#RioGrande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Although the liquid that attorneys argue about evaporates quickly, legal battles around water do not.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Attorney David Robbins, who has been on the forefront of many of those battles over the years, updated the water district board this week on several ongoing cases of water litigation.

One of the most significant cases revolves around the groundwater rules promulgated by the state engineer about a year ago. About 30 responses were filed to the rules, some for them and some objecting to portions of the rules.

The Division of Water Resources staff has been trying to work with objectors to resolve their concerns short of trial. However, if the objections cannot be resolved, they will go to trial in January of 2018.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said, “We have met with all of the objectors at least once, most multiple times. We are working out stipulated agreements, getting closer on some of those. We will be continuing to work with those people and see if we can come up with agreements.”

Cotten said the goal is not to need the eight-week trial presently scheduled for early 2018. Robbins said the judge asked parties objecting to the rules to file notices stating specifically what they objected to, such as the model or data the rules rely upon. The parties have done that, he said, and now the state has the opportunity to respond.

Robbins said some objectors are working out stipulated agreements with the state, which will resolve their concerns short of trial. For example, water users with wells in the confined aquifer system in the Alamosa-La Jara and Conejos Response Areas, who objected to the sustainability criteria in the rules, are working out a stipulated agreement with the state. Robbins said he did not think the RGWCD would have any reason to object to the stipulation but he has asked for the documentation.

“The groundwater rules/regulations case is moving along. Judge Swift is doing a good job herding the cats. The state continues to work hard to try to resolve some of the objections so they can winnow it down to people who have concerns they want to pursue before the court,” Robbins said.

Robbins is also monitoring other ongoing cases such as:

• Bureau of Land Management augmentation plan for wells at the Blanca Habitat Area, which could potentially impact flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers and for which BLM must identify replacement sources for those impacts;

• A Saguache Creek area individual augmentation plan for which Robbins questions the sufficiency of replacements for depletions;

• The City of Alamosa change of water rights case related to the golf course, which is pending information review;

• A case south of the Rio Grande and west of Alamosa revolving around the question of whether recharge replacement can carry over from year to year;

• The Santa Maria Reservoir change case to provide reservoir water for replacement for plans of water management such as those set up in the RGWCD’s subdistricts , and for which a trial is scheduled in April 2017, with James Werner the sole objector remaining;

• Three cases proposing to move water around to provide replacements for well depletions , including one for the City of Alamosa;

• The Texas vs. New Mexico /Colorado compact compliance case, which is being overseen by a special master who has indicated he will deny a motion to dismiss the case;

• Center for Biodiversity’s suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout as endangered, a case in which the RGWCD has not become involved but is considering whether it should, favoring the opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service that the trout is not endangered.

RGWCD Board Member Bill McClure cautioned against the district spending dollars and time on cases that were already well represented by other agencies. Robbins agreed and said that is why he had not recommended that the district become directly involved in the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout suit, as the US Fish and Wildlife Services is already handling it.

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Colorado will end the year with a credit in Rio Grande Compact accounting.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday it appears both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems will end 2016 on the plus side, with the Rio Grande reflecting about 7,000 acre feet credit at this point and the Conejos River system less than 1,000 acre feet credit.

“We try to over deliver just slightly so there’s no issue with downstream states,” Cotten said.

Colorado must deliver water to New Mexico and Texas according to the Rio Grande Compact. Cotten explained that the annual flow on the Rio Grande this year will be about 670,000 acre feet, which is not a bad water year, especially considering some of the previous dry years in the Rio Grande Basin.

He said that of the 670,000 acre feet, the Rio Grande would owe 190,800 acres feet or about 28 percent, to its downstream neighbors through the Rio Grande Compact . The river has met that obligation and then some, Cotten added. At this point, it appears the Rio Grande will have over-delivered about 7,000 acre feet.

There are currently zero curtailments on Rio Grande users and slight if any curtailments since the beginning of September.

The Conejos River system came closer to its obligation without sending too much extra downstream, according to Cotten.

The annual index flow on the Conejos system will be about 280,000 acre feet, of which about a third, or 95,400 acre feet, was obligated to downstream states.

“We will be close on the Compact delivery, within 1,000 acre feet,” Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday. “We are close to where we want to be on the Conejos.”

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Southern San Luis Valley water users took charge of their future on Tuesday as they became the third group to form a water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The sponsoring district board unanimously accepted petitions for its latest subdistrict, which encompasses 141 wells covering 170 parcels of land in Conejos County.

The sub-districts are designed to provide an alternative to individual well regulation by grouping wells in geographic or hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), which as a group replaces its injurious depletions to surface water rights. Sub-districts are also beginning to repair long-term depletions to the Valley’s aquifer system caused by well pumping.

Sub-district participants pay fees, which are used to buy water and/or provide incentives to reduce pumping. In the sub-district presented on Tuesday, participants will be assessed fees per well and per acre foot of water.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Amber Pacheco presented to the sponsoring district board on Tuesday petitions representing 141 of a potential 198 wells in Sub-district #3. Nathan Coombs and LeRoy Salazar, who were part of the group that formed the subdistrict, were also present for the petition presentation to the RGWCD board.

Pacheco told the board staff and working group members had been working on this third sub-district for many months. Once they had information from the groundwater model, which determines depletions, the group was able to move forward.

Pacheco said the group was very successful in persuading well owners to join the sub-district , which is an “opt-in” sub-district. People had to choose to join. The first sub-district, on the other hand, was drawn up to cover a specific geographical area in the Valley’s closed basin region, and the work group then had to gather petitions from at least 51 percent of the landowners and 51 percent of the land.

Pacheco said efforts were made to contact every well owner in the Conejos subdistrict to give them the opportunity to join the subdistrict. Only one well owner, whose address was in Florida, did not respond at all, and another did not want to be involved. Both of those wells had not been used in a while.

Four other well owners opted out, not because they were against the sub-district but because they had other plans for their properties, and 21 wells belonging to governments such as towns or school districts indicated they would like to contract with the sub-district but could not participate directly, Pacheco explained.

She added a number of well owners decided to move their wells to exempt status so they would not fall under the groundwater rule process, for example downgrading them to stock or domestic wells, and a couple of well owners planned to seek abandonment of their wells.

All of the irrigation wells in the third sub-district are included, however, Pacheco said.

After receiving the petitions, RGWCD staff verified ownership and legal descriptions before presenting them to the board.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson who commended the staff who completed that process. He also commended the residents who have been working on this for some time.

“The people have been great to work with,” Pacheco added.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the process now is to file the petitions with the district court in Conejos County (because that is where the land lies in this subdistrict) and seek the court’s approval for the sub-district’s formation. The court must hold a hearing no less than 60 days and no more than 90 days after receiving the petitions , he added. Individuals with questions or challenges against the sub-district formation may express those to the court.

“With our participation basically 100 percent, we would hope we wouldn’t see much of a protest to the formation of the sub-district ,” Pacheco said.

If there are no challenges, the court will enter an order forming the sub-district , and a board of managers can then be appointed and a plan of management prepared, Robbins explained.

That plan will be submitted to the state engineer’s officer for approval.

The first sub-district , which is one of the largest and most complicated, has been in operation for a few years now, and the second sub-district in the alluvium of the Rio Grande was officially formed in March of this year and is currently working on its plan of water management.

Pacheco said progress is also being made in sub-districts in the San Luis Creek, Saguache and Alamosa/La Jara areas. She said the goal is to have the remainder of the sub-districts in front of the court by early next year.

RGWCD staff has been meeting with entities such as the towns of La Jara and Saguache and the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District to discuss their options for contracting with sub-districts. Discussions are also occurring with federal agencies.

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

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.