The DWR sends rules for groundwater pumping in the San Luis Valley to water court

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

For the second time in 40 years, the state engineer has come up with rules and regulations for groundwater wells in the San Luis Valley.

The rules, which were submitted by State Engineer Dick Wolfe to the Division 3 Water Court Wednesday, aim to restore the valley’s two major aquifers and protect senior surface water users from the harm caused by pumping.

The rules would apply to roughly 4,500 high-capacity irrigation wells spread across the valley, with the exception of southern Costilla County, which is not above either aquifer.

Wolfe pointed to provisions that defined sustainable levels for the valley’s groundwater, noting they were a first for any of the river basins in the state.

“You see a lot of what’s going on in a lot of other parts of the Western U.S., particularly California right now, we’re going to look back on this time and say we’re glad we took this step,” he said.

The engineer’s office aims to return the two major aquifers to the levels that existed until 2000, when drought and persistent withdrawals sent them into steep decline.

Toward that end, the rules will require users of the confined aquifer — the deeper and larger of the two — to submit plans to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply.

The rules would also give the engineer’s office the ability to shut down wells that are not operating under one of three options to mitigate pumping.

To avoid being shut down, well users could join a groundwater management subdistrict, in which its members pool resources to either buy water or pay surface water users for injury.

They could also take out individual augmentation plans for the same purpose.

Third, they could have a short-term temporary water supply plan.

The development of the sustainability section partly accounted for the six years Wolfe, his staff and upward of 100 valley water users took to come up with the regulations.

Developing the computer model that would eventually be used to calculate stream losses from groundwater pumping also took a period of years, Wolfe said.

But it is that computer model that could be one of the biggest differences from these rules and the version from 40 years ago that was never implemented.

“It was really apparent to me that we did not have the hydrologic knowledge to really effectively control wells,” said Mac McFadden, who served as division engineer in the valley in 1975.

After the water court publishes notice of the rules submission, there will be a 60-day period for objectors and supporters to file statements to the court.

Wolfe said he hoped to work out stipulations with objectors that would allow the court to avoid a trial.

It is possible that at least one group of water users in the La Jara Creek drainage will be among the objectors.

They sued the engineer’s office earlier this year, alleging the state’s computer model had failed to find pumping losses to a spring they depend on to irrigate.
Parties in that case are scheduled to meet in court Oct. 5 to determine if consolidation into the rules and regulations is appropriate.

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