‘There’s a real urgency to this. We only have two years before wells are shut down’ — LeRoy Salazar

Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

A water purchase nearly four decades ago may provide a major solution in the current challenge to keep farmers in business in the San Luis Valley. Representatives from the San Luis Valley Irrigation Well Owners Inc. received unanimous support from the Rio Grande Interbasin Roundtable on Tuesday to perform a feasibility study to see if surface water rights they own can be used to offset depletion requirements for various groundwater management sub-districts throughout the Valley. The budget for the study is $180,000, with the local roundtable approving $8,000 of its basin funding for the project and supporting a request for $142,000 in statewide funds, which will be considered at the state level in March. The well owners group will provide $30,000 as its match.

The nonprofit well owners corporation was formed in 1973 to address groundwater rules and regulations that appeared imminent at the time, SLV Irrigation Well Owners Vice President Monty Smith told members of the Valley-wide roundtable group on Tuesday. In preparation for the rules/regs at that time, the well owners group, comprised of people who own irrigation wells, began an augmentation plan that incorporated the purchase of Taos Valley #3 water rights on the San Antonio River for augmentation water, Smith added.

“The augmentation plan was never completed and never needed to be used,” Smith explained.

“Thirty eight years later we find ourselves in a situation where we need to use that water and we need to complete the project.”

He added, “We feel this water is an absolutely crucial piece of our replacement for not only the Conejos area but it provides benefit for the entire basin. We need to figure how it can best be used.”

Agro Engineering Engineer Kirk Thompson provided more information about this potential water project and its importance to Valley water users, especially now that state groundwater rules and regulations for the Rio Grande Basin will soon be promulgated. Thompson said the Taos Valley #3 water rights were a relatively junior water right on the San Antonio dating to 1889. They were originally adjudicated for 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) and used for irrigation and storage. Since that time, however, a portion of the water rights was abandoned, leaving 245 cfs, which is what the well owners bought in 1976 for their augmentation plan. They converted 230 cfs of the 245 cfs total from irrigation to augmentation water and left the remaining 15 cfs in irrigation, Thompson explained. The well owners are considering converting that 15 cfs into augmentation water as well.

The well owners bought the water for the purpose of augmenting injurious depletions in the streams resulting from well pumping, Thompson said. Since 1976, the 230 cfs, also known as the Middlemist water, has been left in the San Antonio for the benefit of the entire river system, Thompson said. Since the state did not promulgate groundwater rules in the 1970’s , there was no formal requirement for augmentation in the intervening 38 years, he added.

Since this was a junior water right, some years the Middlemist water produced zero effect on the river system, and in other years it provided as much as 29,000 acre feet, Thompson said. Most years averaged about 10,000 acre feet of water from this water right to the river systems.

“This is a significantly large amount of water we are talking about and a valuable consideration as we move forward,” Thompson said.

Thompson reminded the attendees at the Tuesday roundtable meeting that the state is in the process of promulgating rules governing groundwater use in the San Luis Valley, and wells will no longer be allowed to pump unless their injurious depletions to surface rights are covered in a groundwater management sub-district or augmentation plan. Thompson said the state engineer’s goal is to have the rules/regulations to the water court by this spring, and Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten confirmed that in his report to the roundtable.

Cotten also confirmed that the well owners’ augmentation plan would have to go back to court, since it never was finalized in the ’70’s . The plan would have to be more specific on how it would provide augmentation and would have to prove it could deliver water where it needed to go, he said.

Thompson said the well owners group wants to perfect its Middlemist/Taos Valley #3 water right so that water can be used for augmentation purposes in a way that will benefit well owners in sub-districts throughout the Valley. Individual augmentation plans for every well owner would not be realistic at this point, so most well owners plan to join sub-districts as a means of meeting the pending state regulations. The purpose of the well owners’ project is to consider ways in which their surface water right could benefit those sub-districts , Thompson explained.

“As of today, there’s certainly not enough augmentation water currently perfected to go around and ” will be in very short supply and probably at high value,” Thompson said.

He said the average total depletions that well owners throughout the entire basin will have to replace will be about 30,000 acre feet every year. If the approximately 10,000 acre feet the Middlemist water produces every year could be used to offset those depletions, it could amount to about a third of the annual requirement.

Smith said, “This is a way to carry on our living and our way of life that we all enjoy in this Valley and to keep the Valley a viable place to live. I have farmed my entire life. I am third generation. My goal is to be able to continue to preserve my wells, to replace my injuries to the streams. This is one piece in that puzzle to bring that all together.”

The group asked the roundtable for help in funding a hydrologic feasibility study to consider the potential for using the Taos Valley #3 water for either surface water storage or groundwater recharge. Thompson said storage options are limited, so he believed recharge was a more viable option. The feasibility study would look at how the recharge could be accomplished so the water would go into the ground where it was needed to replace injurious depletions. The study would look at both confined and unconfined recharge options..

Those who will be involved in conducting the feasibility study will be Thompson of Agro Engineering, Eric Harmon of HRS Water Consultants, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering and in an advisory capacity, Steve Vandiver of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District , the sponsoring entity for the water management sub-districts .

The study would be the first of a multi-phased project . Phase 2 would look at physical infrastructure to get surface water where it needs to go, and the third phase would involve the court process to perfect the water right as an augmentation right, Thompson explained.

He said the well owners want to begin some wintertime well monitoring right away, using their $30,000 match. They want to begin this study as soon as possible since Harmon envisions the feasibility phase as taking a full year.

“If we don’t have the feasibility done this year we are talking another one or two years to get into the courts,” Thompson said. “If rules are released this spring, the subdistricts are under the gun to get formed and under the gun to find sources of water to replace injurious depletions in short order.”

LeRoy Salazar added, “There’s a real urgency to this. We only have two years before wells are shut down ” We don’t have a lot of time.”

Salazar said this project is key to replacing injurious depletions to surface water rights; creating a sustainable water table; and maintaining the Valley’s economy.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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