“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors” — Ralph Curtis

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

When State Engineer Dick Wolfe turned in a set of proposed groundwater rules and regulations to the division water court on Sept. 23, he channeled Yogi Berra.
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” he said, quoting the Hall of Fame Yankees catcher who passed away the day before.

But for nearly four decades, the San Luis Valley’s water users avoided any path that involved giving the state engineer the authority to shut down or limit pumping by the valley’s roughly 4,500 irrigation wells.

Two aquifers supply the water for those wells and help farmers irrigate valley staples such as potatoes, barley and alfalfa.

The shallower of the two, the unconfined aquifer, is fed by streams, seepage from irrigation canals and return flows from fields, and some upward leakage from a deeper aquifer.

The deeper aquifer, known as the confined aquifer, is fed by streams at the rim of the valley and is under artesian pressure.

Both aquifers are hydrologically connected to the valley’s surface streams to varying degrees, a fact that underlies complaints from surface-water users that their rights are injured by groundwater pumping.

Wolfe’s predecessor had proposed rules in 1975 only to see them shelved as the valley’s water users looked for another way to mitigate the impacts of well pumping on surfacewater users. And while this version still will have to gain approval from water court, enough had changed in the intervening decades to prompt a second stab at rules and regulations.

To begin, the federal Closed Basin Project, which pumps groundwater from the eastern edge of the valley for delivery to the Rio Grande, has been ineffective.

The valley’s water user groups signed an agreement in 1985 that divvied up how the project’s water would apply toward Colorado’s obligations to the Rio Grande Compact.

The move was regarded as an olive branch to surface-water users on the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers, since they alone carried the burden of complying with compact obligations.

Without the policing powers rules could give the state engineer, groundwater users faced no such burden.

The pact, commonly known as the 60-40 Agreement, also included a provision that kept valley surface-water users from going to court to shut down groundwater wells.

But since 2000, the amount of water produced by the project has never exceeded 20,000 acre-feet — far below envisioned amounts of up to 100,000 acre-feet when it was authorized by Congress in 1972.

Another change since the last rule proposals involved a pair of unsuccessful efforts in the 1990s to ship large amounts of the valley’s groundwater to the Front Range.

The proposals from American Water Development and later the Stockmen’s Water Company put all of the valley’s water users in the same boat, said Ralph Curtis, who managed the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for 25 years.

“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors,” he said.

Moreover, less was known in the 1970s about the two major groundwater bodies that sit beneath the valley floor. When the 1975 rules were proposed, a monitoring network that could measure levels in the unconfined aquifer in the north-central part of the valley still was a year away.

Exactly how much was pumped from the aquifers was not known either until 2006 when the engineer’s office implemented well-metering requirements.

Mac McFadden, who was the division engineer for the valley in 1975, and Steve Vandiver, who later would serve 24 years in the same post, both pointed to the development of the state’s groundwater computer model as an important advancement.

While that model could be a point of contention in court hearings for the current version of rules, it provides the basis for estimating how much instream losses are caused from well pumping Lastly, both Curtis and Vandiver point to the drought that began in 2002 as a pivotal point in the valley’s water politics and one that would pave the way to a new version of state rules.

“The drought of 2002 just tipped over the bucket of worms,” Vandiver said. “It was obvious then what the impacts of wells were on the (Rio Grande) — river just went away.”

The lowest flows ever recorded on the Conejos and the Rio Grande rivers where they enter the valley floor came in 2002.

And much of those meager flows were lost to aquifers that were being drawn on heavily by irrigators that had no surface supplies.

The division engineer’s annual report for that year estimated stream losses on the Rio Grande were as high as 40 percent at times, while on the Conejos they peaked as high as 60 percent.

“That provided the impetus for the surface-water users to say we’ve had enough,” Vandiver said.

Vandiver credited Manassa rancher Kelly Sowards and other surface-water users for creating the subsequent push to regulate wells.

Two years later, state lawmakers would pass a bill that created the framework for the current version of the rules and groundwater management subdistricts.

The first such subdistrict, which buys water to return to the Rio Grande and also pays ditch companies for losses caused by pumping, went into operation four years ago in the north-central part of the valley.

Fountain Creek: Kansas is keeping a watchful eye on potential dams

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District
Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Kansas has concerns that the effects of a large dam on Fountain Creek are not adequately modeled in a study of flood control and water rights that is nearing completion.

But comments from Kevin Salter of the Kansas Division of Water Resources indicate the modeling done by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District is “reasonable” when it comes to side-detention ponds.

Kansas is an important player because its 1985 federal lawsuit over the Arkansas River Compact raised storage issues along with wells. The Supreme Court ruled in Colorado’s favor on the storage questions, but new dams would be untested waters.

“The methodology in this draft report appears reasonable to protect water rights below the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River for the scenario involving side-detention facilities,” Salter said.

“As for the scenario to construct a multipurpose reservoir on Fountain Creek; Kansas is concerned.”

In an email to a committee looking at engineer Duane Helton’s draft report, Salter said more study is needed to look at the full impact of a 52,700 acre-foot reservoir that would include a 25,700 acre-foot pool for recreation and water supply and 27,000 acre-feet for temporary flood storage.

“Should the actual implementation of detained flood flows on Fountain Creek impact compact conservation storage Kansas would fully expect that those flows be restored,” Salter said.

Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek district, said a more complete evaluation would be made of water rights if a large reservoir is pursued.

“The district will complete a full evaluation of alternatives and a feasibility study of the preferred alternative in the future before any decision is made on flood control facilities, to include multipurpose facilities,” Small said in an email reply.

Helton’s study shows there would be little impacts on water rights if flood control structures allowed a flow of 10,000 cubic feet per second to flow through Pueblo during large floods. Water would be released as quickly as possible following the peak flow.

The study discounted extremely high flows, such as the 1999 or 1965 floods, saying there would be little damage to water rights because the high volume would fill John Martin Reservoir, creating a free river.

Division Engineer Steve Witte said Kansas concerns must be treated carefully, so a new round of litigation isn’t triggered.

Witte would like the 2015 flooding to be studied. Flows on Fountain Creek exceeded the 10,000 cfs mark on three occasions during six weeks of elevated flows. John Martin Reservoir did not fill, so it would be an ideal opportunity to explore how flood storage could be administered, he said.

“I think we need to be careful in any scenario to make sure there isn’t some material depletion,” Witte said.

After the 1999 flood, when Kansas and Colorado were in litigation over the Arkansas River Compact, Kansas raised questions about how such large flows should be divided. Those issues have not been resolved, Witte said.

Another downstream party, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association which owns half of the Amity Canal in Prowers County, said more study is needed to determine the damage if water is detained at lower flows and how water would be allocated after a flood.

The committee looking at the report, which includes some downstream farmers, Kansas, Colorado Springs Utilities, Tri-State and others, will meet again at 10 a.m. Oct. 14 at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District offices.

#AnimasRiver: Water-treatment system announced for #GoldKing — The Durango Herald

New settlement ponds at Gold King Mine August 2015
New settlement ponds at Gold King Mine August 2015

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The $1.78-million portable treatment facility will be located in Gladstone, according to EPA officials. It will be operational by Oct. 14 and operate during the coming winter. The contract provides for 42 weeks of treatment, with the option to start or stop treatment as needed…

Water continues to flow from the mine at approximately 550 gallons per minute. Without the plant, officials have had to rely on a series of settling ponds to capture the dirty water before being discharged to Cement Creek.

Authorities constructed four ponds at the mine site, which are treating water to remove as much metal loading as possible. The treatment plant will replace the ponds.

EPA officials estimate the plant will cost $20,000 per week to operate, with another $53,200 for demobilization and bonding. EPA will use money from its Superfund coffers to pay for the project. Superfund money is used to clean up blighted areas that could be toxic to humans. Gold King still has not officially been listed as a Superfund site.

The bidding process for the plant was conducted by St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration, LLC, the contractor that was working with the EPA when the spill occurred. The treatment-system contract was awarded to subcontractor Alexco Environmental Group Inc., which has an office in Denver.

Officials said the transition to the plant is necessary as winter temperatures at high elevations can reach well below zero, making it unsafe to manually treat water at the mine site. The system is designed to handle up to 1,200 gallons per minute.

“The objective of the treatment system is to neutralize the mine discharge and remove solids and metals,” stated an EPA news release announcing the facility. “Although the Gold King Mine discharge is just one of many into Cement Creek, the treatment will remove a portion of the metal loading to Cement Creek.”

Though the system is temporary, long-term treatment will be decided after further evaluation of mine discharge, said an EPA spokeswoman.

The DWR sends rules for groundwater pumping in the San Luis Valley to water court

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

For the second time in 40 years, the state engineer has come up with rules and regulations for groundwater wells in the San Luis Valley.

The rules, which were submitted by State Engineer Dick Wolfe to the Division 3 Water Court Wednesday, aim to restore the valley’s two major aquifers and protect senior surface water users from the harm caused by pumping.

The rules would apply to roughly 4,500 high-capacity irrigation wells spread across the valley, with the exception of southern Costilla County, which is not above either aquifer.

Wolfe pointed to provisions that defined sustainable levels for the valley’s groundwater, noting they were a first for any of the river basins in the state.

“You see a lot of what’s going on in a lot of other parts of the Western U.S., particularly California right now, we’re going to look back on this time and say we’re glad we took this step,” he said.

The engineer’s office aims to return the two major aquifers to the levels that existed until 2000, when drought and persistent withdrawals sent them into steep decline.

Toward that end, the rules will require users of the confined aquifer — the deeper and larger of the two — to submit plans to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply.

The rules would also give the engineer’s office the ability to shut down wells that are not operating under one of three options to mitigate pumping.

To avoid being shut down, well users could join a groundwater management subdistrict, in which its members pool resources to either buy water or pay surface water users for injury.

They could also take out individual augmentation plans for the same purpose.

Third, they could have a short-term temporary water supply plan.

The development of the sustainability section partly accounted for the six years Wolfe, his staff and upward of 100 valley water users took to come up with the regulations.

Developing the computer model that would eventually be used to calculate stream losses from groundwater pumping also took a period of years, Wolfe said.

But it is that computer model that could be one of the biggest differences from these rules and the version from 40 years ago that was never implemented.

“It was really apparent to me that we did not have the hydrologic knowledge to really effectively control wells,” said Mac McFadden, who served as division engineer in the valley in 1975.

After the water court publishes notice of the rules submission, there will be a 60-day period for objectors and supporters to file statements to the court.

Wolfe said he hoped to work out stipulations with objectors that would allow the court to avoid a trial.

It is possible that at least one group of water users in the La Jara Creek drainage will be among the objectors.

They sued the engineer’s office earlier this year, alleging the state’s computer model had failed to find pumping losses to a spring they depend on to irrigate.
Parties in that case are scheduled to meet in court Oct. 5 to determine if consolidation into the rules and regulations is appropriate.

Cucharas Dam: Two Rivers Water & Farming Company fails to meet deadline from the State Engineer

Cucharas Dam via The Pueblo Chieftain
Cucharas Dam via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A legal battle has sprung up over the status of the Cucharas Dam, located on the Cucharas River in Huerfano County south of Pueblo.

The state wants the dam taken out, while the owner wants more time to fix it.
State Engineer Dick Wolfe issued an order to Two Rivers Water & Farming Co. to breach the dam in February, giving the company until the end of June to show 30 percent design work toward removal of the dam.

In a July 27 letter, Wolfe informed Two Rivers that he would file a civil action in Huerfano County District Court seeking $500 per day penalties since June 30 until an acceptable plan to breach the dam is filed.

Two Rivers responded on Aug. 7 with a complaint against Wolfe, Division Engineer Steve Witte and the Welton Land and Water Co. arguing that the Huerfano-Cucharas river system has not been properly administered.

Engineering reports submitted to Division 2 water court attempt to prove that the Welton Ditch on the Huerfano River east of Pueblo has expanded its use and is using water inefficiently. The state will ask for dismissal of those claims.

Two Rivers CEO John McKowen declined to be interviewed for this story.

Two Rivers, a company formed by Denver businessman McKowen, purchased the dam site, along with the rest of the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch system southeast of Pueblo in 2010. Since then, the company has branched out into farming on the Bessemer Ditch and building greenhouses for marijuana growers through its subsidiary GrowCo.

The company also toyed with projects to supply El Paso County cities with water and to build a reservoir on the Excelsior Ditch east of Pueblo. Those have been abandoned. Two Rivers also got in a tussle with the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District over the terms of a conservation easement on one of its Bessemer Ditch properties.

But its first project was taking over the Cucharas Reservoir, which has been under state storage restrictions since 1987, when water began leaking. McKowen at the time said he planned to bring the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch system back into production and, in fact, harvested several crops.

Two Rivers subsequently purchased other reservoirs and ditches in Huerfano County. McKowen received, then gave back, a $10 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to renovate Cucharas Dam and eventually build a new dam just downstream.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources agreed to a compliance plan in August 2013, but in February issued a breach order, meaning the dam would have to be removed.

“I think the complaint is trying to slow down the breach order,” Witte said.

“Over the years, Two Rivers has done some work on the dam, but never enough to remove the storage restrictions. . . .

The time for talking about plans is over and it’s time to act on those plans, because it’s unsafe.”

Republican River: Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska optimistic after latest agreement

RRCA resolution signing August 27, 2015. From left to right: David Barfield, Dick Wolfe and Jeff Fassett(Photo courtesy RRCA)
RRCA resolution signing August 27, 2015. From left to right: David Barfield, Dick Wolfe and Jeff Fassett(Photo courtesy RRCA)

From the Kansas Department of Agriculture:

Republican River Compact Adjustments to Benefit Basin Water Users

(Lincoln, Neb.) Today, the states of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska have reached an agreement that will ensure more certainty to the basin’s water users in both Nebraska and Kansas. The agreement, in the form of a Resolution approved by the Republican River Compact Administration (RRCA), was achieved through collaborative negotiations that began in April 2015 and will provide timely notice and access to water for the 2016 irrigation season.
The agreement provides additional flexibility for Nebraska to achieve its Compact obligations while ensuring that the interests of Kansas are protected. The additional flexibility will allow the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to provide a portion of the forecasted compliance water early in 2016 and provide any additional shortfall later in 2016 and through April 1, 2017. This also provides some improved operational predictability for Nebraska water users in that water users will not be subjected to closing notices related to the 2016 irrigation season.

The 2016 agreement builds upon the agreement reached for the 2015 irrigation season with further beneficial developments for water users. This agreement provides more advanced notice to irrigators in the basin of compliance activities that will likely occur in 2016, allowing for an advanced planning period producers desire for their efficiently run operations.

The States’ agreement is contingent upon the Nebraska and the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation Districts, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, – reaching agreement on modifications of certain contract provisions contained in their Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) also adopted last year. Thus, ensuring the availability of the water pumped from Nebraska augmentation projects for RRCA compliance.

Current RRCA Chairman, Gordon W. “Jeff” Fassett, Director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said, “Today’s agreement is good news for Nebraska water users and represents the continuation of the cooperative and positive collaboration we’ve fostered between our states as we work to find mutually agreeable solutions that best serve our citizens. Additionally, we are hopeful that this positive momentum will continue to move us closer to the goal of securing a long-term agreement. With significantly more planning time, Nebraska’s water users will have greater certainty in their water supply and make the best decisions for their operations.”

“We are pleased to collaborate with Nebraska and Colorado as we continue to develop balanced and fair water solutions benefiting all of the basin’s water users that reflects good water management,” said Kansas Commissioner David Barfield. “This fourth in our series of recent agreements with Nebraska allows Kansas to make effective use of its water supply in 2016 and allows the states additional time and experience with Nebraska’s compliance activities as we continue to move toward long-term agreement.”

Colorado Commissioner Dick Wolfe said, “This agreement exemplifies the success that can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation of the RRCA and the water users in the basin.”

The RRCA is comprised of one member each from the States of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. The purpose of the RRCA is to administer the Republican River Compact. This Compact allocates the waters of the Republican River among the three states. The next RRCA annual meeting is scheduled for August of 2016 and will be hosted by the State of Colorado in a location of their choice.

Groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin are now in final draft form, next stop water court

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Time’s almost up.

In the works for several years, the groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin are now in final draft form and should be filed with the water court within the next month. Last-chance comments on the final draft of the rules are due tomorrow, August 19, with the rules anticipated to be filed with the water court either by the end of this month or next, depending on how many comments come in.

The groundwater rules, which will apply to well owners in the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley), are designed to protect senior surface water rights and Rio Grande Compact obligations in addition to promoting long-term sustainability of the basin’s aquifers.

The rules apply to hundreds of well owners in the Valley including towns and cities. A well solely permitted for in-house use would not need to be regulated under these rules. Primarily these rules will affect those who are using their wells for irrigation of crops, livestock or municipal water supplies, wells required to be metered. Although there’s been a moratorium on new wells for many years, the existing wells have continued to negatively affect senior surface water rights, a problem the well regulations are designed to rectify either en masse through collective water management sub-districts or individually through augmentation plans or substitute water supply plans.

“Essentially, the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules recognize that there is no unappropriated water in the confined aquifer, so that any new withdrawal requires one-for-one replacement,” the proposed rules state.

“The rules are designed to allow withdrawals of groundwater while providing for the identification and replacement of injurious stream depletions and the achievement and maintenance of a sustainable water supply in each aquifer system, while not unreasonably interfering with the state’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”

Those themes are stressed throughout the regulatory document: no new withdrawals will be all o w e d w i t h – out the same amount being replaced; injuries to surface r i g h t s m u s t be replaced; and the state’s agreement with downstream states in the Rio Grande Compact must be upheld.

“Nothing in the rules is designed to allow an expanded or unauthorized use of water ,” the rules state.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told local water leaders last week that State Engineer Dick Wolfe advised legislators serving on the water resources review committee the rules would be completed within the next month.

“We do have the final draft of the rules out for public comment until the 19th,” Cotten said. “We think the rules are basically done, just giving everybody a last chance to make comments. After that we will take those comments and then file in court.”

Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan, who previously served as Division 3 engineer, said water court resume timelines start from the end of a month, and folks have 60 days after that to respond to the case in court.

“It doesn’t matter if we filed the rules August 10 or August 31, as the clock starts essentially August 31. Thus I think the earliest we could/ would file would be the end of August or September. It all depends on getting any comments considered and gathering all the pieces into a complete package for the court,” Sullivan stated.

“After all the work from the water user community in helping craft the rules I imagine folks would like to get the next phase rolling as soon as possible.”

The rules will be effective 60 days after publication unless protests are filed in the water court, which would delay the process until the protests were resolved.

An approximately 50-member advisory committee has been working with Wolfe since 2009 to develop groundwater rules for this basin. Advisory committee members included representatives from water conservancy and irrigation districts, water user associations, counties, state and federal agencies, municipalities and attorneys . As a group, the advisory committee concluded its work in May, after meeting 25 times over the last several years. The state sent its final draft out to the advisory committee members for one last look this month.

Once the groundwater rules are in place, well owners in the Valley will have two years to come into compliance with the rules by joining one of several water management sub-districts or filing an individual augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan. The other alternative is to be shut down.

One of the delays in getting the groundwater rules to this stage was the development and refinement of the Rio Grande Decision Support System groundwater model that simulates groundwater flows in this basin and helps determine how much water well users must pay back to make up for the injuries they have caused in the past and are currently causing. That model and subsequent simplified calculations called response functions have been under refinement for several years.

After the first water management sub-district (a subdistrict of the sponsoring Rio Grande Water Conservation District) was formed, subsequent sub-districts throughout the Valley waited for the model and its response functions to be refined to the point that well owners in those sub-districts would know what kind of water debts they were looking at before they formally formed their sub-districts . Many of them have been ready to collect signed petitions from those who will be included in the sub-districts , or have already collected petitions, pending those model runs that would tell them how much they would need to replace to senior surface rights.

Most of the sub-districts are organized by geographical areas of the basin such as Conejos River, San Luis Creek and Saguache Creek, while some are organized by the type of wells they encompass, such as confined aquifer wells.

Only the first sub-district is operating (encompassing wells north of the Rio Grande), but four or five others are in various stages of preparing to file their paperwork and petitions with the water court.

Well irrigators who are part of recognized sub-districts with state-approved water management and replacement plans essentially possess a “get out of jail free card,” but the rules state the sub-districts have to live by their management plans and show some progress over time, or the state will require additional action. Another reason it took longer to finalize the well rules was the lengthy discussions over how to meet the state legislature’s mandate to restore this basin’s confined, or deeper, aquifer to the healthy level it presumably experienced between the years 1978 and 2000, before the devastating drought of the early 2000’s . The draft of the rules, as proposed, allows for fluctuations in the aquifer in the same way the aquifer fluctuated during those years, as long as the average levels are similar to those occurring between 1978 and 2000. Fluctuations will also be permitted in the unconfined , or more shallow, aquifers, which the rules acknowledge are underground water storage reservoirs.

Because artesian pressure data is lacking for the confined aquifer during the period from 1978-2000 , the rules provide for a well network to collect data over the next decade to help estimate artesian pressures in the confined aquifer. Once that data is collected, the state tngineer will define the methods proposed to maintain a sustainable water supply in the confined aquifer system, and if that means a change in the rules, that could trigger another rule making process at that point.

The proposed rules also specify the irrigation season for this basin, presumed to begin April 1 and end on November 1, given some flexibility in climate and other conditions. See http:// water. state.co.us/