“It’s called the forgotten reach…there’s no water there, and there’s no people” — Colin McDonald #RioGrande

February 12, 2015
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From KSAT.com (Justin Horne):

It was over a year ago that Colin McDonald, a former environmental journalist for the San Antonio Express-News, stepped away from his desk job and decided to set out on a journey few people have attempted before: traversing the entire length of the Rio Grande. His goal was to bring awareness to what he called a “disappearing river”.

“I started on June 20 at Stony Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado,” said McDonald.

These are the headwaters of the nearly 1,900-mile long river. According to McDonald, it is a river rich with history and with plenty of stories to tell.

“They weren’t being covered for a broad audience, and that’s what I wanted to do,” said McDonald.

Video he captured along the way showed a wide range of landscape from raging rivers to serene surroundings and everything in between.

“I can paddle for two or three days and not see anybody.”

We caught up with McDonald near Brownsville as he was set to finish the last leg of his seven month expedition. He told stories of his encounters, from interactions with locals, to interviews he conducted with Pueblo Indians in New Mexico over water rights. He ventured into Mexico, to explain differences between how water from the river is utilized by Mexico and the United States.

“This river has basically been governed by 19th century water law, but is trying to deal with 21st century problems,” said McDonald.

McDonald also explained that parts of the Rio Grande in Texas cannot be paddled, because it is dried up. He walked these parts of the expedition.

“It’s called the forgotten reach because it’s left out, there’s no water there, and there’s no people,” he said.

All along his journey, McDonald took water samples to test water quality. He found much of the river to be clean, despite raw sewage flowing into the river from Nuevo Laredo. He also studied the impact of global warming on the waterway.

In the end, McDonald believed his journey restored his faith in humanity.

“I was taken in by the police chief of Eagle Pass; taken in by biologists in New Mexico; just people that have incredible insight and passion about the river,” said McDonald.


Higher streamflow, groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 curtailments, boost unconfined aquifer by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014

January 25, 2015
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Irrigators and water officials looking to conserve groundwater in the San Luis Valley got a small dose of good news this week. The volume in the unconfined aquifer — the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies — increased by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014.

“We did turn the corner,” said Allen Davey, an engineer who conducts the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s groundwater monitoring.

The increase was the first since 2009.

Davey attributed the hike to better stream flows than had been seen in recent years.

He also pointed to a decline in pumping in Subdistrict No. 1, which has used a combination of fees on pumping and the fallowing of farm ground to reduce demand on the aquifer in the north-central part of the valley.

The unconfined aquifer has traditionally been used by farmers in the valley to water crops like potatoes, barley and alfalfa when the availability of surface water declines in mid- to late-summer.

Recharge to the shallow aquifer occurs from streams entering the San Luis Valley floor, canal leakage and irrigation return flows.

Despite this year’s slight improvement, the unconfined aquifer has declined by more than 1.2 million acre-feet since monitoring began in 1976.

An acre-foot is the equivalent of roughly 325,000 gallons of water.

The long-term decline is of concern to the managers of Subdistrict No. 1, who have the goal of increasing the volume of the unconfined aquifer by 800,000 to 1 million acre-feet.

David Robbins is an attorney for the Rio Grande district, which acts as the umbrella organization for the subdistrict.

He said the subdistrict’s board is wrestling with the question of whether to seek a change in its water management plan.

“There are many within the subdistrict boundaries and elsewhere who are concerned there hasn’t been a more dramatic increase in water supply within the subdistrict,” he said.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.


San Luis Valley: Is Closed-Basin Project water a legal source of supply for groundwater sub-districts?

January 17, 2015
Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Whether or not Closed Basin Project water can be used to offset injurious depletions in the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district is a question resting with the Colorado Supreme Court.

If the higher court decides project water is not appropriate for that purpose, water management sub-districts would have to find about 9,000 acre feet of water from other sources, according to Steve Vandiver, general manager for the sub-districts ‘ sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Vandiver reported on the status of the sub-districts and associated legal action during the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting this week in Alamosa .

“We are still waiting on the Colorado Supreme Court decision on the use of Closed Basin Project water for our depletions’ replacement,” Vandiver said. “Nobody knows when it will come out.”

He said the court held a hearing the end of September, and decisions usually follow within four or five months.

The sponsoring water district and its first and subsequently pending sub-districts are hopeful the higher court will allow the Closed Basin Project water to be used to replace depletions caused by wells in the basin (San Luis Valley), Vandiver said. He said if the court decides against that, it would double the amount of money that has to be spent to meet water replacement obligations and require another 9,000 acre feet of water to be acquired and stored.

“It’s a very critical decision ,” he said. “We still have to meet the requirements, whether or not we can use that source for replacing depletions.”

Opponents to the use of Closed Basin Project water for depletions maintain it is double dipping to use water from the federal water salvage project to both meet Rio Grande Compact obligations and sub-district depletions at the same time. They also argue that it would be inappropriate to use well water, which would always be junior to surface senior water rights, to replace depletions to senior rights caused by other wells.

Sub-district #1 has used Closed Basin Project to help replace depletions since 2012. Vandiver said this week that currently Closed Basin Project water is being used on a daily basis to replace depletions owed during the current annual replacement plan year, which ends the end of April. The next annual replacement plan for Subdistrict #1 is due April 15.

He said WildEarth Guardians filed a Freedom Of Information Act request for all documents regarding the Closed Basin Project since its inception, but he did not know what the group intended to use the information for.

Vandiver said the subdistrict likely to be completed next is Sub-district #2, covering wells in the alluvial system directly tied to the Rio Grande. It has the fewest number of wells and well owners. Many have already filed petitions to be in the subdistrict , and the sub-district’s working group hopes to finish the petition process by the end of this month and present their sub-district for formal approval to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board during its March meeting .

Sub-district #4 goes underneath Sub-district #2 and picks up all the confined wells, Vandiver added. Other subdistricts cover other areas in the Valley such as Conejos River, San Luis Creek and Saguache Creek.

Vandiver said all of the subdistricts are moving forward so they can be in place before the state rules and regulations governing groundwater come into force.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Snowpack news: Upper Rio Grande Basin behind 2014

January 15, 2015

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Similar to last year but not quite as good the moisture situation in the northern part of the Rio Grande Basin is better than in the southern end.

The current storm moved in from the south, however, so local forecasters were hopeful the southern part of the Valley would receive some moisture.

“We are below where we were last year,” Colorado Water Division 3 Assistant Division Engineer James Heath told attendees of the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting yesterday in Alamosa. “We didn’t get the early snow like we did last year.”

Heath said last year stream flows in Saguache Creek in the northern part of the basin ran better than average, the Rio Grande at Del Norte right at average and the Conejos River at Mogote 80 percent of average.

“We are in that same boat again this year,” he said.

Once again, the northern part of the basin seems to be receiving more moisture than the southern end, he explained.

Heath said the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has released its first stream flow forecast for 2015, predicting 78 percent of average on the Rio Grande at Del Norte, 109 percent on Saguache Creek and 66 percent on the Conejos River.

“We are following in the same pattern as last year,” he said. “Hopefully we get some more storms.”

He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting higher than average precipitation for this region for the next three months, so he is hoping that turns out to be true.

When Roundtable member Travis Smith said, “you have to be very optimistic. You have some room for improvement ,” Heath said, “We have had 20 years of drought ” It can only get better from here.”

Smith said, “We are ever hopeful it’s going to be better .”

As of Tuesday, the Rio Grande Basin had the lowest snowpack in the state, according to NRCS snow measurement data. This basin stood at about 65 percent of average snowpack overall, with “runner up” lowest in the state being the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins sitting at 73 percent of normal. All the other river basins in the state were either slightly under or over average snowpack on Tuesday, with the highest being the Arkansas and South Platte River Basins at 106 percent of average.

Colorado met its Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states in 2014, and the state engineer advisors are currently finalizing compact data. Conejos Water Conservancy District Manager Nathan Coombs is involved in a project to improve stream flow forecasting, particularly on the Conejos. He said meeting the compact obligation in 2014 was a significant task for water users on the Conejos River system where the initial forecast was off, so water users wound up owing a greater percentage of water during the irrigation season.

“We came out on the compact, but what it took was significant. It took 90 days of number-one’s being curtailed or shut off. It takes a lot to make that work,” Coombs said.

In better news, Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver reported yesterday the water reduction efforts of the water district’s first sub-district are making a difference in the basin’s aquifer. The unconfined aquifer storage, which has been measured since 1976 and has declined more than a million acre feet since that time, has recovered about 60,000 acre feet from its lowest point and is about 45,000 acre feet ahead of where it was last year, Vandiver said.

He added pumping over the last three years has decreased about 30 percent.

“There’s been significant savings and reduction of pumping, unlike some areas of the state where pumping actually increased,” Vandiver said.

“Mother Nature” needs to step up too, however, Vandiver explained. He said under current conditions it looks like it takes about 600,000 acre feet annual flow or above on the Rio Grande to make any significant gain.

“There has to be that level of diversion to support the well pumping that’s currently going on.”

The NRCS late-season forecasts for the Rio Grande in 2014 were 640,000 acre feet annual flow , or close to the long-term average.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


Rio Grande now largest source of ABQ water — the Albuquerque Journal #RioGrande

January 13, 2015
New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Albuquerque’s effort to wean itself from unsustainable groundwater pumping took a major step forward in 2014, with Rio Grande water for the first time in history meeting more than half the needs of the metro area’s largest water utility.

In a year-end report to the state, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility reported that 60 percent of its water came from its diversion dam, which intercepts Rio Grande flows near Alameda at the north end of town. Groundwater, pumped from deep layers of sands and gravels beneath the city, made up the other 40 percent of supply. The water utility serves a population of more than 600,000 in Albuquerque and neighboring areas of Bernalillo County.

The shift from groundwater to river water is critical to maintaining the long-term viability of Albuquerque’s water supply, said University of New Mexico water expert Bruce Thomson. “The groundwater is our drought reserve, so we need to preserve that,” Thomson said in an interview Monday.

The shift to river water, bolstered by water imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama Project, began in 2008. At the time, excess groundwater pumping over more than a century had dropped the water table beneath Albuquerque by as much as 120 feet in some places. The use of river water has shifted that balance, with the water table rising 4 to 8 feet in the years since across Albuquerque, more in some places, said John Stomp, chief operations officer for the water utility. “The groundwater levels are continuing to rise in Albuquerque,” Stomp said.

“The fact that we’ve reduced the stress on our groundwater reserves has allowed them to recover fairly substantially,” Thomson said.

The results suggest the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project, a $500 million effort that included a new dam, water treatment plant and distribution pipes throughout Bernalillo County, is achieving its primary goal, Thomson said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Rio Grande Basin: Second water sub-district progresses — the Valley Courier

January 12, 2015
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier:

The proposed Rio Grande Alluvium (aka sub-district #2) is proceeding .

The State of Colorado has assigned or grouped nonexempted wells together to form Response Areas that will become sub-districts . Wells in the Rio Grande Alluvium Response Area are known as Sub-district #2. These are unconfined aquifer wells in close proximity to the Rio Grande River in the general area between Del Norte and Alamosa.

“The work group which is comprised of local land and well owners in the proposed area has been meeting for several years,” said Karla Shriver a work group member . “We have had numerous meetings among ourselves trying to hash out the details of the proposed sub-district formation, and having numerous public meetings trying to get input from those who will be impacted by it.”

The Colorado Division of Water Resources will be submitting Rules Governing the Withdrawal of Ground Water in Water Division #3 for non-exempt wells. Once the rules have been adopted, well owners will have only three options, which include:

1. Be a part of a subdistrict ;

2. Prepare and submit their own augmentation plan;

3. Cease using nonexempt wells on their property .

Proposed Sub-district #2 is a voluntary sub-district , and participation is the well owner’s choice.

“For those in proposed Sub-district #2 if you are wanting to join the subdistrict and have visited with Deb Sarason from Davis Engineering about your farm plan, please contact me at 719-589-6301 to pick up your petition,” said Cleave Simpson, Rio Grande Water Conservation District program manager.

“If you own non-exempt well(s) in proposed Subdistrict #2 and have not completed your farm plan, you will first need to have a meeting with Deb Sarason from Davis Engineering at 719-589-3004 to verify the wells on your lands that you want included in the District” said Simpson. “The goal is to have all the petitions signed by January 31 and then let staff review the petitions for completion and correctness, and then go before the RG Conservation District Board in March.”

The work group is hosting another public meeting so that those interested may come ask questions January 20 at 6 p.m. at the Monte Vista Co-op Community Room.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


“First official forecast for San Juan-Chama…is crappy” — John Fleck #ColoradoRiver #RioGrande

January 7, 2015


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