Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly meeting recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

In spite of more moisture from “Mother Nature,” plus the efforts of farmers to manage irrigation through self-governed sub-districts and other good intentions, it will take more hard work and painful decisions to get the San Luis Valley’s aquifer back to where it needs to be.

“From the very beginning, I think everybody was under the illusion this wasn’t going to hurt,” Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board President Greg Higel said during the board’s quarterly meeting on Tuesday in Alamosa. “It’s going to hurt. Some people are going to go out of business. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. Some wells are not going to come back.”

RGWCD Board Member Dwight Martin said, “Nobody said it would be easy.”

He said the sub-districts will keep the Valley alive and “without it, it’s going to die.”

Sub-districts are not an easy fix , but they are making progress, he and other members of the sub-district’s sponsoring board said.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said one of the programs that can help ease the pain is CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) “because CREP provides the soft landing.”

CREP is a federal program providing incentives to farmers willing to temporarily or permanently fallow acreage, and the sub-district board of managers has offered additional incentives to those willing to sign up for CREP.

“The sub-district has struggled to get as much acreage into CREP as possible,” Robbins said.

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey said CREP incentives have to be higher than the commodity prices farmers can get for their crops in order to get them to sign up. That has not been the case to this point. Godfrey said if the Valley’s first sub-district is going to meet its mandated goal of taking 40,000 acres out of production and bringing the underground aquifers up to legislatively required levels within 20 years, then the sub- district will need to provide stronger encouragement to farmers to retire acreage. She suggested the sponsoring district board give that kind of direction to the sub-district .

“We can’t force the board of managers,” Higel said. “You are wanting this board to be policing them to push CREP.”

“To do something,” Godfrey responded, “make some sort of decision to get them to move forward.”

“That’s not our job, and I am not going to do it,” RGWCD Board Member Lewis Entz said.

Higel said, “I really don’t feel as a board that’s our place to police them. We are not a police force.”

Godfrey said that’s not what she was asking, but she believed the sub-district board wanted some direction from its sponsoring board.

“They have sat here and said ‘we would really want to know what the board thinks’ .”

“They know what we think,” Martin said.

He said the sub-district has made monumental efforts to reduce pumping and continues to make progress, and that progress will take time.

“We have approved their rules of management, and now we need to let them manage themselves,” Martin said.

RGWCD Engineer Allen Davey addressed the sustainability issue. He said if the aquifer does not recover naturally through really wet years, the only solution to bring it back up is to reduce irrigated acreage.

“That’s going to be very painful,” he said. He added that even if normal runoff occurs and continues to occur, “there has to be even with average conditions significant dry up in that area.”

RGWCD Board Member Lawrence Gallegos said the pending state groundwater rules and regulations would put some teeth into the mandate to bring this basin’s aquifer back up to sustainable levels. However, if irrigators did not address the mandate sooner than later, they might find themselves up against a deadline and requirement they could not meet, and their wells might be shut off.

“I think that would be a tragedy,” he said.

Gallegos added, “if we had more years like this year I think it would solve the problem. If it doesn’t happen, if it goes back to the way we have been having the last few years before this year, I think it would make it really hard for them to meet sustainability . I don’t know it’s our job to go in there and tell them they have to do something, but at the same time they have to be aware if they don’t meet sustainability, the state engineer has said their solution is to come in and shut everybody off.”

Higel said, “They are grown people and they will have had 20 years to figure it out.”

Higel added that the RGWCD board could not make anyone form a sub-district .

Godfrey said at the same time, however, the board could encourage folks to take some actions such as increasing CREP incentives to help the sub-districts succeed and let them know the sponsoring board supports them.

RGWCD Board Member Kent Palmgren said, “Those guys understand they have an issue, but they also want to come up with the best possible plan they can.”

He said the sub-district board has been dealing with very challenging issues, and the sponsoring board cannot fault them or push them.

“They have gone over every issue there is several times,” he said. “They know there’s an urgency there.”

Higel said this is a heated subject, and the RGWCD board needed to be careful about what it decided to push. The only power the sponsoring board has at this point is not to approve the subdistrict’s plan, he explained, and that is not an option he wanted to pursue.

“We have set up an avenue for them to take care of themselves,” he said. “I am not going to sit on the south side of the river and tell guys north of the river how to do things.”

The RGWCD board will try to meet with the Sub-district #1 board this fall.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

For the first time in seven years, the Rio Grande will likely experience an above-average year.

The river is currently running at slightly above average, Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said during Tuesday’s Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) board meeting in Alamosa.

“If this holds true, and this is an above average year,” he said, “it will be the first time in the last seven years that we have had an above average year.”

He said the current predicted annual flow for the Rio Grande is 675,000 acre feet, which is about 25,000 acre feet above average. The Conejos River system will likely not quite reach average this year, with its projected annual index flow of 270,000 acre feet just under the average of about 300,000 acre feet, “but it’s a lot better than we anticipated earlier in the season,” Cotten said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the water division that relies on NRCS forecasts have had to increase their predictions as the spring and summer progressed, Cotten added, because the water kept coming. He said early in the season, in May, NRCS was not predicting an average year on the Rio Grande, and it looked like they would be right, based on the flows in the river at that time. By June 1, however, the Rio Grande spiked above average and has remained above average since that time.

The Rio Grande was not the only river experiencing a spike in June, he added. Saguache Creek, which experiences an average flow of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) nearly reached 600 cfs in June. Saguache Creek continued to exceed average flows and even experienced some flooding , Cotten said.

Sharon Vaughn, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s three refuges in the San Luis Valley, said all three refuges experienced flooding this year. In fact the new visitors center office at the Baca refuge was flooded, she said, and the Service had to apply for emergency funding to create a berm around the facility.

The Alamosa refuge did not have as much surface flooding on the river but had some swell events, Vaughn added, that placed water in areas that had not had water for years.

The Monte Vista refuge experienced pretty major flooding , Vaughn said, but that provided good habitat for the waterfowl that rely on the refuge.

Vaughn said people told her they had not seen water like this on the three refuges in many years.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Superintendent Lisa Carrico said the dunes have also benefited from the increased moisture. Precipitation in June was the seventh highest recorded for that month since 1951 when data was first logged at the dunes and the 12th warmest June since that time.

Medano Creek typically peaks at 37 cfs but this year exceeded 40 cfs, Carrico added. Visitor numbers have been higher this summer, in large part due to the creek’s levels, she said. In June, 60,757 visitors came through the entrance gate, which was 22 percent higher than last June.

The increased moisture this year also transformed San Luis Lake, which until this year was literally dry to the bottom.

RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver said the plan for this year was to keep Head Lake dry and fill wetlands around Head and San Luis Lakes and if there was excess water, San Luis Lake would receive some. However , Mother Nature had other plans, and Sand Creek charted its own course, filled Head Lake and the wetlands and starting filling San Luis Lake back up.

Richard Roberts, reporting for the Bureau of Reclamation , added, “Before this year, San Luis Lake was dry. It’s been a great year.”

He said the total depth of the lake now is about 6 feet.

“The water is nice and clear and cool.”

He said the water quality is also good, and if the lake continues to fill , it can expect to host a new fish population. It’s too late to stock fish this year, he added, but it is looking promising for the future.

Vandiver said the RGWCD’s first sub-district had based its deliveries to make up for its injurious depletions this year on early river forecasts but because water flows have turned out greater than anticipated, the sub-district will have a significant overdelivery this year and can expected to be reimbursed, water wise.

RGWCD Engineer Allen Davey also reported good news in the long-term water study he has conducted in the closed basin area in the west central area of the Valley . He said the unconfined aquifer experienced recovery of almost 71,000 acre feet in June and nearly 47,000 acre feet in May.

Cotten said the weather service’s moisture prediction for the next three months, August through October, for this area is in the aboveaverage range.

“That’s what we are looking at for the rest of the summer,” he said. Looking ever farther out, the weather service is predicting above-average precipitation in this area for the months of December, January and February.

One of the drawbacks to increased flows on the Valley’s rivers, Cotten reminded the water leaders, is the increased obligation on those flows to downstream states under the Rio Grande Compact. That means higher curtailments on ditches to meet the higher compact requirement to New Mexico and Texas.

For example, the curtailment right now is nearly 40 percent on the Conejos River system ditches and 20 percent on the Rio Grande. Because forecasts were lower in May, the curtailments on ditches were only 0-5 percent at the beginning of the irrigation season but have had to go up as predictions rose.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

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