Kansas’ invisible water crisis — The Wichita Eagle

ogallalahighplainsdepletions2011thru2013viausgs

From The Wichita Eagle (Lindsay Wise):

…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.

Three of his wells are already dry.

Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.

Wet and dry: A country divided

While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.

This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…

Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…

The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.

The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.

Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…

The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.

It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.

With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.

And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.

The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.

And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.

Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.

The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…

Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.

It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.

But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.

Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.

So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.

It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.

A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.

“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.

It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.

“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”

For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.

Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.

A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.

Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.

“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”

In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.

And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.

Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.

Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.

The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.

Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.

“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”

As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.

“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.

As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.

“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.

But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.

“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”

Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.

A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.

“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.

Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.

The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.

But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.

“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”

An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.

Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.

“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”

From Science Daily:

Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.

The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.

“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”

Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.

“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”

Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.

“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”

Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.

Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.

“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here.

Landowner challenges state’s interpretation of old decree — The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A Fountain Creek landowner has filed a complaint in Pueblo water court saying he has a right to the Fountain Creek underflow, as well as surface water.

Ralph “Wil” Williams, trustee of the Greenview Trust, filed the complaint in June, saying the state has incorrectly administered the water right to the 313-acre farm as solely surface water.

The property, located 8 miles north of Pueblo on Fountain Creek is emblematic of man’s interaction with Fountain Creek throughout recorded history. It was first settled by “Uncle Dick” Wooten in 1862 and has always been in farmland.

In the 1990s, it began to experience severe erosion from growth upstream, particularly the development in Colorado Springs.

Problems with the ditch came to a head after the 1999 flood, leading the owners to sue Colorado Springs for dumping more water in the creek, only to be locked out when the Legislature granted governmental immunity for flood damages.

In the most recent floods of the past five years, the Greenview has continued to lose land, including about 10 acres of trees to the storms in May and June.

“We’re trying to conserve the farm,” Williams said. Pueblo County, through a program in conjunction with the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, is interested in purchasing the property as a restoration project.

The water rights are crucial to determining land value, Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

“We weren’t successful in a Great Outdoors Colorado grant this cycle, and one of the things we have to do is shore up the land and water value,” Hart said.

Williams contends that past owners always intended to use the underflow of Fountain Creek as an alternate source to irrigate 315 acres of the property. Fountain Creek had intermittent flows, so the underflow would have been used during dry times when surface water could not be diverted, he claims.

Other water users employed the strategy in the early 1900s, when well technology was more limited. Most famously, the Ball brothers — who found success in the canning jar and aerospace industries — used the underflow of Fountain Creek to fill reservoirs in hopes of selling the water to Puebloans. The quality was unsuitable for drinking, however.

In preparing for the water court case, Williams collected old plats that show the location of underflow structures, basically horizontal wells that draw water by gravity.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources does not recognize the dual water right, and says Greenview Trust needs a substitute water supply plan if it plans to irrigate with wells.

“It’s based on an old statement that was not picked up in the decree itself,” said Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte. “It appears to us that there never was the intention to have a well.”

Williams disagrees, saying he spent two years collecting information in state files that he was initially told did not exist. “For me to have to spend two years researching the archives is ridiculous,” Williams said. “We are decreed against the source and the underflow. It’s one natural stream.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation hopes to tap RO effluent for additional supply

Reverse Osmosis Water Plant
Reverse Osmosis Water Plant

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District officials, who serve 55,000 southeast suburban ratepayers, say a high-tech cleaning process to be unveiled Thursday will increase alternative water supplies.

The push to extract drinkable water from salty, chemical-laced waste liquid reflects an increasingly creative scramble along Colorado’s high-growth Front Range.

“We can take that concentrate down further, take more water out of it,” said Matthew Bruff, CEO of Denver-based Altela Inc., which is running a $100,000 pilot project for ECCV.

It’s unclear how much this water will cost, ECCV project manager Chris Douglas said. “But what water is cheap? We’re looking at the total picture of how we can provide water. If we can clean the water in this brine steam, then we don’t have to go out and buy or use as much other water.”

An added stage of treatment at ECCV’s 2-year-old, $30 million plant in Brighton also would reduce the volume of waste that must be pumped down a 10,000-foot disposal well for burial…

Such efforts to clean wastewater for reuse probably will increase around the West, said Laura Belanger, an engineer tracking reuse for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, a conservation group.

“We’ve just run out of new water you can divert out of streams and rivers,” Belanger said. “So now we need to be more creative, use water more efficiently.”

The pilot project relies on a machine the size of a shipping container that heats waste and traps condensate.

This produces more drinkable water and a more concentrated waste, more than twice as salty as seawater.

Altela officials said they are seeking Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment certification that their cleaning is sufficient to meet drinking water quality standards.

More water treatment coverage here.

The Colorado Supreme Court upholds water court groundwater Sub-district #1 operating plan decision

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The Colorado Supreme Court turned back four challenges Monday from San Luis Valley surface water users who objected to the operations of a groundwater management subdistrict.

The court’s opinion written by Justice Monica Marquez upheld rulings from the Water Division No. 3 Court in 2012 and 2013 that, among other points, allowed Subdistrict No. 1 to use groundwater from a federal reclamation project to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping.

In 2012, the subdistrict, which takes in 3,400 wells in the north-central valley, issued its first annual plan on the steps it would take to eliminate injury to senior surface water users and restore the aquifer.

The plan, which was approved by the Office of the State Engineer and the local water court, included the proposed use of 2,500 acre-feet from the Closed Basin Project as a source of replacement water. Objectors argued that the project itself caused injury to users along the Rio Grande, because the groundwater it draws from is tributary to the river and any withdrawals in the overappropriated basin is presumed to cause injury.

The state Supreme Court ruled against that argument, noting that objectors offered no proof that the project’s water was tributary to the Rio Grande.

Further, the court found that the use of project water did not violate its initial decree, nor interfere with the state’s ability to meet its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.

The court also ruled that the subdistrict’s annual plan to replace injurious depletions did not have to be set aside pending the resolution of objections.

Moreover, its handling of augmentation wells in the annual replacement plan was legal.

Objectors included the San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association, Save Our Senior Water Rights, Richard Ramstetter and the Costilla Ditch Co.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

USGS: Evaluation of Groundwater Levels in the South Platte River Alluvial Aquifer, Colorado, 1953–2012

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

Here’s the abstract from the United States Geological Survey (Tristan P. Wellman):

The South Platte River and underlying alluvial aquifer form an important hydrologic resource in northeastern Colorado that provides water to population centers along the Front Range and to agricultural communities across the rural plains. Water is regulated based on seniority of water rights and delivered using a network of administration structures that includes ditches, reservoirs, wells, impacted river sections, and engineered recharge areas. A recent addendum to Colorado water law enacted during 2002–2003 curtailed pumping from thousands of wells that lacked authorized augmentation plans. The restrictions in pumping were hypothesized to increase water storage in the aquifer, causing groundwater to rise near the land surface at some locations. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Water Institute, completed an assessment of 60 years (yr) of historical groundwater-level records collected from 1953 to 2012 from 1,669 wells. Relations of “high” groundwater levels, defined as depth to water from 0 to 10 feet (ft) below land surface, were compared to precipitation, river discharge, and 36 geographic and administrative attributes to identify natural and human controls in areas with shallow groundwater.

Averaged per decade and over the entire aquifer, depths to groundwater varied between 24 and 32 ft over the 60-yr record. The shallowest average depth to water was identified during 1983–1992, which also recorded the highest levels of decadal precipitation. Average depth to water was greatest (32 ft) during 1953–1962 and intermediate (30 ft) in the recent decade (2003–2012) following curtailment of pumping. Between the decades 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels declined about 2 ft across the aquifer. In comparison, in areas where groundwater levels were within 20 ft of the land surface, observed groundwater levels rose about 0.6 ft, on average, during the same period, which demonstrated preferential rise in areas with shallow groundwater.

Approximately 29 percent of water-level observations were identified as high groundwater in the South Platte River alluvial aquifer over the 60-yr record. High groundwater levels were found in 17 to 33 percent of wells examined by decade, with the largest percentages occurring over three decades from 1963 to 1992. The recent decade (2003–2012) exhibited an intermediate percentage (25 percent) of wells with high groundwater levels but also had the highest percentage (30 percent) of high groundwater observations, although results by observations were similar (26–29 percent) over three decades prior, from 1963 to 1992. Major sections of the aquifer from north of Sterling to Julesburg and areas near Greeley, La Salle, and Gilcrest were identified with the highest frequencies of high groundwater levels.

Changes in groundwater levels were evaluated using Kendal line and least trimmed squares regression methods using a significance level of 0.01 and statistical power of 0.8. During 2003–2012, following curtailment of pumping, 88 percent of wells and 81 percent of subwatershed areas with significant trends in groundwater levels exhibited rising water levels. Over the complete 60-yr record, however, 66 percent of wells and 57 percent of subwatersheds with significant groundwater-level trends still showed declining water levels; rates of groundwater-level change were typically less than 0.125 ft/yr in areas near the South Platte River, with greater declines along the southern tributaries. In agreement, 58 percent of subwatersheds evaluated between 1963–1972 and 2003–2012 showed net declines in average decadal groundwater levels. More areas had groundwater decline in upgradient sections to the west and rise in downgradient sections to the east, implying a redistribution of water has occurred in some areas of the aquifer.

Precipitation was identified as having the strongest statistically significant correlations to river discharge over annual and decadal periods (Pearson correlation coefficients of 0.5 and 0.8, respectively, and statistical significance defined by p-values less than 0.05). Correlation coefficients between river discharge and frequency of high groundwater levels were statistically significant at 0.4 annually and 0.6 over decadal periods, indicating that periods of high river flow were often coincident with high groundwater conditions. Over seasonal periods in five of the six decades examined, peak high groundwater levels occurred after spring runoff from July to September when administrative structures were most active. Between 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels rose while river discharge decreased, in part from greater reliance on surface water and curtailed pumping from wells without augmentation plans.

Geographic attributes of elevation and proximity to streams and rivers showed moderate correlations to high groundwater levels in wells used for observing groundwater levels (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.4). Local depressions and regional lows within the aquifer were identified as areas of potential shallow groundwater. Wells close to the river regularly indicated high groundwater levels, while those within depleted tributaries tended to have low frequencies of high groundwater levels. Some attributes of administrative structures were spatially correlated to high groundwater levels at moderate to high magnitudes (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.7). The number of affected river reaches or recharge areas that surround a well where groundwater levels were observed and its distance from the nearest well field showed the strongest controls on high groundwater levels. Influences of administrative structures on groundwater levels were in some cases local over a mile or less but could extend to several miles, often manifesting as diffuse effects from multiple surrounding structures.

A network of candidate monitoring wells was proposed to initiate a regional monitoring program. Consistent monitoring and analysis of groundwater levels will be needed for informed decisions to optimize beneficial use of water and to limit high groundwater levels in susceptible areas. Finalization of the network will require future field reconnaissance to assess local site conditions and discussions with State authorities.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

Colorado’s Water Plan and WISE water infrastructure — The Denver Post

WISE System Map September 11, 2014
WISE System Map September 11, 2014

From The Denver Post (James Eklund/Eric Hecox):

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to.

All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity. The water will be distributed to the South Metro Denver communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District, and new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months…

WISE is a key element to this plan. With construction agreements in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver Metro area. When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

• The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;

• Denver will receive a new backup water supply;

• Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and

• The Western Slope will receive new funding, managed by the River District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

More WISE Project coverage here.

San Luis Valley: Dick Wolfe okays groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 augmentation and pumping plan for this season

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

State Engineer Dick Wolfe gave his approval Friday to a plan to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping this year in the north-central San Luis Valley.

Wolfe’s approval, issued at the close of business Friday, confirms Subdistrict No. 1 has sufficient water to cover the depletions caused by the 3,412 wells inside its boundary.

The subdistrict, which must get annual state approval for its plan, must replace an estimated 3,655 acre-feet in depletions that well pumping is expected to cause to the Rio Grande this year.

Those wells are projected to pump 238,000 acre-feet of groundwater this year, which impacts surface water given that the two are hydraulically connected to varying degrees around the valley. The subdistrict has a pool of 20,115 acre-feet it can use to replace depletions, drawing off transbasin diversions coming into the basin, reservoir storage and a federal reclamation project that pumps groundwater on the east side of the valley.

The subdistrict also has nine forbearance agreements with ditch companies that will allow it to pay for damages in lieu of putting water in the river.

While mitigating the harm to surface water users is a court-ordered priority, the subdistrict’s other aim is to reduce groundwater pumping through the fallowing of farm ground.

This year, through a federal conservation program, just under 4,000 acres will be taken out of production, a savings to the aquifer of roughly 7,800 acre feet.

Unlike previous years, the subdistrict will no longer have a financial guarantee by its parent organization — the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which draws property tax revenue from five of the valley’s six counties.

Instead, the subdistrict has placed $3.85 million in escrow to ensure well depletions are replaced in the event the subdistrict dissolved.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.