San Luis Valley closed-basin salvage project update

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Update: More coverage from Matt Hildner writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

Some farmers and ranchers near Moffat argue the project has lowered the unconfined aquifer — the shallower of the valley’s two underground water formations and one upon which a number of them depend…

Ken Beck, who manages the project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, doesn’t deny the project may be affecting its neighbors. But there are 132 monitoring wells on the project’s boundaries that are designed to show when the project is causing harm. He brought data that showed no change to many of the wells in the Moffat area and said other project wells that did have a negative effect had been shut off. Beck also said the development of roughly 4,000 acres of groundwater-irrigated private land north of the project since it was authorized also may be affecting the area.

While the north end of the valley got to vent its frustrations at the meeting, the project also has been a disappointment in other parts of the valley because of its low production. Beck said the project has never lived up to initial projections that envisioned pumping as much as 117,000 acre-feet in some years. Currently, it produces between 8 percent and 12 percent of that amount…

After the project’s authorization by Congress, five water user groups in the valley signed an agreement concerning how the project’s water would be used. The 1985 pact, known as the “60/40 Agreement,” called for using project water to lessen the burden on surface water users whose rights often were curtailed to meet the demands of the Rio Grande Compact. Under the agreement, roughly 60 percent of the project’s water would be credited to the Rio Grande’s contribution to the compact and 40 percent would be credited to the Conejos.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

The project was designed to capture — through a system of 170 salvage wells, 115 miles of pipeline laterals and a 42-mile long PVC-lined canal — water otherwise going to waste through evapotranspiration. The water would then be used to help the state meet its Rio Grande Compact obligations, water delivery obligations to Mexico and other purposes. Bureau of Reclamation Alamosa Field Division Manager Ken Beck made a presentation about the Closed Basin Project to the Northern San Luis Valley Conservation Roundtable group on Thursday. He discussed the history, purpose and efficiency of the project, which is under the bureau’s jurisdiction…

Beck said he understood the Closed Basin Project was controversial, and he was not there to debate its merits but to explain how it came to be, how it has changed over time and how it is operated now. He told the group of about 50 people that if they were interested in decommissioning the project, they would have to talk with those who have the authority to do that, namely legislators, because it took an act of Congress to construct it, and it would take something of that nature to take it out of commission.

He said the project, which sits on about 125,000 acres, was originally designed to yield 117,000 acre feet of water a year through the pumping of 170 salvage wells, each drilled to between 59 and 123 feet deep. The project has never reached that yield capacity, and the closest it has gotten to it was 43,520 acre feet in 1997. The project yields 15,000-20,000 acre feet of water a year, Beck said. That is with pumping going on 24/7. He said the project is permitted to pump as much as 80,000 acres a year. He said one reason the original yield was off was because the initial estimate for snowpack runoff from the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range was 8,000 acre feet a year…

The number of salvage wells being pumped does not total 170, Beck said. The number of wells pumping at any given time is generally around 90, he said. Beck explained that some of the wells are not being used because of problems with water quality. The water coming out of the wells must meet standards for total dissolved solids that are higher than drinking water standards, Beck said…

In 2001, the bureau began re-drilling wells that were not functioning properly, and this time the wells were constructed more appropriately and more efficiently, Beck said. For example, the original wells were powered by 40 horsepower pumps, which are now being replaced by pumps with .5-7.5 horsepower motors. The project is now realizing nearly half-a-million dollars a year in energy savings, Beck said. When asked where that saved money was now going, Beck said other costs have gone up, so it has been absorbed in other areas.

More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

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