Proposal creates ‘monumental’ friction — the Valley Courier

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 Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Proponents of an expanded national monument met with water leaders and some resistance on Tuesday in Alamosa.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board Member Dwight Martin , who lives in the southern part of the San Luis Valley where the proposed expansion would occur, was clear in his opposition to expanding the existing Rio Grande del Norte National Monument northward from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley.

“I am adamantly opposed to this monument designation ,” Martin said. “We really don’t need this monument in Conejos County. I really don’t see what it serves.”

He added that the Conejos County commissioners are also opposed to the monument expansion. Martin said about 90 percent of Conejos County residents at a meeting he attended on the monument were opposed to the expansion, and he questioned why the expansion was needed.

Anna Vargas, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, the organization promoting the monument expansion, responded that the meeting Martin attended was a meeting hosted by opponents .

“There has been interest in supporting the national monument, and there has been opposition that has been raised,” Vargas said. “We have tried to address all the concerns.”

Vargas told water board members on Tuesday that Conejos Clean Water had accepted language recommended by the water district to safeguard water rights within the monument, if it is expanded into the Valley. The language also recognizes the existing Rio Grande Natural Area, which lies in the proposed monument expansion.

“We are not trying to trump any of the work that’s been done on the natural area,” Vargas said.

Vargas recently completed the intensive water leadership course sponsored by several water groups including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. She said the course gave her a better understanding of water issues and rights, such as the Rio Grande Compact. She said she had not viewed the monument expansion as affecting water rights but as more of a land protection issue . She said she now understood the potential problem implied water rights could generate.

“We don’t want national monument designation to have any implied water rights,” she said. The goal of the monument expansion, she said, is to preserve the land for traditional uses.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, encompassing 242,500 acres, was designated by presidential proclamation in 2013. The expansion proposal would bring the monument north of the New Mexico state line into the southern part of the Valley and would encompass about 64,000 additional acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, Vargas explained.

She said the goal would be to preserve traditional uses such as piñon and wood gathering, hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. The monument would also prevent the land from being sold or leased for mining extraction. The turquoise mine would be “grandfathered in,” she said.

Vargas said proponents of the monument expansion want to be proactive in protecting the land from oil and gas activity.

“To us, that is a threat,” she said.

In 2007 that threat was real, she said, with four oil/gas sales involving 14,500 acres in the San Luis Hills and Flat Tops. The reason drilling did not occur, she added, was “basically because of a loophole” created because private landholders had not been notified of the sales.

“What we don’t want is a repeat of that,” she said. There might not be a loophole to prevent it in the future, she added.

Martin said, “This is really about oil and gas and not about protecting the land. All the monument will do is make it more restrictive for landowners.”

Vargas said that is why Conejos Clean Water is trying to get more community input and address these issues. She said there are rumors that the group is trying to prevent such uses as cattle grazing, but that is not the case. Such traditional uses are what the monument would protect, she said.

The land would continue to be BLM property, public lands, she said.

“We want it to stay publicly accessible.”

“Thank you for recognizing the concerns the district expressed,” RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told Vargas.

The district also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior and Colorado’s congressional delegation expressing the district’s concerns about the monument expansion without terms and conditions that would ensure water resources and the Rio Grande Natural Area are not adversely affected. The Rio Grande Natural Area, created through a federal, state and local partnership, integrates the management of federal and private properties along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and the state line to protect the riparian corridor for several purposes including Rio Grande Compact deliveries.

The district’s letter to congressmen regarding the monument expansion stated: “Every federal withdrawal or designation carries with it an implication that sufficient water will be made available to support the purposes of the designation unless specifically disavowed. The flows of the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers in this area of the San Luis Valley are intimately tied to the economic and social health of the entire region, and reflect 150 years of water use practices that support the entirety of the San Luis Valley’s population as well as a water management structure designated to allow Colorado to freely utilize its share of the Rio Grande and its tributaries pursuant to the Rio Grande Compact. Any new federal land use designation that could impact or interfere with the water use practices in the San Luis Valley or Colorado’s ability to utilize the water resources to which it is entitled must be strenuously resisted by our elected federal representatives , as well as all of our state officials . This matter is of enormous importance.”

Representatives of the district also personally met with congressmen and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor.

The district presented language protecting the Rio Grande Natural Area that it requested be included in the monument designation, were that to occur, and Conejos Clean Water has agreed to that language.

Robbins said the Valley’s congressmen and Department of Interior also assured the district they would not move forward with a monument expansion unless the district’s concerns were properly addressed.

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.

Snowpack news: Upper Rio Grande Basin behind 2014

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.

Water strategies on the Conejos — the Valley Courier #COWaterPlan

Conejos River
Conejos River

From the Valley Courier (Nathan Coombs):

The Conejos River is the largest tributary to the Rio Grande River in Colorado. The Conejos and its tributaries Los Pinos and Rio San Antonio irrigate about 100,000 acres in the south end of the San Luis Valley and pay a significant portion of the Rio Grande Compact. With some of the oldest water rights in the state and basin, this water has been subject to many changed uses and modifications over time.

In 1928-38 when the Rio Grande Compact commission studied the flows of the rivers in order to calculate a compact arrangement with New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, the system was already completely appropriated. The only method of irrigation at the time was flooding. Whether for the meadow, the vegetables or the grain and alfalfa fields, flooding was the only method used, or even contemplated.

With the unique physical properties of the Conejos basin, the flooding of fields filled the shallow aquifer with both run off and percolation. This building of the aquifer built a large amount of sub surface water that benefitted irrigators down gradient from where the earlier irrigation water was applied. These subsequent irrigators were able to apply less water to their crops, and gained the benefit of their crop’s roots being in contact with the ground water longer.

This method of irrigation also provided another benefit. The irrigation water diverted from the Conejos and filling the unconfined aquifer, caused return flows which also paid a large percentage of the Conejos’ portion of the compact. Irrigators used the water and paid compact with a large portion of this same water through return flows.

Over time, farm land was leveled, irrigation moved from flooding to sprinklers, and weather patterns trended towards drier winters diminishing sufficient supplies. As the efficiency of water application methods continued to improve, return flows decreased, so more water had to be left in the river channel to pay the compact. With this necessity of leaving pristine water in the channel, it became increasingly difficult for water users to depend on enough water for the entire season. Compounding this issue were years of significantly less than average snowfall. More adapting and changing were necessary.

In 1969 the Rio Grande Compact was being administered more strictly. This change in water management brought about the need for accurate accounting and measurement of the waters within the river. Water users were now experiencing curtailments to diversions in order to meet the compact. This curtailment meant that some water users were experiencing less water than historically available. Issues arose around how to make sure that those curtailed were in fact impacted to the least degree possible. This required a lot of time and effort from the DWR’s river commissioners. Also In 1991, The Conejos Water Conservancy District bought exclusive rights to the Operations and Maintenance to Platoro Reservoir. This change brought an opportunity to district water users to utilize the reservoir to store and re-release their water later in the growing season. With the opportunity to use reservoir water to offset some of the compact administra- tion issues, this development also brought the challenge of tracking this retimed water throughout the system.

In order to be proactive and solution minded, water users on the Conejos developed a strategy by first recognizing the issues they faced. First off, there was not an efficient way of tracking the different types of water in the river. It was very difficult to accurately and efficiently know where the different types of water were at all times, much less separate out the native from the reservoir from the Compact head gate by head gate. Secondly there were large inefficiencies with the infrastructure used for getting the water out of the river in priority, and allowing optimal use of both native and the reservoir water to diminish reliance on ground water. Finally, there needed to be a way to mitigate the effects of inaccurate forecasting of snowpack and insufficient stream flows . Water users felt that addressing these issues would help individual water users make better informed decisions on their farm’s water budget for a given year.

GAUGING

In 2012 to overcome some of the first of these challenges, 72 river diversions were fitted with a nearly live ability to “see” what was being diverted. Stilling wells were constructed and fitted with measurement and recording devices that transmitted wirelessly through an entirely new telemetry network that was built to transmit this information. The data is recorded, collected, and stored off site and available to administrators and water users through a secure password. This system also allowed the DWR river commissioners to be very specific with the use of their time and miles for regulating the diversions . With the new system, administrators are now able to make sure that the correct water amounts are being either diverted or passed through to the compact or other water users in priority.

AUTOMATING

The second proposal was to work in conjunction to the gauging/measurement of the diversions. Four of the largest water diversions on the Conejos System were automated. This effort regulates the water to the correct amount for each of these head gates. The automation was able to ensure that these diversions were able to both receive their correct amount of water and not “absorb” the diurnal effect of the river. By correcting the flows at these largest diversions water that should go down river to either another priority or the compact was available. The automation also saved countless hours of regulating and re-adjusting these head gates throughout the day. Because of the tremendous positive impacts of automation, the district is currently automating three more structures along the Conejos with plans for more being drawn up at this time.

PREDICTING

Finally , to help mitigate the “Mother Nature” component , the district is looking at bettering the methodology of both measurements and forecasting for the basin. Currently, the DWR uses reports from NRCS that are based on snotel sites, manual snow course measurements, and the NRCS’ own forecasting to predict total stream flows for both the Rio Grande and the Conejos. The input data are the foundation of the NRCS’ predictions. The problems however are that the number of measured sites is insufficient , their coverage is not complete, and in the case of the Conejos basin, they only represent about 35 percent of the watershed. With both winter inaccessibility to many areas for manual snow surveys, and USFS wilderness restrictions , a large portion of sub drainages simply are not measured.

With a partnership with CWCB, (Colorado Water Conservation Board) NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) NWS, (National Weather Service) and NSSL, (National Severe Storms Laboratory) the district has installed six additional “snotel lite” stations, flow gauges on tributary streams, and one radar truck!

The new measurement sites are placed on boundaries with the USFS wilderness areas and will ground truth what the radar truck is seeing . Since the radar has the ability to scan across both the wilderness and inaccessible areas of the basin, the concept is that water users will be able to refine the data used to predict actual snow levels down to the sub basin level.

The flow gauges on the tributaries will allow water administrators to calibrate how much of the system’s water is generated on the respective tributary’s sub basin. Then for an example; if a tributary is significantly higher or lower than the forecast pre supposed, immediate corrections to the compact curtailment can be made. This action will help refine the calculations necessary to administer the compact on a daily basis. This timely correction to compact administration will allow Valley water users to more fully use Colorado’s share of the water.

The Conejos Water Conservancy District does not have all the answers, and may not even yet have the right questions. The district does however, have a desire to place as many pieces in the water puzzle as it can.

Nathan Coombs is the director of the Conejos Water Conservancy District in Manassa.

More Conejos River coverage here and here.

Too much of a good thing — The Pueblo Chieftain #RioGrande

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Too much water has become a bad thing in the Rio Grande basin. That might seem like nonsense in a region that has seen below-average stream flows for most of the last 12 years, but inaccurate stream forecasts coupled with the demands of the Rio Grande Compact have put water managers and users in a pinch. The compact governs how much water Colorado must send downstream and includes separate delivery schedules for the Rio Grande and Conejos River.

Those deliveries run on a sliding scale with the highest demands in wet years and the lowest ones in dry times. Each spring, the state engineer’s office relies on stream forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to balance how much runoff can be diverted by irrigators with how much must go to New Mexico.

The service draws that forecast partly from the eight automated snow gauges and a string of manual snow survey sights in the basin. But this year’s projections were low by roughly 50,000 acre-feet on the Conejos and almost 150,000 acre-feet on the Rio Grande, Division Engineer Craig Cotten said. That has left Cotten and his staff in the position of curtailing or limiting the amount of water that irrigators would otherwise be entitled to according to their respective water rights.

“The most senior water rights on both rivers are being curtailed dramatically in order to meet the compact,” Steve Vandiver, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District told the basin’s roundtable earlier this month.

Moreover, the service’s snow measurement and forecasting program may have an uncertain future. Last year, the service proposed eliminating 47 of the 110 manual snow survey sites in Colorado to meet agency budget cuts. While those sites were saved, the threat of future funding cuts along with the inaccuracies plaguing the forecast have led officials in the Rio Grande basin to look at other options.

The Conejos Water Conservancy District is in the middle of a $237,000 project that will install a temporary radar system, six weather stations and a string of new stream flow gauges. The aim is to get a more accurate forecast that will reduce curtailments for water users. In 2012, the Conejos district estimated that those curtailments cost water users in the basin up to $13,000 per day.

“We can’t realistically blame Craig because it’s the forecasting error,” said Nathan Coombs, the district’s manager. “We don’t have anything else that helps us.”

The Conejos basin is home to two of the automated snow gauges run by the service.

The radar, which will be located either at Antonito or Alamosa, will give officials a clearer picture of where storms are happening, while the six weather stations will allow them to determine how much the storms are depositing.

Moreover, the project will add flow gauges to key tributaries of the Conejos such as Elk Creek and the South Fork of the Conejos.

“If we can start measuring better what these tributaries are doing, that will give us an indication of what these sub-basins are looking at,” Coombs said.

The snowpack and stream flow data gathered by the district will be turned over to researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. In turn, those researchers will try to use that data to create a forecasting model. Coombs said the district will stack up that end product with the service forecasts.

“If there’s enough discrepancy to pursue it, that’s how we’ll go,” he said.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board played a role in funding the Conejos project and also has pursued the use of satellite technology to help increase the accuracy of snowpack measurement.

“We’ve had this conversation a lot,” Travis Smith who represents the Rio Grande on the board, told The Chieftain. “Forecasting drives our compact decisions.” Smith, who has been heavily involved in fire recovery issues in the Rio Grande’s headwaters, said temporary radar near Wolf Creek Pass that’s been installed to warn of late summer and fall monsoon storms, may end up playing a role for winter snowstorms as well.

But moving state officials toward improved forecasting can be difficult given that two of the biggest water management organizations in the state — Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — do their own forecasting independent of the service.

Still, Smith sees a potential ally in the Arkansas River basin, where water managers are dependent on service forecasting for its voluntary flow management program and reservoir operations.

Mike Gibson is chair of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, which also divvies up state funds for water projects and funded a portion of the Conejos pilot project. He wants all options left on the table.

“I personally feel we need to pursue all avenues available until we come up with a better system than we have now,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

San Luis: Third Colorado Congreso de Acequias recap

San Luis People's Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Conejos County Citizen (Sylvia Lobata):

A historic Spanish agricultural irrigation system of unlined water ditches that irrigate farmers’ fields, with water flows directed by the movement of tarps and dirt along each ditch, the unlined acequias are also believed to recharge the area’s shallow aquifers and support biodiversity.

Costilla County has 70 acequias covering 35,000 acres and serving 270 families, while Conejos’ 50 acequias, serve 45,000 acres and 100 families, linking the water users to their 16th century Spanish heritage, maintaining that culture across some nine generations in these isolated farmlands.

When heirs were being identified during the lengthy lawsuit to ensure access to the vast “Mountain Tract,” also known as the Taylor Ranch, the owners and heirs of many early homesteads, or varas, were identified by their connection with acequias. “Without water, there is no life,” says Norman Maestas, president of the San Luis-based Land Rights Council.

Many acequia properties were never officially incorporated, adding problems to use of the ancient ditches.

In 2009, largely at the urging of Costilla County water users, the Colorado legislature passed a bill “to promote and encourage the continued operations of acequias and the viabilities of historic communities that depend on those acequias.”

From the beginning, the congresos have drawn landowners and irrigators, agencies and officials, nonprofits, University of Colorado law students and others.

Law students have taken on the challenge of developing legal protection for the acequias.

Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association Program Director Sarah Parmar in a recent interview, said there is still much to be done about educating legislators and the public about acequias, while finding a place for the ancient systems in the state water plan.

This year’s congreso agenda provides knowledge heavily focused on acequia bylaws and conflicts to support the community in Colorado water conversations.

Parmar explained that, “we want everyone to understand what the purpose of bylaws are and that they can be used in a way to continue tradition. Bylaws are also a tool to help people coming into and returning to the community. More integration of bylaws into practice can prevent arguments.”

Those arguments come when water is scarce, she explained. Differing memories instead of bylaws are often recalled regarding the matter of sharing the resource.

The acequia association and the CU Law School partner through the Getches-Wilkinson Center to provide free or low cost legal assistance and educational materials to affected communities, helping establish their priority rights to water under Colorado law.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

“NRCS does their best, based on the SNOTELs they have” — Steve Vandiver #RioGrande

NRCS Streamflow Forecast June 1, 2014
NRCS Streamflow Forecast June 1, 2014

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Nobody’s crystal ball worked very well this year when it came to predicting river flows. In a Valley-wide water meeting yesterday, former long-time Division Engineer Steve Vandiver indicated the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) crystal ball might be cracked.

“NRCS does their best, based on the SNOTELs they have,” he said.

However, there are only about eight SNOTEL sites in the entire basin. SNOTEL is an automated system of snowpack sensors. Most of the SNOTEL sites in this basin provide information for the Rio Grande, with only two in the Conejos River system area. Vandiver said he was concerned about the apparent move by NRCS to rely on electronic data such as SNOTEL without confirming it through manual snow courses, a move that he believed would “lessen their ability to give us a good forecast.”

Vandiver added, “It’s vitally important we keep up with a forecasting system that means something.”

NRCS forecasts are the primary tool used by the Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 office to determine how much water the basin has to send downriver each calendar year and how much water irrigators will have available to them during the growing season. This year the NRCS forecasted annual stream flow for the Rio Grande at the beginning of the irrigation season was nearly 150,000 acre feet lower than the current forecast of 640,000 acre feet and the Conejos River system was almost 50,000 acre feet lower than the current forecast of 225,000 acre feet.

Because the earlier forecasts were off, the water division must send more water downriver now to make its annual obligation to the states of New Mexico and Texas as required by the Rio Grande Compact, Vandiver explained. That means an earlier cut off on the irrigation season on the Conejos River water users and greater curtailments on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River irrigators. Vandiver explained that because of the way the Rio Grande Compact was structured , the more water this basin receives, the higher percentage of it must be sent downriver, and the obligation percentage on the Conejos is already higher than the Rio Grande. In a big water year, which doesn’t happen very often , the Conejos system would have to send 70 percent of its water downstream, he said.

In normal water years, the basin has to send about a third of its water downstream to New Mexico and Texas.

“The delivery schedules dictate how much we can use,” Vandiver explained. Currently Conejos River system users are seeing a curtailment of more than 40 percent and the Rio Grande irrigators about 28 percent.

“On the Conejos system we are probably going to have to shut off early just to meet the compact,” Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said yesterday during the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting. He added the Rio Grande could probably make it to the first of November, the scheduled ending point for the irrigation season, but not extend past that point.

He said he will meet with Rio Grande irrigators before making the final decision on when to shut off the irrigation season this year. Vandiver, who held the division engineer position prior to Cotten and Mike Sullivan, described the headaches of managing water deliveries in the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley) so that Rio Grande Compact deliveries are made and irrigators receive the water due them.

He said there are so many variables that affect runoff and stream flow every year from rain to dust on snow. He said NRCS has depended on various snow measurement sites around the basin through the years but has not had the funding and manpower recently to maintain, improve or increase those sites. When SNOTEL sites are not maintained, they are not able to provide accurate information for annual forecasts. For example, he said the SNOTEL site at Wolf Creek had problems ranging from large trees laying across it to a gopher hole in the middle of it that were not fixed before last winter, so the site did not work right, and it is one of the key sites in the SNOTEL system.

Conejos River irrigators are embarking on a $237,000 pilot project to use a portable radar system coupled with meteorological stations and river data collection sites to determine if there might be a better way to forecast runoff and stream flows in the basin, or at least to augment the information provided through NRCS. The Rio Grande Roundtable and state water board provided funding for that pilot project.

Nathan Coombs, manager for the Conejos Water Conservancy District that is spearheading this project, said it is not the group’s intention to influence or circumvent NRCS “We don’t need to pitch that aside and start over” but to collect data on a parallel track and see if it is useful for future forecasting efforts. Coombs said the best place for the radar truck to be set up would either be Antonito or at the airport in Alamosa. He added the radar coverage would provide information for both the Conejos and Rio Grande.

Cotten said his office is not mandated to use NRCS forecasts , “but there’s nothing else out there really.”

He added the weather service had started doing some forecasting.

“We are looking at their forecasts also.”

He said the NRCS and weather service forecasts were about 100,000 acre feet apart from each other this year, and it appeared the weather service’s forecast was closer to the truth this time, “which doesn’t always happen.”

Roundtable board member Cindy Medina suggested the roundtable or another group take the lead on presenting a package of basin snow measurement needs to legislators like Senator Michael Bennet who could work with NRCS to make sure funding is in place to meet those needs.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.