Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly meeting recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

In spite of more moisture from “Mother Nature,” plus the efforts of farmers to manage irrigation through self-governed sub-districts and other good intentions, it will take more hard work and painful decisions to get the San Luis Valley’s aquifer back to where it needs to be.

“From the very beginning, I think everybody was under the illusion this wasn’t going to hurt,” Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board President Greg Higel said during the board’s quarterly meeting on Tuesday in Alamosa. “It’s going to hurt. Some people are going to go out of business. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. Some wells are not going to come back.”

RGWCD Board Member Dwight Martin said, “Nobody said it would be easy.”

He said the sub-districts will keep the Valley alive and “without it, it’s going to die.”

Sub-districts are not an easy fix , but they are making progress, he and other members of the sub-district’s sponsoring board said.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said one of the programs that can help ease the pain is CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) “because CREP provides the soft landing.”

CREP is a federal program providing incentives to farmers willing to temporarily or permanently fallow acreage, and the sub-district board of managers has offered additional incentives to those willing to sign up for CREP.

“The sub-district has struggled to get as much acreage into CREP as possible,” Robbins said.

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey said CREP incentives have to be higher than the commodity prices farmers can get for their crops in order to get them to sign up. That has not been the case to this point. Godfrey said if the Valley’s first sub-district is going to meet its mandated goal of taking 40,000 acres out of production and bringing the underground aquifers up to legislatively required levels within 20 years, then the sub- district will need to provide stronger encouragement to farmers to retire acreage. She suggested the sponsoring district board give that kind of direction to the sub-district .

“We can’t force the board of managers,” Higel said. “You are wanting this board to be policing them to push CREP.”

“To do something,” Godfrey responded, “make some sort of decision to get them to move forward.”

“That’s not our job, and I am not going to do it,” RGWCD Board Member Lewis Entz said.

Higel said, “I really don’t feel as a board that’s our place to police them. We are not a police force.”

Godfrey said that’s not what she was asking, but she believed the sub-district board wanted some direction from its sponsoring board.

“They have sat here and said ‘we would really want to know what the board thinks’ .”

“They know what we think,” Martin said.

He said the sub-district has made monumental efforts to reduce pumping and continues to make progress, and that progress will take time.

“We have approved their rules of management, and now we need to let them manage themselves,” Martin said.

RGWCD Engineer Allen Davey addressed the sustainability issue. He said if the aquifer does not recover naturally through really wet years, the only solution to bring it back up is to reduce irrigated acreage.

“That’s going to be very painful,” he said. He added that even if normal runoff occurs and continues to occur, “there has to be even with average conditions significant dry up in that area.”

RGWCD Board Member Lawrence Gallegos said the pending state groundwater rules and regulations would put some teeth into the mandate to bring this basin’s aquifer back up to sustainable levels. However, if irrigators did not address the mandate sooner than later, they might find themselves up against a deadline and requirement they could not meet, and their wells might be shut off.

“I think that would be a tragedy,” he said.

Gallegos added, “if we had more years like this year I think it would solve the problem. If it doesn’t happen, if it goes back to the way we have been having the last few years before this year, I think it would make it really hard for them to meet sustainability . I don’t know it’s our job to go in there and tell them they have to do something, but at the same time they have to be aware if they don’t meet sustainability, the state engineer has said their solution is to come in and shut everybody off.”

Higel said, “They are grown people and they will have had 20 years to figure it out.”

Higel added that the RGWCD board could not make anyone form a sub-district .

Godfrey said at the same time, however, the board could encourage folks to take some actions such as increasing CREP incentives to help the sub-districts succeed and let them know the sponsoring board supports them.

RGWCD Board Member Kent Palmgren said, “Those guys understand they have an issue, but they also want to come up with the best possible plan they can.”

He said the sub-district board has been dealing with very challenging issues, and the sponsoring board cannot fault them or push them.

“They have gone over every issue there is several times,” he said. “They know there’s an urgency there.”

Higel said this is a heated subject, and the RGWCD board needed to be careful about what it decided to push. The only power the sponsoring board has at this point is not to approve the subdistrict’s plan, he explained, and that is not an option he wanted to pursue.

“We have set up an avenue for them to take care of themselves,” he said. “I am not going to sit on the south side of the river and tell guys north of the river how to do things.”

The RGWCD board will try to meet with the Sub-district #1 board this fall.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

For the first time in seven years, the Rio Grande will likely experience an above-average year.

The river is currently running at slightly above average, Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said during Tuesday’s Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) board meeting in Alamosa.

“If this holds true, and this is an above average year,” he said, “it will be the first time in the last seven years that we have had an above average year.”

He said the current predicted annual flow for the Rio Grande is 675,000 acre feet, which is about 25,000 acre feet above average. The Conejos River system will likely not quite reach average this year, with its projected annual index flow of 270,000 acre feet just under the average of about 300,000 acre feet, “but it’s a lot better than we anticipated earlier in the season,” Cotten said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the water division that relies on NRCS forecasts have had to increase their predictions as the spring and summer progressed, Cotten added, because the water kept coming. He said early in the season, in May, NRCS was not predicting an average year on the Rio Grande, and it looked like they would be right, based on the flows in the river at that time. By June 1, however, the Rio Grande spiked above average and has remained above average since that time.

The Rio Grande was not the only river experiencing a spike in June, he added. Saguache Creek, which experiences an average flow of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) nearly reached 600 cfs in June. Saguache Creek continued to exceed average flows and even experienced some flooding , Cotten said.

Sharon Vaughn, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s three refuges in the San Luis Valley, said all three refuges experienced flooding this year. In fact the new visitors center office at the Baca refuge was flooded, she said, and the Service had to apply for emergency funding to create a berm around the facility.

The Alamosa refuge did not have as much surface flooding on the river but had some swell events, Vaughn added, that placed water in areas that had not had water for years.

The Monte Vista refuge experienced pretty major flooding , Vaughn said, but that provided good habitat for the waterfowl that rely on the refuge.

Vaughn said people told her they had not seen water like this on the three refuges in many years.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Superintendent Lisa Carrico said the dunes have also benefited from the increased moisture. Precipitation in June was the seventh highest recorded for that month since 1951 when data was first logged at the dunes and the 12th warmest June since that time.

Medano Creek typically peaks at 37 cfs but this year exceeded 40 cfs, Carrico added. Visitor numbers have been higher this summer, in large part due to the creek’s levels, she said. In June, 60,757 visitors came through the entrance gate, which was 22 percent higher than last June.

The increased moisture this year also transformed San Luis Lake, which until this year was literally dry to the bottom.

RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver said the plan for this year was to keep Head Lake dry and fill wetlands around Head and San Luis Lakes and if there was excess water, San Luis Lake would receive some. However , Mother Nature had other plans, and Sand Creek charted its own course, filled Head Lake and the wetlands and starting filling San Luis Lake back up.

Richard Roberts, reporting for the Bureau of Reclamation , added, “Before this year, San Luis Lake was dry. It’s been a great year.”

He said the total depth of the lake now is about 6 feet.

“The water is nice and clear and cool.”

He said the water quality is also good, and if the lake continues to fill , it can expect to host a new fish population. It’s too late to stock fish this year, he added, but it is looking promising for the future.

Vandiver said the RGWCD’s first sub-district had based its deliveries to make up for its injurious depletions this year on early river forecasts but because water flows have turned out greater than anticipated, the sub-district will have a significant overdelivery this year and can expected to be reimbursed, water wise.

RGWCD Engineer Allen Davey also reported good news in the long-term water study he has conducted in the closed basin area in the west central area of the Valley . He said the unconfined aquifer experienced recovery of almost 71,000 acre feet in June and nearly 47,000 acre feet in May.

Cotten said the weather service’s moisture prediction for the next three months, August through October, for this area is in the aboveaverage range.

“That’s what we are looking at for the rest of the summer,” he said. Looking ever farther out, the weather service is predicting above-average precipitation in this area for the months of December, January and February.

One of the drawbacks to increased flows on the Valley’s rivers, Cotten reminded the water leaders, is the increased obligation on those flows to downstream states under the Rio Grande Compact. That means higher curtailments on ditches to meet the higher compact requirement to New Mexico and Texas.

For example, the curtailment right now is nearly 40 percent on the Conejos River system ditches and 20 percent on the Rio Grande. Because forecasts were lower in May, the curtailments on ditches were only 0-5 percent at the beginning of the irrigation season but have had to go up as predictions rose.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

Groundwater levels in the north-central San Luis Valley increased over late spring and early summer

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Groundwater levels in the north-central San Luis Valley increased over late spring and early summer, thanks to wet weather and reduced pumping.

“Hopefully we’re changing the direction of the storage,” Allen Davey, an engineer for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said Tuesday.

After a three-year decline that saw water levels in the unconfined aquifer drop by 700,000 acre-feet through 2013, the shallower of the valley’s two major aquifers has added over 100,000 acre-feet this spring and summer.

The unconfined aquifer is fed by stream flows, surface-water diversions and the return flows from irrigation.

More San Luis Valley groundwater 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.

Restoration: There’s been a lot of progress on the Alamosa river, late season flows deal in the works

alamosariver

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A river once left for dead by mine-polluted runoff in the southwestern corner of the San Luis Valley is coming back to life.

The Alamosa River, which once included a 17-mile dead-zone thanks to the Summitville gold mine, has seen the return of fish and a local group is seeking to keep it that way by adding to the river’s flows.

“We still have a ways to go but we’ve done a lot,” said Cindy Medina, head of the Alamosa Riverkeepers.

The group is close to finalizing a pair of in-stream water rights in court that could add as much as 550 acre-feet per year to the river below Terrace Reservoir where it runs to the valley floor.

That amount, which translates to roughly 180 million gallons, would be stored in the reservoir and released during times of the year when flows are low to nonexistent.

Last week, the Colorado Water Trust honored Medina for her work on the Alamosa with the David Getches Flowing Waters Award.

Key to the in-stream flows, which also would boost groundwater levels in the area, was the cooperation of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which has made storage space available in the reservoir.

Medina also credited landowners along the river like Joe McCann and Rod Reinhart.

“Both of them have been instrumental in this project,” she said. Reinhart, who grows alfalfa and barley north of Capulin, said he came to understand the importance of riparian habitat and how the in-stream flows could help.

But the importance of how they might help the aquifer also was important given the looming groundwater regulations that might face the valley.

“I think that is huge,” he said. “That’s a big help.”

The need for the restoration on the river and part of the means to do so, stem from the legacy of the Summitville gold mine, which sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet on a tributary.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

In 1986, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company began operation of an open-pit mine on 1,200 acres and used a cyanide formula to extract gold from ore.

A faulty liner meant to contain the cyanide and a company-installed water treatment plant that was far too small ensured high levels of pollutants migrated downstream.

By 1990, fish were gone from the reservoir and the stretch of river above it.

After six years of operation, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to take over emergency management of the property.

The mine was designated a Superfund site in 1994.

Prosecution of the mining company led to a $28.5 million settlement, $5 million of which was set aside for restoration work in the watershed.

The work of the riverkeepers to increase stream flows is one of the legacies of that funding.

Water quality on the river improved after the Superfund designation, enough so that state wildlife officials began stocking trout in the reservoir in 2007.

In 2011, a permanent treatment plant was built with $19.2 million in federal stimulus funding.

“That improved the water quality significantly,” Medina said.

One year later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted restrictions on the consumption of trout in Terrace Reservoir.

Medina is among those who have eaten trout from the reservoir.

“They’ve come out fine,” she said.

But the riverkeepers hope to add more water to the river, by buying water rights from others.

Their goal is to reach 2,000 acre-feet of in-stream flows.

“We’re always looking for more water for the river,” she said.

More restoration/reclamation 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.

Snowpack news: South Platte Basin back up to 100% of normal (best in state), sorry Rio Grande = 35%

From The Los Angeles Times (John M. Glionna):

Anemic Lake Mead has hit a historic low level.

The surface of the sprawling reservoir outside Las Vegas late Tuesday afternoon fell to 1,079.76 feet above sea level — nearly 140 feet below capacity — as the prolonged drought continues to evaporate the beleaguered Colorado River system.

Mead’s chalky white shoreline is advancing as the waters quickly recede.

For California, Arizona and Nevada, which draw water from Mead, a grim situation is about to get worse: Officials estimate that Mead will drop to the unprecedented low elevation of 1,073 feet as the hottest summer months bear down, with less snowpack in the Rocky Mountains to recharge the Colorado River.

“We’re only at 38% full. Lake Mead hasn’t been this low since we were filling it in the 1930s,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Las Vegas. “All the way around, this is bad news. There’s not much good to say about 15 years of drought, no matter how you look at it.”

Lake Mead, which meanders miles into the parched Nevada desert, held back by the Hoover Dam, is drawing closer to the 1,075-foot level, below which officials would declare a water emergency and begin rationing water allotments to Nevada and Arizona…

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say there is a 21% chance of Lake Mead plunging below 1,075 feet next January. The odds increase to 54% for 2017.

From the Sante Fe Reporter (Laura Paskus):

It’s safe to say that the mood among many Western water managers is grim. When talking about drought or climate change, many still give that obligatory nod toward faith or hope—saying things like “Maybe the rains will come” or “Let’s hope next year’s better”—but the days of blind optimism are long past.

That was the case in early April, when the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office hosted a meeting on the bureau’s plans for the Middle Rio Grande .

With few exceptions, the news across most of the Western United States has been bad, bureau hydrologist Ed Kandl said at the meeting. “If there’s one bright spot—you can cross your fingers—it’s the probability for a good monsoon,” Kandl said. “Of course, they’ve been saying that for a few years now. But this is what we have to hang our hat on.”

Along with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the bureau—which supplies water to cities, farmers and endangered species in the Rio Grande—looks to an array of data to plan out its water operations, which involve moving water between reservoirs, complying with state and federal laws, and trying to make sure no one goes without water.

People like Kandl look at things like snowpack in the watershed’s mountain ranges, streamflow forecasts, reservoir levels and temperatures. Then, they compare current conditions with similar years in the past to predict what might happen in the spring and summer. That’s the time when demands for water—from farmers, city dwellers and even plants in the bosque—are the greatest.

At the bureau’s meeting in Albuquerque, Kandl pointed out that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near Santa Fe, received about an average amount of snow this season. The bad news, he said, was that by early April, it was already melting.

As the climate warms, scientists have shown that snowpack moves higher in elevation and farther north. And that snow also melts earlier in the season.

This year, measurements at the Otowi Gage on the Rio Grande, north of Santa Fe, show that the river reached its peak spring flows on April 2.

That’s more than a month early.

The endangered silvery minnow will have a rough summer: This year, water supplies are so tight that the bureau does not expect to be able to release water from upstream reservoirs to create the spike in flows that help the minnows spawn. And the river will likely dry again south of Albuquerque from mid-June until the conclusion of irrigation season at the end of October. For the second year in a row, users with rights to water that comes from the San Juan River in Colorado and into the Rio Grande via the Chama may not get their full allotments of water.

Water may reach San Luis Lake this year — the Valley Courier

San Luis Lake via the National Park Service
San Luis Lake via the National Park Service

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

San Luis Lake may see some changes in the future and hopefully some water.

The lake, located west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, has been dry in recent years with not enough snowmelt to float a boat.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver, who served as division engineer in the Valley for many years, said the lake was dry when he came to the Valley 40 years ago, and since that time it has filled and gone dry more than once. He said it’s been dry now for a number of years “primarily because there hasn’t been any natural inflow into the lake.”

He added that San Luis Lake is a terminus lake, and if there isn’t inflow from a natural source, there’s no way to fill it up otherwise. The lake relies on inflow from sources such as Sand Creek to fill up the reservoir. Vandiver added that losses from evaporation are also significant.

He said generally the water from Sand Creek hits the wetlands area first , then Head Lake and then the excess goes into San Luis Lake. He said this year Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to allow more of the water from the creek to get to San Luis Lake.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Rick Basagoitia explained that part of the lake is a state park and another portion is a state wildlife area, with each managed by different entities. There’s a move, he said, to make the entire lake part of the state wildlife area. He said boating, fishing and camping would still be allowed, although that is not the primary focus of a wildlife area, because the San Luis Lake campground is an overflow camping area for the dunes.

“We would probably still accommodate some of that but not to the extent Parks did,” he said.

He said the biggest attraction for recreation is the lake, but in recent years there has not been enough water to get to the lake.

With more water diverted to the lake, and water already running at the dunes, folks are hopeful the lake might start to recover.

Sand Dunes Superintendent Lisa Carrico said with the additional snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains recently, park staff are hopeful Medano Creek will provide a good flow through the dunes.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.