Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

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

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Finding out where the San Luis Valley’s wetlands and irrigated acreage used to be could help determine where they should be in the future.

Chronicling that history to chart a future course is one of the focuses of a proposed watershed assessment project that Wetland Dynamics is seeking funding for. How those wetlands relate to wildlife habitat is another big component.

Cary Aloia and Jenny Nehring of Wetland Dynamics made an initial presentation and request for $37,000 to the Rio Grande Roundtable this week. The formal presentation and decision will be made next month. The project total is $164,000.

Although no one objected to the project, it sparked discussion about whether or not the roundtable should fund a project through an individual business, rather than a nonprofit organization, as previous funding requests have been made.

Aloia and Nehring said they were simply cutting out the middleman, and the costs for the project would probably increase $4,000-10 ,000 if it had to go through a nonprofit, which would take its portion and then contract with Wetland Dynamics to perform the work.

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Program Manager Craig Godbout said individuals and businesses are not eligible for statewide account funds, but individual roundtables have discretion with regard to basin-allocated funds.

“There are no restrictions that I am aware of on what type of entity can be awarded basin accounts,” Godbout said.

Wetland Dynamics is seeking funds allocated to the Rio Grande Basin.

Funding for water projects around the state through CWCB and the basin roundtables is derived from severance tax revenues.

Nehring said this project will provide a Valleywide perspective about how drought and other changes have affected the wetlands that provide habitat to a variety of wildlife. She said several agencies and groups are monitoring their portion of the picture, but this would encompass the entire Valley and bring those agencies and groups together.

Aloia added that this project meets many of the environmental , recreational, agricultural and water administration goals of the roundtable.

She explained that this project will be completed by two entities: Intermountain West Joint Venture, which already has funding in place to provide historic and current wetland and agricultural uses in the Valley through its GIS model (and has completed similar projects in other parts of the western U.S.); and Wetland Dynamics, which will coordinate the project and bring everyone together to identify priority species, future water delivery projects and the best way to use water and land to benefit habitat.

“We are working cooperatively and collaboratively,” Aloia said.

Nehring said historical information is available as far back as the 1870’s through General Land Office surveys, which can be coupled with imagery captured from 1984 to the present. She said this information will show how wet areas in the Valley have ebbed and flowed through the years.

This information will help determine where habitats still exist and areas that can be targeted for conservation.

Nehring said Intermountain West Joint Venture will begin its work next month and will complete its part of the project in 18-24 months. Wetland Dynamics plans to complete its portion next year and will spread the $37,000 over a two-year period.

Aloia said there is a great deal of information, but it is in different places and with different agencies.

“We need to compile all of that,” she said.

Then priority species lists will be compiled and habitat areas identified for those species. All of the groups will then be able to cooperatively manage their water better to serve those habits, Aloia explained.

Brian Sullivan, wetlands program coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the department sees many benefits for this project and is firmly behind it. For example, it will provide information on the quantity and quality of wetlands for wildlife habitat and will help justify financial investments in the basin, he said.

Sullivan said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has pledged $46,000 towards this project, and he urged the roundtable to also support it. He said this project would be a great tool, “and you can’t have too many tools in the tool box.”

Kevin Terry, Rio Grande project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, added his endorsement of the project. One of the benefits , he said, would be consolidation of data in one place where it would be accessible to the different agencies.

Aloia said another outgrowth of the project will be identification of knowledge gaps, which can be the basis for future projects.

“It will highlight things we still don’t know,” she said. “It’s really a stepping stone for future projects.”

It will identify, for example , places where there could be restoration projects in the future to help bring back water resources that were present historically but are no longer present, she explained.

The information gathering and assessment will encompass the Valley floor up to 8,500 feet. Roundtable member Ed Nielsen said this sounds like a good project, but he believed it needed to encompass the mountains and headwaters too. He said it seems fragmented at this point.

Nehring said this a joint venture, and Intermountain West Joint Venture is setting the scope of this project. Aloia added that agricultural use, which is a key component of this project, is centered on the Valley floor.

Sullivan explained that the focus is on the irrigated landscape, which is where the biggest changes in wetlands have occurred.

Former Rio Grande Roundtable Board Chairman Mike Gibson said he personally had a problem with the roundtable funding an individual entity, because requests in the past have come through nonprofit organizations or state agencies. He said it had nothing to do with Wetland Dynamics, but he was concerned about the roundtable losing control over how money is administered and spent if the roundtable starts funding individual entities. He said he believed the roundtable had more oversight over projects going through nonprofit groups.

“I have a real concern,” he said.

Roundtable member Travis Smith said this is a worthy project, but it sounded like the roundtable needed to clarify some protocol issues.

“This application is about shared partnerships and getting agencies to talk to each other about water resources,” Smith said.

Roundtable member Dale Pizel said this seemed like a good project and he would hate for it not to be conducted simply because the roundtable had never funded projects through individual businesses before.

“If we need to have that discussion, let’s have it,” he said.

Roundtable member Judy Lopez agreed the discussion needed to be held. She also agreed this was a good project but was taking the roundtable into uncharted territory.

She asked if Billy Bob’s Excavating came in with a request for river restoration funding, would the roundtable fund it?

Pizel said if it fit with the roundtable’s goals, he did not have a problem funding “Billy Bob.” He said every project needs to have oversight to make sure it is performed correctly and fiscally responsibly.

Lopez said she did not think anyone had a doubt about how fiscally responsible Wetland Dynamics would be, but the roundtable needed to determine if it wanted to open this door and decide who could go through it. She said Aloia and Nehring are people of integrity, and this project meets many of the roundtable’s goals.

Godbout said his office requires reports and specific information, and he reviews that information carefully. He said he makes sure that the invoices match the work completed.

Roundtable member Rio de la Vista said, “So there is some oversight I think we can feel good about.”

Roundtable member Ron Brink said he was apprehensive about opening the gates to this type of funding.

Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs said, “The door can be opened. Just because it has not been opened doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We should look at the project on its merits, if it accomplishes our goals.”

San Luis Valley: Talks continue on new groundwater rules — The Pueblo Chieftain

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):

Although a trial for new groundwater regulations in the San Luis Valley isn’t set until January 2018, State Engineer Dick Wolfe said his staff is working toward settlements to avoid that court date.

Wolfe told a Thursday meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission that efforts to compromise with the 30 objectors in the case have been underway for a few months.

“I’m very optimistic we’re going to be successful working through those issues with those other objectors in hopes to reach stipulation with all of those objectors and hopefully avoid going to trial,” he said.

Wolfe’s office submitted rules to the valley’s water court in September.

They were the first attempt by the state to issue comprehensive groundwater rules for the valley since the 1970s, when a previous effort never reached implementation.

The rules governing the roughly 4,500 highcapacity irrigation wells that tap into the valley’s two large aquifers require users to join a subdistrict, have an augmentation plan, or at least a temporary water supply plan.

The aim of the rules is to mitigate the impact of groundwater pumping on the valley’s streams and rivers, which are hydraulically connected to the aquifers in varying degrees. The objections to the rules cover a number of issues but many question the use of the state’s Rio Grande Decision Support System, a computer model that’s used in the calculation of stream loss caused by pumping.

But even if the rules do end up at trial, working toward settlements now can still pay off, Wolfe said.

“Even if we don’t ultimately get to an agreement with all those objectors we hope to at least limit the number of objectors so ultimately that would have to go to trial and the number of issues we would have to litigate,” he said.

Groundwater rules trial is scheduled — The Valley Courier

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Rules changing the way well owners operate in the San Luis Valley will go to trial in 2018.

Rio Grande Water Users Association Attorney Bill Paddock told that group of water users during their annual meeting on Thursday that a trial date has been set to hear objections to the rules, which the state filed last fall. The court has scheduled the trial to begin on January 2, 2018.

One of the reasons for setting the trial so far out is the amount of time the trial could take. The judge has scheduled up to eight weeks for the trial, Paddock said.

He reminded the group that 30 statements of opposition were filed in response to the state’s groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. About half of those “statements of opposition” were in favor of the rules and about half against. The only method to voice support for the rules was to file a “statement of opposition.”

The groundwater rules focus on protecting senior water rights, promoting sustainability and upholding the state’s Rio Grande Compact with downstream states. The rules require wells in the basin to make up for the injuries they have caused surface water rights or face the possibility of being shut down.

Paddock said the objections to the rules range from concerns about the irrigation season, which is specified as part of the rules, to challenges about how the state plans to determine and enforce the sustainability requirement that is part of the water rules.

Paddock said the sustainability issue was likely the strongest piece of the legal challenge. The state is requiring water users to bring the confined, or deeper, aquifer back to the level it was during the period of 1978-2000 , but the state does not have enough data to determine what those levels should be, so it will be collecting further data to enforce that portion of the rules.

Paddock said some water users, such as those in the Alamosa/La Jara area defined in the rules, have not changed how much they have pumped since that 1978-2000 period, while other areas of the Valley have experienced dramatic changes in pumping since that time.

“That’s going to be the biggest issue,” Paddock said.

He said the state would begin negotiating with objectors to see if it can work out some of their concerns short of trial. He said he was optimistic a number of issues people have raised could be resolved simply through those negotiations or as legal questions decided by the judge.

If that is the case, the courts will not be looking at an eight-week trial but something less than that, possibly 4-6 weeks, Paddock said.

“On the confined aquifer sustainability issue, there is likely to be a trial,” he said, “and if that’s the issue it’s likely to be a 4-6-week trial because of the complexity of the problem and the number of expert witnesses who will have to testify.”

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

Groundwater subdistrict plan advances in San Luis Valley

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The second groundwater management subdistrict in the San Luis Valley cleared an initial hurdle earlier this week.

Rio Grande County District Court Judge Pattie Swift approved the formation of Subdistrict No. 2, although the finalization of a water management plan remains.

There were no protests or objections filed with the court, according to Swift’s order.

The subdistrict lies roughly along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, and only includes landowners who volunteered to join.

It takes in 230 groundwater wells. As with its larger predecessor — Subdistrict No. 1 in the north-central part of the valley — the primary goal is to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping on surface water users.

The valley’s groundwater is hydraulically connected in varying degrees to the region’s streams and rivers, meaning that pumping can cause losses to surface water users.

The subdistrict’s parent organization, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is seeking to organize as many as four other subdistricts around the valley.

The mechanisms used to raise funds from members have yet to be determined, but the subdistrict’s annual revenue will not exceed $4 million in 2014 dollars.

The subdistrict’s petition for formation included a draft water management plan, but it will be subject to public hearing and approval of the Colorado Division of Water Resources before it can be finalized.
Should objectors remain after those steps, the subdistrict’s water management plan could also be subject to water court review.

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

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.