreme Court. Other potential subdistricts are awaiting that ruling before they attempt to gain approval from the valley’s local water court. The engineer’s office hopes the issue can be resolved by an advisory committee Wolfe selected two years ago to assist in drafting groundwater rules in regulations

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly board meeting recap

    January 23, 2011

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    [The fees are hitting for] the Valley’s first sub-district, which encompasses about 175,000 irrigated acres owned by 500-plus individual property owners in an area north of the Rio Grande. It is the first of several water management sub-districts under the auspices of the sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, that will eventually cover the San Luis Valley…

    Last October the sub-district board of managers approved an administrative fee of $5 per irrigated acre (to generate about $875,000) and CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) fee of $1 per irrigated acre to be assessed well users within the boundaries of the first sub-district this year. A variable fee of $45 per acre foot of groundwater pumped (less surface water credits), will not be collected until 2012 but will be based on 2011 pumping. This year’s fees will be held in escrow until the sub-district receives a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court regarding an appeal over the sub-district’s management plan…

    [Cory Off] suggested the state should be bearing some of the cost of the sub-districts. He said he knew the state did not have any money, but neither did the Valley residents, and if the Valley water districts did not ask the state for help now, the Valley would not be considered for funding in the future when the state’s financial situation improved. He said although Valley farmers will benefit through the sub-districts by not having to pay for their own augmentation plans, the state will also benefit by not having to process thousands of augmentation plans in the Valley.

    [RGWCD Attorney David Robbins] said he was not arguing that point, and if Off could get the state to help pay for the sub-districts, “God bless you and I will do whatever I can to help,” but the other river basins in the state had not had any luck getting the state to help with their costs. He said water users in the Republican River Basin are going to spend $80 million to acquire water and put in a pipeline.

    RGWCD board member Lewis Entz, a former long-time state legislator, said the sub-district legislation was created as a way for the Valley to solve its own problems without the state’s interference. “It’s on us to solve our problem and not the state,” he said…

    RGWCD Manager Steve Vandiver reported to the board on Tuesday the district’s costs associated with the first sub-district alone have totaled $1.13 million. This is a cumulative figure encompassing all of the expenses over the past several years. The district has also spent about $240,000 on the other sub-districts proposed throughout the Valley. Vandiver said those figures include court time, engineering time, legal time, administrative time, etc…

    He and District Engineer Allen Davey said the efforts, and expenses, will not let up any time soon, either. “Obviously we are doing a lot of work on sub-districts, particularly Sub-district #1,” Davey said. “That’s been primarily our focus in the past year.”

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

    Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting recap

    January 19, 2011

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    When the state pulls the trigger on groundwater rules and regulations, many Valley irrigators could be shut down. Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for Division 3 Craig Cotten reported during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting on Tuesday that those rules are very close to being completed. State Engineer Dick Wolfe has been working with a large advisory group for the better part of two years to develop regulations that governing groundwater use in the Rio Grande Basin. Well irrigators who are not part of a water management sub-district or who have not completed individual augmentation plans may find themselves out of business when the rules go into effect and the state begins shutting down wells.

    Currently, one water management sub-district of the sponsoring Rio Grande Water Conservation District is on appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court, while five or six other sub-districts throughout the Valley are in various stages of development. Because it appears the state’s rules could be in place before the sub-districts, the state engineer’s office asked legislators like State Senator Gail Schwartz and State Representative Ed Vigil to carry legislation adding language to existing legislation that would give folks within a pending sub-district some protection when the bullets start flying.

    “We are going to have a situation, I think, where we will have rules and regulations in place. Those rules and regulations are in draft form right now and the rules and regulations will go into effect May 2012,” Cotten said. “If those rules and regulations go into effect we will have sub-districts that are in court but not through the process, so those people in those sub-districts will be stuck … They could be caught in a position where they are going to be shut down and they don’t have any ability to apply for a substitute supply plan.” He said without an augmentation plan, those folks would have to shut their wells off. Cotten explained that the state has had legislation for nearly a decade that provides for temporary or emergency substitute water supply plans to be approved while an official augmentation plan is pending with the courts. “It allows somebody to go forward and do what they are planning on doing, replace their water, as they wait on the court case to get done,” Cotten explained. He said the statute in place right now provides for several different situations but does not specifically mention sub-districts because it was enacted before the Valley began developing water management sub-districts.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    2011 Colorado legislation: State Senator Gail Schwartz to sponsor bill that will allow the State Engineer to approve groundwater sub-district management plans as substitute water supply plans in the San Luis Valley

    January 12, 2011

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Steve Vandiver, manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that is sponsoring the water management sub-districts in the Valley, explained the pending legislation to Rio Grande Roundtable members during their meeting on Tuesday…

    He said the state engineer’s office and attorney general’s office requested the bill, which adds a phrase or two to existing legislation regarding substitute water supply plans. Vandiver said the current statute allows the state engineer to approve temporary operation of an augmentation plan or rotation crop management contract that has been filed with the water court, but the court has not yet issued a decree. The state engineer can approve the temporary operation of those plans until the decree is completed, Vandiver explained. The proposed legislation would add wording allowing the state engineer to do the same thing with sub-district water management plans. Under the proposed legislation, the state engineer could approve temporary operation of a groundwater management plan as a substitute water supply plan as long as the state engineer has approved the groundwater management plan application, judicial review of that approval has been filed with a water court and the court has not issued a decree…

    Otherwise, [Vandiver] explained, the groundwater rules the state engineer is currently finalizing could become effective while water management plans are hung up in court, and all of the people who were relying on those plans to cover them might suddenly find their wells shut off.

    Several proposed water management sub-districts, separated by Valley hydrology and geography, are in various stages of development. The sub-districts are designed to make up depletions to surface water rights and the aquifer as a whole, at least in part through reduction in irrigated acreage within the sub-district boundaries.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande Basin: First groundwater sub-district assessments to start in 2011

    September 18, 2010

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    On order of Chief District/Water Judge O. John Kuenhold, the board of managers for the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) this week established fees that will be assessed sub-district irrigators next year. The sub-district board plans a public meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m., with the location to be announced, to review and possibly adjust the fees it set this week.

    Although the sub-district’s management plan is still on appeal before the Colorado Supreme Court, fees for the Valley’s first water sub-district will go on the tax rolls next year.

    More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

    Rio Grande Basin: The objectors to the groundwater management Sub-district No. 1 rules have filed an appeal of Judge O. John Kuenhold’s recent approval of the plan

    July 19, 2010

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    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Rio Grande Water Users Association, Conejos Water Conservancy District, State Engineer, and Farming Technology Corporation filed Supporters’ Motion to Amend Decree on July 8. The following day, the senior water users filed notices of appeal to Colorado’s higher courts in two closely associated water and civil cases.

    The senior water users’ attorneys contended in their appeals that the amended plan, and the judge’s conditions regarding its approval, still did not provide enough protections for senior water rights. They contended that injury would continue to occur to senior water rights as long as wells were allowed to pump within the sub-district area without state curtailment. They stated that such pumping constituted out of priority depletions. They also questioned whether the water management plan was complete, comprehensive and detailed enough and whether it complied with Senate Bill 04-222 and Colorado law…

    Objectors also questioned whether the trial court erred in:

    • determining that the plan of water management need not contain sufficient terms and conditions for the trial court to determine “no injury” to other water rights as a result;

    • delegating to the sub-district and state and division engineers the authority to determine “annual replacement plans” to replace depletions from sub-district well pumping;

    • deferring a finding regarding whether the plan of water management will result in injury to other water rights and instead relying on retained jurisdiction over the plan;

    • approving the use of response function, a method for determining water injuries;

    • determining that a plan of water management may use a reduction in the amount of water consumed by native vegetation to increase the quantity of water available to be pumped by sub-district wells;

    • not requiring the sub-district to prove ownership or control over sufficient legally available replacement water to cover depletions from pumping sub-district wells;

    • allowing the sub-district to utilize the water rights subject to the decrees referred to in Case Nos. 06CV64 and 07CW52 as the “recharge decrees” and in approving the quantification of fully consumable water in estimating ground water depletions;

    • finding that the sub-district’s proposed use of Closed Basin Project water is not prohibited;

    • allowing a 50 acre foot per year lower limit for the determination of injurious depletions and in allowing the replacement of injurious depletions in subsequent years;

    • not adopting, rejecting, or referring back the plan of water management to the sub-district (the judge had referred the plan back to the sub-district board of managers once before);

    • not affording objectors the opportunity to propose specific terms and conditions to the plan of water management;

    • not requiring the sub-district to replace all injurious depletions, including ongoing depletions resulting from past pumping of sub-district wells, until the year 2012;

    • approving Appendix 4 (budget and accounting plan) and Appendix 5 (operational timelines) of the plan of water management;

    • determining the sub-district may contract with the owners of any non- sub-district wells.

    • finding that individual plans of augmentation in Water Division 3 are not presently possible and cannot be completed with any engineering validity;

    • finding that the calculation of the Surface Water Credit in Appendix 2 of the plan of water management is reasonable and supported by the record;

    • finding that the amended plan of water management’s change in timing for removing land from irrigation to effectuate further recovery of the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable condition is lawful.

    San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.


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