San Luis Valley: Dick Wolfe okays groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 augmentation and pumping plan for this season

May 6, 2015
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):

State Engineer Dick Wolfe gave his approval Friday to a plan to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping this year in the north-central San Luis Valley.

Wolfe’s approval, issued at the close of business Friday, confirms Subdistrict No. 1 has sufficient water to cover the depletions caused by the 3,412 wells inside its boundary.

The subdistrict, which must get annual state approval for its plan, must replace an estimated 3,655 acre-feet in depletions that well pumping is expected to cause to the Rio Grande this year.

Those wells are projected to pump 238,000 acre-feet of groundwater this year, which impacts surface water given that the two are hydraulically connected to varying degrees around the valley. The subdistrict has a pool of 20,115 acre-feet it can use to replace depletions, drawing off transbasin diversions coming into the basin, reservoir storage and a federal reclamation project that pumps groundwater on the east side of the valley.

The subdistrict also has nine forbearance agreements with ditch companies that will allow it to pay for damages in lieu of putting water in the river.

While mitigating the harm to surface water users is a court-ordered priority, the subdistrict’s other aim is to reduce groundwater pumping through the fallowing of farm ground.

This year, through a federal conservation program, just under 4,000 acres will be taken out of production, a savings to the aquifer of roughly 7,800 acre feet.

Unlike previous years, the subdistrict will no longer have a financial guarantee by its parent organization — the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which draws property tax revenue from five of the valley’s six counties.

Instead, the subdistrict has placed $3.85 million in escrow to ensure well depletions are replaced in the event the subdistrict dissolved.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.


Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

April 27, 2015

riograndebasin

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

One of the major efforts to stop the San Luis Valley’s aquifer depletions drew both questions and support on Tuesday during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting in Alamosa.

Some questioned whether the district’s first water management sub-district was working and recommended ways it might work better.

Others defended Sub-District #1 and commended the owners of the hundreds of wells in the portion of the Valley encompassing the sub-district for their volunteer efforts to replenish the aquifer and make up for the injuries they are causing surface water users. Background

Sub-District #1 is the first of as many as six sub-districts to be formed under the direction of the sponsoring district, Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD.)

The sub-district has used various means to accomplish its goals including: paying irrigators to fallow farmland, first directly through the sub-district and now as supplementary compensation to CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program); purchasing water/land that could be retired from irrigation ; and paying ditches and canals through forbearance agreements to allow some of the water rightfully owed them to replace depletions the sub-district owes.

RGWCD has hired two full-time staff Rob Phillips and Cleave Simpson whose sole duties are sub-district administration.

Sub-District #1 submitted its annual report on March 1 and its annual replacement plan, detailing how it intends to replace injurious depletions this year, on April 15.

Phillips said much of the variable fees paid by subdistrict participants in the last couple of years have gone to forbearance agreements, “acquiring wet water.” He said in 2014 70 percent of the sub-district’s injurious depletions to the Rio Grande were remedied through forbearance agreements with six of the area’s major canals between Del Norte and Alamosa . This year, the district has agreements with nine canal/ditch companies.

Phillips added that more than 3,900 acres of crop land are being taken out of production through CREP, 40 percent of that permanently and the remainder through 15-year contracts. Sub-district #1 has committed about $1 million for additional CREP incentives.

In addition, the sub-district is holding $3.8 million in escrow for replacement water to cover lag depletions, the depletions that have accrued over time. The water court is requiring the sub-district not only to replace current injurious depletions to surface water rights but also past “lag” depletions, and there must be a way to guarantee those will be replaced in the future even if the sub-district ceases to exist.

Concerns, support

“It’s not working,” William Hoffner said during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the meeting. Hoffner said he appreciated what Sub-District #1 was trying to do but something needed to change to make it work.

“Do we really care about the underground aquifer and do we really care about the Valley as a whole?” he asked.

Phillips told Hoffner he totally disagreed with him. From 2010-2013 , irrigators in Sub-district #1 reduced pumping by 100,000 acre feet, Phillips said.

“We have not seen any reduction of pumping like that anywhere else in the San Luis Valley,” he said. “This is purely volunteer based. The state does not have groundwater rules going right now. Those people came together as a community to try to make things better, and they are doing that.”

He said the sub-district has helped replenish the unconfined (shallow) aquifer. A portion of that aquifer lying in the closed basin area of the Valley, approximately the area where the first subdistrict sits, has been monitored through a series of wells for more than 30 years. That study has reflected a total decrease in the underground aquifer of about one million acre feet from the 1970’s to the present.

Phillips said that between September of 2013 and September 2014 the aquifer came back up about 71,000 acre feet, in his opinion due to the efforts of sub-district participants , “all through one of the worst droughts in the history of the Rio Grande Basin and keeping the agricultural economy sustainable.”

The group discussed the need to increase the subdistrict’s variable fee, which has been $75.

RGWCD Board Member Cory Off commended the sub-district for its accomplishments but said, “there are other problems out there.”

He said between 2011 and 2014 the number of irrigated acres actually increased, and although total pumping between 2011-14 decreased 90,00 acres, pumping actually increased 8,000 acre feet between 2013 and 2014.

He added that even though the aquifer storage in the study area rose 70,000 acre feet last year, between 2011 and 2014 the aquifer in that area declined 423,000 acre feet.

Off said the goal of the subdistrict from the beginning was to make sure the Valley did not experience the catastrophe of the state stepping in and making everyone develop augmentation plans, but another catastrophe would be the aquifer going dry.

Off said if the sub-district is 50 percent successful, that is only 50 percent successful, “and if we go dry because we are not willing to take the next step, that’s illogical.”

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey added, “if your rent is $600 and you pay $300 on a regular basis, you are going to get evicted.”

The next step is raising the sub-district variable fee enough to get people to stop pumping as much water, Off said.

Godfrey also suggested raising the CREP fee charged Sub-district #1 participants.

Other RGWCD board members and RGWCD Board President Greg Higel defended the sub-district .

“I commend these guys for trying,” Higel said.

He said the sub-district board of managers has put in a tremendous effort to try to make this work. Sub-district #1 Board President Brian Brownell said, “We are just the first [subdistrict ] and we are the only one providing water to the river. I think we are closer than we ever have been to figuring a way that gets us where we need to be.”

Sub-district #1 Board Member Lynn McCullough said the sub-district board has had 36 meetings in 2 1/2 years and has constantly talked about sustainability, so it is not like the board has not been trying to get the job done.

Higel suggested maybe the sub-district board and RGWCD board should meet more often together.

At the conclusion of the water district’s meeting, Great Sand Dunes Superintendent Lisa Carrico told the board it was people like them who made this Valley such a great place. She had lived here as a child and was fortunate to come back after 40 years of seeing a lot of the world, she said.

“This remains for me one of my very favorite places in the world. Part of it has to do with the people that are here. You guys are doing an incredibly hard work ” The complexity of the issues you deal with here and the way you deal with each other is commendable. I believe you are creating a better place for all of us.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Well rules closing in — The Valley Courier

April 16, 2015
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Imminent well rules for the San Luis Valley are now being refined for clarity, consistency and defensibility against potential court challenges.

State Engineer Dick Wolfe reviewed the latest draft of the groundwater rules Tuesday in Alamosa with the group of local residents and water attorneys serving on the groundwater advisory committee. He said although he had hoped the April 7th meeting would be the last one, he expected there would be at least one more next month to review changes related to comments received on Tuesday and within the next couple of weeks.

Other actions that must be completed before the rules can be submitted to the court include: complete statement of basis and purpose; finish the response functions peer review; and complete/gather supporting documents that must be submitted to the court along with the rules. These documents will comprise the evidence that would be presented in court proceedings , should the rules be challenged, Wolfe explained.

The Attorney General’s office is reviewing the rules to make sure they will be defensible in court, Wolfe said. The modelers who would have to testify in court have also been working with the state engineer’s office to make sure the language in the rules is accurate and properly defined.

Wolfe has tried to minimize, if not eliminate, potential objections to the proposed rules by involving a wide variety of folks in the rulemaking process. Each of the advisory committee meetings throughout the multi-year process of formulating the well rules has been public, with crowds generally running from 50-100 people.

The audience was a little smaller Tuesday than the month before, and the questions fewer, with one of the concerns revolving around what happens if efforts to replenish the aquifers do not work, even with everybody giving it their best shot.

The state legislature has mandated that the artesian pressure in the Rio Grande Basin (the Valley) must get back to the level experienced between 1978-2000 , and the well rules are designed, in part, to meet that requirement . Because it is difficult to pinpoint what those pressure levels were, and should be, the state engineer’s office is incorporating data collection in the well rules to better understand the 1978-2000 pressure levels. The state engineer’s office will work with water conservation and conservancy districts, sub-districts and water users to collect data about the confined aquifer system and will release a report within 10 years from the time the well rules become effective.

Based on that investigation and report, the state engineer will determine what’s the best method to achieve and maintain the sustainable water supply in the confined aquifer system that the legislature is requiring.

The new draft on Tuesday included a paragraph giving the state engineer latitude to allow greater pumping in areas of the Valley that might exceed that 1978-2000 level at some point in the future.

“No one knows for sure if that will in fact happen ” if they can demonstrate they are replacing injurious stream depletions, they are in a sustainable condition ” and not interfering with the compact,” Wolfe said.

However, if the opposite is true and efforts to reach that 1978-2000 goal are not successful it might mean going back to the drawing board.

“If pumping levels don’t get them there, then we have to evaluate what else do we need to do,” Wolfe said.

Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the information that will come out of the data collection within the next 10 years, if not sooner, will determine if additional restrictions might be necessary to get the aquifer to the mandated sustainable level. If additional restrictions become necessary, he said, “that will be a new rule making process.”

Division 3 Assistant Engineer James Heath added, “That’s where we would have to come back and do another rule making and redefine additional parameters to reduce pumping more, recharge more “”

Well Rules Advisory Committee Member David Frees suggested that rather than going through the lengthy rule-making process again in 10 years or so, if it turned out that was the necessary course, it might be better to include some provisions in the current rules to allow the state engineer to enact stricter curtailments if necessary to meet the water sustainability goal mandated by the state legislature.

“We want to be careful we don’t specify one solution to that problem if that’s what happens after 10 years,” Wolfe said.

Frees said he was not recommending that only one provision be included, “but I think there ought to be a provision in these rules if we don’t meet that sustainability the state will take some action or require further provisions.”

Wolfe said the rules do provide for that: “Not later than 10 years from the Effective Date of these Rules, the State Engineer must prepare a report concerning the results of the investigations.” Based upon the results of the investigations, the State Engineer must determine the preferred methodology to maintain a Sustainable Water Supply in the Confined Aquifer System and recover Artesian Pressures and thereafter propose any reasonable amendments to these rules.

Wolfe said, “We created these rules. We can amend them.” Another advisory committee member suggested that the rules include a default provision if the sustainability goal is not met so the state and folks in the basin don’t have to go through another 6-8-year process to develop more rules.

Attorney Bill Paddock disagreed that a default provision should be included in the rules. He said the default provision might not work either , which would just create more problems in the future. He recommended collecting the data that will provide a better understanding of how the system operates before setting up a default provision. Advisory Committee Member Norm Slade said, “Some of these sustainability plans might be impossible ” I would like to see you put something in there so you could regulate these wells if it’s impossible to reach sustainability . If a state engineer deems a sub-district can’t or won’t meet sustainability standards, those wells may be regulated.”

Wolfe said that is in the rules, and any well owner who does not comply will ultimately be curtailed.

Slade asked if the state had to wait 10 years if it looked like it would be impossible for a particular plan to meet the requirements. Wolfe said the rules state that the engineer’s office will prepare a report and proposed amendments no later than 10 years but do not specify a time period.

“I agree we shouldn’t be waiting until the 10th year,” Wolfe said.

He said the state would continue monitoring and evaluating the various plans set up to comply with the rules to make sure they are working.

“These things are set up to allow people to adjust as they go along,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe explained that the rules’ assumption is that hydrological conditions in this basin will return to what they were in 1978-2000 , the period of time the aquifers are mandated to recover to. However, the new normal may be drier conditions, as they have been in more recent history, Wolfe explained, and people cannot just wait and hope things get better on their own.

He pointed to the first subdistrict , which is going into its fourth year of operation, and said in his opinion it has proven that water plans can be successful.

He and other Division of Water Resources staff explained that the well rules and the models the rules rely on provide flexibility and ranges to account for variables such as wet years and dry years. That helps water planners like sub-districts decide what they might need to do, for example providing enough water storage to make up for drier years.

Advisory Committee Member LeRoy Salazar said not all of the tools are in place yet, but he liked the direction things were moving and believed the work being undertaken with the rule implementation process would provide more tools for the future.

Wolfe agreed. “Even though there’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point, in some ways this is the beginning ” The state’s going to be working closely with the users as we go forward ” There’s going to be better and better tools to predict the future.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Higher streamflow, groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 curtailments, boost unconfined aquifer by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014

January 25, 2015
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Irrigators and water officials looking to conserve groundwater in the San Luis Valley got a small dose of good news this week. The volume in the unconfined aquifer — the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies — increased by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014.

“We did turn the corner,” said Allen Davey, an engineer who conducts the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s groundwater monitoring.

The increase was the first since 2009.

Davey attributed the hike to better stream flows than had been seen in recent years.

He also pointed to a decline in pumping in Subdistrict No. 1, which has used a combination of fees on pumping and the fallowing of farm ground to reduce demand on the aquifer in the north-central part of the valley.

The unconfined aquifer has traditionally been used by farmers in the valley to water crops like potatoes, barley and alfalfa when the availability of surface water declines in mid- to late-summer.

Recharge to the shallow aquifer occurs from streams entering the San Luis Valley floor, canal leakage and irrigation return flows.

Despite this year’s slight improvement, the unconfined aquifer has declined by more than 1.2 million acre-feet since monitoring began in 1976.

An acre-foot is the equivalent of roughly 325,000 gallons of water.

The long-term decline is of concern to the managers of Subdistrict No. 1, who have the goal of increasing the volume of the unconfined aquifer by 800,000 to 1 million acre-feet.

David Robbins is an attorney for the Rio Grande district, which acts as the umbrella organization for the subdistrict.

He said the subdistrict’s board is wrestling with the question of whether to seek a change in its water management plan.

“There are many within the subdistrict boundaries and elsewhere who are concerned there hasn’t been a more dramatic increase in water supply within the subdistrict,” he said.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.


Rio Grande Basin: Second water sub-district progresses — the Valley Courier

January 12, 2015
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier:

The proposed Rio Grande Alluvium (aka sub-district #2) is proceeding .

The State of Colorado has assigned or grouped nonexempted wells together to form Response Areas that will become sub-districts . Wells in the Rio Grande Alluvium Response Area are known as Sub-district #2. These are unconfined aquifer wells in close proximity to the Rio Grande River in the general area between Del Norte and Alamosa.

“The work group which is comprised of local land and well owners in the proposed area has been meeting for several years,” said Karla Shriver a work group member . “We have had numerous meetings among ourselves trying to hash out the details of the proposed sub-district formation, and having numerous public meetings trying to get input from those who will be impacted by it.”

The Colorado Division of Water Resources will be submitting Rules Governing the Withdrawal of Ground Water in Water Division #3 for non-exempt wells. Once the rules have been adopted, well owners will have only three options, which include:

1. Be a part of a subdistrict ;

2. Prepare and submit their own augmentation plan;

3. Cease using nonexempt wells on their property .

Proposed Sub-district #2 is a voluntary sub-district , and participation is the well owner’s choice.

“For those in proposed Sub-district #2 if you are wanting to join the subdistrict and have visited with Deb Sarason from Davis Engineering about your farm plan, please contact me at 719-589-6301 to pick up your petition,” said Cleave Simpson, Rio Grande Water Conservation District program manager.

“If you own non-exempt well(s) in proposed Subdistrict #2 and have not completed your farm plan, you will first need to have a meeting with Deb Sarason from Davis Engineering at 719-589-3004 to verify the wells on your lands that you want included in the District” said Simpson. “The goal is to have all the petitions signed by January 31 and then let staff review the petitions for completion and correctness, and then go before the RG Conservation District Board in March.”

The work group is hosting another public meeting so that those interested may come ask questions January 20 at 6 p.m. at the Monte Vista Co-op Community Room.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Subdistrict remedies stream depletions — the Valley Courier

October 21, 2014
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier (Rob Phillips):

This is the 15th article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, regarding the formation and implementation of the Basin Water Plan. The primary goal of Subdistrict No. 1 is to remedy injurious depletions to senior surface water rights and keep those water users whole.

The Subdistrict has several methods to do this. First, the subdistrict has purchased and leased water, both native to the Rio Grande Basin and water imported from the West slope. This water is stored and released as directed by the Division Engineer to replace stream depletion replacement within stream reaches of the Rio Grande as they occur. By doing this, the river itself is kept whole with wet water replacing the depletions in time, location and amount.

The subdistrict can also use what are known as forbearance agreements. Colorado law allows the subdistrict to remedy injurious depletions by a means other than supplying wet water. The subdistrict can do this by agreeing with a ditch that, rather than replace depletions with water, the subdistrict will pay the ditch some amount of money for each acre-foot of water the ditch does not receive because of depletions caused by subdistrict wells.

Each day the Division Engineer tells the subdistrict which ditch is “on the bubble,” that is the most junior ditch that is in priority that day and that is not receiving its full water supply under that priority. The subdistrict then looks at the Annual Replacement Plan to see the depletions caused by subdistrict wells on that day, water that the ditch on the bubble would have received. The subdistrict keeps track of the total amount of water due to each ditch that has a forbearance agreement and pays them at the end of the year. The ditch can then do what it wants with the money, for example upgrading the ditch or simply dividing it up among the ditch users. Forbearance agreements allow ditches and water users to remain whole, while not locking up scarce water resources. So far, the subdistrict and the forbearing ditches are very happy with this arrangement and look forward to continuing working together to reach the best solution for everyone. How the subdistrict is working towards aquifer sustainability

Throughout the recent drought, the aquifer has been shrinking as producers pump more water than is recharged back to the aquifer. The other primary goal of Subdistrict No. 1 is to recover and sustain the Unconfined Aquifer below the subdistrict to the level that existed in the early 1980s. The primary way the subdistrict plans to do this is by reducing the amount of irrigated acres within the subdistrict, which will reduce the amount of pumping from the aquifer. This concept is built into the Subdistrict’s Plan and requires 20,000 acres be retired by the fifth year from judicial approval of the plan, 30,000 acres less by the end of the seventh year, and up to 40,000 acres less by the end of the tenth year all from a base year of 2000.

One tool the subdistrict has to meet these goals is financial incentives and participation in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to retire up to 40,000 irrigated acres. Currently, 1,970 acres were enrolled in the program in 2013 while another 1,370 acres are currently proposed in 2014. However it is not just CREP acres that count towards the 40,000-acre goal, any program or change that retires acres reduces pumping and assists in achieving and maintaining sustainability . But remember, the subdistrict can only provide incentives, it does not have the power to require wells stop pumping.

Conclusion

The producers of the closed basin area within the San Luis Valley stepped forward when no one else did and created a subdistrict and imposed fees on themselves to replace their wells’ depletions and work to recover and sustain the unconfined aquifer. They did this not because rules or regulations were in place requiring this action, but because they believed these things had to be done.

The process has never been easy and the debate about the best way to achieve the subdistrict’s goals continues. But the subdistrict, led by its board of managers, has continuously worked towards those goals and they remain the leaders in the Valley for replacing depletions and working towards sustainability . Currently, other proposed subdistricts within different hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley are going through the same processes in an attempt to have their plan up and running before the state engineer’s ground water rules are approved within the Rio Grande Basin.

These forming subdistricts have watched and learned from Subdistrict No. 1’s struggles and accomplishments . Those other subdistricts will provide the same protection to their wells, a locally based and operated group that provides an alternative to state administration of ground water withdrawals in Division 3 while protecting senior surface water rights and providing for a long-term , sustainable ground water system.

The Plan of Water Management, Annual Replacement Plans and other information on the subdistrict and the aquifers are available on the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s website: http:// http://www.rgwcd.org/page9.html

Meanwhile Sub-district No. 2 is gearing up for operations according to this report from Lauren Krizansky writing for the Valley Courier:

Well owners residing in the Valley’s second sub-district are ready to push forward with a petition after months of voluntary work.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Cleave Simpson updated the Alamosa County Commissioners (ACC) Wednesday morning on the latest happenings regarding the creation of the next sub-district , which sits in both Alamosa and Rio Grande Counties.

Sub-district No. 2, also known as the Rio Grande Alluvial Sub-district , is comprised entirely of unconfined wells, and is taking on a different form than Sub-District No. 1, he said. The zone is much smaller, only 300 wells compared to 1,000, participation is voluntary and there is no “sustainability requirement” because the wells do not tap into the confined aquifer.

“We are not drawing a boundary,” Simpson said. “We will go to each individual landowner… There are not the same benchmarks to meet.”

Out of the second sub-district’s 300 wells, 152 average more than 10 acre-feet a year, making them subject to the state’s demand to either join a sub-district or to develop an augmentation plan. There are 10 non-private wells in the mix and 60 private well owners.

“It will be a patchwork of parcels,” Simpson said.

Out of those well owners, he said between 12 and 15 have regularly participated in the workgroups over the past few months, and they represent more or less half the wells in the second subdistrict .

In addition, the City of Monte Vista, the Town of Del Norte, Homelake, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and two school districts are in the zone, but will not join the second sub-district because government entities cannot legally be assessed.

They will be held, however, to the same standards, he said, and have the option to contract with Sub-district No. 2, which would include them in its Annual Replacement Plan.

Although assessment methods and fees to replace depletions are still to be determined, he said Subdistrict No. 2 is ready to petition for legitimacy.

“They are ready to go to the public,” Simpson said. “They are ready to start these discussions.”

It depends on where the state is with its pending water rules and regulations in coming months, he said, but the second sub-district hopes to submit its petition to the district court in January 2015.

“The (water) model and rules and regulations are not final ,” Simpson said. “That could cause a delay.”

Once Sub-district No. 2 is established, he said a board of managers (BOM) will be appointed via a court-approved process.

If there is no opposition to the to the second subdistrict’s formation, he said the BOM’s first task will be to draft a management plan, and, if it is also goes unchallenged , fees assessments will begin in late 2015 with collection notices delivered to Sub-district No. 2 participants in conjunction with their January 2016 county issued tax documents.

Due to its uniqueness, he said the second sub-district has options when it comes to mitigating its groundwater depletions.

“There could be some reduction in irrigated agriculture,” Simpson said, “but we might see changes in technologies, crops requiring less consumption and increases in (water) efficiency.”

He added the value of the zone’s water could also increase, but that is also to be determined.

Sub-district No. 1 has resulted in increased values, in some cases almost double, and is drawing interest from buyers from outside of the Valley. The Rio Grande Alluvial Sub-district is the second out of six identified in the Valley to come to fruition under the watch of the RGWCD. Alamosa County will eventually have three within its borders. In addition to Subdistricts No. 1 and No. 2, the fourth sub-district will also fall within its jurisdiction, but it is still in an infant stage.

“It’s good to see the well owners come together,” said Alamosa County Chair Michael Yohn. “Everyone has to be accountable for their water use.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Blanca wetlands provide prime habitat

September 25, 2014
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The most important resource at the Blanca Wetlands greets visitors the moment they get out of their cars. Mouths, ears, eyes and loose pant legs are all inviting targets for the bugs, which, more importantly, play a critical role in making the 10,000-acre wetlands a magnet for migrating shore birds and songbirds.

“That’s really our job, I think, out here, is to grow bugs,” Sue Swift-Miller, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said.

Swift-Miller and fellow wildlife biologist Jill Lucero help oversee the wetlands, which sits 8 miles northeast of town, and manage the complex interplay of water management with the timing of bug hatches and bird migrations.

The bird species that come in the largest number include the Wilson’s Phalarope, Baird’s Sandpiper and the American Avocet.

But the wetlands and their bugs also attract species such as the western snowy plover, American white pelican, and the white-faced ibis. Those species and 10 others that visit the wetlands are designated as sensitive species by the agency, meaning they or their habitat are either in decline or projected to do so.

Overall, more than 163 mammals use the wetlands.

That the birds and the bugs are here in such numbers is the result of the BLM’s decision in the 1960s to restore the wetlands by drilling 43 wells into the confined aquifer, the deeper of the San Luis Valley’s two major groundwater bodies. The water, which averages out to roughly 5,000 acre-feet annually, is then funneled into a series of basins that range from fresh water ponds that support both cold- and warm-water fisheries to shallower basins that have a higher salt content than the ocean.

After years of study, Swift-Miller said it’s become evident that bugs need specific water-quality parameters, depending on the species. BLM officials can, with the help of hundreds of miles of canals and culverts, funnel fresh water to certain basins to dilute the salinity or withhold to emphasize it.

The intermittent use of water is particularly important in habitat areas known as playas, which are generally saline basins with clay dominated soils that historically went through wetting and drying cycles in the valley.

While drought and diversions for agriculture have cut wetting cycles, the BLM has found a jump in insects such as fairy and brine shrimp when it’s added water to the playas.

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

“We’re getting macroinvertibrates that have been in cyst stage for years,” Lucero said. “Nobody’s seen them for 50 years and suddenly they’re coming out as we wet an area.”

But choosing when to apply water is just as critical.

“If you’ve got bugs available when the birds aren’t here, you really haven’t done yourself any good,” Swift-Miller said.

The agency’s use of groundwater will soon be coming under a new set of state regulations, as is the case with all groundwater users in the valley. Those regulations, which remain in draft form, are expected to require groundwater users to obtain surface water to offset the injury their pumping causes to surface-water users.

But the BLM’s augmentation efforts began even before the draft regulations thanks to 20 illegal wells the agency drilled in the late 1970s.

While the agency will still have to get more augmentation water, Swift­Miller said it’s possible the agency will get enough to avoid shutting down any wells at the wetlands.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape for that,” she said.

Before the agency and other area water users began pumping groundwater, the Blanca Wetlands was the endpoint in a string of marshes, playas and lakes that extended to the north end of the valley. A map from 1869 shows the Blanca Wetlands as part of a large lake. Aerial photos from the 1940s in the agency’s possession show a string of connected wetlands that run to where the current San Luis Lake State Park sits, at the southwestern edge of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Earlier this year, the BLM approved a proposal that would allow it to buy property from willing landowners in an effort to expand the Blanca Wetlands and improve habitat connectivity. The search for willing sellers would focus on the area that extends north and northeast from the Blanca to the west side of the state park.

Another focus area for expansion sits further north on the western edge of Baca National Wildlife Refuge and runs east to Mishak Lakes.

While expansion funding would need to navigate the gridlock that has dominated congressional budget proceedings, the proposal did make it into the White House’s budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


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