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

July 4, 2015
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

July 4, 2015

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

May 6, 2015
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%

April 29, 2015

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

April 27, 2015
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.


Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

April 27, 2015

riograndebasin

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

One of the major efforts to stop the San Luis Valley’s aquifer depletions drew both questions and support on Tuesday during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting in Alamosa.

Some questioned whether the district’s first water management sub-district was working and recommended ways it might work better.

Others defended Sub-District #1 and commended the owners of the hundreds of wells in the portion of the Valley encompassing the sub-district for their volunteer efforts to replenish the aquifer and make up for the injuries they are causing surface water users. Background

Sub-District #1 is the first of as many as six sub-districts to be formed under the direction of the sponsoring district, Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD.)

The sub-district has used various means to accomplish its goals including: paying irrigators to fallow farmland, first directly through the sub-district and now as supplementary compensation to CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program); purchasing water/land that could be retired from irrigation ; and paying ditches and canals through forbearance agreements to allow some of the water rightfully owed them to replace depletions the sub-district owes.

RGWCD has hired two full-time staff Rob Phillips and Cleave Simpson whose sole duties are sub-district administration.

Sub-District #1 submitted its annual report on March 1 and its annual replacement plan, detailing how it intends to replace injurious depletions this year, on April 15.

Phillips said much of the variable fees paid by subdistrict participants in the last couple of years have gone to forbearance agreements, “acquiring wet water.” He said in 2014 70 percent of the sub-district’s injurious depletions to the Rio Grande were remedied through forbearance agreements with six of the area’s major canals between Del Norte and Alamosa . This year, the district has agreements with nine canal/ditch companies.

Phillips added that more than 3,900 acres of crop land are being taken out of production through CREP, 40 percent of that permanently and the remainder through 15-year contracts. Sub-district #1 has committed about $1 million for additional CREP incentives.

In addition, the sub-district is holding $3.8 million in escrow for replacement water to cover lag depletions, the depletions that have accrued over time. The water court is requiring the sub-district not only to replace current injurious depletions to surface water rights but also past “lag” depletions, and there must be a way to guarantee those will be replaced in the future even if the sub-district ceases to exist.

Concerns, support

“It’s not working,” William Hoffner said during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the meeting. Hoffner said he appreciated what Sub-District #1 was trying to do but something needed to change to make it work.

“Do we really care about the underground aquifer and do we really care about the Valley as a whole?” he asked.

Phillips told Hoffner he totally disagreed with him. From 2010-2013 , irrigators in Sub-district #1 reduced pumping by 100,000 acre feet, Phillips said.

“We have not seen any reduction of pumping like that anywhere else in the San Luis Valley,” he said. “This is purely volunteer based. The state does not have groundwater rules going right now. Those people came together as a community to try to make things better, and they are doing that.”

He said the sub-district has helped replenish the unconfined (shallow) aquifer. A portion of that aquifer lying in the closed basin area of the Valley, approximately the area where the first subdistrict sits, has been monitored through a series of wells for more than 30 years. That study has reflected a total decrease in the underground aquifer of about one million acre feet from the 1970’s to the present.

Phillips said that between September of 2013 and September 2014 the aquifer came back up about 71,000 acre feet, in his opinion due to the efforts of sub-district participants , “all through one of the worst droughts in the history of the Rio Grande Basin and keeping the agricultural economy sustainable.”

The group discussed the need to increase the subdistrict’s variable fee, which has been $75.

RGWCD Board Member Cory Off commended the sub-district for its accomplishments but said, “there are other problems out there.”

He said between 2011 and 2014 the number of irrigated acres actually increased, and although total pumping between 2011-14 decreased 90,00 acres, pumping actually increased 8,000 acre feet between 2013 and 2014.

He added that even though the aquifer storage in the study area rose 70,000 acre feet last year, between 2011 and 2014 the aquifer in that area declined 423,000 acre feet.

Off said the goal of the subdistrict from the beginning was to make sure the Valley did not experience the catastrophe of the state stepping in and making everyone develop augmentation plans, but another catastrophe would be the aquifer going dry.

Off said if the sub-district is 50 percent successful, that is only 50 percent successful, “and if we go dry because we are not willing to take the next step, that’s illogical.”

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey added, “if your rent is $600 and you pay $300 on a regular basis, you are going to get evicted.”

The next step is raising the sub-district variable fee enough to get people to stop pumping as much water, Off said.

Godfrey also suggested raising the CREP fee charged Sub-district #1 participants.

Other RGWCD board members and RGWCD Board President Greg Higel defended the sub-district .

“I commend these guys for trying,” Higel said.

He said the sub-district board of managers has put in a tremendous effort to try to make this work. Sub-district #1 Board President Brian Brownell said, “We are just the first [subdistrict ] and we are the only one providing water to the river. I think we are closer than we ever have been to figuring a way that gets us where we need to be.”

Sub-district #1 Board Member Lynn McCullough said the sub-district board has had 36 meetings in 2 1/2 years and has constantly talked about sustainability, so it is not like the board has not been trying to get the job done.

Higel suggested maybe the sub-district board and RGWCD board should meet more often together.

At the conclusion of the water district’s meeting, Great Sand Dunes Superintendent Lisa Carrico told the board it was people like them who made this Valley such a great place. She had lived here as a child and was fortunate to come back after 40 years of seeing a lot of the world, she said.

“This remains for me one of my very favorite places in the world. Part of it has to do with the people that are here. You guys are doing an incredibly hard work ” The complexity of the issues you deal with here and the way you deal with each other is commendable. I believe you are creating a better place for all of us.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


#Drought news: “Blob of warm Pacific water threatens ecosystem, may intensify drought” — CNN

April 23, 2015

From CNN (Steve Almasy, Dave Hennen and Jennifer Gray):

A University of Washington climate scientist and his associates have been studying the blob — a huge area of unusually warm water in the Pacific — for months.

“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year,” said Nick Bond, who works at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean in Seattle, Washington.

Bond, who gave the blob its name, said it was 1,000 miles long, 1,000 miles wide and 100 yards deep in 2014 — and it has grown this year.

And it’s not the only one; there are two others that emerged in 2014, Nate Mantua of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — said in September. One is in the Bering Sea and the other is off the coast of Southern California.

Waters in the blob have been warmer by about 5.5 degrees, a significant rise.

Persistent pressure

A recent set of studies published in Geophysical Research Letters by Bond’s group points to a high-pressure ridge over the West Coast that has calmed ocean waters for two winters. The result was more heat staying in the water because storms didn’t kick up and help cool the surface water.

“The warmer temperatures we see now aren’t due to more heating, but less winter cooling,” a recent news release from the University of Washington announcing the studies said. The university has worked with NOAA on the research.

According to New Scientist magazine, some marine species are exploring the warmer waters, leading some fish to migrate hundreds of miles from their normal habitats.

The magazine cited fisherman and wildlife officials in Alaska who have seen skipjack tuna and thresher sharks.

Pygmy killer whales have been spotted off the coast of Washington.

“I’ve never seen some of these species here before,” Bill Peterson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle told the New Scientist.

And he was worried about the adult Pacific salmon that normally feed on tiny crustaceans and other food sources that are not around in the same numbers off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

“They had nothing to eat,” he told the magazine of last year’s conditions in the blob. It appears that food has moved to cooler waters.

In January, Bond told the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Washington, that his concern is for very young salmon that are still upstream.

“In particular, the year class that would be going to sea next spring,” he said.

NOAA said in a news release last month that California sea lion pups have been found extremely underweight and dying, possibly because of an ocean with fewer things to eat.

“We have been seeing emaciated or dehydrated sea lions show up on beaches,” Justin Greenman, assistant stranding coordinator for NOAA on the West Coast, told CNN.

The numbers are overwhelming facilities that care for the stranded sea lions, most of whom are pups, local officials said.

Record number of sea lion pups stranded in California

Warmer water, less snow

The blob also is affecting life on land. For the past few years, that persistent ridge of high pressure has kept the West dry and warm, exacerbating the drought in California, Oregon and Washington.

One of the primary problems is small snow accumulation in the mountains.

In early April, officials measured the snowpack in California at a time when it should be the highest. This year it hit an all-time low at 1.4 inches of water content in the snow, just 5% of the annual average. The previous low for April 1 had been 25% in 1977 and 2014. (pdf)

Gov. Jerry Brown, in announcing water restrictions the same day, stood on a patch of dry, brown grass in the Sierra Nevada mountains that is usually blanketed by up to 5 feet of snow.

Low California snowpack ushers mandatory water restrictions

The heat has caused rising air, which can lead to conditions that produce more thunderstorms. With warmer air in California, areas at higher elevations that usually see snow have seen rain instead. That has led to the lower snowpack and helped compound the drought. The storms also mean more lightning and more wildfires.

And the blob affects people on other areas of the country.

That same persistent jet stream pattern has allowed cold air to spill into much of the Midwest and East.

This stuck pattern has led to the record cold and snow in the Midwest and Northeast over the last two seasons with record snows we have seen in Boston and Detroit, and the most snow we have seen in decades for cities such as Chicago.

Still a mystery

The weather pattern is confusing the experts.

There are some that think it might be a Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a long-lasting El Nino-like pattern in the Pacific.

Dennis Hartmann, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, doesn’t believe the answer is clear.

“I don’t think we know …” he said in the university’s news release. “Maybe it will go away quickly and we won’t talk about it anymore, but if it persists for a third year, then we’ll know something really unusual is going on.”

From The Produce News (Kathleen Thomas Gaspar):

With an ongoing drought a major factor in the San Luis Valley’s potato industry, planting this coming season could be down between 8 and 10 percent from last year’s 55,000 acres.

Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee based on Monte Vista, told The Produce News in mid-April he had “no way of knowing” going into planting, but he said given circumstances he looks for it to be down.

“It could be between 50,000 and 52,000 acres, but right now we just don’t know,” Ehrlich said. Acreage in 2014 was bumped up from the previous year’s 49,700 acres, and Colorado’s largest potato production area saw an overall better growing season. Summer hail hit just under 4,000 acres, but nonetheless shipments year-to-date for March 2015 were up from the previous year.


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