Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With less money from severance taxes flowing into the pools that fund water projects in the San Luis Valley and around the state, those fishing for funds may have to string some pretty good bait from now on.

In the 10 years the Rio Grande Roundtable has been in operation, it has funded thousands of dollars worth of projects from studies and assessments to ditch and river repairs.

Colorado Water Conservation Board Program Manager Craig Godbout reported to the roundtable board on Tuesday that the local group still has more than $300,000 in its basin fund but needs to keep in mind it may not see any more funding until July of next year. In addition to basin-allocated funds, there is a statewide fund from which requests may be made.

In light of the tighter funding outlook, Godbout said the state water conservation board was asking for affirmation from the local board regarding its earlier approval of $67,000 towards an Upper Rio Grande assessment. The state board has to sign off on projects and is fine with the assessment project but wanted to make sure the local board was still willing to commit to it, in light of funding challenges.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs said there was no question about the value of the project.

“We are just re-evaluating that we want money from our basin still going to this project,” he said.

Roundtable member Charlie Spielman had been opposed to the original approval of the Upper Rio Grande Assessment because he believed it was outside the primary scope of the roundtable, and he voted against it again on Tuesday, but the rest of the board affirmed their support of it.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the Rio Grande Roundtable had $345,156 in its account, according to Godbout. The group on Tuesday approved $39,000 towards a $228,000 wetland wildlife assessment project that will take the basin’s fund balance down to $306,156.

The SLV chapter of Trout Unlimited is the fiscal sponsor and Wetland Dynamics the contractor for the assessment , which will gather and compile species, habitat and water information from public land agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks & Wildlife, develop conservation goals and identify potential projects. Wetland Dynamics principals Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia explained that this project will help the separate entities better coordinate their efforts in providing wildlife habitat, specifically regarding water resources.

The project will be completed by January 2019. Other pending or acquired funding sources include the SLV Conservation Connection Initiative and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

No one opposed the wetlands /wildlife project, and funding for it was approved unanimously, but a couple of the roundtable members said they had a problem funding something that benefitted government agencies but was not being funded by those government agencies.

Other roundtable members said this project, like the SLV Habitat Conservation Plan and similar projects, would help protect private lands for traditional uses such as farming by identifying ways for public lands and water resources to be used more efficiently for wildlife habitat.

“You do anything for any species, you are benefitting lots of species,” added Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the San Luis Valley.

In improving habitat, projects like this also keep species from becoming listed as endangered, he said.

The news that funds might be tighter did not deter the board from approving funds for the wetland wildlife project or a subsequent $2,500 request from Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies Executive Director Jeff Derry for help with dust-on-snow monitoring. The information about dust storm events and their effects on snowpack are helpful in determining how fast snowmelt might occur. Derry will be seeking funds from other basin roundtables as well as the state water fund.

Coombs said less money did not mean the roundtable board should panic. He said there is nothing wrong with tightening up requirements for funding and making sure “t’s” have been crossed and “i’s” dotted.

“We have good projects,” he said.

Mike Gibson, who served as the chairman of the roundtable until retiring from the SLV Water Conservancy District, was voted back on as a board member on Tuesday following the group’s vote through a bylaw change to increase its at-large board representation.

Gibson said the roundtable board should not be secondguessing itself about whether or not to fund worthwhile projects because a better one might come along later and the roundtable wouldn’t have the money for it.

“I think it’s irrelevant because in the past we have said if money’s available and it’s a worthwhile project, we should approve it,” he said. “Speculating or considering what may come forward we may wish we had the money for at that time is irrelevant. What this roundtable has done all along if the money is available and it’s a good project we have approved it and moved forward.”

Gibson added that while the group still has $300,000 “which is an amazing amount of money available to us” “if there’s a worthwhile project out there, it needs to be brought forward while the money’s available.”

Cleave Simpson, who represents the Rio Grande Roundtable on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), said he is now serving on a guidelines/criteria subcommittee that is working on tightening up criteria that projects must meet to receive funding, since funds are tighter. Projects will have to more closely align with the legislature’s intent when it approved the roundtable structure and severance tax funding. Projects will also need to align with basin plans and the Colorado Water Plan, which was recently developed and approved by the governor.

Simpson said the IBCC also discussed other funding sources for water projects, such as instituting a container fee on human-consumed liquid beverages in containers . That is at an initial discussion stage, he added.

Travis Smith, who represents this basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said there is a real shift from when the roundtables began 10 years ago to more stringent requirements and closer scrutiny before approving projects now.

“Funding is tighter, but good projects still get funded,” he said.

Jay Winner, who was visiting from the Arkansas Valley Roundtable, said, “The message is they are going to tighten it up ” The last 10 years were a lot of fun. The next 10 years are going to be a little bit different.”

In a side note during Tuesday’s meeting, Smith pointed out that the River Valley Group, which had been the recipient of a large roundtable request in the past, had filed a Colorado Open Records Act request for information on projects the roundtable has approved and communication between roundtable members and state water board members. Steve Massey from the River Valley Group was present at the Tuesday meeting. The group states its purpose is “too match the needs of wildlife, agriculture, and human beings in a coexistent environment while enhancing opportunities for all, both for current and future generations.”

San Luis Valley: Habitat study to document change — The Pueblo Chieftain

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. "Sawatch Lake" at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.
1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A San Luis Valley consulting firm is undertaking a study of wetlands and riparian habitat that state and federal wildlife officials hope will help their management efforts in the face of climate change and pending groundwater regulation.

The $228,000 project by Wetland Dynamics will look at past and present wetland habitat across the valley, agency capacity in managing that habitat on their respective jurisdictions and the needs of 35 species.

Jenny Nehring, a partner at Wetland Dynamics, said the agencies have a good understanding of what they manage inside their boundaries but the study will make it easier for them to collaborate.

“A valleywide perspective of how these wetlands function as a whole to provide resources for wildlife is not well understood,” she told the Rio Grande Basin roundtable earlier this week. “This effort will help us determine where we have information gaps regarding changes in historic habitats and populations.”

The information they gather will include a look at how wetlands have changed in the valley since its permanent settlement in the 1850s.

Missoula, Mont.-based Intermountain West Joint Venture is partnering with Wetland Dynamics and will analyze historic survey and land records from the U.S. General Land Office.

The General Land Office oversaw the public domain from its creation in 1812 until it was folded into the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1934.

The analysis will also include satellite photos that were taken every 16 days between 1984 and now.

That time interval will help determine how wetlands habitat changes between seasons, Nehring said.

The final report, due in 2019, would include information for 35 species, detailing how, when and what type of habitat they use and whether the water source undergirding their habitat is secure.

It would also detail the water held by landuse and wildlife agencies and any limitations on the use of that water — a key piece of information for determining how agencies can work together.

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.
Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

Just one example of the importance of water use can be found at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials use groundwater to provide the roosting pools for the roughly 20,000 sandhill cranes that come through the valley in late winter.
Likewise, the Bureau of Land Management uses groundwater to supplement the Blanca Wetlands Recreation Area east of Alamosa that hosts migrating shore and songbirds.

The agencies that are partnering on the project and contributing manpower include the BLM, USFWS, the National Resource Conservation Service, National Park Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But it could also help land trusts and state wildlife officials who work with private landowners.

“Really what it’s going to do is help us be better partners,” said Rick Basegoitia, area wildlife manager for CPW’s valley office.

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

“…peak #runoff is in the rearview mirror” — Matt Hildner


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

While most rivers and streams in the San Luis Valley now have steady flows, peak runoff is in the rearview mirror.

Despite recent years in which high-elevation snowpack has offered some surprises for state officials managing Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact, this runoff is looking somewhat more predictable.

Assistant Division Engineer James Heath was in the high country above Rio Grande Reservoir last week to take a look.

“There’s some but it’s not a large snowfield that would have a significant impact on the production of the basin,” he said.

Predictability is a bonus in managing the compact, which has a sliding delivery scale that increases with higher flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos River.

Projected annual flow on the Rio Grande now stands at 700,000 acrefeet, which, if it holds, would call for a delivery of 204,000 acre-feet at the state line. So far this year, 105,400 acre-feet have been delivered to New Mexico.

The Conejos River and its tributaries in the southwestern corner of the valley have separate compact requirements.

Its projected annual flows sit at 305,000 acrefeet and would require a delivery of 112,800 acrefeet by year’s end.

The Conejos has delivered 58,300 acre-feet so far this year.

Since the 1968 settlement of a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit, Colorado has imposed restrictions on irrigators to make sure compact obligations are met.

Currently, the restriction on the Rio Grande comes in the form of an 18 percent curtailment on the amount of available water. On the Conejos, curtailment is at 28 percent.

Long-term forecasts from the National Weather Service call for a wetter than average June and July but hot and dry conditions in late summer and fall.

From the Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

After a warm weekend that saw very high streamflows in places on area creeks and rivers, it looks like the streams have peaked. But those streams will still run high and fast for a while.

According to data provided by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Gore Creek and the Eagle River above Avon have hit their peaks for the season. In addition, the snow measurement sites the district uses have either melted completely or are expected to by the weekend.

While the streamflows seem to have peaked — barring a severe thunderstorm or two that could cause isolated flooding — local streams are still running well above their average flows for this part of June.

As of June 12, the Eagle River at Dowd Junction was running at 217 percent of its normal flow for that date. Gore Creek above Red Sandstone Creek was running at 142 percent of normal — median flows over a 30-year period.

The high flows are good news for rafting companies. Sage Outdoor Adventures is the only local company that runs raft trips on Gore Creek. Those trips depend on healthy streamflows, and don’t happen every year.

Weather rules streamflow — heat shrinks high streams more quickly and cool extends flows — but Cole Bangert of Sage said it’s possible the company could be rafting the Gore until the end of June or so.

That will leave the Eagle River, but only for another few weeks, Bangert said.

But while local streams are running fast, Bangert said the Eagle River has some of the “best whitewater in the state.”

“There’s a stretch between Kayak Crossing (in Eagle-Vail) and Edwards that’s 10 miles of Class 3 and 4 rapids — it’s great,” Bangert said.

John Packer is the owner of Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon. Packer said while local streams are largely too fast to fish, a solid runoff season is a benefit for those who want to cast a fly later this season.

“The runoff cleans out sediment, and stuff that comes off the roads, and moves it out of the system,” Packer said. “It improves aquatic insect habitat, and healthy bugs mean healthy fish.

San Luis Valley: Stanford researchers calculate groundwater levels from satellite data

Here’s the release from Stanford University (Ker Than):

A new computer algorithm developed at Stanford University is enabling scientists to use satellite data to determine groundwater levels across larger areas than ever before.

Researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences have used satellite data and a new computer algorithm to gauge groundwater levels in Colorado’s San Luis Valley agricultural basin. (Image credit: Flickr)
Researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences have used satellite data and a new computer algorithm to gauge groundwater levels in Colorado’s San Luis Valley agricultural basin. (Image credit: Flickr)

The technique, detailed in the June issue of the journal Water Resources Research, could lead to better models of groundwater flow. “It could be especially useful in agricultural regions, where groundwater pumping is common and aquifer depletion is a concern,” said study coauthor Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Knight and her colleagues recently applied the algorithm to determine groundwater levels across the entire agricultural basin of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. As a starting point, the algorithm uses data acquired using a satellite technology called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, or InSAR, to calculate changing groundwater levels in the San Luis Valley between 1992 and 2000.

InSAR satellites use electromagnetic waves to monitor tiny, centimeter-scale changes in the elevation of Earth’s surface. The program was initially developed in the 1980s by NASA to collect data on volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides, but Knight and her colleague Howard Zebker, a professor of geophysics and of electrical engineering at Stanford, have in recent years adapted the technology for groundwater monitoring.

The Stanford scientists, led by former postdoctoral scholar Jessica Reeves, had previously shown that changes in surface elevation could be correlated with fluctuations in groundwater levels. However, they were only able to do so for a relatively small area because they had to manually identify and analyze high-quality pixels in InSAR satellite images not covered by crops or other surface features that could obscure elevation measurements.

The new algorithm, developed by Jingyi “Ann” Chen, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher in Knight’s group, automates this previously time-consuming pixel selection process. “What we’ve demonstrated in this new study is a methodology that allows us to find high-quality InSAR pixels in many more locations throughout the San Luis Valley,” said Chen, who is first author of the new study.

Chen’s algorithm also goes a step further by filling in, or interpolating, groundwater levels in the spaces between pixels where high-quality InSAR data are not available. Interpolation is a form of averaging, but it requires high-quality InSAR data from places that are located near monitoring wells where groundwater levels are already known in order to calibrate the link between the InSAR data and groundwater levels. In the previous work led by Reeves, only three monitoring wells were “co-located” with high-quality InSAR pixels. Using the new algorithm, that number increased to 16.

As a result, the team was able to calculate surface deformations – and, by extension, groundwater levels – for the entire agricultural basin of the San Luis Valley, an area covering about 4,000 square meters – or about five times greater than the area for which groundwater levels were calculated in the prior study. What’s more, the team members were able to show how groundwater levels in the basin changed over time from 2007 to 2011 – the years when InSAR data that could be analyzed by the algorithm were available.

“Jessica showed that there was useful information in the InSAR-derived deformation, and Ann has made the technique for extracting that information reliable and practical,” Zebker said.

Having a continuous map of deformation in the San Luis Valley led to the team discovering that there is a delay between the time when groundwater is pumped out of an aquifer and when the ground sinks, or subsides, in response to the water removal. These time lags might be useful indicators of the geological properties of an aquifer, said Knight.

“In a sand aquifer, there is no time lag between when the water is pumped out and the ground surface deforms,” Knight said. “However, if clay is present, it will take much longer to deform in response to pumping, so there will be a detectable time lag.”

The next step, Zebker said, is to take the information about groundwater levels and aquifer characteristics extracted from InSAR satellites and incorporate it with data from other sources to develop improved models of groundwater flow.

“The goal is to take into account the full water budget,” Zebker said. “This means accounting for water recharge such as rainfall and for discharge sources such as evaporation and runoff.”

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

The ‘Harbinger of Doom’ escapes the newsroom — #NewMexico In Depth

John Fleck photo via State of the Rockies Project -- Colorado College
John Fleck photo via State of the Rockies Project — Colorado College

From New Mexico In Depth (Laura Paskus):

Around the newsroom, John Fleck used to be called The Harbinger of Doom. When drought overtook New Mexico more than a decade ago, his stories regularly started running with headlines like: “New Mexico in its worst drought since 1880s,” “Conflicts rise as water dwindles,” and “San Juan water dries up for first time in 40 years.”

Initially covering science and the national laboratories, Fleck didn’t take over the water beat at the Albuquerque Journal until New Mexico was well into its most recent drought. “I was geared up to write about people running out of water,” he says today, sitting on his back porch and watching doves dip their beaks into a makeshift pond while black-chinned hummingbirds inspect the flowers. In 2013, when wells were running dry in the communities of Magdalena and Maxwell, he’d hit the road with a photographer, then bang out more depressing stories.

But the coverage didn’t feel quite right to him: “I began to realize there was this other story about people not running out of water,” he says.

Locally, for example, he points to a drop in Albuquerque’s water consumption. At the same time, as the city relied less on groundwater pumping and more on water from the Rio Grande, the aquifer started recovering.

“By the end, I was chafing under the constraint of what a newspaper story should be – 600, or maybe 750 words,” he says. Short, to-the-point, and focused on a crisis. In general, newspapers aren’t in the business of peddling stories about complicated issues and the subtle, nuanced solutions people devise.

Despite the nickname, Fleck just isn’t a gloomy guy. The grind of it all began to wear on him.

After three decades of writing short, punchy stories about crisis and conflict, he’s now thinking beyond day-to-day headlines. He’s also crafting deep arguments on how to solve the same problems he reported on before leaving the Journal last year. Today he’s an adjunct faculty member and writer-in-residence in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. His latest book, Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West, publishes in September.

By focusing almost exclusively on failures and crises, he says that newspapers create a gap in the public narrative. Which is too bad, he says: “Positive messages can help people who are otherwise scared and combative about the future.”

Looking outside New Mexico, Fleck found more examples of declining water use—and of people coming together to work cooperatively. “I started to see all these places where, in the midst of the risk of crisis, people are slowly and quietly adapting,” he says. “But that doesn’t get as much attention—because it’s slow and quiet.”

Moving last year from the Journal Center to an office at UNM, Fleck finally found his sweet spot. He no longer had to focus on crisis. And he could turn his attention fully toward a river he’s loved since childhood: the Colorado River, where seven states share water under an agreement signed nearly a century ago.

While researching his book, Fleck started off curious about what happens when there’s not enough water; relying heavily on water stored in reservoirs, by the late 1990s states were using more water than actually flowed through the Colorado annually.

He ended up surprised by how well people work together to avoid a crisis. Reinforcing relationships outside the negotiating room is important, he says. That’s in part because in this new era of scarcity, the old rules and the old battle lines don’t hold up very well.

One story Fleck loves to tell involves a raft and two Colorado River foes: an environmental advocate and the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which moves more than a million acre-feet of river water through the desert in canals and pipes. Dueling from opposite ends of the water wars, the two had been quoted in the same newspaper articles. But before that rafting trip, they’d never actually met in person. Afterwards, they crafted ways to protect Mexico’s Cienega de Santa Clara from the impacts of a desalination plant. People would still get their water. But an important watershed, one that supports migrating birds and wildlife at the lower end of the Colorado, wouldn’t be destroyed.

A rafting trip—or something simpler, like a drink together at the bar or a shared meal—might not seem like a big deal. But when formal relationships strengthen, evolve, or cross institutional boundaries, Fleck thinks people better understand what the others want and value when they’re sitting around the negotiating table.

As drought has further deepened the gap between water supply and demand on the Colorado, states and water users may be facing dire challenges. And yet, there are flickers of hope within the gloom of crisis.

A celebration of the return of water to the Delta near San Luis Rio Colorado
A celebration of the return of water to the Delta near San Luis Rio Colorado

A few years ago, for example, more than a dozen U.S. and Mexican agencies, as well as environmental groups, cooperated to deliver water to cities and farms during a drought – and also open the gates of Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border. That pulse of water would mimic the spring runoff rivers naturally experience when their waters aren’t dammed, diverted, and siphoned into taps and irrigation canals. In other words, water managers would allow the lower part of the Colorado to act like a river, rather than just a channel that delivers water for human needs.

It was a historic event. Since the 1960s, the river hasn’t typically reached the sea.

Greedy for water after decades dry, the channel sucked up most of the water before it made it to the ocean. But even after the eight-week long pulse moved through, scientists continued studying how the delta responded: they monitored where plants grew and survived, how that stream side habitat has affected birds and wildlife, and how the return of freshwater affected the groundwater.

With all that information, they’re learning more about the Colorado and its delta—and how future spring pulses or supplemental water releases might help the system and its wildlife even more.

Fleck still grins and waves his arms when talking about watching that water spread and fill the sandy channel two years ago. Activists, scientists, and officials from the US and Mexico peered over the bridge. And in the community of San Luis Río Colorado—a community still named for a river that no longer flowed past—people celebrated the water’s return. Families dragged lawn chairs and coolers to the riverbank. Kids threw up their arms and jumped into the water.

“It was made possible because all these people were working together for years,” Fleck says. “This collection of humans were all excited that they had done something people thought couldn’t be done.”

To see a video about the pulse flow and some of the studies being done, visit:

After years of #drought and overuse, the San Luis Valley aquifer refills — The High Country News

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

From The High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is an 8,000-square-mile expanse of farmland speckled with potato, alfalfa, barley and quinoa fields between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges. Only about 7 inches of rain fall each year in the San Luis Valley. But while farmers and ranchers can’t depend on moisture above ground, they make up the difference beneath it. The valley is underlain by a vast aquifer, which is punctured by more than 6,000 wells that pump water onto the valley’s crops and supports the livelihoods of 46,000 residents.

For generations, the aquifer provided enough water to sustain the arid farming community. But beginning in 2002, a multi-year drought shrunk the nearby streams and water table. Farmers and ranchers began to notice the falling levels of the Rio Grande and the rapidly draining aquifer. Some wells throughout the valley abruptly stopped working.

The aquifer dwindled so much that the Closed Basin Project, a Bureau of Reclamation pumping effort that had long met downstream water diversions and delivered flows to the Rio Grande River to maintain the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, failed to convey enough water to the valley’s farms and ranches. “We operate in a highly over-appropriated system,” says Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the main water management entity in the San Luis Valley. “Agriculture had overgrown and far outstretched water supply.”

Without change, state water regulators could shut off thousands of wells. So the valley’s farmers and ranchers, unlike other agriculture communities in the West, did something nearly unprecedented: They decided not to ignore the problem.

In 2006, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and San Luis Valley water users created the sub-district project, an innovative solution for solving water problems. The plan would charge farmers and ranchers $75 per acre-foot for the groundwater they pumped, and in turn use the funds to pay farmers to fallow portions of their fields, limiting demand on the water supply, as High County News reported in 2013. The experiment began at sub-district 1, the valley’s largest of six sub-districts, which sits at the heart of the San Luis Valley in aptly named Centre, just west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The  center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands.  Source: Google Maps (screenshot).
Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands. Source: Google Maps (screenshot).

Today, four years into the operation of the project after it launched in 2012, the aquifer is rebounding. Water users in sub-district 1 have pumped one-third less water, down to about 200,000 acre feet last year compared to more than 320,000 before the project. Area farmers have fallowed 10,000 acres that once hosted thirsty alfalfa or potato crops. Since a low point in 2013, the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, the sub-district project plans to fallow a total of 40,000 acres, unless the ultimate goal of rebounding the aquifer can be reached through other conservation efforts, like improving soil quality and rotating to more efficient crops.

The plan’s proponents say it provides a template for groundwater management in other arid communities whose agricultural economies are imperiled by drought. “The residents of the valley know that they are in this together, and that the valley has overgrown the water available to us,” says Craig Cotten, Almosa-based division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “This is a water user-led solution, which makes it unique. I really think this can be a model.”

Crucially, the plan is state-mandated, which requires everyone to either participate in a district, fallow their fields or work with water engineers to develop their own augmentation plans, which in turn need to be approved by state water courts. Those choices — paying premiums for groundwater or scaling down operations significantly — have been tough for farmers. Nevertheless, Simpson says the valley’s water users have gotten on board. “It’s not comfortable but most everyone has really come forward,” Simpson says. “It’s a bit of a paradigm shift for farmers who are individualistic and don’t typically work together — but by necessity they realize that we will bankrupt ourselves if we continue to stretch our water resource.”

But water users in the San Luis Valley have also gone beyond the call of duty, says Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. While the SLVWCD helps include users in its augmentation plan as an alternative to joining the sub-district project, Dutton says that few water users have gone that route. That’s partly because farmers and ranchers themselves have helped create the sub-district rules, through participating in public meetings and getting involved with the board of managers. “This has been a good exercise in self-governance,” Dutton says. “It’s been a success story in people coming together and trying things that my grandpa’s era would have thought were crazy.”

Although sub-district 1 has proved a success, the broader sub-district project remains in its fledging stages. In March, Colorado District Court in Rio Grande County mandated that sub-district 2, a cluster of a hundred or so wells between Monte Vista and Del Norte, unroll as phase two of the program. The second district is currently forming a board of managers to develop official rules for farmers and ranchers within the territory. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is still working with valley residents to implement the remaining four sub-districts.

Still, the project’s first phase has been encouraging for residents. Patrick O’Neill grew up in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley and first came to the San Luis Valley in 1998 to work as an intern at Agro Engineering, a consulting company. Though he later returned to his family farm in California, he came to feel that the Central Valley, built on its own wasteful groundwater use, was not sustainable. He returned to the San Luis Valley in 2005, where he now owns Soil Health Services in Alamosa and works with area farmers and ranchers to improve soil health. “I chose this place in a very deliberate way for my home because there’s potential for putting our water system back into balance,” O’Neill says. “People here are much more conscious of how much water they are using.”

Higher water release will benefit silvery minnow — The Albuquerque Journal

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.)

Spring runoff pumped up by water released from El Vado Reservoir today [May 25, 2016] will push flows on the Rio Chama and Rio Grande up to as much as 4,000 cubic feet per second, the swiftest rate in recent memory, in a multiagency effort to benefit the environment and boost silvery minnow spawning.

“Today will be our high-flow day,” said Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor for the Albuquerque office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “We are going up to 4,000 cfs out of El Vado for the first time since I don’t know when.”

In 2014, the spring peak flow was only 1,500 cfs, and last year, the best flow year since 2010, the rate at Albuquerque’s Central Avenue bridge was measured at just under 3,000 cfs.

Donnelly said this week’s fast-moving water on the Rio Chama between El Vado, 80 miles northwest of Santa Fe, and Abiquiu Dam, 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, will break up channel vegetation that is harmful to the ecology.

“When the channel is static, native species, small invertebrates such as snails, for example, don’t do well,” she said.

The one-two punch of spring runoff and released storage water will provide the robust flow that cues the spawning of the endangered silvery minnow, found in the Rio Grande from Cochiti Dam, 50 miles north of Albuquerque, to Elephant Butte Reservoir, five miles north of Truth or Consequences.

Donnelly said the release from Cochiti Dam will be about 3,300 cfs for about two weeks. That rate will benefit the entire ecosystem as well as the minnow.

“The timing of the release is important to the minnow,” Donnelly said. “Conditions are looking really good. We had more snow in April in the Rio Chama watershed and also up in Colorado on the Rio Grande. We are going to start seeing high water from Colorado real soon. And since it’s late May, the water is warmer and the fish (minnow) like that.”

Agencies collaborating with Reclamation in the project are the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the Rio Chama Watershed Partnership and the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which represent the compact states of New Mexico, Texas and Colorado.

A resolution approved in March by the [Rio Grande] Compact Commission made this week’s high-flow push possible by allowing the storage of about 40,000 acre-feet of water in El Vado between May 2 and May 20.

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins