Many eyes are on the proposed expansion of the #RioGrande 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 Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

A proposed national monument expansion may not receive a ringing endorsement from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, but the district is willing to keep an eye on the process.

The board for the district, which represents water interests throughout the San Luis Valley, discussed the proposed expansion of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument on Tuesday and met with Ana Lee Varga, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, which is spearheading the expansion.

Varga is currently working with Tami Valentine, one of the opponents of the expansion , to bring people together to discuss the issue. Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) General Manager Cleave Simpson said he was willing to represent the district’s water interests in this “stakeholder” group. “There is no change in their status, no draft proclamation ,” Simpson told the water board during their Tuesday meeting. “They are trying to put together a stakeholder meeting.”

Currently the monument, designated by President Barack Obama in 1993, covers 242,000 acres in New Mexico in the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Plateau areas up to the Colorado state line. Conejos Clean Water and others have proposed to expand the monument into the San Luis Valley.

In meeting with the RGWCD board on Tuesday, Varga said Adams State University Professor Armando Valdez volunteered to help draft language as a starting point for the monument expansion, specifically detailing traditional uses that would be protected.

“This is a staring point, not a final draft,” Varga said.

Varga said Valdez included language recommended by RGWCD Attorney David Robbins protecting traditional uses such as grazing. Other traditional uses included in the draft are fishing, piñon wood and herb gathering.

RGWCD board member Lewis Entz said that while the group proposing the monument expansion is saying traditional uses like grazing and hunting would still be permitted, that has not always occurred under monument designations in the past. Some monuments restrict grazing, for example.

“Once you develop this into a monument, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Varga said that’s why it is important to get the stakeholders together. She said the Conejos County commissioners are supportive of a stakeholder group to discuss issues around the monument expansion.

RGWCD board member Lawrence Gallegos, a Conejos County resident, said it is true that grazing has been limited on some national monuments but not all.

“There are several national monuments that grazing and traditional uses are still allowed ,” he said.

“At this point we just need to monitor where things are going,” he added.

Varga said half of the Conejos Clean Water’s board are ranchers, and they do not want to see cattle or other traditional uses eliminated on the proposed monument.

“When we started this initiative, we did not want to drive a wedge in the community in any way,” Varga said. “What we are trying to do is bring community members together.”

Varga said she hoped the stakeholder group could meet in the next few weeks. She and Valentine are currently trying to find a neutral facilitator to lead the discussion. Conejos Clean Water will not facilitate the gathering, she said, and neither she nor Conejos Clean Water Executive Director Justin Garoutte would sit at the table, but a board member would represent Conejos Clean Water at the meeting.

Other constituencies that would be represented would include the Farm Bureau, planning commission, ranchers and small business owners , Varga said.

Varga said since the group could not find a neutral facilitator to oversee the meeting pro bono, the proponents and opponents were going to split the cost of hiring someone.

Varga said so far the dialogue has been for or against, and she would like to see people talking together about it.

She said Conejos Clean Water and other supporters feel strongly that there would be positive impacts from the monument expansion, such as protecting sacred lands. National monument designation could also bring funding with it, she said.

Entz said he was concerned about the inclusion of the already designated Rio Grande Natural Area in the monument expansion and said a map of the proposed area seemed to overlap the two.

Varga said there was no official map yet, and the proponents were willing to exclude areas such as the Pikes Stockade, which has already been taken out of the equation.

RGWCD board member Dwight Martin, a Conejos County resident, said many people oppose the monument expansion. Groups that have publicly stated their opposition to it include the Conejos County Commissioners, Conejos Water Conservancy District, Conejos County segment of the Colorado Farm Bureau, San Luis Valley Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association “and a myriad of individuals.”

Martin said 300 letters and 832 signatures have been sent to Colorado congressmen in opposition to this designation, and at a meeting he attended, there was a room full of landowners, who probably represented 90 percent of the land owned in Conejos County “not one jumped up and said they were in agreement this monument should be in place.”

Gallegos said there were also groups, such as three or four municipalities, that publicly stated their support for the monument expansion. There are as many letters in support for it as in opposition, he added.

“I think there’s not a reason for us to move forward in either support or opposition to it at this point until we really know what direction it’s going to go,” Gallegos said. “I don’t feel like we need to antagonize half of the community by taking a stand one way or another.”

Martin said he was concerned about the water language that might be included in the monument designation. He said his main concern was the water issues and potential impacts the designation might have on water and specifically the Rio Grande Compact.

“I think that it’s probably a water grab,” he said.

He added he understood Forest Guardians were looking for water upstream of New Mexico, and he was concerned this might be an attempt to take some of the Valley’s water.

“If water has to be given up, it’s a threat to all of us,” he said.

Martin said the federal government could determine the water needs for the monument .

Robbins said congress has and can state in a monument designation what water rights the monument would be entitled to. Those rights can also be limited in a monument designation, he added.

Martin asked if a group like WildEarth Guardians could sue the federal government if it did not like the water language that was included in the monument designation. Robbins said that would depend on how the monument boundaries were drawn. He said if the boundaries did not include flowing rivers such as the Conejos River and the San Antonio, “the federal agencies would not have any more authority than they have today.”

If those rivers are included, however, “you want to pay more attention.”

That is why the water district is paying so close attention to this issue, to make sure the existing Rio Grande Natural Area is not negatively affected, Robbins explained.

“We want to make sure any proclamation by the president or ” congress would contain specific recognition of the existence of the natural area and specific statements it would not upset or change any management prerogatives of the management area or ” water resources in the Rio Grande,” Robbins said. “If the monument touched the Conejos or San Antonio, we would want to do the same thing there.”

Robbins said the best solution would be no overlap of the monument and the natural area. He reminded the board the natural area extends a quarter mile on either side of the center of the Rio Grande.

“I really believe there won’t be any rivers within the boundaries if everything is done properly,” Robbins said. He said he believed the congressional delegation was sensitive to the district’s and the Valley’s water issues.

Robbins also explained that if the area under consideration for monument expansion were included in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, it would still be under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. One of the major differences in use, he added, would be that now the BLM land could be used for gas and mining leases but under monument designation could not. That is one of the reasons proponents are recommending the monument designation.

Robbins said the same restriction was tied to the Rio Grande Natural Area as well, no mineral development.

More coverage of the recent meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier:

Although rain was a welcome sight during a Tuesday water meeting in Alamosa, it may not be a frequent occurrence as the year progresses.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten on Tuesday shared the longterm precipitation forecast for this region, which calls for below average precipitation. He said the forecast for July through September calls for “equal chances” in this region but through November the weather service forecast calls for below average rainfall.

Water users on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems are currently under curtailment to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations , Cotten told members of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday. The curtailment on the Rio Grande is currently about 9 percent and on the Conejos about 13 percent.

Cotten said the annual forecast for the Rio Grande is 690,000 acre feet, of which the obligation to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact will be about 200,000 acre feet. From now through October the Rio Grande will have to deliver about 11,500 acre feet to meet that obligation, Cotten explained.

The forecast for the Conejos River system is 290,000 acre feet, of which 102,000 acre feet are obligated through the Rio Grande Compact.

Cotten reported that the Conejos River was higher through June over last year’s flows during that time period but this month is a fair amount lower than last year and significantly lower than average.

The Rio Grande showed a similar pattern, he added, with fairly high flows in May, compared to last year, and higher than average. The first part of June was similar to last year, but after the peak the river dropped hard. The latter part of June the Rio Grande was below average and has continued to be below average this month.

Proposed bill would block expansion of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument — The Pueblo Chieftain

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):

A $32 billion appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday aims to block the expansion of a national monument into Conejos County.

The funding measure for the Department of Interior and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency includes a provision that would bar the use of any funds for a monument created by President Obama under the Antiquities Act.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., voted in favor of the bill, which would block monument funding in five other Colorado counties and 41 counties in seven other states.

The Colorado counties are Chaffee, Dolores, Moffat, Montezuma, and Park…

Organizations Conejos Clean Water, based in Antonito, and the Conservation Lands Foundation of Durango have spent the last year trying to drum up support for the expansion of New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument onto 64,000 acres in Conejos County.

But their efforts have been met with opposition by ranchers in the county who fear a designation would hinder grazing on the targeted area, which is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Conejos Clean Water has argued that a potential designation would protect grazing, in addition to barring the area from oil and natural gas development.

The Antonito-based group joined 100 other groups earlier this month in urging the House to eliminate the monument provision, arguing that monument designations have been an economic boon to nearby communities.

“We do not support any bill that jeopardizes the ability to permanently protect our public lands,” Anna Lee Vargas, an outreach coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, said in an email.

The White House intends to veto the bill should it make it through the Senate for a host of reasons, including the monument provision. [ed. emphasis mine]

The administration’s formal statement said the measure would debilitate a program that’s successfully been used to protect the nation’s cultural and natural heritage.

#RioGrande basin: NCAR refining snowpack model for Conejos River watershed

Conejos River
Conejos River

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The winter and spring snowpack that normally sits above this former mining town in the southeastern San Juan Mountains can be both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing when there’s a lot of it — more runoff in the Conejos River basin in spring and summer is almost always a good thing.

But it can be a curse, especially for water managers trying to balance deliveries to local irrigators with the obligations of the Rio Grande Compact, because it’s difficult to measure, which, in turn, makes streamflows harder to forecast.

The Conejos Water Conservancy District, with the help of a host of federal and state agencies, has spent the last two years trying to change that.

The district is in the second year of a pilot project that’s prompted the installation of six new snow monitoring sites that can also measure soil moisture, humidity and temperature.

Another project component includes five new stream gauges in the upper reaches of the Conejos basin.

The project has also made use of a federal mobile radar and flights deploying a laser technology that precisely measured the watershed’s surface to get a better handle on the snowpack.

All of these steps result in data that are fed to scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research whom are refining a new forecasting model.

Nathan Coombs, manager of the Conejos district, knows a more accurate forecast model requires years of refinement but he’s encouraged by the project so far.

“We know we’re collecting better, usable data,” he said.

That’s a big improvement given that prior to the last two years, the 92-mile long Conejos had no snow gauges above its main stem and lacked stream flow gauges on many of its tributaries.

The lack of information can make it difficult for Colorado to predict its annual obligation under the Rio Grande Compact…

The Colorado Office of the State Engineer has traditionally used forecasts from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation to project how big or small stream flows will be.

And the engineer’s office imposes curtailments on water users along both the Rio Grande and the Conejos to ensure delivery obligations are met.

Curtailments on the Conejos can often reach 30 percent and the timing of the restrictions can be exacerbated by an inaccurate forecast. “It’s headgates that are closed,” Coombs said. “It’s real, wet water that’s no longer available.”

Money for the project came from a wide range of funders.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a $383,000 grant.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also pitched in.

The Conejos district contributed $25,000, more than 10 percent of its annual budget.

But there are still some steps Coombs hopes to see happen that could further improve data collection for forecasting.

Right now the district’s highest snow gauge is at 10,500 feet in elevation, which excludes large swaths of the snowpack that run off in June.

“All of our late snow that throws our forecast completely out the window is above that,” Coombs said.

One solution to measuring that snowpack was a mobile radar unit stationed in Alamosa during the project’s first year that helped measure the intensity of late spring storms.

Coombs expects that unit to be back next year.

But a longer term solution may emerge from work with the U.S. Forest Service.

The district hopes to install snow gauges in the 161,000-acre South San Juan Wilderness, a move that would require forest service approval.

The wilderness area sits above the district’s gauges and is a monitoring blind spot.

It’s also home to a slew of important Conejos tributaries such as Elk Creek, and the South, Middle and Adams’ forks.

The end game of all the data collection and the work by federal scientists on the forecast model will give water managers a fuller picture of what’s coming downstream.

“Whether you have a compact or not, the priorities turn on and off because of what’s available,” Coombs said. “And if you know the why of what’s available, now you can start making management decisions.”

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.