Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):
THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The group of 12 – umbrellaed under the name SWAG or Sustainable Water Augmentation Group – is seeking the first group augmentation plan filed under the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Season Rules. The rules govern groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley and are a constant source of state government oversight on the Valley’s groundwater and surface water users.
Opposing the SWAG application is the influential Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which applies the state groundwater rules through a formation of subdistricts with oversight from farmers and ranchers who own water rights and wells within a subdistrict. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and host of local water users have also filed objections to the SWAG plan.
The fact Chief Water Court Judge Gonzales set five weeks to hear from the applicants, and water managers and users in opposition, speaks to the weight of the case, both in substance and precedence, to the arguments and the sheer volume of court documents associated with the SWAG case.
There are 1,946 scanned documents and over 1,000 exhibits in the voluminous court file – all part of a water augmentation plan that has the potential to upend the years of collaboration that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauded during a recent trip to the Valley.
“This community has shown the state of Colorado what collaboration looks like,” he said. “The Rio Grande Basin issues related to groundwater really have called for people figuring out how we work together.”
That notion of collaboration and everyone-in-it-together gets flipped on its head with the SWAG case.
What it’s all about
SWAG producers are part of Subdistrict 1, the Valley’s most lucrative for crop sales of the six subdistricts, but also the most challenged when it comes to reaching the state engineer’s order to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply.
In this case that means bringing stability to the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, a directive the subdistrict has been working on since it first formed in 2006 only to find itself continuing to fight an uphill battle.
Here’s the problem: The state engineer has given the subdistrict until 2031 to reach the sustainable benchmark, but during the past 12 years that subdistrict irrigators have been reducing groundwater pumping and retiring once-productive land, the bar to water sustainability has hardly moved.
OW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval.
It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.
Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future.
The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.
SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.
The finer arguments to be made
To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”
And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”
The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.
“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”
Augmentation Plan: Historically required of junior water users on over-appropriated streams, like those in the Rio Grande Basin, to obtain sufficient replacement water to offset any injurious depletions to senior water rights. Under the state Department of Water Resources 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Rules, an augmentation plan also must help achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply and not interfere with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact and annual water delivery to New Mexico and Texas.
Subdistrict – A defined territory within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that helps promote local interests and accomplish improvements within that defined “special improvement district” or “subdistrict.” Currently there are six subdistricts, numbered consecutively as they were created. Subdistrict 1 was formed in 2006, and others subsequently after. Participation among crop producers is voluntary. Each subdistrict has a board of managers. Their decisions are voted on by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors.
SWAG – A group of groundwater users within Subdistrict 1 who have crafted their own augmentation plan rather than participate in the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management and Annual Replacement Plan that have been approved by the state. The group says it has 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres.
Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management – Specific to Subdistrict 1, it establishes how irrigators will meet the state Division of Water Resources order to recover and create a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The first Plan of Water Management was approved in May 2010, and there were subsequent amendments to the plan approved in June 2017 and August 2018. The fourth amended plan was approved by Colorado Division of Water Resources in June 2023 and final by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board on July 14. There is a 10-day period from when the RGWCD board gave final approval that allows irrigators to challenge the plan in district water court and there are already challenges, meaning it won’t go into effect until it’s approved by the water court.