The Colorado Supreme Court affirms water court ruling for the first groundwater sub-district in the San Luis Valley

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The ruling, written by Justice Greg Hobbs, declined to uphold any of the eight objections to the plan and cleared a path for the valley’s first groundwater subdistrict, which could be followed by as many as six others. “This truly is a historic moment in the San Luis Valley,” said Steve Vandiver who is manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and also spent more than three decades in the valley working for the engineer’s office.

The efforts of Subdistrict No. 1 mark the first large-scale effort by groundwater users to compensate senior surface water rights owners who draw water from the valley’s streams, all of which are hydrologically connected, in varying degrees, to the valley’s two main aquifers. Subdistrict No. 1, whose management plan was modified then approved in two local water court decisions, takes in roughly 174,000 acres of irrigated farmland and roughly 3,000 groundwater irrigation wells.

Its plan imposes fees on its members to buy replacement water. It also calls for the retirement of up to 40,000 acres of farm ground with the help of the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program as a means to restore the unconfined aquifer or shallower of the valley’s two big aquifers. Most of the valley’s farmers use some combination of surface water and groundwater, relying on the latter to finish off potato, barley and other crops late in the season.

Here’s the letter from State Engineer Dick Wolfe to the San Luis Valley Advisory Committee Members:

I hope this finds you and your families well in this holiday season. I wanted to give another update on the progress we are making in the rulemaking process. As always, my goal continues to be to advance the many earlier efforts in Division No. 3 water administration with the promulgation of the Rules Governing the Withdrawal of Ground Water in Water Division Three (“Rules”).

As you all know, one of the most important aspects of our rulemaking efforts centers on continuing to refine the data used in the RGDSS ground water model (“Model”), to ensure it is updated with the best and most accurate data available. We have spent a significant amount of work and effort in the past few months on evaluating and updating data inputs, which are pivotal to calculating depletions from ground water pumping in the San Luis Valley. The RGDSS Peer Review Team (PRT) has met 18 times since January 2011. At these meetings, the PRT has made headway in evaluating and refining various data sets including irrigated acreage assessments, water level and artesian pressure data from San Luis Valley wells, crop characteristics and coefficients, farming practices relying on subirrigation, winter diversions, sprinkler efficiencies, return flows, rim recharge, and the geology underlying the Valley.

These efforts have called for the input of many experts, such as agronomists, geologists, computer specialists, and farmers from the San Luis Valley with “boots on the ground” irrigation experience. Our experts want to assure that we include as much new and/or upgraded data as possible, so that the Model reflects ground water movement in the San Luis Valley as closely as possible. These refinements in the data that are uploaded to the Model give us more calibration data points, which in turn, give us more confidence in the accuracy of the predictive capacities of the model. The members of the RGDSS PRT continue to meet and work out the final details on the Model. Once these refinements are completed, our experts will re-run and calibrate the Model. Then we plan on making model pumping impact runs. Pursuant to the San Luis Valley Advisory Committee Member’s (“Committee”) stated desire, we plan to schedule our next meeting when the impact results are available for review. As with any project that combines the efforts of many people, we do not currently have an exact “end” date.

Our team has also been actively exploring the ideas of defining the metrics of a “sustainable” water supply. Currently we are looking at water levels and artesian pressures found in the wells across the San Luis Valley to establish sustainable water supply baselines. We are looking closely at well data logs and creating overlying maps for both the confined and unconfined aquifers to determine areas of correlation. This will assist us in creating “trigger points.” You may recall from previous Committee meetings that these are the points at which we consider the aquifer to be sustainable, less than sustainable, and not sustainable, triggering different degrees of administration. We are also considering the many good ideas on sustainability that have come from the Committee, by way of letter or other communication.

At our last meeting in May 2011, we asked for volunteers to help assist us in defining the important benchmarks, or tasks, which need to be accomplished for the creation of a subdistrict, an augmentation plan, and/or a substitute water supply plan. Examples of “benchmarks” include estimating the time it would take to circulate a petition to form a subdistrict, or the steps involved and the necessary time to nominate and form a Board of Managers for a new subdistrict. A small Benchmark Subcommittee was formed to assist us in this exercise. My staff identified all the statutory time requirements that are involved in these processes, and worked to determine the reasonable time it takes to accomplish each of these tasks. This information was presented to the Benchmark Subcommittee on September 8, 2011. At that meeting, the Benchmark Subcommittee provided insight and recommendations on “real life” steps that are not reflected in the statutes. This gave my staff a more accurate timeline for accomplishing the formation of one of these three methods, by which individuals can replace injurious depletions. Steve Vandiver from the RGWCD also provided insight into what Subdistrict No. 1’s experience has been in setting up the first groundwater management plan. Collectively, these meetings and benchmark exercises will help us craft the section of the rules that addresses the time necessary for a subdistrict to get up and running.

We are working very diligently to finalize the refinements to the Model and to present the results to the Committee. As always your input on these issues is essential, so any thoughts you have are welcome.

Thank you for your patience. I wish you and your family a happy holiday season.

More coverage from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier. From the article:

“The General Assembly has adopted a series of statutes applicable to confined and unconfined aquifers within the San Luis Valley and Water Division No. 3, empowering the subdistrict to adopt and implement the plan. The plan as approved and decreed adequately addresses the replacement of well depletions that injure adjudicated senior surface water rights, along with restoring and maintaining sustainable aquifer levels in accordance with the applicable statutes,” the court stated in its Dec. 19 decision.

“The subdistrict bears the burden of going forward and the burden of proof to demonstrate that annual replacement plans prevent material injury to adjudicated senior surface water rights caused by ongoing and past well depletions that have future impact…

“Because the subdistrict must replace all injurious depletions, and bears the burden of proof of non-injury, we expect the subdistrict, in order to avoid needless controversy, will replace all predicted injurious depletions … If the subdistrict does not adhere to the plan, or the plan is not preventing material injury to senior surface water rights, the State Engineer must curtail groundwater withdrawal in the subdistrict as necessary to prevent material injury to senior surface water rights, even in the absence of rules and regulations.”

At the conclusion of its 70-page decision the Colorado Supreme Court acknowledged the work of the San Luis Valley residents, including objectors to the plan, who had a hand in shaping the final plan and the General Assembly that developed statutes specific to the Valley’s unique hydrology, “accomplishing a balancing of land and water resources.”

Sponsored by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), the sub-district was set up to replace injurious depletions to surface water users by well pumping, ensure Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states and help restore the San Luis Valley’s aquifer…

With the court decision in place, one of the few remaining pieces of the sub-district puzzle now is the groundwater modeling efforts, which are still being finalized. The model will be crucial to determining how much water groundwater irrigators must pay back. Vandiver said a couple more peer review sessions will probably be held between now and the end of the year, and hopefully soon after the first of the year the model will be fully operational. The first sub-district’s board of managers meets the second week of January, and the sponsoring RGWCD board meets on January 17…

Those appealing the case to the higher court were: San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association; Save Our Senior Water Rights, LLC.; Richard H. Ramstetter; and Peter D. Atkins. Objectors alleged trial court failures to abide by Colorado statutory and case law applicable to augmentation plans…

Referring to the late Ray Wright who as RGWCD board president spearheaded the sub-district efforts for years, Vandiver said, “he ought to be dancing on his grave this morning.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

Drought news: Be careful what you ask for, Baca County gets inundated by blizzard, three foot drifts in the area

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Anthony A. Mestas/Tracy Harmon/Matt Hildner):

With snow piling up and 51 mph winds blowing, some wondered if the storm could be the beginning of back-to-back blizzards in late 2006 and early 2007 that buried the region and killed several cattle. Baca County received the brunt of the storm with about 9 inches of snow falling before 5 p.m. and 2-foot snow drifts. A foot of snow was reported in Springfield…

A weather spotter said that about 6 inches of snow fell in Lamar by 5 p.m. but the readings were hard to calculate because of blowing snow…

Chad Ricken, of Ricken Land and Cattle in La Junta, said he had sheds put up for his cattle. “You just have to get feed in front of them and keep them warmed up. They are in there kind of bunched up,” Ricken said. Ricken said ranchers also have made windbreaks out of rubber tires and tin for cattle. Ricken reported about 3-foot snowdrifts on his property…

About 8 inches of snow fell by 5 p.m. in Trinidad, Beulah and Rye. Weather spotters in Aguilar, Walsenburg and Cuchara said about 5 inches of snow fell by 5 p.m. with blizzard conditions looming into the night. Officials in Trinidad said parking and lodging were full in town. In Kiowa County, officials reported heavy snow and wind as well…

Although snow had begun to fall on Wolf Creek Pass by late afternoon, only 5 to 9 inches were expected there by this morning. In the Upper Arkansas Valley, the snowy weather hit Custer County the hardest. By 9 p.m. snowfall totals measured 8 to 10 inches in Wetmore…

The National Weather Service predicted anywhere from 11 inches to 19 inches of snow on La Veta Pass by this morning.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Jeff Tucker):

By 7 p.m., 3.5 inches of snow had fallen on Pueblo and around 8 inches had accumulated at the county’s mountain communities. Rye reported 7.5 inches while Beulah was at 8.