“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.

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.

Oil and gas exploration near South Park concerns some in Colorado Springs area — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Upper South Platte Basin
Upper South Platte Basin

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

In a small plane soaring thousands of feet above the expanse of South Park, Jara Johnson surveyed one of the richest landscapes in the state, an area home to endangered wildlife, water, natural gas and uranium.

Although South Park has long been prized as the home of South Platte River and for its native elk herds, its energy prospects are what has put it on the radar of the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency has begun putting together a master leasing plan for South Park to evaluate the risks of drilling for oil and natural gas in what Johnson considers one of the state’s unparalleled playgrounds.

But for those who make their living off the wildlife and water in South Park, the area’s potential for energy development poses a serious economic threat, said David Leinweber, who owns the Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs.

Leinweber’s business has one of the largest guiding permits for the South Platte and habitually fishes the “Dream Stream,” a state-designated Gold Medal fishery at the southern edge of the BLM’s proposed leasing site. Leinweber foresees disaster if oil and gas development were to harm the river and its tributaries.

“In South Park our big concern is not very much different from what just happened on the Animas (River),” said Leinweber, referring to the acid-mine drainage that polluted the southwestern Colorado river last month. “It’s the what-if story.”

For Johnson, the director of operations for the environmental nonprofit Coalition for the Upper South Platte, there is much more at stake than South Park’s rich fishing economy.

Last week, Johnson served as guide for a National Wildlife Federation-organized flight tour over South Park to highlight the area’s mix of crucial water resources and wildlife habitats.

To the uneducated eye, South Park is a treeless expanse that stretches between the Front Range to the east and the Mosquito Range to the northwest. But Johnson sees the 980-square-mile area as a complex ecosystem with rare high-elevation wetlands, agricultural fields and winter refuges for elk and pronghorn. The South Platte meanders through the heart of the park – so named because white settlers thought it was like a natural game preserve – and delivers most of the water for the Denver metro area.

While less than an hour by plane from southeast Denver, South Park might as well be an exotic high-mountain paradise for animals, microbes and plants.

“There are plants in the Mosquito Range that are found nowhere else in the world,” Johnson said.

South Park’s uniqueness comes in part from its geology – a mixture of ancient volcanoes, glaciers and lakes, which make the area precious to the Front Range for its connection to water. Denver, Aurora and Centennial get water from South Park’s rivers, streams and reservoirs. While Colorado Springs gets its water from the Homestake system west of Leadville, two pipelines shuttle water east through the park, right through the BLM’s proposed leasing site.

With 28 abandoned wells and no active permits for the area, South Park has seen minimal drilling, said BLM spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo. Areas around Lake George are “prime for uranium development,” although none has happened, Johnson said.

Nonetheless, potential for oil and gas development has raised the alarm in Park County, which gets most of its water from aquifers beneath South Park. While locals are anxious to see how leasing will play out, they are getting what many consider an unprecedented opportunity to plan with the BLM.

In years past, master leasing plans were done once energy companies expressed interest in drilling on BLM lands. But in 2010, inspired by the risks and interest in South Park, the BLM reformed the process, Lacayo said.

“The concept of the leasing reform (is) it doesn’t wait for someone to submit an expression of interest,” she said.

Instead, the BLM triggered the process without active interest in energy development in South Park. And the BLM is seeking the input of people like Leinweber.

“I think that when we initiated the master leasing plans, it was to provide the public with more opportunities to take a closer look at oil and gas leasing,” Lacayo said.

Before 2010, the first time locals learned of plans to drill on BLM lands was when mineral rights were sold, Lacayo said. Now, residents and others impacted will know about the area’s potential for oil and gas development long before leases are made available. The BLM has placed a moratorium on energy development around the state until several leasing plans are completed, Lacayo said.

Lacking funds, the agency has relied on CUSP to jump-start conversations about the impacts of oil and gas development. The nonprofit received a grant from the Keystone Policy Center to host three public meetings from October to February to give Park County officials, residents and business owners a chance to express concerns.

In a report submitted in March, CUSP found that South Park’s cattle owners welcome oil and gas development, while others want limited or strict restrictions.

Park County residents are afraid oil and gas wells will pollute their vulnerable aquifers. Various wildlife groups proposed that drilling be prohibited in known wildlife areas, such as portions of the James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area. Water providers, such as Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, lobbied for mandatory setbacks for oil and gas development from water sources.

The BLM will take all the input into consideration for an environmental review, which will be released for another round of public comment after a draft is done, Lacayo said.

Although research has begun, the BLM is possibly years from opening the leasing process in South Park. The area’s leasing plan is but a sliver of the BLM’s Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan, which will take years and millions of dollars to complete.

South Park, meanwhile, will continue to be the recreational and wildlife mecca it has always been. But even if it doesn’t become the home to Colorado’s next natural gas boom, Leinweber believes that even the smallest amount of drilling could have devastating impact on the area if it goes wrong.

“What people don’t often recognize with some of the oil and gas things is that it often isn’t the big company that goes in and does the exploration,” he said.

“It’s these small guys that don’t really have the backing of something. If they were to make a mistake, it can be pretty impactful for a long time. My concern is containing any byproducts that come out of the these (drilling) processes that could jeopardize our industry as a business.”

#COWaterPlan: Dwindling water options, high growth at odds in Douglas County — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Denver Basin aquifer system
Denver Basin aquifer system

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

The rolling grasslands of western Douglas County might look like prime Front Range real estate. But beyond the beauty of the nearby foothills, there is a deeply buried problem with the land: Water is hard to come by.

Technically, there is some water in the shallow aquifers that lie beneath the western prairies, the next frontier of Douglas County’s growth. But decades ago, wells in the area started going dry or pumping muddy water into faucets. The Denver Basin aquifer, the historic provider of water for Douglas, is a finite resource that can’t sustain the growth that the county has planned for the next 20 years and beyond. When wells are drilled, they are poor producers and easily overwhelmed by daily tasks – such as fueling showers, running dishwashers and watering lawns.

“All the free water, the cheap water, is starting to go away,” said Larry Moore, the general manager of the Roxborough Park Water and Sanitation District, which runs area’s main water treatment facility. “All you’ve got to do is pump it up.”

But when water no longer pumps up, water districts and homeowners in Douglas must find an alternative. Once considered one of the fastest growing counties in the country, Douglas County’s growth has already outpaced its water resources.

The county’s water crisis has been unfolding for decades, but recently it has taken aggressive and unprecedented steps to try and reverse its fate. The county commissioners have set a goal to wean county residents off the Denver aquifer, an ancient water source that is rapidly declining.

Seven years ago the county hired Tim Murrell as its water resources planner to help engineer ways for residents to abandon their wells and join water districts that get their water from the mountains. As a water planner working for a county that doesn’t provide water service, Murrell’s job is unique.

“I am the only one of (my) type in the state who was hired by the county to look at water issues,” said Murrell, who previously helped New Mexico compile a state water plan.

Murrell’s task is to get rural communities to use what he calls “renewable water” – water that does not come from the area’s limited aquifer, but from reservoirs and rivers naturally refilled annually by snowpack.

While Murrell’s county role might be unique, his outlook is one of increasing popularity in Colorado, a state in the midst of creating its first statewide water plan. Due this December to Gov. John Hickenlooper, the water plan will identify Colorado’s future water shortages and suggest ways to bring more water to rapidly growing communities both east and west of the Great Divide. Critics of the plan have said that it offers many problems but few solutions, although the plan’s advocates say that is has begun a difficult and invaluable conversation about water. Public comment on the second draft of the plan closes on Sept. 17.

Thirty years ago, El Paso County was one of the few counties in the state that required proof of water before development plans are approved, said Mark Gebhart, deputy director of El Paso County Development Services. The circa-1986 ordinance requires all developments with lots 35 acres and under to have enough water for 300 years, three times the state requirement. That requirement has only been waived in rare cases when a district had other conservation measures in place.

But as in Douglas County, there are areas in El Paso that were settled years before water conservation and planning were mandatory, Gebhart added.

“They have never had to prove to anyone that they have water, and some of those properties in the southern part of the county, they don’t have water,” he said.

Nonetheless, El Paso County hasn’t seen a massive loss in groundwater, unlike those counties south and west of Denver.

“The highest areas of water level declines have been in Douglas and Jefferson counties,” said Gebhart. “Hundreds of vertical feet of water decline.”

Water becoming scarce

In Douglas County, lack of water has become a barrier to development and growth. While the county’s picturesque westside offers acres of open land, the farther west development pushes, the harder it is to find water.

The geology of the Denver basin means that western aquifers are shallower and less plentiful – wells have to be drilled deeper and at greater expense. For years, dry or poor quality wells were a well-known problem that became more noticeable as development spread. Sometimes businesses in the area go days without water, said Murrell.

One western subdivision, Plum Valley Heights, had been struggling for years to get its 29 homes off wells before they went dry. The community became one of the county’s first major successes of water planning, thanks to some luck, a 2014 ballot measure and millions of dollars of county money. The neighborhood also benefited from a new mindset, shared by the Douglas County commissioners, that the county’s water future was partly in their hands.

“The commissioners had never taken an active role on this in past,” said Commissioner Jill Repella. “If any community goes dry, who are they going to come to? They are going to come to the commissioners.”

It didn’t take long for Jack McCormick to discover that his well in Plum Valley Heights was no good. McCormick and his wife bought a house in the subdivision in 1986, and a couple of years later, McCormick suddenly realized what it meant to live with little water on Douglas County’s westside.

“I was out filling my horse tanks one morning and my wife was in the shower and the shower went dry,” McCormick recalled. “And I kept filling my horse tank.”

The episode began decades of wrangling to get more water for the subdivision, where McCormick became accustomed to not running multiple water appliances at once or having his water supply run out before the lawn was fully watered. Although his well had been tested when he bought the home, McCormick learned that there was much more going on underground than he had realized.

The Denver aquifer has four layers, each essentially an underground storage container for water. The basin stretches from southern Weld County to northern El Paso County, west to Jefferson County and as far east as Lincoln County. The water is coveted for its accessibility and high quality – unlike water that comes from the mountains, Denver aquifer water doesn’t require as much treatment to make it drinkable, Murrell said. The water is also irreplaceable: once it has been used up, there is no way to refill it.

By contrast, most water sources in El Paso County are considered renewable – such as the Widefield aquifer, which is refilled by stream flow, said Gebhart. Districts like Woodmoor Water and Sanitation, which rely primarily on non-renewable aquifers like the Denver basin, have purchased other water rights to make up for the loss, Gebhart said.

The Denver Basin aquifer remains is ideal for residents in central Douglas County, but simple differences in geology make accessing aquifer water close to the mountains nearly impossible.

As various layers of bedrock jut out of the land forming rock outcroppings and hills, a layer of the aquifer is lost. What layers that are left underground can be hard to reach and have unreliable water quality.

When he bought a house in Plum Valley Heights, McCormick knew nothing about wells, water and the aquifer. He came from Indiana, where his well was productive at only 75 feet deep. But in the Denver basin in Douglas, wells are drilled hundreds or thousands of feet down and can cost up to $1 million, said Moore. As a reminder that west Douglas water is not reliable, Moore keeps a jug of it in his office.

“It’s almost like red clay mud,” said Moore of the water in the jug. “That’s what they are pulling out is water and mud. The water is not very clear at all.”

Moore’s Roxborough district resolved the problem of poor well water nearly 40 years ago, when developers discovered that there wasn’t enough groundwater to sustain a subdivision. The district bought an old concrete water treatment plant from the city of Aurora and with it 50 years of water, which Aurora shuttled from the mountains in a massive underground pipe. But when Moore started with the district in 1989, the eventual expiration of the water contract loomed.

“That’s been my career goal, to figure out a water supply,” he said.

At the forefront in water planning

Driving along U.S. 85 west in Castle Rock last week, Murrell pointed out many “for sale” signs and small businesses in an industrial park – all competitors for limited resources. He also pointed to a vast expanse of empty grassland, adorned only with a few signs for Sterling Ranch, a subdivision of more than 12,000 homes approved in 2011 after years of hearings and wrangling over water. According to a county ordinance passed in 1999, Sterling Ranch has to have 100 percent renewable water, which means it won’t be relying on the Denver aquifer.

With such a big development on the horizon, big changes in water use will make Douglas County a forerunner when it comes to managing water.

“It has very often been at the forefront of trying to plan this out,” said Gebhart, of Douglas County’s approach to water planning.

In November 2014, after more than two decades of struggles to get a better water source for Plum Valley Heights, the neighborhood voted overwhelmingly to join the Roxborough district, which secured a new 90-year water contract with Aurora for $26 million. The new deal with Aurora brought 50 extra taps to Roxborough, which it offered to other westside businesses and residences, including Plum Valley Heights, which had dry wells.

After using the same crumbling water treatment facility since 1958, as of late summer Roxborough had started work on a new $32 million facility, half of which will be covered by Sterling Ranch, said Moore. The new water treatment plant will be finished in roughly two years, and be one of the first in the state to use ultraviolet technology for its primary form of water treatment, instead of relying on chemicals, Moore added.

But the Douglas County commissioners also took a bold step to help fund some of the much-needed changes in the region, said Murrell. It will cost $15 million to plug Plum Valley Heights in Roxborough’s system, $5 million of which was paid for with county money. The money will be eventually paid back in tap fees, said Murrell. Pitching in the money was a “no-brainer” for the commissioners said Repella, who added that a lack of water could have had a ripple effect on the rest of the county’s land value.

This year, the county has focused on participating in a multi-million dollar project known as the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership, which links the Denver metro areas to system of recycled and unused water. If all goes as planned, the project will bring more water to communities like Douglas County, as it works to abandon its reliance on groundwater.

“We had a new realization that the county has a responsibility to be proactive to make sure that residents are moving in the right direction,” said Repella. “To take a step back and brush your hands and say, ‘Okay everybody, you are on your own now,’ that’s not responsible.”

Aspen Times Weekly: Could a mine-waste spill happen here?

Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com
Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com

From The Aspen Times Weekly (Scott Condon):

Pitkin County has between 600 and 800 mine features, including multiple adits into the same mine, according to an estimate by the Colorado state government. And as Cooper’s experience shows, there are Aspen mines that are filled with water — but just because there’s water, that doesn’t mean it’s contaminated water.

Still, that hefty inventory of adits and shafts makes it reasonable to wonder if something similar to the discharge of 3 million gallons of toxic water from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into the Animas River earlier this month could happen in Aspen (see story, page 33).

State and federal officials as well as miners with street credibility will never say never, but a similar disaster in Pitkin County is unlikely, in large part because of geology, they agreed.

Aspen Mountain’s mines tended to be internally drained to the water table, so “there is generally no significant surface drainage discharges associated with the underground workings,” said Bruce Stover, an official with the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. That means there is a “very limited possibility” of underground impoundments of water being formed, he said.

Mines in the San Juan Mountains and other parts of the state have water above the surface. Toxic water was intentionally captured inside the Gold King Mine. It breached when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency undertook a reclamation effort.

Aspen miners tended to encounter water below the level of the water table and Roaring Fork River, said Jay Parker, a partner in the Compromise Mine on Aspen Mountain and a miner and tour guide at the Smuggler Mine.

The water emerging from Aspen’s mines hasn’t been found to be acidic or laced with heavy metals in any testing to date. In one of Aspen’s few hard-rock mine reclamation projects, water in Castle Creek tested similarly above and below where the Hope Mine discharged, according to Forest Service records.

Parker said water draining from the Compromise Mine on Smuggler Mountain feeds ponds where fish thrive and ducks gather.

Local Mine reclamation aimed at safety

Many of Pitkin County’s mines have collapsed, either naturally or by public agencies for safety reasons.

“Our records show we have safeguarded approximately 90 hazardous, non-coal openings in Pitkin County, many of them on Aspen Mountain,” said Stover. Numerous closures have also been completed on coalmines in the Coal Basin and Thompson Creek areas.

The Forest Service typically performs safety closures on three or four mines per year, according to Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer on the White River National Forest. “There are hundreds of mines across the forest.”

The focus of both the Forest Service and the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program is to prevent people from entering an unsafe situation. Old mining timbers have often rotted, making interior travel perilous. Air deep underground can be toxic without proper ventilation.

“It’s almost an attractive nuisance,” Rosenmerkel said of the old mines.

A recent closure was completed earlier this summer at three mines in the high ground beyond Crystal. The typical closure costs $200,000, though no two projects are the same, he said.

Both the Forest Service and Inactive Mine Reclamation Program are focused on finding mines that pose a physical hazard, such as ones located in a ski area or adjacent to a popular hiking trail, and safe-guarding them.

No toxic water impounded

If Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials suspect environmental issues, the state Water Quality Control Division is mobilized to test for acidity or metals. If a problem is found, the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program figures out how to solve the problem. If an environmental problem is suspected with a mine on private lands, the Forest Service might be involved if it affects public lands, Rosenmerkel said.

The Hope Mine in Castle Creek Valley warranted remediation while the Ruby Mine in Lincoln Creek Valley has raised concerns but hasn’t been found in need of monitoring (see related stories), according to officials.

Rosenmerkel said there is no situation in the Aspen-Ranger District where water as toxic as that in the Gold King Mine is being impounded.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit focused on water quality and quantity issues in the valley, doesn’t specifically test to see how water coming from mines affects rivers and streams in the basin.

“Outside of Ruby, I don’t know if we have a big enough problem or big enough source,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director.

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/

Protect your groundwater day, September 8 #pygwd

Click here to go to the website for all the inside skinny. Here’s an excerpt:

Naturally occurring contamination

The chemistry of the groundwater flowing into a well reflects what’s in the environment. If the natural quality of groundwater to be used for human consumption presents a health risk, water treatment will be necessary.

Examples of naturally occurring substances that can present health risk are:

  • Microorganisms (i.e., bacteria, viruses, and parasites; these tend to be more common in shallow groundwater)
  • Radionuclides (i.e., radium, radon, and uranium)
  • Heavy metals (i.e., arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium).
  • Public water systems are required to treat drinking water to federal quality standards. However, it is up to private well owners to make sure their water is safe.
Groundwater movement via the USGS
Groundwater movement via the USGS