Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With the cooperation of “Mother Nature” and San Luis Valley irrigators, aquifer levels in the Rio Grande Basin are improving.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Rob Phillips , who oversees the water district’s first sub-district , reported to the board on Tuesday that the unconfined aquifer generally in the area encompassed by the subdistrict had recovered by 119,469 acre feet between September 2014 and September 2015. That is the largest recovery in the unconfined aquifer storage in that area since 2007.

RGWCD District Engineer Allen Davey added, “We have seen significant recovery.”

He said the aquifer has had a couple of good years, which hopefully will continue.

The recovery is encouraging , given that this area of the aquifer has declined by more than one million acre feet since a long-term monitoring study began in 1976.

“We have just seen great recovery this last couple of years,” Davey said. “The runoffs haven’t been really above average, but it’s just been great recovery.”

At least some of that recovery can be attributed to farmers and ranchers in Subdistrict #1 who are reducing the amount of water they pump or paying for water to make up for their depletions.

Davey said irrigators in the area encompassed by Subdistrict #1 were pumping an estimated 391,000 acre feet of water in 2000. Estimated pumping this year in that same area is 230,000 acre feet, he said.

One of the methods the sub-district has used to motivate irrigators to cut down on their pumping is to promote the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and add sub-district incentives on top of the normal CREP payments to encourage farmers to enroll in CREP.

Phillips said 16 new CREP contracts are in place for the 2016 fiscal year, with 10 of those involving permanent groundwater retirement. These new contracts involve 36 wells that would otherwise be pumping 2,900 acre feet a year, Phillips explained.

Davey said he attributed the aquifer recovery to two reasons: reduced pumping; and “some cooperation from Mother Nature.”

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the weather service’s forecast for the next few months and even longer calls for above average precipitation for this area.

“Hopefully that will come true and we will have a good year,” he said.

Cotten said the basin snowpack as of January 14 was 112 percent of normal, including both the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains . (Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, said the Medano snowpack was 157 percent of average on Tuesday.)

“If we can keep that up through the end of the snowpack season, we should have a really good year,” Cotten said.

Two years in a row the annual flows on the Rio Grande were close to the long-term average, Cotten added, with 2015 ending up with 665,000 acre feet annual index flow, which is the first time in quite a few years the river has had an above average flow . The long-term average is 650,000 acre feet. The Rio Grande more than met its Rio Grande Compact obligations and actually over delivered water to downstream states in 2015, Cotten said. The Rio Grande wound up the year with 8,700 acre feet credit. The Conejos River system, which is also included in the compact with New Mexico and Texas, had a slight deficit in what it owed, under-delivering about 1,400 acre feet. However, the compact incorporates the two river systems so in total the state of Colorado ended 2015 with a Rio Grande Compact credit.

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