Water managers, farmers, scientists, economists and policymakers are all scrambling to find solutions as the ripple impacts of a historic drought continue to be felt across the Southwest. Potential options, including water banking and storage, conservation incentives, farmland reallocation, irrigation retirement and sustainable urban planning, were all discussed during the recent Colorado Aquifer Management Conference, organized by the American Ground Water Trust.
As residential development picks up again following the recession, urban planners in Jefferson County are relying on a new water availability analysis tool that uses inputs like precipitation and consumptive loss as part of an in-depth spreadsheet. “We get to some bottom lines here,” said Roy Laws, an environmental engineer for the county.
South Denver’s booming bedroom communities have shifted toward treating the underlying aquifer as “a drought proof supply” rather than their base water source, according to Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. Through water budgeting, improved water re-use systems and creative regional partnerships, these fast-growing suburbs have been able to reduce per capita water use by up to 30 percent, he said.
In addition, cities like Castle Rock have added new user fees ($5 per user in their case) to fund future use planning, Hecox added.
So far, however, it’s the managers of agriculturally dependent districts who are experiencing the most dramatic challenges.
Steve Vandiver, executive director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, outlined the painstaking process the San Luis Valley was forced to undertake after six years of below normal precipitation coupled with new requirements for augmenting water wells.
“I can tell you it’s been a struggle,” he said.
The district is working on dividing up into subdivisions for the purpose of creating new revenue streams to purchase water rights and retire them, he said. The first of the proposed subdivisions has been able to reduce pumping by 30 percent. But the process has drawn mixed reviews, which was evident even among the San Luis Valley farmers scattered in the audience.
David Warsh, of Center, and Jake Burris, manager of ELE Farms of Alamosa, both potato growers, supported the plan, saying it allowed farmers to take control of their destiny.
“What it’s done is that it got us to take less productive land out of production,” Warsh said. “The new sub-areas allow for oversight by like-minded people. And it provides conservation incentives. If you pump, you pay.”
But John Noffsker, owner of Two Creek Ranches of Monte Vista and a surface water rights holder, was less enthusiastic. “Surface water isn’t fair like it used to be,” he said. “We need a solution that works rather than using the water to benefit a few. Smaller farms raising lower value crops will not be able to afford the increased fees.”