San Luis Valley aquifer system primer

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Helen Smith) via The Valley Courier:

Water is the glue that holds the San Luis Valley together. It is vital to the people, the economy, lifestyle and even the physical landscape of the Valley itself.

There are two aquifers that lie beneath the Valley floor. One is the confined aquifer that is trapped below a series of clay lenses deep beneath the Valley floor. The other is the unconfined aquifer that is generally found within the first 100 feet of the surface. Without the water from these aquifers, the San Luis Valley would very likely not be the agricultural workhorse that we know today.

There are also unique geological structures such as Rio Grande Rift that contributes to when and where water travels throughout the Valley subsurface. Aquifers are key, particularly the unconfined. The water of the unconfined aquifer functions very much like surface water. The recharge of this important commodity comes from the mountains and the snow that brings down their runoff. The unconfined aquifer supplies 85 percent of agricultural well water. The largest concentration of these wells lies within Sub-district #1.

The confined aquifer lies beneath the unconfined aquifer. There are clay layers that separate the aquifers. Historic Alamosa Lake is likely responsible for the formation of these layers. The water that lies beneath the surface is heavily relied upon by the agricultural community. There are also differences in how each of the aquifers react. In addition, any well in the San Luis Valley inevitably impacts the river flow at some point.

As a Valley native from Saguache, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering Services has studied the San Luis Valley aquifer system extensively. He also has a great deal of background on the Valley’s water issues. Davey points out that the aquifers and well levels have been monitored since 1970, when accurate measurements were first available. Since that time, there have been notable trends in the increase and decrease of the aquifer and well levels. The water table itself has seen a significant and steady decline partly due to the sheer number of wells that have been drilled. More water has been taken than replaced. The worst decrease was the extreme drought that began in 2002. Historically speaking, demand has simply outweighed supply. Because of these factors, there are now big implications for the future.

Davey also explained that the aquifers are situated very much like a bowl of water. This means that there is pressure that pushes the water upward from beneath the clay and downward pressure from the surface. The result is wells in the confined aquifer have high amounts of pressure, the result of which is artesian flow. Both confined and unconfined wells are heavily relied upon especially for agriculture irrigation. This has resulted in a widening gap between the aquifer waters and the surface.

Because this gap between the water and the surface has increased, it is now not impossible that there is potential for the Valley floor to begin sinking if the aquifer is not replenished. Rebuilding the aquifer system has now become even more necessary than many once thought. It has now become imperative that this issue be addressed. It is also critical that the recharge process is working properly.

The effort to replace the depletions and rebuild the aquifer is another piece to this puzzle. This is where sub-districts, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the pending well rules and regulations for Division 3 come in. The pending regulations for Division 3 require well users to replace their depletions. There is also a slow gain in the northern portions of the aquifer system being seen though studies and reports that Davis Engineering Services provides to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Because the well owners of Sub-district #1 have been replacing their depletions, Davey believes that the aquifer is headed in the right direction because of monitoring and reduced pumping. Replacing depletions will only help agriculture as well as Colorado’s obligation to the Rio Grande Compact.

The well rules for Division 3 and the replacement efforts are still a work in progress. However, it would appear that these measures are producing some results. The trial to finalize the rules for Division 3 is set for January of 2018. If and when these rules are approved, a great deal of change will arrive. Arguably, it is necessary change.

The future remains to be seen. There is certainly a great deal of importance in this matter when considering the agriculture, the people and the future of the San Luis Valley. This is a unique situation that will require a unique solution.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. For more information visit

Water Center announces seven grant recipients — @ColoradoStateU

Forest ecosystems around the world are under the gun from climate change, development, insect invasions and conversion to agriculture. This stand of lodgepoles in Colorado was clear cut after pine beetles killed most of the trees.

Here’s the release from the Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

The CSU Water Center has selected four multi-disciplinary teams and three individual faculty members as recipients of competitive grants totaling $129,553 for 2017-18.

The seven projects involve 25 faculty members and eight students from across campus. True to the mission of the Water Center, these projects involve water research, teaching, and engagement through interdisciplinary collaboration and creative scholarship among faculty and students.

Among the topics research teams will explore include:

  • Metal impacts on stream ecosystems.
  • Quantifying the impact of permanently drying up agricultural land due to rural to urban water transfers.
  • Individual faculty members will examine:

  • Factors that drive residential and commercial water demand.
  • Fish conversation methods in extreme habitats.
  • Reducing forest fuels, protecting water supplies

    Tony Cheng, professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship in the Warner College of Natural Resources, is leading a nine-person team that will research the effect of reducing forest fuels on wildfire severity and post-fire erosion.

    “Drought and warming temperatures are increasing the risk of large, severe forest wildfires in Colorado and throughout the western U.S., prompting forest land managers and water providers to invest millions of dollars to reduce flammable fuel loads to protect water supplies,” said Cheng. “Our research team has been developing new methods to quantify the effectiveness of these forest management activities, with the intent of providing investors with metrics indicating return on their investments. The Water Center’s Water Research Team award will allow us to extend the reach and impact of our research to address this important issue.”

    Removing pharmaceuticals, personal care product chemicals

    Susan De Long, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, heads up a four-member group working to remove certain contaminants from water supplies.

    “Pharmaceutical and personal care product chemicals are now routinely being detected in lakes, rivers and even drinking water, because conventional wastewater treatment plants do not effectively remove these chemicals from our water,” De Long said. “Some of these chemicals have also been found in foods that were irrigated with water containing very low levels of these contaminants. Our research is focused on developing low cost, environmentally sustainable technologies to remove these contaminants from our waters using naturally occurring, safe types of bacteria. The Water Center funding is allowing us to advance our understanding of which bacteria are most useful using next-generation gene sequencing technologies.”

    ‘Green’ water planning

    Kelly Curl, associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is one of three water faculty fellows. Curl’s research focuses on integrating green infrastructure within land-use and water planning.

    “As our population continues to increase, it will become ever more critical that the inclusion of successful green infrastructure becomes integrated within land-use planning and water planning,” said Curl. “We must look to the regional scale for the success of water efficient landscapes within our built environment. I would like to thank the CSU Water Center for giving me the opportunity to initiate my research goals on this critical topic.”

    Faculty across campus

    The CSU Water Center brings together more than 200 faculty members from various colleges and departments to promote water-related research to students, staff and community members.

    The Water Center helps to foster CSU’s capacity to address various water-related topics while advancing the university as a center of water excellence and a leader in water scholarship. Through its organizational efforts, the Water Center brings together water faculty, staff, and students who are better equipped to work toward improving water in Colorado, the U.S., and internationally.

    CSU Water Center has funded 26 interdisciplinary research teams, 10 faculty fellows, and one symposium planning team since 2014, totaling more than $675,000. These projects have resulted in more than $11 million in external funding. The Water Center’s call for proposals is released in January of each year and is open to all CSU faculty and research scientists.

    Mesa “State of the River” meeting recap

    Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

    The Colorado River is a still largely unrecognized asset that could flood the Grand Valley with economic opportunities, speakers said at a State of the River conference Monday.

    “We’re not maximizing use of the river from a commercial perspective,” Sam Williams, general manager of Powderhorn Mountain Resort, told about 50 people at the conference at the Avalon Theatre in downtown Grand Junction.

    Williams spoke on a panel with Palisade-area fruitgrower Bruce Talbott, Grand Junction Economic Partnership Executive Director Kristi Pollard, Alpine Bank Senior Vice President David Miller and Sarah Shrader, owner of Bonsai Design in Grand Junction and a founder of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition.

    “We sell lifestyle” when trying to attract businesses to the Grand Valley, and a large part of that is the presence of “this amazing asset we have,” the Colorado River, Pollard said.

    Shrader, whose company is developing an outdoor-recreation business park along the river, noted that other cities that have taken advantage of the river through town to use as an attraction have seen a turnaround in the business climate to one of optimism and activity.

    “This community is poised to do something really fantastic,” Shrader said.

    Involving businesses and people in the river can aid with the recovery of the four endangered fish species in the Colorado River Basin, as well as others, such as the Western yellow-billed cuckoo, by encouraging an ethic of stewardship, Shrader said.

    All of Alpine Bank’s branches sit on or near the banks of the Colorado or one of its many tributaries, Miller said.

    That has served as a reminder that the health of the river is directly tied to the health of the businesses along it, Miller said.

    Alpine Bank has moved to reduce its water use by 40 percent and has saved $12,000 annually in doing so, he noted.

    Agriculture in the east end of the Grand Valley — peaches and grapes specifically — has served to make his family business “the darling of the valley,” Talbott said.

    It’s been successful on the financial score, as the 2,500 acres of fruit lands generate some $60 million in ultimate retail sales, Talbott noted.

    Nonetheless, it’s clear that fruitgrowers and others are well served to look out for their water supplies because, “We farm at the consent of the public,” Talbott said.

    “We have to grow (crops) as inexpensively as possible” while looking to assure long-term water supplies, Talbott said.

    The meeting was sponsored by The Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and the Business for Water Stewardship. Alpine Bank, the Tamarisk Coalition and Club 20 also supported the conference.

    From (Carly Moore):

    There were many speakers at the ‘State of the River’ event, taking a critical look at the resource flowing through the valley. They explained the challenges the water supply faces…

    Experts are concerned because they believe the river is operating at a long-term deficit, meaning more water is used than the amount we gain from rain or snow.

    “Water is really important in Colorado because we are an arid state,” said Aaron Clay, a Delta water law attorney. “It takes water to make any economy run, whether it’s agriculture, manufacturing or municipal.”

    “So between people and industry asking more of the river system — and this is all states states on the river — and warming temperatures, that has put a burden on supply,” said Jim Pokrandt, the community affairs director of the Colorado River District.

    Gigi Richard, faculty director of the CMU’s Water Center, said the only source of water is precipitation. With a third of the Colorado River Basin getting fewer than 10 inches of rain each year on average, the Colorado River relies on melted snow pack.

    “In a sense we’re snow farmers,” Pokrandt said. “While some people may paying attention to commodity prices, our commodity is snow pack.”

    Richard said more than 80 percent of Mesa County’s water is used for agricultural irrigation.

    Though it’s valuable for family homes to conserve water as much as possible, Clay said that doesn’t put a dent in it.

    Rifle “State of the River” recap

    Rifle Falls back in the day via USGenWeb

    From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Alex Zorn):

    The State of the River featured several presentations. Speakers included Scot Dodero, who discussed the Silt Water Conservancy District and its upcoming $3 million upgrade to its pump house, and Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, who focused on big picture questions facing the Colorado River.

    The Colorado River District started these meetings 24 years ago. Kuhn sees exports as a potential issue in the future, for every drop of water is used from the river.

    “If California is in a drought and they can’t export more water from northern California, they will take more from the Colorado,” he explained.

    He compared it to a rubber band being pulled on both sides; eventually it is going to snap.

    Kuhn listed demand management and cloud seeding (or snowmaking) as potential solutions in contingency planning, but admitted it was a complex issue.

    The evening’s final presentation looked at the Grand Valley water banking experiment, which will test how conserving consumptive water use by agricultural fallowing will send more water to Lake Powell to help bolster low reservoir levels.

    “Water banking is the practice of intentionally foregoing diversion or consumptive use of a water resource and banking the conversed volume for use at a future date or different purpose,” said Mark Harris of the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

    In 2017, 10 farm operators across the valley, each committing a minimum of 60 acres, will participate in the pilot program to reduce water consumption. The program will ensure that agricultural water users would have a seat at the table if and when water rights becomes more of an issue. In turn, they won’t be expected to shoulder the burden in drought conditions.

    For more information, specific questions or concerns, visit or

    Water Education Colorado 2017 President’s Award Reception

    The Denver Art Museum was the location for The Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s President’s Award Reception yesterday evening.

    Eric Kuhn received the Dianne Hoppe Leadership Award and Drew Beckwith was honored as an Emerging Leader.

    Each year when I attend this event I am struck by the camaraderie shown by the water folks here in Colorado. Water really does bring us together to find solutions, and at the end of the day we have so much to agree on. Water for Ag, water to drive the economy, water for the fish and bugs. It takes a great number of people to meet the water needs of the Headwaters State, collaboration is key, and this event helps us to connect.

    Jim Lochhead introduced Eric Kuhn and detailed his accomplishments while leading the Colorado River District. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the Windy Gap Firming agreement were at the top of the list. Lochhead also praised Mr. Kuhn as one of the two most influential persons in the Colorado River Basin along with Pat Mulroy.

    Drew Beckwith

    Eric Hecox told us about Drew Beckwith’s influence on the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. Eric credited Mr. Beckwith for poring over the workbooks, questioning assumptions, and advocating for conservation.

    Drew is an accomplished water educator himself choosing video in the Drew in a Canoe series. He helped get the public on board with legislation passed in 2016 to legalize rain barrels.

    People that install rain barrels are, “More connected to water,” he said.

    This is always a great event to attend. Thanks Jayla, Caitlin, Jenny, and Stephanie.

    #ColoradoRiver District Second Quarterly Board Newsletter Summary #COriver

    Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

    Click here to read the summary. Here’s an excerpt:

    What are the State of the River Meetings?

    Each spring, during snowmelt runoff, the River District organizes informational “State of the River” meetings across parts of the Western Slope of Colorado to help educate the public and water users. Meeting speakers offer up-to-date information on snowpack figures, water supply forecasts and anticipated stream flows and upcoming conditions.

    Specifically, reservoir operators and climate profession will discuss the amount of water expected to flow into the local reservoirs due to melting snow and will forecast how conditions may affect the rise and fall of reservoir levels and the amounts and timing of water to be released to the rivers over the upcoming season.

    Westminster Historical Society’s latest exhibit: “The Driving Force: The story of Westminster water.”

    Crews work to build a channel to guide water for Westminster residents and farms in this historic photograph. Credit Westminster Historical Society via The Englewood Herald.

    From The Englewood Herald (Kevin M. Smith):

    [Phil] Goedert was among the volunteers who worked on the Westminster Historical Society’s latest exhibit: “The Driving Force: The story of Westminster water.”

    Six panels explain the history of the water in words, photos and maps in addition to additional panels with a timeline and summary of the water laws. There are also a few artifacts, like a cast iron pipe laid in about 1911 next to a PVC pipe that is commonly used today.

    Ron Hellbusch said the exhibit is appropriately named.


    Hellbusch was in charge of figuring out the city’s water issue in the 1960s — one of the pivotal times that created a channel to the current day Westminster.

    “To see it develop it where the city has grown … a lot of it, you can point to having sufficient water to control your destiny and to control your growth and keep local decisions,” Hellbusch said.

    A drought in the 1960s along with the city’s water rights at the bottom of the barrel spurred residents to campaign for change. The water Westminster received had gone through other water treatment plants first before hitting household taps here…

    Hellbusch was asked to spearhead a proposal for the city’s own system because he started working for the city’s utilities department part-time in 1953 when he was a sophomore in high school. He continued working summers through high school and college.

    He wasn’t an engineer, but he had more field experience than anyone in the city.

    In addition to being at the bottom of water rights, city leaders feared that Denver would dictate Westminster’s growth by restricting the number and types of new buildings to stem water usage.

    In 1963, a ballot question put the fate in the city of Westminster’s hands instead of Denver’s and it won — by just 170 votes, a 4.4 percent margin.

    “That’s when they started to acquire surface water rights,” Goedert said.

    Instead of relying on ditch water and canals running through Golden where others had first rights and wells that dried up during droughts, the city made a deal to tap into Standley Lake. Standley Lake was built and owned by Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO).

    “Those guys are very protective of their water and they didn’t want any municipalities fussing around with what they could — until they started to have serious problems with the dam,” Goedert said.

    The dam was cracking and FRICO didn’t have the money to repair it.

    “So Westminster bought into it and said, `We’ll fix the dam and raise it if you give us half the water.’ And they said, `It’s a deal,’ ” Smith said.

    And that holds true today.

    Westminster added 12 acres of height to the dam. The city has rights to more than 50 percent of Standley Lake water with Northglenn, Thornton and FRICO getting the rest.

    Further back

    But the water issues started with the first population influx during the Gold Rush in the late 1850s.

    “At the time, there were no water laws,” Goedert said. “Whoever was there first, that’s whose water it was.”

    First, placer mines, which separated sand from gold, were made from ditches off Clear Creek.

    “We started out with the ditches and the canals,” Smith said.

    Those were dug with livestock on either side of the ditch dragging a bucket to scrape out earth.

    The miners drew farmers and ranchers.

    “So that started to expand the ditches,” Goedert said.

    Eventually, FRICO built its reservoir in about 1907 to serve agricultural and livestock needs.

    Westminster was incorporated in 1911 and included an $11,000 bond issue to drill the city’s first well.

    More in the exhibit

    The exhibit also covers water as recreation, like the bond issue in 1979 to build Water World and building city swimming pools.

    Smith said he hopes to add to the exhibit throughout the next few months and eventually move it to city hall.

    The Westminster History Center, 7200 Lowell Blvd., is open 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and by appointment. For more information, call 303-428-3993.

    Standley Lake sunset. Photo credit