Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

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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.

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