San Luis Valley: State Engineer hopes to settle new rules prior to trial

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):

The Court for Water Division No. 3 is expected to set a trial date later this month for the proposed state groundwater rules in the San Luis Valley.

That trial date may not come until 2017, according to a draft case management order filed with the court Friday, but a long window before the trial may help State Engineer Dick Wolfe with his goal of coming to an agreement with objectors before trial.

To date, 29 parties have filed comments, although at least three of them did so in support of the rules.

The rules would cover the roughly 4,500 wells that draw off either of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies.

The unconfined aquifer is the shallower of the two and is recharged both by streamflow at the valley’s edge and by return flows from irrigation.

The confined aquifer is recharged mainly by streamflows on the valley rim, sits beneath the unconfined aquifer and holds artesian pressure.

Both are hydraulically connected, in varying degrees, to stream flows in the valley, meaning that groundwater pumping can injure surface water users.

The rules are designed to protect surface water users and restore aquifer levels by requiring groundwater users to either join a groundwater subdistrict, create an augmentation plan, or create a substitute water supply plan.

All three would require the mitigation of pumping impacts as determined by a staterun computer model that simulates the behavior of the valley’s groundwater.

Comments were filed by 21 parties at the end of November, although the court extended the comment period because of problems noticing the rules in the north end of the valley.

Many of those comments focused on whether the state’s groundwater model was sufficient for the rules.

Since then eight others have also weighed in.

As with previous objectors, there were two protestors among the latest group who argue that the rules only be approved to the extent that the groundwater model is accurate. Other objections focus on the proposed process the engineer’s office would use to set an irrigation season. The subdistrict operating under the Trinchera Water Conservancy District has also entered a protest, calling for the rules to allow it to submit a groundwater management plan. While the valley’s existing subdistrict and the four other proposed ones would all operate under a groundwater management plan, Trinchera is unique in that it is the only subdistrict not operating under the umbrella of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Trinchera is in Costilla County, which is not a part of the Rio Grande district.
The state law that allows for the creation of conservancy districts does not make clear whether Trinchera can create a groundwater management plan.

San Luis Valley via National Geographic
San Luis Valley via National Geographic

Water rules costly for [Alamosa] — the Valley Courier

Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912
Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Complying with the state groundwater rules will not be painless or cheap for the City of Alamosa.

The city, like hundreds of well owners throughout the San Luis Valley, will have to comply with the recently filed state groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin.

City staff and legal counsel Erich Schwiesow have already been preparing for the inevitable compliance.

Well owners who must comply with the groundwater rules must join a water management sub-district or submit their own augmentation plans to the water court. The city of Alamosa is submitting an augmentation plan that will detail how the city plans to comply with the rules so it can continue pumping water from its wells for municipal use.

Schwiesow updated the Alamosa city council during a recent work session on the compliance process, and City Manager Heather Brooks updated the council on the compliance cost.

Brooks estimated the city’s cost to comply with the rules would be about $2.1 million. The rules require those who are pumping water from wells which constitutes the city’s water supply to replace the injuries their well pumping causes to surface water rights and to help restore the basin’s underground aquifer system. In Alamosa’s case, Schwiesow said the city must repair injuries to three rivers in the Valley, the Rio Grande, Conejos and Alamosa Rivers.

The city does not yet possess enough water rights to make up for its calculated injuries and sustainability obligations, so city staff members are currently negotiating for one water purchase that would help take care of that problem but may need to make more than one water purchase.

“We are looking for surface water and we are looking for groundwater,” Schwiesow said.

Brooks said the purchase the city is currently negotiating would be for surface water rights, but finding groundwater to help the city meet its sustainability obligations might be more difficult.

“We’ve been looking. There’s just not a lot out there,” she said.

The cost of the water rights is part of the $2.1 million compliance cost, with other portions including legal fees and possible water storage costs. Brooks said initial estimates were much higher than that, at about 3 million.

Bringing that cost down, Schwiesow and Brooks told the council, is the fact the city will receive credit for its accretions, the water it puts back into the system from the wastewater treatment plant. In fact the city has surplus accretion credits of 800 acre feet annually it is offering for bid starting at $250 an acre foot for a five-year lease. See the city’s web site at http://cityofalamosa.org/ultimate-auction/augmentation-credit/

Schwiesow explained that the city has made an application in the water court to exchange the accretion credits it has below Alamosa farther upstream on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers to cover depletions the city is obligated to replace on those two rivers.

How much the city will have to replace is determined by a groundwater model that predicts how the pumping of certain groups of wells, designated in “response areas ,” affects surface streams, Schwiesow explained. Alamosa is in the Alamosa/La Jara Response Area, he said.

He also gave a hydrology lesson to the city council about how water melting from snow in the mountains recharges the San Luis Valley’s aquifer system and how the water under the Valley floor is divided by clay into unconfined (more shallow) and confined (deeper) aquifers , but there is connectivity between the aquifers. The city’s potable water wells are located in the deeper confined aquifer ranging in depth from 1,400-1,700 feet, according to Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg. The city has a total of seven wells.

Schwiesow also gave the council a water history lesson about priority being given to water rights on the basis of when they were first granted, with older rights having more seniority. Groundwater rights are very junior, he explained, because the wells were drilled long after water rights were granted to those using the surface streams. However, the state has not administered the wells in the past under the priority system, and a prior attempt to do so failed. The state was successful , however, in issuing moratoriums on drilling new wells both in the confined and unconfined aquifers, Schwiesow explained to the council.

Last fall the state promulgated rules requiring the junior groundwater rights to replace depletions they are causing to surface streams, and although filed, those rules are not yet in effect, pending challenges being resolved in court, Schwiesow added.

Councliman Charles Griego asked about how soon the city had to come into compliance with the state water rules. Schwiesow said the city has to be in a sub-district or have an augmentation plan or substitute supply plan within a year after the rules are finally approved by the court.

Griego asked why the city was in such a hurry to put the augmentation plan together now if the legal process could take years before the rules are finally approved.

“Because it takes time,” Schwiesow said, “and we want to be ahead of the curve. If we wait until the rules are approved, we can’t get it done in a year. It’s a long process.”

He added, “We can’t just sit here and wait until the court cases are over.”

The council talked about the role of the weather and climate in the basin’s diminished aquifer levels and how important it is to emphasize conservation measures with city water customers. Brooks said city staff is looking at ways the city itself can conserve water, perhaps implementing more xeriscaping for example.

“We could do a better job in the conservation piece,” said Councilor Jan Vigil.

Expand Rio Grande del Norte, National Monument?

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

President Barack Obama created the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013.

The 242,000-acre monument takes in the Rio Grande Gorge and spreads out across the sagebrush and grasslands of the Taos Plateau before stopping at the Colorado state line.

Now, a Conejos County group is saying he didn’t go far enough.

Conejos County Clean Water has begun a push to expand the monument into Colorado on the rolling hills and mesas that line the west bank of the Rio Grande.

Although the group faces concerns from the San Luis Valley’s water managers and outright opposition from a local commissioner, it believes the expansion would protect many of the land’s current uses and boost tourism.

“More people are inclined to see it and more inclined to visit,” said Michael Armenta, a project coordinator for the group.

Armenta said neighboring Taos County, N.M., did see an uptick in its lodging tax since the creation of the monument.

The monument, as it does in New Mexico, would exist only on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“All private lands would remain private,” Armenta said.

But the group hopes to see the monument take in the Punche Valley, the Pinon Hills and Flat Top Mesa.

And they hope to see similar allowances on this side of the state line that allow for hunting, grazing and the harvest of firewood and pinyon nuts.

If the same prohibitions on the monument are extended to the expansion, oil and gas development and mining would be barred from taking place.

Jim O’Donnell, a Pueblo native, lives in Taos and worked on the establishment of the monument in New Mexico.

He now works for the Friends of the Rio Grande del Norte and has explored much of the monument gathering information for the monument’s management plan.

He’s also banged around some of the areas targeted for expansion in Conejos County.

“The landscape is just an extension,” he said. “It’s so similar.”

Those similarities include large expanses of grasslands with pinyon and juniper forests on high points.

Likewise, both sides of the state line include important corridors for wildlife heading between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains.

And both sides of the state line include evidence of prehistoric use in the form of rock art, as well as use by the Hispanic land grant communities that nearly surround the monument.
But Conejos County Clean Water and its allies will have work to do to reach a designation.
Armenta said the group has gathered 350 letters of support, including the backing of three towns in the county.

It has yet to reach out to the state’s congressional delegation.

Moreover, the idea faces staunch opposition from at least one Conejos County commissioner.

“I am 100 percent against it,” Commissioner John Sandoval said.

Sandoval believes there are enough restrictions already on the county’s 501,000 acres of federal land.

He also is uneasy with the process leading to monument designation, noting that during the original push to create the monument, o™fficials at the Department of Interior failed to reach out to Conejos County even though it bordered the monument.

Water managers in the San Luis Valley have also taken notice of the push to expand the monument.
Although the presidential proclamation that established the monument in New Mexico specifically ruled out any reservation of water, valley o™cials are not taking for granted that it will be included in any expansion.

“If you declare a national monument, you carry with it the implication of a reservation of water sufficient to fulfill the monument,” David Robbins, an attorney with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said.

He addressed the district’s board Tuesday about a draft letter to the area’s congressional delegation regarding the proposed expansion.

Both Robbins and the district have played a significant role in preserving the primacy of local control over water in the establishment of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and the creation of national park status for the Great Sand Dunes.

The district also pushed Congress to create the Rio Grande Natural Area, which lines a 33-mile stretch of the river that includes the area targeted for monument expansion.

Robbins suggested the district might be able to cooperate if any potential monument designation would pull back from the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers, both of which carry requirements to deliver water downstream under the Rio Grande Compact.

But for the time being, the district will keep its concerns clear.

“I think we need to step up and say there are these problems if the monument is proposed to intersect or intertwine with either the Rio Grande or the Conejos, then the water interests in the valley should certainly be willing to oppose the monument in that form,” Robbins said.

Farmers agree to tax those who deplete groundwater — The High Country News

Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos, overlooking the San Luis Valley, April 11, 2015
Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos, overlooking the San Luis Valley, April 11, 2015

From The High Country News (Cally Carswell):

Instead of denying or ignoring the problem, [San Luis Valley] farmers are facing the fact that agriculture has outgrown its water supply. They admit they must live within new limits, or perish. Determined to avoid state intervention, they’ve created an innovative irrigation market, charging themselves to pump and using that money to pay others to fallow their land. Thousands of acres have come out of production, and their sights are set on fallowing tens of thousands more.

Brian Brownell is among those cutting back. When I visited last September, the valley’s potato harvest was in full swing, and dust clouds over fields where farmers were exhuming spuds were visible from miles away. Dust also levitated above a field on Brownell’s farm, but nothing was being harvested. Instead, the Sudan grass he’d planted was being hacked to pieces and tilled into the soil. He’d received $96,000 for putting 480 of his 1,680 acres into this “green manure” instead of a more water-hungry and profitable commercial crop.

“Everybody’s pumping too much water,” he said. His gray sideburns bristled on tanned skin, and his lips curved down in thought. “People have to start to buy in to the community thing, instead of ‘me,’ ‘my farm,’ ‘my deal.’ ”

This time, farmers are scrambling to save local agricultural not from outsiders who covet their water, but from themselves.

“It’s only going to work,” said Brownell, “if everybody does something to save the water.”

The San Luis Valley’s 8,000 square miles are flat as plywood, hemmed in by the San Juan Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Sangre de Cristos, a dramatic wall of serrated peaks edged by sand dunes that seem plucked from a North African desert. The valley’s 46,000 residents live in scattered small towns, beneath lonely willows and cottonwoods, and around highway outposts where a few stores merit a mark on a map. It’s a tough place to live, and attracts some unconventional folks: The valley is home to hot springs (and a communal kitchen) frequented by nudists, an alligator farm, a community of 1,500 with 23 spiritual centers, and a UFO watchtower unimpaired by light pollution, where camping costs $10 a night.

But mostly, there are farms — big ones. The center-pivot sprinklers here are among the most tightly packed in the world, and their hulking aluminum spines give the valley floor the illusion of topography. The annual harvest — largely potato, barley and alfalfa — is worth some $300 million, and without it, a number of the towns probably wouldn’t exist. There are no mines, no ski resorts, no gas wells. Alamosa, the biggest town at 8,937 residents, boasts a small college and a hospital. Almost everything else — the fertilizer and tractor dealers, the Safeway, the county governments and K-12 schools — is supported primarily by money from the fields.

At a more basic level, everything runs on irrigation water. From the 1850s, when Hispanic settlers dug the first ditches, until the 1950s, most of that water was diverted from the Rio Grande and its tributaries and flooded onto fields. Then, drought and technological innovation spurred a well-drilling boom. Groundwater nursed crops through dry years and the late season, when rivers shrank. Soon, center-pivot sprinklers were hooked up to wells, watering crops evenly and efficiently all season long, and many farmers started irrigating exclusively with wells, using river water merely to recharge the aquifer. Marginal land became profitable, crop yields — and water consumption — grew, and large-scale commercial agriculture came into its own.

For decades, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, also called the State Engineer’s Office, granted well permits as generously as dentists dispense toothbrushes, ignoring basic hydrology. The water in the ground and the rivers was connected, and voracious well-pumping could lower streamflows — a serious problem, since the river water was already claimed. Following the logic of prior appropriation — the Westwide system that gives priority to those with the oldest water rights — wells that were connected to streams should only pump after older river irrigators are sated. But the opposite happened. In the late ’60s, the state clamped down on river irrigators to comply with the Rio Grande Compact, which requires Colorado to leave water in the river for Texas and New Mexico. Well owners, meanwhile, pumped happily away.

In 1975, the State Engineer tried to phase out a slew of wells, but a court encouraged a softer approach. Wells were drilled in the valley’s “closed basin,” where streams don’t drain to the Rio Grande. They sipped gingerly from a high water table, “salvaging” what would otherwise evaporate and piping it to the river. The Closed Basin Project seemed like a win-win: Wells kept pumping, river irrigators got water, and regulators backed off. It produced less water than expected, but the ’80s and ’90s were so wet that few people cared. Mother Nature bought rounds for everyone.

San Luis Valley unconfined aquifer storage up 119,000 acre-feet

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

For the second year in a row, water o–cials have seen a recovery in one of the aquifers that farmers lean on heavily in the San Luis Valley.

The unconfined aquifer, which is the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies, saw its volume increase by 119,000 acre-feet.

That bump follows an increase of 71,000 acre-feet from the year before.

“If these last couple of years could just continue, it would be wonderful,” said Allen Davey, an engineer for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We’ve seen significant recovery.”

The district maintains a network of monitoring wells in the north-central part of the valley and has kept track of the shallow aquifer’s levels since 1976.

The last two years have marked a reversal from a 13-year run that saw the shallow aquifer drop by more than a million acre-feet due to drought and over-pumping…

Davey credited the improvements of the last two years to e€orts by Subdistrict No. 1 to reduce pumping.

The subdistrict, which lies in the north-central part of the valley, levies a fee on its members for pumping to raise money for land fallowing and also to pay for damages pumping causes to surface water supplies.

Davey cited pumping records from 2000 that showed well pumping withdrew 391,000 acrefeet from the shallow aquifer. He expects that figure to come in at around 230,000 acre-feet this year.

Some subdistrict members also enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to fallow their land.

So far, 5,854 acres of land had been fallowed under the program. There were 109 wells associated with that acreage that pumped roughly 10,000 acre-feet annually.

The volume of the shallow aquifer would have to improve by roughly another 700,000 acre-feet to meet the management objectives laid out by the subdistrict.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With the cooperation of “Mother Nature” and San Luis Valley irrigators, aquifer levels in the Rio Grande Basin are improving.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Rob Phillips , who oversees the water district’s first sub-district , reported to the board on Tuesday that the unconfined aquifer generally in the area encompassed by the subdistrict had recovered by 119,469 acre feet between September 2014 and September 2015. That is the largest recovery in the unconfined aquifer storage in that area since 2007.

RGWCD District Engineer Allen Davey added, “We have seen significant recovery.”

He said the aquifer has had a couple of good years, which hopefully will continue.

The recovery is encouraging , given that this area of the aquifer has declined by more than one million acre feet since a long-term monitoring study began in 1976.

“We have just seen great recovery this last couple of years,” Davey said. “The runoffs haven’t been really above average, but it’s just been great recovery.”

At least some of that recovery can be attributed to farmers and ranchers in Subdistrict #1 who are reducing the amount of water they pump or paying for water to make up for their depletions.

Davey said irrigators in the area encompassed by Subdistrict #1 were pumping an estimated 391,000 acre feet of water in 2000. Estimated pumping this year in that same area is 230,000 acre feet, he said.

One of the methods the sub-district has used to motivate irrigators to cut down on their pumping is to promote the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and add sub-district incentives on top of the normal CREP payments to encourage farmers to enroll in CREP.

Phillips said 16 new CREP contracts are in place for the 2016 fiscal year, with 10 of those involving permanent groundwater retirement. These new contracts involve 36 wells that would otherwise be pumping 2,900 acre feet a year, Phillips explained.

Davey said he attributed the aquifer recovery to two reasons: reduced pumping; and “some cooperation from Mother Nature.”

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the weather service’s forecast for the next few months and even longer calls for above average precipitation for this area.

“Hopefully that will come true and we will have a good year,” he said.

Cotten said the basin snowpack as of January 14 was 112 percent of normal, including both the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains . (Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, said the Medano snowpack was 157 percent of average on Tuesday.)

“If we can keep that up through the end of the snowpack season, we should have a really good year,” Cotten said.

Two years in a row the annual flows on the Rio Grande were close to the long-term average, Cotten added, with 2015 ending up with 665,000 acre feet annual index flow, which is the first time in quite a few years the river has had an above average flow . The long-term average is 650,000 acre feet. The Rio Grande more than met its Rio Grande Compact obligations and actually over delivered water to downstream states in 2015, Cotten said. The Rio Grande wound up the year with 8,700 acre feet credit. The Conejos River system, which is also included in the compact with New Mexico and Texas, had a slight deficit in what it owed, under-delivering about 1,400 acre feet. However, the compact incorporates the two river systems so in total the state of Colorado ended 2015 with a Rio Grande Compact credit.

Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meeting recap

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Some folks were a bit wary of a request this week from a Denver metro group for financial assistance with a water project that local water leaders were concerned might facilitate water exportation from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range.

Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, asked members of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable water group this week for $10,000 from the roundtable’s basinallocated funds for the WISE (Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency) Project.

Hecox made his initial presentation this week and will return next month with the formal funding request. He told local roundtable members he had already visited the other eight basin roundtable groups throughout the state and they had been supportive of putting $10,000 each into this project in an effort to show cross-basin cooperation and support for local projects.

Hecox said the basin support would help leverage money from other sources and serve as a cash match. He said while most of the basin roundtables committed to $10,000 each, the metro basin committed $40,000 and the South Platte roundtable $15,000 towards the WISE project.

Hecox explained that the South Metro Water Supply Authority is made up of 13 independent water providers that serve areas like Highlands Ranch, Parker and Castle Rock.

What brought these groups together, Hecox explained, was their common issue of having non-tributary nonrenewable groundwater as their water supply. The group has been working together towards a better water source solution since the 1960’s and 1970’s , Hecox said, and had participated in the Two Forks Project, a dam project that never materialized . “Two Forks going away didn’t change the need for storage,” he said. To roundtable member Charlie Spielman’s comment that Two Forks was being built one gravel pit at a time, Hecox said rather than one big bucket, there are lots of smaller buckets filling that same need, and there are a lot of gravel pits being used for water storage.

“That’s not a component of our project,” he said. The authority has tried to reduce water use through significant conservation efforts , he added, and the per capita water use in their communities has decreased by 30 percent since the 2000’s .

The latest idea prompting the WISE project is to partner with Denver and Aurora water providers, which do have renewable supplies, to reuse their municipal effluent , Hecox explained. The WISE project will encompass a treatment facility that will treat that water so it can be distributed to participating communities through existing pipelines. The authority purchased the pipeline for $34 million, Hecox said, which is being changed from its original use to be used for this project.

The authority will pay Denver and Aurora $5.50 per thousand gallons to use their water supplies, pipe the water, treat it and distribute it to about two million people in the South Metro Water Supply Authority area.

Groundwater and surface water will be comingled in the pipeline, Hecox explained . He said the funding being requested from roundtables as a local match will help build a treatment plant for the groundwater, which will cost about $6.4 million.

The authority is combining $5.4 million in matching funds and will submit a grant request for $915,000, according to Hecox.

Hecox said the Rio Grande Roundtable should support this project because it addresses the statewide gap between supply and demand and because it would support the new approach of regional partnerships to address water issues throughout the state.

Hecox said that the communities in the South Metro authority have, much like many water users in the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley), relied on groundwater resources, so they are trying to become mores sustainable, and the option of reusing Denver/Aurora effluent is one method of accomplishing that. The WISE project will allow area water resources to be reused multiple times, Hecox explained.

The water that the authority will be buying from Denver and Aurora was previously going down the South Platte, Hecox said.

“This will use water that was going downstream,” he said.

He added that Aurora had a few short-term leases on its water previously, but this would be a permanent one.

The authority is guaranteed supplies from Denver and Aurora until 2030, he said.

Roundtable member Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said this seemed to be opening up a new distribution system for the entire metro area that would make it easier to import water from other parts of the state, such as the Valley. He added that there is an export project currently proposed in the northern part of the San Luis Valley, and there have been continuous overtures over time from water speculators wishing to benefit from exporting water out of the Valley. It would seem that the WISE project would fit right into their plans, he said.

Hecox admitted the WISE project would not meet all of the metro water needs in the future, and the authority is looking at other water sources such as a cooperative project with Denver and the West Slope as well as an alternative agriculture transfer program in the South Platte Basin.

He said when the authority began the WISE project it was looking at a need for 60,000 acre feet of reusable supplies. With the WISE project, the authority is now looking in the 15,000-30 ,000-acre-foot range “above and beyond this,” he said.

He said some of Aurora’s water supply is coming from the Arkansas Basin “but none from the San Luis Valley/Rio Grande Basin.”

He said, “To my knowledge Aurora is not looking at any supplies in the Valley or the Rio Grande.”

Vandiver said the likely plumbing for any export from the San Luis Valley would be through the Arkansas Basin.

The plan we have seen would come out of here to the Arkansas,” Vandiver said. “This completes the pipeline from us to south metro ” The concern for us is that’s not necessarily a good thing for the Valley.”

Hecox said when this project began, Denver water leaders were concerned their water would be used for additional growth in Douglas County, and there are areas that are zoned, platted and designated for development, but the houses have not yet been built. He added that developers in Douglas County had not yet approached the metro water authority or its members to use the WISE project water.

He said the purpose of the WISE project would be to reuse existing water supplies for existing communities.

The roundtable took no action on Hecox’s request this week but may do so next month.