Instead of denying or ignoring the problem, [San Luis Valley] farmers are facing the fact that agriculture has outgrown its water supply. They admit they must live within new limits, or perish. Determined to avoid state intervention, they’ve created an innovative irrigation market, charging themselves to pump and using that money to pay others to fallow their land. Thousands of acres have come out of production, and their sights are set on fallowing tens of thousands more.
Brian Brownell is among those cutting back. When I visited last September, the valley’s potato harvest was in full swing, and dust clouds over fields where farmers were exhuming spuds were visible from miles away. Dust also levitated above a field on Brownell’s farm, but nothing was being harvested. Instead, the Sudan grass he’d planted was being hacked to pieces and tilled into the soil. He’d received $96,000 for putting 480 of his 1,680 acres into this “green manure” instead of a more water-hungry and profitable commercial crop.
“Everybody’s pumping too much water,” he said. His gray sideburns bristled on tanned skin, and his lips curved down in thought. “People have to start to buy in to the community thing, instead of ‘me,’ ‘my farm,’ ‘my deal.’ ”
This time, farmers are scrambling to save local agricultural not from outsiders who covet their water, but from themselves.
“It’s only going to work,” said Brownell, “if everybody does something to save the water.”
The San Luis Valley’s 8,000 square miles are flat as plywood, hemmed in by the San Juan Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Sangre de Cristos, a dramatic wall of serrated peaks edged by sand dunes that seem plucked from a North African desert. The valley’s 46,000 residents live in scattered small towns, beneath lonely willows and cottonwoods, and around highway outposts where a few stores merit a mark on a map. It’s a tough place to live, and attracts some unconventional folks: The valley is home to hot springs (and a communal kitchen) frequented by nudists, an alligator farm, a community of 1,500 with 23 spiritual centers, and a UFO watchtower unimpaired by light pollution, where camping costs $10 a night.
But mostly, there are farms — big ones. The center-pivot sprinklers here are among the most tightly packed in the world, and their hulking aluminum spines give the valley floor the illusion of topography. The annual harvest — largely potato, barley and alfalfa — is worth some $300 million, and without it, a number of the towns probably wouldn’t exist. There are no mines, no ski resorts, no gas wells. Alamosa, the biggest town at 8,937 residents, boasts a small college and a hospital. Almost everything else — the fertilizer and tractor dealers, the Safeway, the county governments and K-12 schools — is supported primarily by money from the fields.
At a more basic level, everything runs on irrigation water. From the 1850s, when Hispanic settlers dug the first ditches, until the 1950s, most of that water was diverted from the Rio Grande and its tributaries and flooded onto fields. Then, drought and technological innovation spurred a well-drilling boom. Groundwater nursed crops through dry years and the late season, when rivers shrank. Soon, center-pivot sprinklers were hooked up to wells, watering crops evenly and efficiently all season long, and many farmers started irrigating exclusively with wells, using river water merely to recharge the aquifer. Marginal land became profitable, crop yields — and water consumption — grew, and large-scale commercial agriculture came into its own.
For decades, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, also called the State Engineer’s Office, granted well permits as generously as dentists dispense toothbrushes, ignoring basic hydrology. The water in the ground and the rivers was connected, and voracious well-pumping could lower streamflows — a serious problem, since the river water was already claimed. Following the logic of prior appropriation — the Westwide system that gives priority to those with the oldest water rights — wells that were connected to streams should only pump after older river irrigators are sated. But the opposite happened. In the late ’60s, the state clamped down on river irrigators to comply with the Rio Grande Compact, which requires Colorado to leave water in the river for Texas and New Mexico. Well owners, meanwhile, pumped happily away.
In 1975, the State Engineer tried to phase out a slew of wells, but a court encouraged a softer approach. Wells were drilled in the valley’s “closed basin,” where streams don’t drain to the Rio Grande. They sipped gingerly from a high water table, “salvaging” what would otherwise evaporate and piping it to the river. The Closed Basin Project seemed like a win-win: Wells kept pumping, river irrigators got water, and regulators backed off. It produced less water than expected, but the ’80s and ’90s were so wet that few people cared. Mother Nature bought rounds for everyone.
From the South Platte Sentinel (Forrest Hershberger):
The Logan County Commissioners Tuesday received a report on an effort to lower the water level in the Pawnee Ridge and Country Club Hills subdivisions…
The legislature approved HB 12-1178 which was authored to address the rising ground water in the three communities.
In November 2015, the Logan County Commissioners agreed to act as the fiscal agent for a grant application for projects to correct the problem.
Tuesday the commissioners met with a geologist from the Colorado [Division of Water Resources].
Andy Horn, a geologist, is working with homeowners in the subdivisions who have been affected by high water. In some places, the water table is within inches of the ground surface. Horn approached the commissioners Tuesday about acting as the fiscal agent for a grant application.
He said there will be two applications, one for Pawnee Ridge and the second for the Country Club Hills subdivision.
“The issues in each subdivision are different,” Horn said.
He said HB 12-1178 allocates grant funding for two fiscal years. The Sterling subdivisions will be competing with Gilcrest and LaSalle communities for a share of the $290,000 budgeted.
The plan for the Pawnee Ridge subdivision includes piping water from dewatering wells and discharging it into the Gentz pond. Two wells will be manifold together and a flow meter installed. Horn expects about 400 gallons per minute to be discharged from the wells.
Another area of Pawnee Ridge, near Dakota Road and Westwood Drive, have only a couple of houses with issues, he said. The proposal includes installation of a subsurface drain along Westwood Drive.
He said there is one area that in December had water about six inches below ground level.
“We’ve got applications and also prepared right of way requests for Dakota Road,” he said.
The project in Country Club Hills could involve easements on land under the trust of the board of county commissioners, according to Horn.
The project will also include excavating and installation of a sump by Cottonwood Lane under Forest Road. The pipeline would be four to six inches and move about 100 gpm, he said. Horn said the pipe is bigger than needed. The design is to decrease the resistance.
“The water table doesn’t seem to be rising as much as Pawnee Ridge,” Horn said.
Power for the pump will be paid the first couple of years by a grant, according to Horn.
The Commissioners and County Attorney Alan Samber expressed concern with leaving the cost of the pump’s energy to individual landowners. Samber said a special tax district.
Horn said he would like applications completed and submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation District board by the end of February. The board meets in March.
Click here to read the first article in Ruth Heide’s series about responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules.
Here’s the second article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:
Some well users in the San Luis Valley are asking the water court to reject a portion of the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules regarding sustainability .
In its statement of opposition to the rules, SLV Confined Aquifer Sustainability, Inc. (CAS), a group founded in 2014 and representing water users with wells in the confined aquifer system in the Alamosa-La Jara and Conejos Response Areas, asked the court to reject the section of the rules regarding sustainability on the basis that section is “arbitrary, confiscatory, inconsistent with Colorado statutes and the Colorado Constitution, speculative, and unsupported by sound science and existing data.”
CAS members were part of the group assisting the state engineer in developing the rules and commended the state engineer for the process he followed in including many diverse interests and groups. CAS supported much of the rules but had concerns about some portions.
“These response areas face significant challenges in meeting the proposed rules,” the group’s response stated. “Not only must they replace injurious well depletions to multiple streams; they are presented with onerous sustainability requirements that may not be achievable.”
One of the objectives of the rules is to bring artesian pressures back (and maintain them) to the level they were between 1978 and 2000, and CAS argued that there is not enough data from that time period to know reliably what the pressure levels were then.
CAS argued the information regarding that time period was incomplete, limited or nonexistent.
The state plans to gather data from monitoring wells from the present forward in order to estimate pressure levels from 1978-2000 , and CAS supported the data collection as useful but stated, “attempting to determine the pressure levels that existed between 1978 and 2000 on the basis of data from 2015 forward cannot provide reliable results.”
Many of the monitoring wells did not exist before this year, “and the reliability of the data to be gathered is untested,” CAS argued. “It is and will be unknown how these monitoring wells can be used in determining and protecting sustainability until they have been in operation for a longer time.”
The state plans to conduct a 10-year study of these new monitoring wells, and CAS argued that any cutbacks on well usage before the 10 years were up would “result in the taking of vested property rights without compensation.”
The only pressure levels that could be relied on at this time, CAS argued, are the ones in existence before this year, so the state engineer should only focus on preserving and improving the pressure levels of 2015.
CAS argued that the state engineer does not have the information he needs to promulgate the sustainability rules at this time, so the court should reject that portion of the rules.
CAS also argued that the rules maintain the confined aquifer can be controlled by limiting withdrawals when there are other factors that can affect aquifer pressures such as climate, geologic conditions, inflows and outflows and the location of withdrawals.
CAS stated, “The pressure levels within the confined aquifer system during the period of 1978 through 2000, upon which the sustainability provisions of the proposed rules are based, may be impossible to restore through curtailment of withdrawals from confined aquifer wells without an improvement in climatic conditions and water supply.”
Other complaints the group had with the groundwater rules included:
the method used to estimate groundwater withdrawals , which CAS argued was inaccurate and would deprive well owners of their legitimate property rights;
requirements differing for confined aquifer wells depending on where they are located in the basin, which CAS argued was a violation of state statute (” aquifers of the same type in the same water division shall be governed by the same rules regardless of where situated);
the confined aquifer system wells were inappropriately grouped and that wells outside a given response area could still affect aquifer pressures within that response area;
the rules should have allowed for a sub-district for the confined aquifer wells in the basin, as a group, which CAS stated retired Chief District/Water Judge O. John Kuenhold had required when the sub-district process began
under the rules, estimated reduction in water withdrawals for confined aquifer irrigators would be disproportionately high, for example approximately 35 percent in the Conejos Response Area, contrary to state statute standards that “any reduction in underground water usage required by such rules shall be the minimum necessary to meet the standards “” CAS stated in its protest to the rules that 35 percent reduction would not be the minimum required to meet the standards and senior water rights would be protected and sustainability standards met by a reduction of much less than 35 percent.
time limits for complying with the 1978-2000 sustainability requirement are too short and too “onerous.” Rather than a 10-year time frame as set in the rules, CAS argued a 20-year time frame would be more appropriate.
Here’s the third article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:
While some well users objecting to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules argue they went too far, some surface water users objecting to the rules argue they do not go far enough.
Collaborating on one statement of opposition, several Conejos County farmers and ranchers asked the water court not to approve the state engineer’s rules until the groundwater model used to determine how much well users should “pay back” injured surface water rights was “correctly designed and calibrated.”
Specifically , the Conejos County landowners maintained the computer groundwater model did not accurately reflect the injurious depletions well users have caused residents with surface water rights on Arroya Springs and Arroya Creek. Namely, the groundwater model does not show any injuries on those streams because they were dried up as a result of well pumping before the model was developed, objectors stated.
That does not mean well users shouldn’t make up for those injuries, the Conejos County surface water right owners added.
“Groundwater withdrawals from the confined aquifer predominantly by wells junior in priority to the protestors’ water rights have caused the potentiometric head of the confined aquifer in the vicinity of Arroya Springs and Arroya Creek to decrease,” the objectors stated.
They estimated that the aquifer potentiometric head had declined in the vicinity of Arroya Springs 25 feet between 1970 and 2014, adding, “There is a strong inverse correlation between groundwater withdrawals in the vicinity of Arroya Springs and the flow of water from Arroya Springs.”
As more water was diverted by wells from the 1930s to the early 1970s, the Conejos County water users stated , the flow from Arroya Springs decreased. From 1916-1923 , the flows in Arroya Springs ranged from 22-58 .3 cubic feet per second (cfs), they stated, but by 1967, the flow had decreased to 7 cfs, by 1975 to 3 cfs, by 2009 to 1 cfs and by 2013 the Arroya was dry.
To put it another way, annual diversions from Arroya Creek and Arroya Springs declined from more than 9,000 acre feet in 1937 to 655 acre feet in 1964.
Objectors said Arroya Springs was recharged by precipitation, seepage from La Jara Creek and irrigation ditch seepage and return flows . Even though the development of irrigation ditches may have increased the amount of water that discharged at Arroya Springs, the springs existed and discharged water prior to that development, the objectors stated. The groundwater rules will not preserve the priority water system and replace injurious depletions caused by well usage, as they are set up to do, if they rely on a groundwater model that does not take into account depletions to the Arroya Creek and Springs, objectors stated. They added it would be unlikely groundwater users would voluntarily develop an alternative model showing depletions to Arroya because then they would have to replace water to those streams.
Objectors argued that the proposed rules violate state statute because the model the rules rely on “does not preserve the priority system of water rights.” The rules should not become effective until the model is correctly designed and calibrated , the objectors stated.
Those listed in this statement of opposition to the rules included: 2 J Ranches Inc.; Charles and Valerie Finnegan; Colin and Karen Henderson; Donald Larsen; Joseph A. Martinez; LeRoy and Rosalie Martinez; Querina Martinez; Edon Ruybal; Dick and Georgann Smith; and Armando and Jessica Valdez. Their surface water rights date back to appropriation dates of 1889 and 1902.
Colin and Karen Henderson , El Sagrado Farm, filed a separate protest urging the state to take into consideration well monitoring data already available in determining what will be required to replenish the aquifer and replace injuries to senior water users. They did not object to further data gathering but said where there is already data available, the state should use it.
“We demand the rules state the data available from monitoring wells collected between 1978 and 2000 be used immediately in subdistrict reparation plans and our water rights be returned to us,” the Hendersons said in their statement of opposition.
They also argued that the state should close down wells, starting with the most junior well rights, until the Arroya Springs flow again. Those closest to the springs should be curtailed first , they added.
The Hendersons attached a well readings graph as documentation for the injuries they and other Conejos County senior water users had sustained. The graph showed measurements between 1983 and 2013. When the water level in the well was above 7628 feet, the Arroya Springs flowed , the Hendersons pointed out, but when the drought of the early 2000’s began, there was less water replenishing the aquifer, but the wells continued to pump, the aquifer level dropped, and the springs stopped flowing.
“This is hard data that can- not be refuted and demands the state take immediate action to repair our water rights,” the Hendersons stated.
In a similar statement of opposition, a group of Conejos County senior water users on the El Codo Ditch, Llano Ditch, Las Sauces Ditch and Chavez Ditch also argued that the groundwater model relied upon by the state engineer’s rules was not correctly designed or calibrated and the rules should not become effective until the model is corrected.
This group also argued that the rules should include additional provisions to require the demonstration of aquifer sustainability progress on an annual basis. They stated that while the rules refer to a 10-year period when the engineer will gather data to determine what the aquifer sustainability requirements should be, during that 10 years well users would be continuing to injure senior water rights “without remedy to an already depleting water source.”
The objectors added, “The lack of a more concise governance to address immediate injury must be addressed to improve current aquifer sustainability levels.”
The protestors stated that groundwater withdrawals had already lowered aquifer levels over time, which negatively affected surface water rights, some of which dated back to 1855 and 1867.
The objectors also stated that they were curtailed in the amount of water they could use from their ditches in order for the state to meet its Rio Grande Compact obligation to downstream states, but well users had no similar curtailment. That essentially meant that the junior groundwater rights superseded the more senior surface rights, they added.
“Groundwater withdrawals have not been subject to curtailment for compact obligations . Meanwhile, groundwater withdrawals have been reducing the aquifer sustainability levels contributing to streams losses and depletions forcing surface water users to contribute increasing amounts of water from their respective decreed water rights to satisfy compact obligations, in lieu of its intended consumptive use,” objectors stated.
As well usage increased from the late 1930s to early 1970s, the objectors stated, the number of days they were curtailed for compact obligations increased.
“The manner in which groundwater withdrawals have been administered have allowed superseding rights to those groundwater withdrawals over the senior priority right of which prior appropriation allows ” Lack of comprehensive rules improperly reallocates to junior wells the water that was previously appropriated by senior surface water rights, including the protestors’ water rights.”
Here’s the fourth article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:
This is the fourth and final of a series focusing on the responses filed to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules.
Longwater warrior Kelly Sowards said a mouthful in a few handwritten lines in his statement of opposition to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules.
Sowards from Conejos County and Norman Slade from Rio Grande County filed individual statements with concerns about the rules.
Without an attorney or typewriter, Sowards told the water judge the rules should be granted “only in part.” He specifically objected to the 1978-2000 period that the rules and state legislature use as the goal for sustainability in the basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. Sowards objected to the “lack of history and facts” for that period and said this time period was “years after the Conejos system lost all of its return flows and artesian springs flows.”
Sowards also found the rules lacking in that they do not require irrigation wells to pay their fair share of Rio Grande Compact requirements ; “administration of water to comply with Colorado obligation under Rio Grande Compact; “the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater by state not enforcing groundwater usage” ; and the use of Closed Basin Project water for the water management sub-districts .
Slade, who retained attorney John Cyran, generally supported the rules and was present during the many meetings occurring over several years to develop the rules. However, Slade stated he believed the rules could be firmed up in a few areas:
provisions to require the curtailment of wells that are not replacing injurious depletions or operating under augmentation or sub-district plans, which are the measures permitted under the rules. Groundwater irrigators who are not replacing injuries to surface water rights through sub-districts or individual augmentation plans are to be curtailed or even shut off. Slade argued that the rules do not include sufficient provisions to require wells to be curtailed if they do not follow the rules.
provisions to provide additional flexibility by recognizing methods such as prepayment, banking or advance dedication of water to satisfy sustainability requirements.
clarity in what the rules mean by allowing water users to replace injurious stream depletions by contractual remedy. “The proposed rules are unclear as to what types of contractual arrangements are acceptable ‘remedies,” Slade’s statement read, “and it is not clear that such ‘remedies’ are acceptable under Colorado law.”
provisions to monitor the effectiveness of the rules and to modify them if they prove ineffective. Slade’s statement argued that the rules should require the state engineer to prepare a report concerning the rules’ effectiveness no later than five years after operation. Based on that report, the state engineer should propose modifications to the rules identifying sources of water for aquifer sustainability or demonstrating why no modification is necessary , Slade stated.
reporting requirements for those operating under sub-districts or augmentation plans should include an annual report regarding sustainability, and the rules should require reporting regarding credit allowed under the groundwater model for phreatophytes (plants soaking up groundwater) “or for other depletions that are determined noninjurious.”
better define/explain “proportional responsibility” for maintaining a sustainable water supply. Slade concluded by questioning whether the rules would be sufficient in achieving their goal of sustainability in this basin.
“The proposed rules generally may be insufficient to ensure sustainability of the Division 3 surface and ground water supply.”
The groundwater rules also incorporate the irrigation season, and the only objection to that portion came from the San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners, La Jara, who said the portion setting the beginning and ending of the irrigation season should not be approved the way it is written.
These irrigators operate at the southern end of the San Luis Valley and receive some of their water supply from Los Pinos, which travels through northern New Mexico, as well as the San Antonio River, which has divertible flows earlier than other rivers in the Valley. These irrigators also rely on water associated with the Taos Valley Canal No. 3, which historically diverts water in March.
If San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners are not allowed to begin irrigating until April 1, the start date designated in the rules, it might deprive them “of a significant and important portion of their vested water rights,” the group stated.
Diversions in March, they argued, are especially important to them in dry years “due both to the fact that the San Antonio will begin running earlier in the year, the need for augmentation water may be greater in driver years and the relative priority of the water right may result in it being called out earlier in the season.”
The water users stated the irrigation season portion of the rules should be revised to take into account situations like theirs.
They also objected to the compliance time in the rules, maintaining it was too short and should be extended because developing augmentation plans, negotiating agreements and building infrastructure is a lengthy process.
Needing more time may not be the strongest argument of any of the statements of opposition to the rules, since the state engineer has been working on these rules in full view of the public and with public participation since 2009.
A key figure in the San Luis Valley water community will step down from his post this spring.
Steve Vandiver said Friday he’ll resign as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in the spring.
The district will begin a formal search for his replacement in the next 10 days.
“It’s been a long road, but a good one,” he said. “It’s time for me to do some other things and let some fresh, young, energetic minds take over.”
Vandiver, who’s been the district’s general manager since 2005 and spent 24 years before that as the division engineer in the valley, said he is stepping down for personal reasons.
“There’s nothing wrong at work. I’m not unhappy with my job,” he said.
The district hopes to hire his replacement by March 1 and Vandiver will stay on for a few months to help with the transition.
“We do so many darn things that trying to sit down in a room and tell somebody in a day what they’re going to do and have them go do it isn’t going to work,” he said.
The district is in the midst of bringing as many as six new subdistricts online in the coming years.
The subdistricts levy fees on their members to help restore groundwater levels and mitigate the impacts of pumping on surface-water users.
It has also sponsored a recovery plan for a pair of federally protected birds to help farmers and ranchers avoid the more stringent provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
The district also plays a formal role in the Rio Grande Natural Area Commission, which was founded to protect a 33mile stretch of the river above the state line.
And it expects to move into a new 7,400-squarefoot building March 1.
Beyond the transition period, Vandiver hopes he can continue to represent the district in some of its external roles.
Vandiver sits on both the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable and the statewide Interbasin Compact Committee.
He also was just appointed to the state’s Water Resources and Power Authority Board, which oversees a $2 billion revolving fund for water and sewer projects.
“I’m not just going to go fishing,” he said, although he allowed that he intended to do more angling once the transition is complete.
The La Junta native came to the valley in 1973 to work at the division engineer’s office and has since been involved in valley efforts to fight off export schemes, avoid federal encroachment on water issues and regulate groundwater use.
“I’ve really come to love this place and certainly have tried my best in my positions to protect it as best I could,” he said.
San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.
San Luis Lake via the National Park Service
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative
San Luis Valley via National Geographic
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
The proposed rules that would govern pumping by roughly 4,500 high-capacity groundwater wells in the San Luis Valley have gotten comments from 21 parties.
When State Engineer Dick Wolfe submitted the proposed rules to the Division No. 3 Water Court at the end of September, he said he hoped to avoid a trial by negotiating settlements with protesters.
But to do so he’ll be contending with an array of opponents from around the valley, a number of whom have objections to the state’s computer model and the rules’ sustainability requirements for groundwater, among other issues.
When the proposed rules were submitted, some hailed the computer model as an advance over the last time the engineer’s office tried to institute rules four decades ago.
The modeling forms the basis for calculations by the engineer’s office that determine whether and by how much well pumping in a given area depletes stream flows.
But the model and the reliance of the rules upon it drew comments from seven parties.
Four municipalities, including Crestone, Del Norte, Monte Vista and Saguache, said the rules should only be implemented insofar as they are supported by accurate computer modeling. [ed. emphasis mine]
A group of 11 water users in the Alamosa River drainage already have concluded that the model is not a reliable tool for the rules, pointing to its failure to measure depletions from pumping on Arroya Springs and Arroya Creek. Moreover, they call for an avenue by which water users make comment on any changes to the model made by the state.
They also argue that the rules should contain tougher sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer. Another group from the Alamosa River and La Jara Creek drainages, this one made up of well users, also argues against the rules’ provisions for restoring the confined aquifer, which is the deeper of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies.
Their protest argues that there is not enough historical data on artesian pressures in the area to determine what their mitigation should be.
They also contend the rules don’t take into account that factors other than pumping, such as climatic conditions, hydrology and geology that can influence pressure levels of the confined aquifer in a given area.
Some of the submissions to the court stated general support for the rules while also serving as placeholders that would allow the parties to participate in the proceedings.
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Rio Grande Water Users Association and the Conejos Water Conservancy District all submitted such statements.
And more submissions may be on the way.
The court extended the deadline for comment on the proposals to the end of December because published notice was delayed in Saguache County.
A pair of environmental groups are challenging a proposed land exchange by the U.S. Forest Service that would assist with repairs to the San Luis Valley’s biggest reservoir.
The Forest Service would exchange 6 acres of federal land with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District that would help the district repair the 103-year-old Rio Grande Reservoir in return for 8 acres of private land.
As part of the package, the irrigation district also has offered to sell the agency a 23-acre inholding on the Weminuche Wilderness for $1 and grant a 1,400-foot trail easement.
Jen Pelz, the wild rivers program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the groups do not object to the dam repairs.
They do, however, want the Forest Service to better analyze the impact from eliminating seepage at the dam, which ranges from zero to 6 cubic-feet-persecond, and mitigate the impact to fish and wildlife on the river segment below the dam.
Mike Blakeman, a public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest, said the criticism of the agency’s analysis of the seepage was off base.
“Rio Grande Reservoir dam seepage was repaired last year and occurred on private property,” he said. “We don’t have jurisdiction over that.”
He added that the seepage also was part of the irrigation district’s water right that also was not subject to agency authority.
The reservoir, which sits roughly 20 miles west of Creede on the Rio Grande, assists the irrigation district in delivering water to roughly 70,000 acres of farm ground in the northern half of the valley.
The 54,000-acre-foot reservoir also plays a key role in helping water officials time deliveries to comply with the Rio Grande Compact and mitigate the impact to the river from groundwater pumping on the valley floor.
Resolution of the objection by WildEarth and Western Lands Project now sits with officials at the agency’s regional office in Denver.
The resolution period started Tuesday and could take anywhere from 45 to 75 days.
So far, the only “statement of objection” filed in connection to the proposed Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules is one in favor of them.
Because of the way the response process is set up, all reactions to the rules must be submitted as “statements of objection.” However, “statements of objections” may be submitted in support of the rules.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said on Monday the only response filed so far in regard to the basin groundwater rules was a “statement of objection in support” by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
He said no objections against the rules have yet been filed.
During a recent water meeting Pat McDermott from the Division 3 office explained that if there are no objections to the rules as written, they will move forward through that meticulously worked its way through the rules over the course of about six years to try to iron out any problematic “wrinkles” in the rules before they were promulgated.
The public has also been involved during that process, with all of the advisory group meetings open.
Wolfe officially filed the groundwater rules on September 23 at the Alamosa County courthouse. The rules apply to hundreds of irrigation and municipal wells in the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. They set up the means to halt the drawdown of the Valley’s underground aquifers and restore the aquifers to more robust levels. They also are designed to protect senior surface water rights and Rio Grande Compact compliance. the water court for approval and implementation.
Objectors have a specific amount of time to file responses after the rules have been published. The rules have been published in newspapers as well as in the water court resume.
If there is opposition to the rules, the water division will try to work out issues with objectors short of a water court trial.
State Engineer Dick Wolfe is hoping to eliminate or at least minimize the number of objections to the rules and has gone to great lengths to accomplish that goal. He developed a large advisory group, for example, The rules are clear “that nothing in the rules is designed to allow an expanded or unauthorized use of water .”
The rules are also clear that they “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. The rules apply to all withdrawals of groundwater within Water Division No. 3, unless the withdrawal is specifically exempted by the rules, and the rules pertaining to the Irrigation Season apply to all irrigation water rights.”
McDermott reminded folks attending a recent Rio Grande Roundtable meeting that once the rules go into effect which could be sooner than later if there are no objections well irrigators will have a limited time to either join a water management sub-district or submit their own augmentation plans. Those measures will have to be taken in the next year or two.
By 2018, he added, the water division will have the ability to shut down wells that have not come into compliance under the rules.
“This is an exciting time,” he said. “It’s time for us to do the right thing. We have done it in Division 1 and 2, South Platte and the Arkansas, and it’s very important to get it down here.”
Part of the groundwater rules define the irrigation season for this basin, which ended in most parts of the Valley at midnight on November 1. Unless Cotten has good reason to decide otherwise, the irrigation season will run from April 1 to November 1 for all irrigators, including those using wells as their irrigation water sources.
On another note, McDermott said Colorado is in good shape with Rio Grande Compact compliance this year and may in fact over deliver the amount of water it is required to send downstream to New Mexico and Texas. This winter should bring a fair amount of moisture, McDermott added. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting above normal precipitation and slightly below normal temperatures for the next several months in this region.