San Luis Valley: State Engineer hopes to settle new rules prior to trial

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The Court for Water Division No. 3 is expected to set a trial date later this month for the proposed state groundwater rules in the San Luis Valley.

That trial date may not come until 2017, according to a draft case management order filed with the court Friday, but a long window before the trial may help State Engineer Dick Wolfe with his goal of coming to an agreement with objectors before trial.

To date, 29 parties have filed comments, although at least three of them did so in support of the rules.

The rules would cover the roughly 4,500 wells that draw off either of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies.

The unconfined aquifer is the shallower of the two and is recharged both by streamflow at the valley’s edge and by return flows from irrigation.

The confined aquifer is recharged mainly by streamflows on the valley rim, sits beneath the unconfined aquifer and holds artesian pressure.

Both are hydraulically connected, in varying degrees, to stream flows in the valley, meaning that groundwater pumping can injure surface water users.

The rules are designed to protect surface water users and restore aquifer levels by requiring groundwater users to either join a groundwater subdistrict, create an augmentation plan, or create a substitute water supply plan.

All three would require the mitigation of pumping impacts as determined by a staterun computer model that simulates the behavior of the valley’s groundwater.

Comments were filed by 21 parties at the end of November, although the court extended the comment period because of problems noticing the rules in the north end of the valley.

Many of those comments focused on whether the state’s groundwater model was sufficient for the rules.

Since then eight others have also weighed in.

As with previous objectors, there were two protestors among the latest group who argue that the rules only be approved to the extent that the groundwater model is accurate. Other objections focus on the proposed process the engineer’s office would use to set an irrigation season. The subdistrict operating under the Trinchera Water Conservancy District has also entered a protest, calling for the rules to allow it to submit a groundwater management plan. While the valley’s existing subdistrict and the four other proposed ones would all operate under a groundwater management plan, Trinchera is unique in that it is the only subdistrict not operating under the umbrella of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Trinchera is in Costilla County, which is not a part of the Rio Grande district.
The state law that allows for the creation of conservancy districts does not make clear whether Trinchera can create a groundwater management plan.

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

Water rules costly for [Alamosa] — the Valley Courier

Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912
Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Complying with the state groundwater rules will not be painless or cheap for the City of Alamosa.

The city, like hundreds of well owners throughout the San Luis Valley, will have to comply with the recently filed state groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin.

City staff and legal counsel Erich Schwiesow have already been preparing for the inevitable compliance.

Well owners who must comply with the groundwater rules must join a water management sub-district or submit their own augmentation plans to the water court. The city of Alamosa is submitting an augmentation plan that will detail how the city plans to comply with the rules so it can continue pumping water from its wells for municipal use.

Schwiesow updated the Alamosa city council during a recent work session on the compliance process, and City Manager Heather Brooks updated the council on the compliance cost.

Brooks estimated the city’s cost to comply with the rules would be about $2.1 million. The rules require those who are pumping water from wells which constitutes the city’s water supply to replace the injuries their well pumping causes to surface water rights and to help restore the basin’s underground aquifer system. In Alamosa’s case, Schwiesow said the city must repair injuries to three rivers in the Valley, the Rio Grande, Conejos and Alamosa Rivers.

The city does not yet possess enough water rights to make up for its calculated injuries and sustainability obligations, so city staff members are currently negotiating for one water purchase that would help take care of that problem but may need to make more than one water purchase.

“We are looking for surface water and we are looking for groundwater,” Schwiesow said.

Brooks said the purchase the city is currently negotiating would be for surface water rights, but finding groundwater to help the city meet its sustainability obligations might be more difficult.

“We’ve been looking. There’s just not a lot out there,” she said.

The cost of the water rights is part of the $2.1 million compliance cost, with other portions including legal fees and possible water storage costs. Brooks said initial estimates were much higher than that, at about 3 million.

Bringing that cost down, Schwiesow and Brooks told the council, is the fact the city will receive credit for its accretions, the water it puts back into the system from the wastewater treatment plant. In fact the city has surplus accretion credits of 800 acre feet annually it is offering for bid starting at $250 an acre foot for a five-year lease. See the city’s web site at http://cityofalamosa.org/ultimate-auction/augmentation-credit/

Schwiesow explained that the city has made an application in the water court to exchange the accretion credits it has below Alamosa farther upstream on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers to cover depletions the city is obligated to replace on those two rivers.

How much the city will have to replace is determined by a groundwater model that predicts how the pumping of certain groups of wells, designated in “response areas ,” affects surface streams, Schwiesow explained. Alamosa is in the Alamosa/La Jara Response Area, he said.

He also gave a hydrology lesson to the city council about how water melting from snow in the mountains recharges the San Luis Valley’s aquifer system and how the water under the Valley floor is divided by clay into unconfined (more shallow) and confined (deeper) aquifers , but there is connectivity between the aquifers. The city’s potable water wells are located in the deeper confined aquifer ranging in depth from 1,400-1,700 feet, according to Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg. The city has a total of seven wells.

Schwiesow also gave the council a water history lesson about priority being given to water rights on the basis of when they were first granted, with older rights having more seniority. Groundwater rights are very junior, he explained, because the wells were drilled long after water rights were granted to those using the surface streams. However, the state has not administered the wells in the past under the priority system, and a prior attempt to do so failed. The state was successful , however, in issuing moratoriums on drilling new wells both in the confined and unconfined aquifers, Schwiesow explained to the council.

Last fall the state promulgated rules requiring the junior groundwater rights to replace depletions they are causing to surface streams, and although filed, those rules are not yet in effect, pending challenges being resolved in court, Schwiesow added.

Councliman Charles Griego asked about how soon the city had to come into compliance with the state water rules. Schwiesow said the city has to be in a sub-district or have an augmentation plan or substitute supply plan within a year after the rules are finally approved by the court.

Griego asked why the city was in such a hurry to put the augmentation plan together now if the legal process could take years before the rules are finally approved.

“Because it takes time,” Schwiesow said, “and we want to be ahead of the curve. If we wait until the rules are approved, we can’t get it done in a year. It’s a long process.”

He added, “We can’t just sit here and wait until the court cases are over.”

The council talked about the role of the weather and climate in the basin’s diminished aquifer levels and how important it is to emphasize conservation measures with city water customers. Brooks said city staff is looking at ways the city itself can conserve water, perhaps implementing more xeriscaping for example.

“We could do a better job in the conservation piece,” said Councilor Jan Vigil.

Farmers agree to tax those who deplete groundwater — The High Country News

Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos, overlooking the San Luis Valley, April 11, 2015
Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos, overlooking the San Luis Valley, April 11, 2015

From The High Country News (Cally Carswell):

Instead of denying or ignoring the problem, [San Luis Valley] farmers are facing the fact that agriculture has outgrown its water supply. They admit they must live within new limits, or perish. Determined to avoid state intervention, they’ve created an innovative irrigation market, charging themselves to pump and using that money to pay others to fallow their land. Thousands of acres have come out of production, and their sights are set on fallowing tens of thousands more.

Brian Brownell is among those cutting back. When I visited last September, the valley’s potato harvest was in full swing, and dust clouds over fields where farmers were exhuming spuds were visible from miles away. Dust also levitated above a field on Brownell’s farm, but nothing was being harvested. Instead, the Sudan grass he’d planted was being hacked to pieces and tilled into the soil. He’d received $96,000 for putting 480 of his 1,680 acres into this “green manure” instead of a more water-hungry and profitable commercial crop.

“Everybody’s pumping too much water,” he said. His gray sideburns bristled on tanned skin, and his lips curved down in thought. “People have to start to buy in to the community thing, instead of ‘me,’ ‘my farm,’ ‘my deal.’ ”

This time, farmers are scrambling to save local agricultural not from outsiders who covet their water, but from themselves.

“It’s only going to work,” said Brownell, “if everybody does something to save the water.”

The San Luis Valley’s 8,000 square miles are flat as plywood, hemmed in by the San Juan Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Sangre de Cristos, a dramatic wall of serrated peaks edged by sand dunes that seem plucked from a North African desert. The valley’s 46,000 residents live in scattered small towns, beneath lonely willows and cottonwoods, and around highway outposts where a few stores merit a mark on a map. It’s a tough place to live, and attracts some unconventional folks: The valley is home to hot springs (and a communal kitchen) frequented by nudists, an alligator farm, a community of 1,500 with 23 spiritual centers, and a UFO watchtower unimpaired by light pollution, where camping costs $10 a night.

But mostly, there are farms — big ones. The center-pivot sprinklers here are among the most tightly packed in the world, and their hulking aluminum spines give the valley floor the illusion of topography. The annual harvest — largely potato, barley and alfalfa — is worth some $300 million, and without it, a number of the towns probably wouldn’t exist. There are no mines, no ski resorts, no gas wells. Alamosa, the biggest town at 8,937 residents, boasts a small college and a hospital. Almost everything else — the fertilizer and tractor dealers, the Safeway, the county governments and K-12 schools — is supported primarily by money from the fields.

At a more basic level, everything runs on irrigation water. From the 1850s, when Hispanic settlers dug the first ditches, until the 1950s, most of that water was diverted from the Rio Grande and its tributaries and flooded onto fields. Then, drought and technological innovation spurred a well-drilling boom. Groundwater nursed crops through dry years and the late season, when rivers shrank. Soon, center-pivot sprinklers were hooked up to wells, watering crops evenly and efficiently all season long, and many farmers started irrigating exclusively with wells, using river water merely to recharge the aquifer. Marginal land became profitable, crop yields — and water consumption — grew, and large-scale commercial agriculture came into its own.

For decades, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, also called the State Engineer’s Office, granted well permits as generously as dentists dispense toothbrushes, ignoring basic hydrology. The water in the ground and the rivers was connected, and voracious well-pumping could lower streamflows — a serious problem, since the river water was already claimed. Following the logic of prior appropriation — the Westwide system that gives priority to those with the oldest water rights — wells that were connected to streams should only pump after older river irrigators are sated. But the opposite happened. In the late ’60s, the state clamped down on river irrigators to comply with the Rio Grande Compact, which requires Colorado to leave water in the river for Texas and New Mexico. Well owners, meanwhile, pumped happily away.

In 1975, the State Engineer tried to phase out a slew of wells, but a court encouraged a softer approach. Wells were drilled in the valley’s “closed basin,” where streams don’t drain to the Rio Grande. They sipped gingerly from a high water table, “salvaging” what would otherwise evaporate and piping it to the river. The Closed Basin Project seemed like a win-win: Wells kept pumping, river irrigators got water, and regulators backed off. It produced less water than expected, but the ’80s and ’90s were so wet that few people cared. Mother Nature bought rounds for everyone.

San Luis Valley unconfined aquifer storage up 119,000 acre-feet

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

For the second year in a row, water o–cials have seen a recovery in one of the aquifers that farmers lean on heavily in the San Luis Valley.

The unconfined aquifer, which is the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies, saw its volume increase by 119,000 acre-feet.

That bump follows an increase of 71,000 acre-feet from the year before.

“If these last couple of years could just continue, it would be wonderful,” said Allen Davey, an engineer for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We’ve seen significant recovery.”

The district maintains a network of monitoring wells in the north-central part of the valley and has kept track of the shallow aquifer’s levels since 1976.

The last two years have marked a reversal from a 13-year run that saw the shallow aquifer drop by more than a million acre-feet due to drought and over-pumping…

Davey credited the improvements of the last two years to e€orts by Subdistrict No. 1 to reduce pumping.

The subdistrict, which lies in the north-central part of the valley, levies a fee on its members for pumping to raise money for land fallowing and also to pay for damages pumping causes to surface water supplies.

Davey cited pumping records from 2000 that showed well pumping withdrew 391,000 acrefeet from the shallow aquifer. He expects that figure to come in at around 230,000 acre-feet this year.

Some subdistrict members also enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to fallow their land.

So far, 5,854 acres of land had been fallowed under the program. There were 109 wells associated with that acreage that pumped roughly 10,000 acre-feet annually.

The volume of the shallow aquifer would have to improve by roughly another 700,000 acre-feet to meet the management objectives laid out by the subdistrict.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With the cooperation of “Mother Nature” and San Luis Valley irrigators, aquifer levels in the Rio Grande Basin are improving.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Rob Phillips , who oversees the water district’s first sub-district , reported to the board on Tuesday that the unconfined aquifer generally in the area encompassed by the subdistrict had recovered by 119,469 acre feet between September 2014 and September 2015. That is the largest recovery in the unconfined aquifer storage in that area since 2007.

RGWCD District Engineer Allen Davey added, “We have seen significant recovery.”

He said the aquifer has had a couple of good years, which hopefully will continue.

The recovery is encouraging , given that this area of the aquifer has declined by more than one million acre feet since a long-term monitoring study began in 1976.

“We have just seen great recovery this last couple of years,” Davey said. “The runoffs haven’t been really above average, but it’s just been great recovery.”

At least some of that recovery can be attributed to farmers and ranchers in Subdistrict #1 who are reducing the amount of water they pump or paying for water to make up for their depletions.

Davey said irrigators in the area encompassed by Subdistrict #1 were pumping an estimated 391,000 acre feet of water in 2000. Estimated pumping this year in that same area is 230,000 acre feet, he said.

One of the methods the sub-district has used to motivate irrigators to cut down on their pumping is to promote the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and add sub-district incentives on top of the normal CREP payments to encourage farmers to enroll in CREP.

Phillips said 16 new CREP contracts are in place for the 2016 fiscal year, with 10 of those involving permanent groundwater retirement. These new contracts involve 36 wells that would otherwise be pumping 2,900 acre feet a year, Phillips explained.

Davey said he attributed the aquifer recovery to two reasons: reduced pumping; and “some cooperation from Mother Nature.”

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the weather service’s forecast for the next few months and even longer calls for above average precipitation for this area.

“Hopefully that will come true and we will have a good year,” he said.

Cotten said the basin snowpack as of January 14 was 112 percent of normal, including both the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains . (Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, said the Medano snowpack was 157 percent of average on Tuesday.)

“If we can keep that up through the end of the snowpack season, we should have a really good year,” Cotten said.

Two years in a row the annual flows on the Rio Grande were close to the long-term average, Cotten added, with 2015 ending up with 665,000 acre feet annual index flow, which is the first time in quite a few years the river has had an above average flow . The long-term average is 650,000 acre feet. The Rio Grande more than met its Rio Grande Compact obligations and actually over delivered water to downstream states in 2015, Cotten said. The Rio Grande wound up the year with 8,700 acre feet credit. The Conejos River system, which is also included in the compact with New Mexico and Texas, had a slight deficit in what it owed, under-delivering about 1,400 acre feet. However, the compact incorporates the two river systems so in total the state of Colorado ended 2015 with a Rio Grande Compact credit.

San Luis Valley groundwater rules responses

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

Click here to read the first article in Ruth Heide’s series about responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules.

Here’s the second article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:

Some well users in the San Luis Valley are asking the water court to reject a portion of the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules regarding sustainability .

In its statement of opposition to the rules, SLV Confined Aquifer Sustainability, Inc. (CAS), a group founded in 2014 and representing water users with wells in the confined aquifer system in the Alamosa-La Jara and Conejos Response Areas, asked the court to reject the section of the rules regarding sustainability on the basis that section is “arbitrary, confiscatory, inconsistent with Colorado statutes and the Colorado Constitution, speculative, and unsupported by sound science and existing data.”

CAS members were part of the group assisting the state engineer in developing the rules and commended the state engineer for the process he followed in including many diverse interests and groups. CAS supported much of the rules but had concerns about some portions.

“These response areas face significant challenges in meeting the proposed rules,” the group’s response stated. “Not only must they replace injurious well depletions to multiple streams; they are presented with onerous sustainability requirements that may not be achievable.”

One of the objectives of the rules is to bring artesian pressures back (and maintain them) to the level they were between 1978 and 2000, and CAS argued that there is not enough data from that time period to know reliably what the pressure levels were then.

CAS argued the information regarding that time period was incomplete, limited or nonexistent.

The state plans to gather data from monitoring wells from the present forward in order to estimate pressure levels from 1978-2000 , and CAS supported the data collection as useful but stated, “attempting to determine the pressure levels that existed between 1978 and 2000 on the basis of data from 2015 forward cannot provide reliable results.”

Many of the monitoring wells did not exist before this year, “and the reliability of the data to be gathered is untested,” CAS argued. “It is and will be unknown how these monitoring wells can be used in determining and protecting sustainability until they have been in operation for a longer time.”

The state plans to conduct a 10-year study of these new monitoring wells, and CAS argued that any cutbacks on well usage before the 10 years were up would “result in the taking of vested property rights without compensation.”

The only pressure levels that could be relied on at this time, CAS argued, are the ones in existence before this year, so the state engineer should only focus on preserving and improving the pressure levels of 2015.

CAS argued that the state engineer does not have the information he needs to promulgate the sustainability rules at this time, so the court should reject that portion of the rules.

CAS also argued that the rules maintain the confined aquifer can be controlled by limiting withdrawals when there are other factors that can affect aquifer pressures such as climate, geologic conditions, inflows and outflows and the location of withdrawals.

CAS stated, “The pressure levels within the confined aquifer system during the period of 1978 through 2000, upon which the sustainability provisions of the proposed rules are based, may be impossible to restore through curtailment of withdrawals from confined aquifer wells without an improvement in climatic conditions and water supply.”

Other complaints the group had with the groundwater rules included:

  • the method used to estimate groundwater withdrawals , which CAS argued was inaccurate and would deprive well owners of their legitimate property rights;
  • requirements differing for confined aquifer wells depending on where they are located in the basin, which CAS argued was a violation of state statute (” aquifers of the same type in the same water division shall be governed by the same rules regardless of where situated);
  • the confined aquifer system wells were inappropriately grouped and that wells outside a given response area could still affect aquifer pressures within that response area;
  • the rules should have allowed for a sub-district for the confined aquifer wells in the basin, as a group, which CAS stated retired Chief District/Water Judge O. John Kuenhold had required when the sub-district process began
  • under the rules, estimated reduction in water withdrawals for confined aquifer irrigators would be disproportionately high, for example approximately 35 percent in the Conejos Response Area, contrary to state statute standards that “any reduction in underground water usage required by such rules shall be the minimum necessary to meet the standards “” CAS stated in its protest to the rules that 35 percent reduction would not be the minimum required to meet the standards and senior water rights would be protected and sustainability standards met by a reduction of much less than 35 percent.
  • time limits for complying with the 1978-2000 sustainability requirement are too short and too “onerous.” Rather than a 10-year time frame as set in the rules, CAS argued a 20-year time frame would be more appropriate.

Here’s the third article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:

While some well users objecting to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules argue they went too far, some surface water users objecting to the rules argue they do not go far enough.

Collaborating on one statement of opposition, several Conejos County farmers and ranchers asked the water court not to approve the state engineer’s rules until the groundwater model used to determine how much well users should “pay back” injured surface water rights was “correctly designed and calibrated.”

Specifically , the Conejos County landowners maintained the computer groundwater model did not accurately reflect the injurious depletions well users have caused residents with surface water rights on Arroya Springs and Arroya Creek. Namely, the groundwater model does not show any injuries on those streams because they were dried up as a result of well pumping before the model was developed, objectors stated.

That does not mean well users shouldn’t make up for those injuries, the Conejos County surface water right owners added.

“Groundwater withdrawals from the confined aquifer predominantly by wells junior in priority to the protestors’ water rights have caused the potentiometric head of the confined aquifer in the vicinity of Arroya Springs and Arroya Creek to decrease,” the objectors stated.

They estimated that the aquifer potentiometric head had declined in the vicinity of Arroya Springs 25 feet between 1970 and 2014, adding, “There is a strong inverse correlation between groundwater withdrawals in the vicinity of Arroya Springs and the flow of water from Arroya Springs.”

As more water was diverted by wells from the 1930s to the early 1970s, the Conejos County water users stated , the flow from Arroya Springs decreased. From 1916-1923 , the flows in Arroya Springs ranged from 22-58 .3 cubic feet per second (cfs), they stated, but by 1967, the flow had decreased to 7 cfs, by 1975 to 3 cfs, by 2009 to 1 cfs and by 2013 the Arroya was dry.

To put it another way, annual diversions from Arroya Creek and Arroya Springs declined from more than 9,000 acre feet in 1937 to 655 acre feet in 1964.

Objectors said Arroya Springs was recharged by precipitation, seepage from La Jara Creek and irrigation ditch seepage and return flows . Even though the development of irrigation ditches may have increased the amount of water that discharged at Arroya Springs, the springs existed and discharged water prior to that development, the objectors stated. The groundwater rules will not preserve the priority water system and replace injurious depletions caused by well usage, as they are set up to do, if they rely on a groundwater model that does not take into account depletions to the Arroya Creek and Springs, objectors stated. They added it would be unlikely groundwater users would voluntarily develop an alternative model showing depletions to Arroya because then they would have to replace water to those streams.

Objectors argued that the proposed rules violate state statute because the model the rules rely on “does not preserve the priority system of water rights.” The rules should not become effective until the model is correctly designed and calibrated , the objectors stated.

Those listed in this statement of opposition to the rules included: 2 J Ranches Inc.; Charles and Valerie Finnegan; Colin and Karen Henderson; Donald Larsen; Joseph A. Martinez; LeRoy and Rosalie Martinez; Querina Martinez; Edon Ruybal; Dick and Georgann Smith; and Armando and Jessica Valdez. Their surface water rights date back to appropriation dates of 1889 and 1902.

Colin and Karen Henderson , El Sagrado Farm, filed a separate protest urging the state to take into consideration well monitoring data already available in determining what will be required to replenish the aquifer and replace injuries to senior water users. They did not object to further data gathering but said where there is already data available, the state should use it.

“We demand the rules state the data available from monitoring wells collected between 1978 and 2000 be used immediately in subdistrict reparation plans and our water rights be returned to us,” the Hendersons said in their statement of opposition.

They also argued that the state should close down wells, starting with the most junior well rights, until the Arroya Springs flow again. Those closest to the springs should be curtailed first , they added.

The Hendersons attached a well readings graph as documentation for the injuries they and other Conejos County senior water users had sustained. The graph showed measurements between 1983 and 2013. When the water level in the well was above 7628 feet, the Arroya Springs flowed , the Hendersons pointed out, but when the drought of the early 2000’s began, there was less water replenishing the aquifer, but the wells continued to pump, the aquifer level dropped, and the springs stopped flowing.

“This is hard data that can- not be refuted and demands the state take immediate action to repair our water rights,” the Hendersons stated.

In a similar statement of opposition, a group of Conejos County senior water users on the El Codo Ditch, Llano Ditch, Las Sauces Ditch and Chavez Ditch also argued that the groundwater model relied upon by the state engineer’s rules was not correctly designed or calibrated and the rules should not become effective until the model is corrected.

This group also argued that the rules should include additional provisions to require the demonstration of aquifer sustainability progress on an annual basis. They stated that while the rules refer to a 10-year period when the engineer will gather data to determine what the aquifer sustainability requirements should be, during that 10 years well users would be continuing to injure senior water rights “without remedy to an already depleting water source.”

The objectors added, “The lack of a more concise governance to address immediate injury must be addressed to improve current aquifer sustainability levels.”

The protestors stated that groundwater withdrawals had already lowered aquifer levels over time, which negatively affected surface water rights, some of which dated back to 1855 and 1867.

The objectors also stated that they were curtailed in the amount of water they could use from their ditches in order for the state to meet its Rio Grande Compact obligation to downstream states, but well users had no similar curtailment. That essentially meant that the junior groundwater rights superseded the more senior surface rights, they added.

“Groundwater withdrawals have not been subject to curtailment for compact obligations . Meanwhile, groundwater withdrawals have been reducing the aquifer sustainability levels contributing to streams losses and depletions forcing surface water users to contribute increasing amounts of water from their respective decreed water rights to satisfy compact obligations, in lieu of its intended consumptive use,” objectors stated.

As well usage increased from the late 1930s to early 1970s, the objectors stated, the number of days they were curtailed for compact obligations increased.

“The manner in which groundwater withdrawals have been administered have allowed superseding rights to those groundwater withdrawals over the senior priority right of which prior appropriation allows ” Lack of comprehensive rules improperly reallocates to junior wells the water that was previously appropriated by senior surface water rights, including the protestors’ water rights.”

Here’s the fourth article in Ruth Heide’s series about the responses to the San Luis Valley groundwater rules running in the Valley Courier:

This is the fourth and final of a series focusing on the responses filed to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules.

Longwater warrior Kelly Sowards said a mouthful in a few handwritten lines in his statement of opposition to the Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules.

Sowards from Conejos County and Norman Slade from Rio Grande County filed individual statements with concerns about the rules.

Without an attorney or typewriter, Sowards told the water judge the rules should be granted “only in part.” He specifically objected to the 1978-2000 period that the rules and state legislature use as the goal for sustainability in the basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. Sowards objected to the “lack of history and facts” for that period and said this time period was “years after the Conejos system lost all of its return flows and artesian springs flows.”

Sowards also found the rules lacking in that they do not require irrigation wells to pay their fair share of Rio Grande Compact requirements ; “administration of water to comply with Colorado obligation under Rio Grande Compact; “the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater by state not enforcing groundwater usage” ; and the use of Closed Basin Project water for the water management sub-districts .

Slade, who retained attorney John Cyran, generally supported the rules and was present during the many meetings occurring over several years to develop the rules. However, Slade stated he believed the rules could be firmed up in a few areas:

  • provisions to require the curtailment of wells that are not replacing injurious depletions or operating under augmentation or sub-district plans, which are the measures permitted under the rules. Groundwater irrigators who are not replacing injuries to surface water rights through sub-districts or individual augmentation plans are to be curtailed or even shut off. Slade argued that the rules do not include sufficient provisions to require wells to be curtailed if they do not follow the rules.
  • provisions to provide additional flexibility by recognizing methods such as prepayment, banking or advance dedication of water to satisfy sustainability requirements.
  • clarity in what the rules mean by allowing water users to replace injurious stream depletions by contractual remedy. “The proposed rules are unclear as to what types of contractual arrangements are acceptable ‘remedies,” Slade’s statement read, “and it is not clear that such ‘remedies’ are acceptable under Colorado law.”
  • provisions to monitor the effectiveness of the rules and to modify them if they prove ineffective. Slade’s statement argued that the rules should require the state engineer to prepare a report concerning the rules’ effectiveness no later than five years after operation. Based on that report, the state engineer should propose modifications to the rules identifying sources of water for aquifer sustainability or demonstrating why no modification is necessary , Slade stated.
  • reporting requirements for those operating under sub-districts or augmentation plans should include an annual report regarding sustainability, and the rules should require reporting regarding credit allowed under the groundwater model for phreatophytes (plants soaking up groundwater) “or for other depletions that are determined noninjurious.”
  • better define/explain “proportional responsibility” for maintaining a sustainable water supply. Slade concluded by questioning whether the rules would be sufficient in achieving their goal of sustainability in this basin.

“The proposed rules generally may be insufficient to ensure sustainability of the Division 3 surface and ground water supply.”

The groundwater rules also incorporate the irrigation season, and the only objection to that portion came from the San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners, La Jara, who said the portion setting the beginning and ending of the irrigation season should not be approved the way it is written.

These irrigators operate at the southern end of the San Luis Valley and receive some of their water supply from Los Pinos, which travels through northern New Mexico, as well as the San Antonio River, which has divertible flows earlier than other rivers in the Valley. These irrigators also rely on water associated with the Taos Valley Canal No. 3, which historically diverts water in March.

If San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners are not allowed to begin irrigating until April 1, the start date designated in the rules, it might deprive them “of a significant and important portion of their vested water rights,” the group stated.

Diversions in March, they argued, are especially important to them in dry years “due both to the fact that the San Antonio will begin running earlier in the year, the need for augmentation water may be greater in driver years and the relative priority of the water right may result in it being called out earlier in the season.”

The water users stated the irrigation season portion of the rules should be revised to take into account situations like theirs.

They also objected to the compliance time in the rules, maintaining it was too short and should be extended because developing augmentation plans, negotiating agreements and building infrastructure is a lengthy process.

Needing more time may not be the strongest argument of any of the statements of opposition to the rules, since the state engineer has been working on these rules in full view of the public and with public participation since 2009.

Maurice Strong’s big ideas — The Mountain Town News

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best
The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Maurice Strong, a Canadian who made a fortune in oil and then went on to organize the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992—a direct forerunner of the climate change negotiations held in Paris this month—died just before Thanksgiving. He was 86.

At least initially, his passing got little attention in the national and international press. Somewhat belatedly, the UK’s The Telegraph had this observation:

“A very odd thing happened last weekend. The death was announced of the man who, in the past 40 years, has arguably been more influential on global politics than any other single individual. Yet the world scarcely noticed.”

The column, “Farewell to the man who created ‘climate change,’” by Christopher Booker, described Strong as “the man who created ‘climate change’ and drew a direct link to news of today: “And all along it has been Strong’s ideology, enshrined at Rio in “Agenda 21,” which has continued to shape the entire process, centered on the principle that the richer developed countries must pay for a problem they created, to the financial benefit of all those ‘developing countries’ that have been its main victims.”

Maurice and Hanne Strong with Graca Marcel and Nelson Mandela
Maurice and Hanne Strong with Graca Marcel and Nelson Mandela

The Telegraph writer wasn’t fond of Strong, and others in conservative websites similarly reported no sorrow. “Maurice Strong, father of the global eco-control movement,” reported LifeSite USA.

Dig a little deeper, and you can find Strong linked to the Aspen Institute and, of course, Al Gore and then other nefarious people, ideas, and schemes.

People in the San Luis Valley might not have marked his passing with regrets, either—if they even took note. “Maurice who?” asked a waitress at Bliss, an organic restaurant in Crestone, a town at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

She was perhaps 25, so still a baby when Strong’s plan for exporting water from an aquifer underlying the San Luis Valley to Denver’s rapidly expanding suburbs, located about four hours away, was in the news. That was in the early 1990s.

The idea, if now significantly downsized, hasn’t entirely died.

Born into poverty

Strong was born into poverty in Manitoba during the Great Depression and graduated from high school at age 14. He then hopped a train for Vancouver, B.C., working for a year in the merchant marine but soon learned geology. By age 25, he was vice president of a petroleum company in Calgary, Alberta, and by 31 was president of the Power Corporation of Canada. See this short biography from his website.

Early on, he also developed an interest in environmental issues, and by 1972 was involved in putting on a major conference in Stockholm under the auspices of the United Nations. Later that year he was appointed by the UN to launch the Environmental Programme, and he moved to Kenya for several years, as it was based in Kenyatta.

In 1978, by then a billionaire, Strong bought the 200,000-acre Baca Ranch in the San Luis Valley. The ranch was part of an old Spanish land grant (Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4) located between the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the old mining town of Cretonne.

A Buddhist stupa is located on the Baca Ranch, about two miles from Crestone, with the Sangre de Cristo peaks in the background. Photo/Allen Best
A Buddhist stupa is located on the Baca Ranch, about two miles from Crestone, with the Sangre de Cristo peaks in the background. Photo/Allen Best

On the ranch, Strong’s Denmark-born wife, Hanne, created a multi-faith spiritual center. To this day, it has two Buddhist stupas amid the pinyon and juniper, along with houses of worships for other religions, plus scores of houses. The ranch is also a real estate development, but the houses tend toward the unusual, many emphasizing environmental-friendly features. It should be noted that many are also for sale. It’s a better place to go once you’ve made money than a place to make money.

The backdrop is so dramatic, though, that you just might be willing to forego a few paychecks. These are mountains that grip your eyes. They rise from the valley floor, at about 8,000 feet in elevation, with a string of 14,000-foot peaks immediately behind Crestone and the Baca Ranch, with only slight hesitation in their ascension. In the Rocky Mountains, only Wyoming’s Teton Range has greater visual drama.

Lying underfoot

With his geological training, Strong saw opportunity to make money from what lay under his ranch.

In an October 1998 article in Colorado Central, the late Ed Quillen explained the geology. The San Luis Valley is drained by the Rio Grande, but the northern half is geologically separate, with no drainage. Instead, water in this 3,000-square-mile Closed Basin percolates into what is called the Confined Aquifer, with bedrock as much as 30,000 feet below the surface.

By some estimates this aquifer has 50 times the volume of water as the combined capacities of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, or about 200 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.

“The Confined Aquifer is a magnificent water supply that seems to make people go crazy,” Alex Prud’homme observed in his 2011 book, “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century.”

Strong, with others, including former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, formed AWDI, with the intent of exporting up to 200,000 acre-feet a year to cities along Colorado’s Front Range.

Houses on the Baca Ranch tend toward environmental principles and eccentric designs. A great many are also available for sale. Photo/Allen Best
Houses on the Baca Ranch tend toward environmental principles and eccentric designs. A great many are also available for sale. Photo/Allen Best

How much is 200,000 acre-feet? By way of comparison, the total of all of the 25 transmountain diversions in Colorado—including those from near Aspen, Vail, Summit County, Winter Park, and Grand Lake—ranges from 400,000 to 650,000 acre-feet in any given year. In other words, a vast amount.

In the San Luis Valley, though, the plan was hated. The pumping plan was rejected by water courts and in 1991 Colorado Water Court upheld the rejection. In time, The Baca Ranch became protected as the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and with it the water underneath

Strong moved onto other global save-the-environment advocacies, including the Rio conference, but the idea was taken on by Gary Boyce, a native son of the San Luis Valley.

In the late 1990s, Boyce failed in his water-export proposal and The Nature Conservancy stepped in and gained title to the ranch, ceding a portion to the National Park Service for an enlarged (and new) Great Sand Dunes National Park. It had previously been a national monument. That meant water under the Baca Ranch was off limits—but not the even more northerly part of the valley, from around Villa Grove.

It’s back…

Boyce has now returned with another, down-sized proposal. He now proposes to develop 35,000 acre-feet of water. His new business, Sustainable Water Resources, owns 25,000 acres of deeded ranch lands with senior water rights and will purchase remaining water rights from other sources, explains The Crestone Eagle, in a November 2015 story.

In addition, Boyce and his backers have sweetened the pot for locals: $50 million to be donated over the course of 25 years in Saguache County, one of the nation’s most sparsely populated and most impoverished counties.

The same story said that Boyce had approached the Rio Grande Water Conservation District last year in seek of support, offering $150 million “to buy their cooperation,” in the words of David Robbins, the district’s attorney. The board said no.

In October, Boyce’s group went before the Saguache County commissioners seeking assurances the commissioners would not oppose the water export. They took no position.

Does this new idea have any legs whatsoever? I asked that of a prominent farmer from the San Luis Valley that I sat next to at a water meeting in Denver.

“No,” he said, but did not elaborate.

As for Strong, he may be remembered as a great figure who helped alert us to unsustainable environmental follies. He did a great many things with the United Nations and, for a time, was thought to be a possible candidate for the secretary-general.

In an article several decades ago, The New Yorker almost deified him. “The survival of civilization in something like its present form might depend significantly on the efforts of a single man,” it said.

The National Review saw Strong far less favorably. A 1997 article, “Who is Maurice Strong,” described him as somebody who would advance a world government meddling in local affairs, as with “World Heritage Site” at Yellowstone National Park. A 2013 article about environmentalism, “Our Climate Change Cathedral,” unfavorably discussed his influence on global warming activism.

In Colorado, though, he’ll likely be remembered for the big pipeline that didn’t happen—at least not yet.

This story is from the Dec. 10, 2015, issue of Mountain Town News. Subscriptions are $45 a year.