From The Alamosa Citizen (CVLopez):
OCTOBER 1 is a date virtually every farmer in the San Luis Valley’s ag-rich Subdistrict 1 has circled on their calendar. It’s when farm managers across Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will go to their center pivot sprinkler and read their flow meter, and then record that number with the subdistrict’s program manager, Marisa Fricke.
The reading will tell the farm operator how many acre-feet of water they’ve used this irrigation season, and the total of all the meter readings that Fricke records will determine the next steps in the urgent efforts to replenish the shallowest aquifer in the Valley, the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict 1.
“It’s the ‘hold your breath’ couple of months,” said Fricke, as she navigates her SUV through the subdistrict on a recent fall morning and gives lessons on the state of the Rio Grande. “Everything is riding on it.”
The number she’s looking for is 240,000-acre-feet of water or less. Remember that figure.
The Valley’s Most Lucrative Corridor
Subdistrict 1 came into being in 2006 to “take action to help restore a balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.” Remember, the unconfined aquifer had lost an estimated 1 million acre-feet of water to the changing climate from 2002 to 2004, and now efforts to replenish it have become vital to the Valley’s way of life, its $340 million annual ag economy, its growing tourist economy, and the quality of life, particularly in Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande counties where the boundaries of Subdistrict 1 largely lie.
It’s the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley, with 3,000 water wells. When you think about Subdistrict 1, think of Coors and barley. Think about the Valley as the fifth-largest producer of potatoes in America. Think about lucrative ag contracts with Walmart and Safeway. Collectively the cash crops in the subdistrict are valued at approximately $400 million, said Fricke. Think about the farming communities of Center and Sargent and Mosca. Think about the Gator Farm, and the hot springs at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool in Hooper. All of these attributes of the Valley reside in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1, and collectively they show what a devastating blow it would be to the Valley if the state of Colorado were to ever shut down wells in the subdistrict.
The state hinted at such a drastic step as recently as 2018 and 2019, when State Engineer Kevin Rein sounded the alarms about the importance of reducing groundwater withdrawals during a drought season and concerns about bringing the aquifer to sustainable levels by 2031. That’s what’s been agreed upon and what a state court-approved water plan calls for.
ENTER Marisa Fricke. After she receives the October flow meter readings from approximately 310 farms in Subdistrict 1, she will analyze the figures and draft a report to the State Engineer and Colorado Water Resources Division on the status of the unconfined aquifer. Her report will tell the state the total amount of groundwater pumped out and the amount of surface water diverted and re-charged through ponds and irrigation ditches.
She’ll get around 1,800 meter readings in October, and she’ll then calculate how much groundwater was pumped, minus the amount of surface water that was diverted in. The net balance will reveal the amount of water that was truly over pumped from the aquifer.
She will also convey that it’s been yet another dry year in 2021 for the San Luis Valley, compounding an even drier 2020. Without consistent snowpack and summer monsoon seasons, the surest way the unconfined aquifer gets restored is through voluntary conservation efforts put in place by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Those efforts include:
A Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that pays producers to not use their well for 15 years.
Paying farmers not to plant a field.
Purchasing acres of farmland and retiring the water wells on that land. Creating water credits so farmers who return more water to the aquifer than they took out can sell credits to other farmers who need more water for their fields.
All of these items will show up in Fricke’s report. “We are trying everything,” she said.
The odd thing is the unconfined aquifer, because of its unique hydrology and recharge decree, adds little injury to the Rio Grande Basin itself. The change in climate, though, means the aquifer struggles to restore itself naturally and farmers then must shoulder more of the burden.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen the climate changes,” said Fricke, an Alamosa High and Adams State graduate. She was raised in Alamosa county, knows farming, understands the agricultural life of the San Luis Valley, and worries about what’s to come.
“Everyone is very concerned,” she said.
Nine years left to 2031
The subdistrict basically has nine years left to recover 864,000 acre-feet of water, maybe. If Rein determines that it has become evident that the goal to return the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 can’t be met, then the state could take action sooner.
Now you understand the importance of October 1. In 2020, 247,000 acre-feet of water was pulled out of the aquifer. While this year hasn’t been as dry, 2021 certainly has not been a good year for precipitation in the San Luis Valley, and the forecast for October, November and December shows a probability of more of the same – dry and little moisture, which likely translates into an earlier spring runoff in 2022 if snow arrives late in the winter.
This is how the changing climate affects the situation, and why the conservation efforts in Subdistrict 1 are critical to the Valley’s ag and farming industry. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has purchased another 11 wells this year in an effort to retire groundwater and will offer the same program again in 2022.
Fricke will litter her report to the state with these types of facts to show all the work being done to preserve the aquifer. She describes the next few months as “the worst stress ever.” But then she smiles and flexes her determination to prove to the state that the water plan is working.
Asked what would be a good figure for 2021, she paused, gave it some thought, and said 240,000 acre-feet or less would signal some relief.
Asked when she’ll know, she turned and said, “December we’ll know the numbers.”