Four months after announcing they wouldn’t use federal COVID-19 funds on the proposal from Renewable Water Resources, or RWR, the commissioners heard a legal update on the project from the county’s outside counsel, Steve Leonhardt, Sept. 13. Leonhardt, who recently met with RWR, provided advice and a piece of “work product” for commissioners to review…
In May, Laydon made the decisive vote not to use a portion of the county’s $68 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the proposal. However, he said he was still interested in continuing to look at the project. Since then, the county has continued to pay Leonhardt to talk with RWR…
Commissioner George Teal, a longtime supporter of the plan, said during the Sept. 13 meeting that Leonhardt’s advice reflects the current legal and political setting and that things could change in the decades it would take for the project to come to fruition…
Opponents of the plan have come from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa and both U.S. senators.
Speaking of the November election, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in a race against Democratic challenger Kari Solberg. Should he win – and expectations are that he will in a county that trends toward local Republicans – expect Douglas County to make another full-court press on a deal with Renewable Water Resources. A renewed push, despite clear public opposition including from Douglas County residents, relies on Laydon being re-elected to the three-member board of commissioners, since it is a split public body with Commissioner Lora Thomas staunchly opposed to the idea of exporting water from the San Luis Valley and Commissioner George Teal a key ally of RWR. Laydon needs to win re-election for RWR to move forward. Upcoming campaign finance reports will show how big a bet RWR’s Bill Owens, Sean Tonner and other water exportation enthusiasts have placed behind him.
You’ll recall Douglas County decided not to use its federal COVID relief money to invest in RWR, but rather told its staff and water attorneys it has hired to negotiate and to continue working with RWR on the proposal. The deal was never dead – Douglas County simply took it off its public agenda while staff and attorneys worked on the plan with RWR’s Bill Owens and Sean Tonner. Earlier this month, on Sept. 13, Steve Leonhardt, the lead water attorney hired by Douglas County, met in executive session with the three commissioners to update them on his ongoing talks with Owens and RWR. Once November passes, and should Laydon win, expect Douglas County to again make its case for why its way of life in the suburbs of metro-Denver is more critical to the future of Colorado than the agriculture and environmental assets of the San Luis Valley and the health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
It’s one of those days when the clouds pile up in the azure blue, their shadows gliding across the sandstone and sage, offering a bit of relief from the late June heat. They also promise rain, but I have my doubts. This is the Paradox Valley, after all, which lives up to its name in more way than one, a place of beauty and brutality.
The Uravan Mineral Belt, which roughly follows the lower Dolores River in western Colorado, slices perpendicularly across the Paradox Valley just like the river, giving it its name. The mineral belt, meanwhile, got its name from the elements that lie within: vanadium and uranium. The belt was the center of the radium boom from the early 1900s into the 1920s and was ravaged for uranium from the 1940s into the 1980s. Vanadium was mined here in between.
Jennifer Thurston, the executive director of the Colorado mining watchdog group INFORM, tells me there are 1,300 mining sites, abandoned and otherwise, in the Dolores and San Miguel River Basins, making it among the most heavily mined sites in the West. And it shows.
I’m here with Thurston and Soren Jespersen to take a look at myriad wounds inflicted by the mining industry, most still gaping and oozing with uncovered waste rock, rusty equipment, and other detritus decades after they were last active. But this is more than a journey into the past, it’s also a look at what might happen again in the not-so-distant future. A renewed interest in nuclear energy as a low-carbon power source and a desire to source reactor fuel domestically could wake the U.S. uranium industry from its long dormancy and rouse some of the mineral belt mines back into action.
“Here we go again,” Jespersen, of Colorado Wildlands Project, said earlier in the day, as we examined what looked a tombstone-looking monument marking the internment site of nearly 1 million tons of radioactive tailings from the Naturita Mill. “Are we going to stumble blindly down the same path?” Thurston and Jespersen are both working, in their own way, to prevent that from happening.
The U.S. uranium industry has been on a downward slide since the eighties. First the 1979 Three Mile Island incident gave Americans the nuclear power jitters (Chernobyl, in ’86, didn’t help matters). Then the Cold War ended, allowing the fissionable material in dismantled nuclear warheads to be downgraded to a concentration that could be used as reactor fuel, and opening up Russian and former Soviet republic markets to the world. Uranium prices dropped significantly, gutting the domestic mining industry. Now at least 95% of all of the uranium used to fuel American reactors is imported from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Russia, and other countries.
After the Fukushima disaster it seemed as if nuclear power would gradually fade away, at least in the U.S. New conventional reactors are simply too expensive to build and low natural gas prices and a flood of new renewables on the power grid threatened to make the existing, aging nuclear fleet obsolete. But as the effects of climate change become more and more apparent, and the sense of urgency around the need to decarbonize the power sector intensifies, climate hawks are giving nuclear power a new look.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo, California, for example, is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but now California Gov. Gavin Newsom is leading a push to keep it open longer. His reasoning: The state’s grid doesn’t have the renewable generation capacity yet to replace the big plant, meaning if it were to close now grid operators would have to rely on carbon-emitting natural gas-fired generation.
Meanwhile, a Bill Gates-backed firm called TerraPower is working to build an advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Oregon startup NuScale is looking to install a battery of small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory and sell power to small, Western utilities.
Any of these initiatives, on their own, can’t revive the U.S. uranium industry. But this mild resurgence in nuclear power, paired with the fallout (only figurative, we hope) of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has caused the price of uranium to double over the last couple of years. If that trend continues—and if the federal government pitches in subsidies for the industry—it might be enough to make U.S. uranium mining economically feasible and spark renewed interest in the Uravan Mineral Belt.
Thurston has tirelessly worked to bring regulations and regulators out of the 19th century, sometimes by dragging them into court. She was instrumental in the fight to block a proposal to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley several years ago and more recently has forced regulators to revoke long-idled mines’ “temporary cessation” status, clearing the way for them to be cleaned up. (For more on her efforts, check out this Land Deskdispatch from March.
Jespersen is taking a different tack, he explains as we stand next to the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, swatting away pesky horse flies. His organization was formed with the aim of achieving landscape level protection for Bureau of Land Management lands on the Colorado Plateau. In this case, they are looking at the Dolores River watershed, specifically the lower, northern end, which manages to be spectacular, remote, and industrialized by uranium mining, all at once.
A piece of that is moving forward. In July, Sen. Michael Bennett introduced a bill that would establish a National Conservation Area along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the San Miguel County line, just upstream from Bedrock and the Paradox Valley. That would add a layer of protections to a 76-mile stretch of the river corridor, including prohibiting new mining claims. However, it would not stop mining on existing claims or Department of Energy leases, both of which are abundant.
But, thanks to local political opposition, Bennett’s bill leaves out the lower 100 river miles—along with serpentine canyons, slickrock expanses, isolated mesas, and the western edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. Jespersen and Colorado Wildlands Project are looking to up protections on that remaining section, specifically the area from the Dolores River’s confluence with the San Miguel River downstream. During uranium mining times, much of that section of river was dead, thanks to tailings and other waste dumped into the river from the mills and mines. But still other areas remain relatively unmarred and even qualify for wilderness designation.
We drive along the Dolores River, stop for lunch at the Bedrock recreation area, which was once a well-tended and crowded takeout zone for Dolores River rafters. But since McPhee Dam’s operators have released little more than a trickle into the river due to aridification, the picnic area no longer serves much of a purpose and is sad-feeling and overgrown. Thurston tells us mining speculation has picked up in the area, but not much else. And then she explains a sort of ore pre-processing technique called ablation that some mining companies are hoping to use to save costs and maybe get around regulations.
Then we drive into the heart of the wreckage on a nearby mesa. From there we see the JD-7, a big, open pit mine in the Paradox Valley that never even produced ore. Now it sits idle and unreclaimed. We peer down into the darkness of a mine shaft and poke around in a dilapidated building where packrats have taken up residence among old equipment. This is one of the mines that INFORM won a cleanup case against, but regulators haven’t approved a reclamation plan, so nothing’s happened. “This whole formation is basically Swiss cheese,” Thurston says as we ponder yet another abandoned site, replete with a couple of ancient cars with “straight eights” under the hoods. And we go out to a point where we can look out on the landscape and see the web of roads scraped through the piñon, juniper, and sagebrush decades ago to give prospectors access to every inch of this vast space.
It’s heartbreaking to see, but hopeful, too, as the land is slowly healing. Yet it’s infuriating to think that the wounds may one day be torn open again.
Well how about that. You may remember our story last month about the Horseshoe-Gallup oil field and about how a determined group of activists and land protectors were trying to bring regulators’ attention to the blight there. Not only did they get the Bureau of Land Management’s attention, but they got their boss—Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—to come out and see one of the worst sites. Haaland also announced $25 million in federal funding to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico during her visit.
Click the link to read the article on the WUNC website (Kirk Siegler). Here’s an excerpt:
SIEGLER: It’s not? Kmiec says there are two big reasons why. The first is aggressive conservation, like water recycling. Tucson uses the same amount of water as it did in the 1980s, yet it’s added 200,000 more people.
KMIEC: It’s all about adaptation and making sure you – the water that you use, particularly in the desert, is for what you need.
SIEGLER: But the other even bigger reason why Kmiec isn’t up all night worrying…
KMIEC: Because we’ve banked more than 5 1/2 years of excess Colorado River water in these aquifers already.
SIEGLER: You can think of it like a secret reservoir hidden underneath this vast Sonoran desert with its blazing sun and saguaro cactus.
KMIEC: It looks like about a 40-acre basin, the one we’re standing next to.
SIEGLER: This basin is mostly dried dirt, with occasional stocks of green grass from recent monsoons – not exactly what you picture when you think of a city’s water plant, though another basin in front of us does have some water.
KMIEC: We fill these large reservoirs up. They look like small lakes. But what’s actually happening is the water is slowly going down and percolating into the aquifer and turning into groundwater.
On Tuesday, August 30, Judge Armando Bonilla of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a decision from the bench in favor of New Civil Liberties Alliance’s (NCLA) client and denying a motion to dismiss in Todd Hennis v. The United States of America.
“Today, the Court of Federal Claims recognized what we have long known. EPA must answer for the bad decisions it has made and the unlawful actions it has taken since 2015, said New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) Litigation Counsel Kara Rollins. “We are pleased that Mr. Hennis’s case is moving ahead, and we look forward to presenting the facts about what the EPA did to him—and took from him.”
Hennis filed a lawsuit against the United States for the physical taking of his property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He took this step after years of waiting for action. On August 5, 2015, EPA destroyed the portal to the Gold King Mine, located in Silverton, Colorado. Upon doing so, the agency released a toxic sludge of over 3,000,000 gallons of acid mine drainage and 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas River watershed. According to Hennis, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caused an environmental catastrophe that preceded and culminated in the invasion, occupation, taking, and confiscation of Hennis’s downstream property. Ever since, he has been trying to recover damages. This ruling means the U.S. Court of Federal Claims is allowing Mr. Hennis’s lawsuit to go forward to discovery, and ultimately to trial…
[The EPA] eventually mobilized supplies and equipment onto Hennis’s downstream property to address the immediate after-effects of its actions, but it apparently ignored Hennis’s explicit instructions on how to protect the land and the scope of the access that he granted. Instead, the EPA constructed a multimillion-dollar water treatment facility on his land, without permission, compensation, or even following a procedure to appropriate his property for public use. After seven years, Hennis says the U.S. Government has been “squatted on his lands”, and he wants financial compensation. Hennis says he didn’t voluntarily give EPA permission to construct and operate a water treatment facility on his property. It was built without his knowledge or consent, and it later coerced him into allowing access to his lands by threatening him with exorbitant fines (over $59,000 per day) should he exercise his property rights. When Hennis refused to sign an access document, the EPA preceded to occupy his property by operation of the agency’s own administrative order—and threatening him with fines if he challenges it.
‘Innovative thought and hard work’ have helped with sustainability
State Engineer Kevin Rein said his current description of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is “actually quite good” and acknowledged in a recent interview with the Alamosa Citizen the efforts of San Luis Valley farmers to restore sustainability to the river system.
Rein also recognized in an email QA the ongoing challenges in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and with the unconfined aquifer. The Valley has two aquifers, the confined and unconfined, and Rein had characterizations of both based on the state’s rules and regulations governing the Upper Rio Grande.
The State Engineer will curtail water wells as part of the Colorado Division of Water of Resources’ daily administration of surface water and groundwater in the Valley. His views then of the Upper Rio Grande Basin carry significant weight with water users up and down the Rio Grande.
“My description of the current state of the Upper Rio Grande Basin (that portion of the basin within Colorado) is actually quite good. The water users have responded to the implementation of the Groundwater Rules, which brings about balance to the use of the water sources in the Basin.” said Rein.
He said he expects the $30 million earmarked for the Valley through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa will help Subdistrict 1, in particular, with efforts to retire more irrigated acres.
San Luis Valley farmers will talk until the cows come home about the critical work they’ve done to help restore the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, acknowledges as much.
“It has taken a lot of innovative thought and hard work from a lot of people in the Basin to achieve that,” he said. “These administration tools allow us to manage our water in good water years and bad water years. Add to that, we are in compliance with our interstate compact on the Rio Grande with Texas and New Mexico.”
To be clear, the Upper Rio Grande is far from being called a healthy river – particularly the unconfined aquifer, which runs west from the Alamosa and Saguache county lines in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and provides water to the lush potato and alfalfa fields that largely drive the Valley’s agricultural economy.
In a Q&A exchange with Alamosa Citizen, Rein gave further context to how efforts from the Valley’s farming and ranching community are paying dividends, but with a lot more work and sacrifice to come.
SLV WATER: Find more coverage of Valley water issues HERE
Too many groundwater wells permitted by the state and two-plus decades of drought have taken a toll.
“I can’t downplay the frequency of the ‘bad water years’ and the fact that persistent drought has impacted both surface water users and groundwater users; that impact is felt across the Basin,” Rein said.
“It’s in the context of this climatic trend of reduced water supplies that the struggle to achieve sustainability in the unconfined aquifer is an acute issue,” he said. “Subdistrict No. 1 has a standard, as required by state statute and articulated in their current Plan of Water Management, that is very specific in terms of an aquifer storage level and the need to achieve that level within a specified time.
“While the Subdistrict has taken steps to meet that goal during the last decade, the current drought and the associated reduction in available surface water has impacted the Subdistrict’s ability to recover the aquifer. This is not new information for the members of the Subdistrict and I believe that meeting the current goal within the specified time would require measures more drastic than the Subdistrict anticipated 11 years ago.”
The unconfined aquifer is specific to Subdistrict 1, and it’s the farmers and ranchers in that area of the Valley who have asked Rein and the state Division and Water Resources for more time to meet the state’s sustainability requirements. Subdistrict 1 board of managers recently submitted an amended plan of water management that would see farm operators pumping only the amount of their natural surface water. For farms that have no natural surface water, they would be forced to purchase surface-water credits from a neighboring farm with excess surface water or potentially watch their fields dry up.
“The published data showing levels of aquifer storage in the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict #1 indicates that the aquifer is not at the level that must be met by 2031 according to Subdistrict No. 1’s current Plan of Water Management,” Rein said. “The Division of Water Resources is in discussion with Subdistrict No. 1 regarding their efforts to achieve sustainability and a revised POWM (Plan of Water Management). To allow for a fair and constructive discussion with the Subdistrict, I will limit my comments at this time to just say that we are developing feedback for their consideration.”
The only other unconfined subdistrict in the Rio Grande Basin is the Trinchera Subdistrict, and “it too is having difficulty with sustainability of the aquifer in its area,” Rein said. “Currently the Trinchera Subdistrict is significantly curtailing the production of wells in order to build the aquifer level back up to a point where full production will again be allowed.”
As for the confined aquifer, Rein said artesian pressures associated with the confined aquifer are currently at levels consistent with the state’s Groundwater Rules for all of the confined aquifer subdistricts except Subdistrict 4, the San Luis Creek subdistrict. Subdistrict 4, he said, is taking steps to reach sustainability by limiting pumping in that area.
“Therefore, at this time, almost all subdistricts are operating in a sustainable environment in regard to the confined aquifer,” he said.
Simpson, who is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, took that to mean “we’re not pumping any more today than we pumped in 1978 to 2000.” The state’s definition for sustainability of the confined aquifer is “allow the pressures in the confined aquifer to exist as they did 1978 to 2000.”
Through the signing of SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by Simpson in the state Senate, another $30 million will be made available to help the Rio Grande Water Conservation District purchase and retire additional groundwater wells to reduce the number of irrigated acres even more. Rein expects Subdistrict 1 to benefit.
“Funding and authorization from SB22-028 is available to help the Subdistrict retire more irrigated acreage that currently relies on groundwater from the unconfined aquifer and the Subdistrict is also considering an amended Plan of Water Management to set a standard and put processes in place to achieve true sustainability. With these positive steps, I’m optimistic that the Subdistrict can successfully address their challenges.”
With the recent news that the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to pay New Mexico and the Navajo Nation more than $63 million for damages related to the Gold King Mine spill, some Coloradoans are asking: What about us?
“I just always question, should we have been louder, because holy smokes, that’s a lot of money,” La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka said. “And it is concerning when $60 million-plus goes to communities at the end of the river, yet (Durango and Silverton) were the most heavily impacted.”
After the plume passed by, the communities closest to the headwaters – Silverton and Durango – decided not to pursue litigation against the EPA. Instead, they chose to push for the cleanup of mines that pock the mountains around Silverton and have degraded water quality in the Animas River since the heydey of mining in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And indeed, in fall 2016, a collection of historic mines in the area, including the Gold King, received a Superfund designation with widespread local support…
Downstream communities in New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation, however, went a different route. New Mexico sued the EPA in May 2016, with the Navajo Nation following suit a few months later. The $63 million settlement, announced in June, is now under question by upriver elected officials.
“Those are funds I would have liked to see go to the actual source of the issue,” Salka said. “We should be addressing the Superfund site, making sure water quality is good and preventing another mine blowout.”
While the sheer sight of the spill alarmed even the most involved members of groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group (a now-defunct organization of volunteers dedicated to protecting the health of the river), the fact that a mine blew out near Silverton wasn’t a shock. It has happened many times over the years. Looking at the long view: roughly 5.4 million gallons of acid mine drainage leaches into the Animas each day, compared to 3 million in the one-time Gold King blowout. The spill, however, was the catalyst that finally secured a Superfund designation for the mines draining around Silverton. In the past, some community members objected that a Superfund declaration carried a stigma that would imperil the town’s tourism economy and destroy any possibility of reviving the local mining industry. But after the Gold King blowout drew national attention, there was no stopping the momentum, and the Bonita Peak Superfund site was established. It’s composed of 48 historic mining sites around Silverton that are the biggest culprits of metal loading…
It should be noted New Mexico also reached an $11 million settlement with Sunnyside Gold, the last operating mining company in Silverton, and is still pursuing a lawsuit against the EPA’s contractor…
On the Navajo Nation, a different case was made about the Gold King Mine spill. From a Native American cultural perspective, waters are sacred, and the disturbing sight of a bright orange San Juan River had a traumatic impact on tribal members (not to mention the history of environmental injustice on tribes throughout North America). According to media reports, some farmers on the Navajo Nation refused to use San Juan River water for years after the spill…
That’s not to say Silverton and Durango were shorted. Both governments received some reimbursement for dealing with the spill itself. The EPA built a $1 million water treatment plant that continues to operate at a cost to the EPA of $2.5 million a year. And, the agency has spent about $100 million to date on the Superfund site and expects to spend significantly more in the coming years…
Since the Gold King Mine spill happened, a lot of money has been exchanged (and not exchanged: the EPA, for instance, denied liability for $1.2 billion in private damages, such as rafting companies that took a hit during the river closure, lost wages for the tourism sector and alleged damage to crops and livestock). EPA’s Basile added a separate lawsuit settlement will have Sunnyside Gold pay $41 million to the federal government and $4 million to Colorado, all to be used on top of the federal government’s $45 million for the Bonita Peak site…At the end of the day, however, local officials say the best payout of all would be improved water quality in the Animas River watershed. Yet, Brookie said it does sting to see the dollar amount going to a New Mexico community that may not necessarily have a case for claiming they were impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.
Click the link to read the release on the USDA website (Margaret Lawrence):
Rapidly dropping reservoir levels in the West are capturing national media attention, but the nation’s underground aquifers are also under threat.
The Ogallala aquifer is one of the world’s largest fresh water resources. Communities and agriculture in eight states in the High Plains region of the country rely on it.
Ogallala Aquifer States
Most water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer is used by agriculture, the chief driver of the region’s economy. Decades of pumping from the Ogallala aquifer continue to reduce the groundwater table faster than it can be recharged from precipitation.
Through an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Water for Agriculture Challenge Area grant, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funded a multiyear Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) to address the challenges faced by the Ogallala aquifer. NIFA is committed to addressing agricultural water quality and quantity needs even as it works to improve the nation’s surface and groundwater resources via climate-smart agriculture, forestry and renewable energy.
“Multiyear, multistate CAP projects like Ogallala Water funded over five years with $10 million in federal dollars allow for the development of partnerships and networks at the regional, state and local levels,” said Kevin Kephart, deputy director of NIFA’s Institute of Bioenergy, Climate and Environment. “This results in greater awareness of the issue and fosters the adoption of practical, profitable approaches to maintain an economy based on agriculture while extending the aquifer’s life.”
The project boasted a 70-member interdisciplinary team from 10 universities in six states.
Jim Dobrowolski, national program leader for NIFA’s Division of Environmental Systems, said Ogallala Water was laser-focused on extending the aquifer’s utility for irrigated agriculture.
“They spent five years working towards a solution to what many people consider the greatest management challenge in the nation today,” he added.
According to Dobrowolski, the project’s partnership with local, state, and federal agencies—including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS)— contributed to its overall success.
“Ogallala Water cooperated with USDA-NRCS’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative and USDA-ARS’s collaborative Ogallala Aquifer Program with Texas A&M University, along with state water agencies, local water and irrigation districts, and farmers,” Dobrowolski said. “The team improved understanding about how to manage water to be successful at achieving voluntary and mandatory water use goals through multidisciplinary field research and outreach programs, as well as by studying farmers decisions and outcomes.”
Colorado State University (CSU) scientist Meagan Schipanski, who served as the project leader, said the Ogallala Water CAP built new collaborations across institutions and disciplines.
“Our team made important research discoveries at the individual producer level, regional level and multistate level,” she said. “For example, the group made improvements to freely available irrigation scheduling tools by integrating soil moisture sensors and short-term weather forecast data to improve water use efficiency. At the regional level, the team developed MOD$$AT, a modeling program that can evaluate potential hydrologic and economic impacts of real-world policy and management scenarios.”
In addition to their research efforts, the Ogallala Water CAP team ensured their research reached producers and others through Extension outreach efforts.
The team supported the development of new — and expanded the use of — innovative programs, including Master Irrigator and Testing Ag Performance Solutions (TAPS). These tools are influencing management decisions on hundreds of thousands of acres in the High Plains. A multistate network of Extension professionals was formed to share successes and challenges in groundwater-dependent areas of the High Plains, California, and the Mississippi Delta region. Additionally, two summits led by the team in 2018 and 2021 forged strong diverse stakeholder networks of individuals and groups working across the region that are learning from each other’s success in encouraging improved water management.
Schipanski’s CSU colleague, Amy Kremen, said the team’s work has been critically important to finding ways to address the challenges facing the Ogallala aquifer.
“The Ogallala Water CAP team has identified how water managers in this semi-arid production area can benefit from flexible state policies and access to state and federal programs that reward groundwater stewardship,” said Kremen. “Some possibilities include voluntary collective commitments to limit pumping, new limited irrigation crop insurance options, and programs that help producers prioritize profitability and water use productivity over maximizing yield.”
Schipanski and Kremen agree that commitments from individual producers, as well as state and federal policymakers, are needed to extend the life of the aquifer while supporting agriculture and rural communities in the High Plains.
As the region’s climate becomes drier, more pipelines are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks.
Pipelines that are advancing the fastest are rural and tribal projects backed by federal funding.
The proposals echo a century of large-scale water engineering that ushered in the modern era in the American West.
Across the country’s western drylands, a motley group of actors is responding to the region’s intensifying water crisis by reviving a well-worn but risky tactic: building water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to feed fast-growing metropolitan areas, or to supply rural towns that lack a reliable source.
Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — potentially at great economic and environmental cost. Even as critics question the suitability of the water transfers in a new climate era, supporters in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions on water-supply pipelines.
The pipelines range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred and the largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons per day. Among these is the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, a roughly $2 billion project that aims to deliver 86,000 acre-feet (28 billion gallons) each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner.
Not all the projects are cut from the same cloth. Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have a leg up. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects, including one in progress in eastern New Mexico, were authorized more than a decade ago.
The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement.
The current batch of pipeline proposals traces its lineage to a century of engineering and building mammoth water supply projects that ushered in the modern era of the American West. State and federal canals snake the length of California. Los Angeles bullied its way into the Owens Valley in the 1910s, eventually siphoning the valley’s water through an aqueduct. A few years later, San Francisco reached into Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir and pipeline. The Central Arizona Project, which broke ground in the 1970s, was built to lift 1.5 million acre-feet of water — almost 500 billion gallons a year — more than a half mile in elevation along its 336-mile course to supply Phoenix and Tucson. In Colorado, at least 11 major projects pierce the Rockies, transferring water to the high-growth Front Range. States west of the 100th meridian would not have been able to attract millions of residents or develop their commercial and agricultural sectors without these water projects.
As the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks. Large-scale engineering retains its appeal and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.
Renewable Resources, a firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, is led by Aaron Million, who has dreamed for more than a decade of piping more Colorado River water to the Front Range. The potential water source for Water Horse is some 500 miles away: Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. Called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, it is still waiting on an key federal permit.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, supporters of the Agustin Plains scheme wish to export 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from a high desert basin to communities along the Rio Grande, some 60 miles to the east. The state engineer rejected the permit in 2018, but the applicant is appealing.
Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent came to light in April, when Escalante Valley Partners filed an application with the state Division of Water Rights for more than 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for export. The water, more than 44 million gallons a day, would come from 115 wells drilled between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where the state has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction.
In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is championing the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way permit. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.
The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. Critics contend that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that flows into it cannot handle any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency action to augment the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water than usual and releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.
Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline project’s chief beneficiary. The basic logic of today’s water manager is not so different from an investment adviser: manage risk through a portfolio of investments. Critics assert that Washington County residents, though use has declined from its very high early 2000s peak, still consume more water than almost any community in the U.S. and that water conservation practices should be sufficient. But Renstrom defends the need for another water source — even a very expensive one, with an overall price tag of about $2 billion — because Washington County’s single source right now is the Virgin River.
“Especially as someone who looks at climate change very seriously and believes in climate change and knows we need to account for that, to make sure the next generation has the tools that it needs to deal with those issues, I think we need to build these large water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told Circle of Blue.
Utah officials are also pursuing a project in the state’s northern reaches to send water from the Bear River, the main tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, to communities some 90 miles distant along the Wasatch Front. The state does not anticipate needing the project for several decades.
Those projects are miniscule compared to calls to divert eastern rivers like the Mississippi. An undertaking like that — which has legal, technical, environmental, and economic hurdles so enormous as to be implausible today, water experts say — echo even more grandiose and farfetched schemes that were proposed in the 1960s: engineering fantasies like the North American Water and Power Alliance, a continental-scale replumbing of North America’s watersheds, which never advanced much farther than the Parsons Company’s drafting board.
Few of these projects have secured all required permits and fewer still have broken ground. But it is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles.
One of the biggest obstacles is supply, says Denise Fort, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?
Nearly a decade ago, Fort co-authored a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true.
“Many of the pipeline projects under consideration today are dramatically different from those constructed in the past, in terms of sustainability of water supplies, available alternatives, costs, environmental impacts and energy use,” the report concluded. “The communities and agencies that are considering these projects would be well served by a careful analysis of the implications of these important choices.”
Fort said that, in many cases, pursuit of these pipelines is an attempt to continue a water-consuming lifestyle in a region that can no longer support the burden of that demand. Scientists expect the flow of the Colorado River to decline by 9 percent with each degree Celsius that the planet warms.
“We know what the future is, it’s coming,” Fort said. “And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”
Fort believes that instead of sticking more straws into a shrinking pool, municipalities should seriously consider reallocating water from agriculture, which uses the lion’s share of the region’s supply. Instead of growing alfalfa for export, that water could be directed to cities. This approach is not without controversy and requires careful crafting — rural communities, in some cases, have resisted “buy and dry,” preferring leases that do not permanently sever water from land.
But such a move is what El Paso is banking on. The largest city in West Texas has spent $220 million since 2016 to purchase 70,000 acres of ranch land about 90 miles east, in Dell City. Crucially, the land comes with water rights. Today, El Paso leases the land for farming. But in several decades the city plans to pipe the water beneath those fields to its residents.
At the foundation of these debates about pipelines are competing views of the American West.
One school of thought is that water follows growth. “I think it’s much cheaper to take the water to the people than move people to the water. You disrupt a lot less lives that way,” Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Summit last October.
The other view is one of conservation and restraint, championed by people like Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a group that advocates against transferring water out of its natural basin.
“There is a suburban Manifest Destiny mindset throughout the region that I think is antithetical as it relates to the amount of resources that are available,” Roerink told Circle of Blue.
Looking at the history of pipeline projects and water transfers in the West, Roerink worries about unintended financial and environmental consequences if the current contenders move ahead. In the arid Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and Utah, he is particularly attuned to dry soils if groundwater-dependent basins are depleted. It’s not an unheard of risk. To offset environmental damage in the Owens Valley from its aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has spent $2.5 billion in ratepayer funds to suppress dust storms.
Many of the biggest projects were built in an era of minimal environmental review and major government subsidy. Those conditions have changed, one of many reasons why mega-projects like diverting the Mississippi River westward are implausible, even fanciful.
Of the pipeline projects currently under construction, most are not fanciful. Most are like the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — smaller in scale and federally supported.
Congress authorized the 140-mile project in 2009 and is contributing 75 percent of the cost. The rest is coming from local partners, which include four communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The project received $177.4 million from the federal government this year and $30 million from the state government. If funding in future years comes in as expected, construction should be completed in six to eight years, Orlando Ortega, the administrator of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, told Circle of Blue.
The project is a federal priority because the partner communities are all served by groundwater from the depleting Ogallala aquifer. At some point, the water will run out. The pipeline is designed to bring surface water from the state-owned Ute Lake.
Like all western water supply projects, there are questions about the long-term availability of Ute Lake as the region dries.
“We are very sensitive to drought conditions, and would certainly be cutting back on our reservation, if needed,” Ortega said.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.
Farmers and ranchers across the San Luis Valley face a deadline: Their underground water source is drying up from a combination of overuse and a decades-long drought driven by climate change. To restore a balance of supply and demand, farmers and ranchers across the valley need to drastically cut how much water they pump out of the ground, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. If they don’t, the state has threatened to step in and shut off hundreds of wells, which local water managers say would devastate the valley’s agriculture-driven economy…
Sarah Parmar, the director of conservation with Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit that works to protect land from development, looks down at the brittle ground and recounts her first visit to this farm last summer.
“The farmer had a mix of peas and oats that he was growing, and they were up to his waist,” Parmar said. “It’s definitely a very productive farm.”
No food grows here now. The farmer has stopped watering these 1,800 acres. Instead, he’s working with Parmar on a deal to leave that water alone to save the area’s shrinking groundwater supply and keep other farms in operation. The farmer plans to sign a contract with Parmar to permanently end the use of his water rights to grow food here, and that rule would apply to any future owner of the property. Parmar calls the agreement a groundwater conservation easement — and said it could be the first of its kind in the country…
Once the agreement is signed, the farmer plans to sell the land to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which will work to revegetate the acres with native plants.
AS you come into Saguache, about a half-mile out and to the west, you’ll find the start of the Hazard ranch and owners of the number one water right on Saguache Creek.
The Hazards have been ranching in Saguache forever, back to the 1870s, as everyone in the town and the county will tell you, which is why it comes as somewhat of a shock to the ranching and farming community that the Hazard family has sold the ranch to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The transaction very likely could save the rest of what’s remaining of ranching and farming in Subdistrict 5 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Without the purchase of the Hazard ranch, neighboring farm and ranch operations were facing ongoing curtailment of wells from the state Division of Water Resources because the subdistrict was unable to offset the injury depletions to Saguache Creek.
n this particular instance,” said George Whitten, vice president of Subdistrict No. 5 Board of Managers, “had we not been able to secure that water and we weren’t able to actually establish an annual replacement that satisfies the state, then there would have been about 8,000 acres of meadow land that would have been lost.”
So now you understand the importance of the acquisition and how the Hazard family, a symbol of historical and cultural pioneering in Saguache, came to save the day.
“What Perry (Hazard) told me is that as a family they decided the thing to do was sell it to the subdistrict and that way a lot of people around here could benefit from that water rather than selling it to a developer or something like that,” Whitten said.
The sale was for $2.8 million. But really it’s the symbolism and meaning of the sale by one of the Valley’s oldest ranching families, a generational family that saw the end of the line and gave life to the other farms and ranches still trying to make it.
Nightmarish well curtailment
It’s been a rollercoaster 15 months for Subdistrict 5, with irrigators losing critical production time the last two irrigation seasons – 2021 and 2022 – after the state first shut down 230 or so wells in the subdistrict on April 1, 2021.
The subdistrict, like the others in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is required to file an Annual Replacement Plan with the state Division of Water Resources that shows precisely how farm operators are returning water to the Upper Rio Grande Basin tied to the amount of well pumping that occurs.
The state rejected the 2021 Subdistrict 5 Annual Replacement Plan because it didn’t have a source of water to remedy its depletions on Saguache Creek. When that happened the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict had their worst fears come true.
The state initially had wells shut down from April 1 to June 22, 2021, before a challenge by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was successful and wells were turned on again. By that time, though, operators like North Star Farm, a hay provider for large dairy operations in California that runs 28 circles in Subdistrict 5, lost critical time in their growing season.
he subdistrict also still did not have a remedy to its depletions on Saguache Creek when the 2021 appeal went through and had to figure that out in time to file its 2022 Annual Replacement Plan.
The state has a period of May 1 to April 30 of the following year as the annual replacement plan year for Valley irrigators.
The transaction on the Hazard ranch wasn’t finalized until May, and so at the start of May the state curtailed water wells in Subdistrict 5 for the second year in a row until it reviewed and approved the 2022 Annual Replacement Plan and the sale of the ranch.
“We get credit for the water that that property is not going to consume for the rest of the year, and we use that water and leave it in the stream to remedy the injury caused by the wells,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 5.
The subdistrict has been letting the ranch dry up the past 40 days or so since it’s owned the property, Ivers said.
“The location of this water right and this property, it helps us tremendously because that stretch of the stream historically has always been wet,” Ivers said. “So we can have this water in place for dry years, and then in wetter years the stream goes farther so we can have sources of remedy down lower on the stream that can come to play in those years.”
The expectation is that the sale of the Hazard ranch will go a long way toward keeping that stretch of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the confined aquifer sustainable, and help other cattle ranchers and hay farmers stay in business.
The sale also means there will be fewer cattle being raised in the Valley. It’s what the Hazard family did and had done for decades, but now it’s given up its farm and the water rights and others will carry on.
“It’s an incredibly fortunate thing for us to be able to require that water right. You couldn’t pick a better one,” Whitten said.
“We will need this water going into the future. It’s part of the long term plan,” said Ivers.
The Colorado River’s precipitous decline pushed Arizona lawmakers to deliver Gov. Doug Ducey’s $1 billion water augmentation fund — and then some — late Friday, their final night in session.
Before the votes, the growing urgency for addressing the state’s oncoming water shortage and the long timeline for approving and building new water projects nearly sank the legislation. Just over a week after the federal government warned that the seven states that use the Colorado must make major new cutbacks by next year, Democrats held out until they got an additional $200 million commitment for water conservation, which they argued could help Arizonans much faster than the costlier seawater desalination plan that the governor has touted. Some of the water importation schemes that had been discussed would require multiple billions of dollars and interstate or international partnerships, making this three-year investment effectively a fund for down payments for big-ticket pipes or treatment plants. The water conservation measures, such as grants to help cities reduce turf grass, could be cheaper…
One after another, a bipartisan stream of legislators picked up a microphone in a two-day blitz for the package to say that spending to plug the emerging holes in Arizona’s water supply was critical to the state’s future. They eventually passed it as Senate Bill 1740 with just one dissenter in each chamber.
Two of Colorado’s fastest-growing towns are suing the state over rules used to manage vast quantities of water that lie underground, saying that if the state moves forward with a new permitting requirement it could sharply limit their future water supplies.
Experts say the lawsuit, filed 14 months ago by Parker Water and Sanitation District and joined by Castle Rock, could dramatically change the way underground aquifers containing millions of acre-feet of water are managed and could also impact future water supplies for dozens of Front Range communities.
At issue is whether a 1985 state law regulates only the rate at which wells are pumped or whether the state can also limit the total volume of water pumped. Under what’s known as the 100-year rule, well owners in the Denver Basin aquifers, which underlie much of the Front Range and Eastern Plains, can pump 1% of the water estimated to be under their land annually for 100 years. The law applies to aquifers known as “non-tributary,” meaning they do not receive any natural recharge from snow and rain and are also not connected in any way to rivers.
Last March, as part of what it describes as an administrative effort to ensure wells across the state are regulated in a uniform way, the Colorado Division of Water Resources also began including the total amount of water a Denver Basin aquifer well permit holder was entitled to pump during the lifetime of the well permit.
“Not only is there an annual maximum, but we also interpreted the law to mean that you are limited to the total amount of water under your property,” said Tracy Kosloff, deputy state engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Parker Water and Sanitation District objected, saying that placing a lifetime limit on the total volume of water available to withdraw would improperly limit their water supplies, violating their property rights.
At the same time Greeley and Aurora have also joined the legal battle, saying they support the state’s effort to more closely manage underground supplies by including a specific volume on permits because it will better protect everyone over the long run.
Parker and other Douglas County entities declined to comment on the suit, but in its court filing Parker described the state’s efforts as “arbitrary and capricious.”
The Denver Basin aquifers once served as a plentiful, pure and inexpensive water source for fast-growing Douglas County communities and others. Instead of buying expensive water rights in nearby rivers and streams, and building dams and reservoirs to store that water, developers could simply obtain a permit and drill a well.
For years the aquifers had been accessed largely by individual homeowners and ranchers. But as growth took off in the 1970s, Parker, Castle Rock and others began drilling new high-powered wells, capable of pumping 1,000 gallons a minute, deep into the aquifers.
Water in aquifers is often under intense pressure and when wells are drilled, pressure is released, allowing the water to rise quickly to the surface. But eventually, the pressure subsides and the water no longer rises naturally, meaning electricity has to be used to draw the water to the surface. And as the water is pumped, because there is no natural recharge, the water table gets lower and lower, requiring that expensive new wells be drilled deeper to maintain water supplies.
By the 1980s it was clear the aquifers were in decline, and in 1985 the state imposed the 100-year rule and began monitoring aquifer levels and calculating how much was contained in the four geographic formations that comprise the Denver Basin. But back then there was little money to do the detailed, widespread mapping and hydrological studies needed to pinpoint how much water lay under each entity’s land holdings.
Since then more wells have been drilled, and the aquifers are being used heavily not just for water supply, but also for water storage. Cities such as Highlands Ranch, Parker and others have implemented sophisticated programs that put surface water back into the aquifer, using it like a savings account which can be accessed in drought years.
It is this banked water that the state, and Greeley and others, want to protect.
And that’s not an easy task, because these non-tributary aquifers have widely different geologic formations including sand, silt and bedrock, which allow water to freely move from one place to another, making it difficult to track.
“The water in the Denver Basin aquifers isn’t static, like an ice cube in a tray. It’s a leaky ice cube tray,” said Kosloff.
More science, please
Sean Chambers, director of the Greeley Water and Sewer Department, said his concern is that allowing Parker and Castle Rock to pump without an overall volume limit could mean that water he and other cities are injecting into the ground is unknowingly extracted, harming their own supplies. Greeley has begun an ambitious groundwater supply program with its purchase last year of the Terry Ranch. Chambers said it is critical that the aquifers are closely monitored and managed to ensure everyone’s water supplies are protected.
“You shouldn’t be allowed to pump water from someone else’s property,” Chambers said.
Ralf Topper is a groundwater expert who formerly oversaw the state’s groundwater programs at the Division of Water Resources. Though Parker, Castle Rock and other communities have done a good job of regulating their non-renewable aquifer supplies and slowing the aquifers’ declines, interference between wells in urban areas is becoming more of an issue, Topper said.
Topper and other experts say the issue will only be resolved when more sophisticated aquifer management tools are implemented, including thousands of new site-specific water studies, underground mapping, and public processes to ensure other water users aren’t injured by over-pumping.
“Our fundamental concern is that we want science-based, data-driven analysis of all non-tributary aquifer determinations. Lastly, we want to be sure if an aquifer is deemed non-tributary it is deemed as such by a scientific analysis that is subject to a public hearing and appeals process,” he said.
Topper and others have questioned whether existing state law gives water regulators the authority to make this change and that is something the court is examining now.
Parker, Castle Rock and other water districts in Douglas and Arapahoe counties have dramatically reduced their use of groundwater and they intend to continue weaning themselves off the aquifers. But they still want to protect their rights to the ground water because the aquifers are the best tool they have to protect against future droughts.
“The imposition of this condition … is a denial of a statutory right, is contrary to a constitutional right, and is a clearly unwarranted exercise [of the state engineer’s] discretion,” Parker said in its court filing.
How quickly the court will decide the case isn’t clear yet. Still, said Deputy Engineer Kosloff, “It’s good for us to understand sooner rather than later so we can all plan for that.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
THE IRS. Head lice. Bill Cosby. Nickleback. Congress.
Every member of this unlikely group has one thing in common: Each is more popular than the Renewable Water Resources plan to pump water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
According to the Alamosa Citizen survey of voter attitudes in the San Luis Valley, the RWR plan is supported by less than 1 percent of local voters. It is opposed by 91 percent. Eight percent said they had no opinion of the water export project proposed by former Gov. Bill Owens and several other leaders of his administration.
Widespread opposition to RWR was one of the major findings on natural resource issues to come from the random survey, which was directed by the Alamosa Citizen and financed, in part, by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The survey also yielded many other strong local opinions on the health of the Rio Grande (pessimistic), climate change (it’s hurting the river), and the impact of drought on local farms and businesses (not good.) More on those issues below.
Still, it’s hard to find anything in modern American life liked less than RWR’s approval rating of 0.7 percent. Among the things with better approval ratings among voters than the RWR project: head lice, colonoscopies, used car salesmen, and dental root canal procedures, according to one national poll.
Anchovies on pizza, as well as turnips and brussel sprouts for dinner, get higher ratings than RWR. Disgraced comedian Bill Cosby is 20 times more popular in the U.S. than RWR is in the San Luis Valley. The Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Congress all get higher marks, according to another poll.
RWR backers said their own polling showed better numbers, but they declined to release the poll.
“From day one to today, our team has never wavered in visiting the San Luis Valley, meeting with individuals and educating them about what we aim to do,” said Renewable Water Resources spokeswoman Monica McCafferty in a statement. “We are naturally suspect of this survey (Alamosa Citizen) that is likely agenda-driven. We stand by our proposal, which took years to craft and presents numerous advantages for the San Luis Valley.”
The Alamosa Citizen conducted a 48-question survey which included questions on water and environmental issues. The survey was mailed to a random sampling of registered voters in each of the six counties of the San Luis Valley and was conducted by Nebraska-based rural survey specialist Craig Schroeder, who has surveyed attitudes of more than 60,000 people in 47 states over the past 20 years.
RWR proposes to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from a deep aquifer in the San Luis Valley while buying and retiring 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
Local water officials have disputed RWR’s ability to export supplies from the Valley without harming existing farmers, wildlife, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The region faces increasing water restrictions after two decades of drought.
RWR had been wooing suburban Douglas County as a destination for the water, but the Alamosa Citizen reported last month that county commissioners there backed away from the proposal after their attorney highlighted several legal and engineering hurdles.
The company told Douglas County it is pursuing a “legislative strategy” for some of those issues.
“People here have been hearing about these water export proposals for 60 years now, and we’re just tired of it,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “When it happened in other places, the outcome of selling your water rights for export has not turned out well for the community.”
HE Alamosa Citizen survey showed citizen awareness of the water project is extremely high. Nearly 94 percent of respondents said they had heard of a project to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
About two-thirds of respondents said they had heard specifically of Renewable Water Resources.
Of the residents who were familiar with RWR, 63 percent said they disapproved of the company. Eight percent approved. The remainder said they had no opinion about the company.
“Leave our water here,” one survey respondent wrote. “If Denver can’t handle their needs, then they need to control growth.”
“Exporting SLV water will devastate the valley – farming, wildlife, and habitat,” wrote another.
“Water export to Douglas County would be an economic death sentence for the San Luis Valley and the communities it sustains,” said another respondent.
The Alamosa Citizen survey showed the RWR plan comes at a tough time for water users in the San Luis Valley.
When asked whether the Rio Grande aquifer had enough water to share with growing areas of Colorado that need more water, Valley residents responded with a resounding no – 89 percent disagreed.
Eight of every 10 survey respondents agreed that the Rio Grande is “diminishing from severe drought.” By a 48 to 35 percent margin, Valley residents disagreed with this statement: “The Rio Grande is a healthy river.”
Two-thirds of Valley residents agreed that climate change is negatively affecting the Rio Grande. Only 14 percent agreed that the Rio Grande can “withstand climate change.”
In some ways, this means the San Luis Valley is more concerned about climate change than other regions, especially rural areas where voters have been more skeptical about the issue. The most recent national poll by Gallup on environmental issues found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.
The Valley’s belief in climate change is unusual especially when politics are considered. Nationally, only 11 percent of Republicans say they believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their own lifetimes. But in the San Luis Valley, most survey respondents say the threat is already here.
Only one in 10 local respondents agree that the Valley has enough water to meet local needs for the next 30 years. Nearly 85 percent of respondents say the Valley will face cutbacks in irrigation water in the next five years.
“Farmers are out of time to self-regulate,” wrote one respondent. “The state should start imposing harsh restrictions now instead of kicking the can down the road.”
“The San Luis Valley has become a desert because of climate change and the farmers / ranchers who have drained the aquifer by installing sprinkler systems,” wrote another respondent.
“Farmers don’t need bossy legislators telling them how to use their water,” wrote another. “Most farmers are already on the brink of fiscal disaster. They need help, not more laws curtailing their use of water.”
Almost every resident said there was a chance they would be personally impacted by drought.
About seven of 10 Valley residents agreed with this statement: “We need to act now to reduce water use to continue to grow the San Luis Valley’s economy in the future.”
Only 8 percent disagreed with this statement: “Rising temperatures will impact the San Luis Valley’s future water needs.”
“Climate change is bigger than we are,” wrote one respondent.
The Bureau of Reclamation today [June 1, 2022] restarted operations of the Paradox Valley Unit (PVU), a crucial salinity control facility for the Colorado River system. For the next six months, the PVU will operate at a reduced capacity to gather data that will help guide future operational decisions.
Located in a remote area of western Colorado, along the Dolores River in Montrose County, the PVU removes an average of 95,000 tons of salt annually from the Dolores and Colorado rivers. It does this by extracting brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injecting it into a deep injection well, thereby preventing it from entering the Dolores River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado River. Saline concentrations of this naturally occurring brine groundwater have measured in excess of 250,000 milligrams per liter—about eight times saltier than seawater—and have contributed up to 200,000 tons of salt per year to the Colorado River system.
Prior to the restart, the Paradox injection well had been shut down since March 2019, when a 4.5 magnitude earthquake was recorded at the site. Though there was no damage to the well or surrounding area, injection was suspended to model injection formation pressure, monitor and analyze seismic activity, and to perform a seismic hazard analysis to ensure safe operation. Reclamation has determined that seismic activity at the site has significantly decreased and that resuming operations at a reduced rate under close watch is acceptable.
“The safety of our personnel and that of the community is our primary concern,” said Upper Colorado Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “After ceasing operations of the unit and thorough inspections, we want to ensure the community that we are ready to test the site by operating the unit at a reduced capacity for continued evaluation and assessment.”
The six-month-long operational test will consist of injecting brine groundwater into the 16,000-foot-deep well at a reduced rate of 115 gallons per minute, which is 67% of past operations. Modeling indicates that this reduced rate will have a negligible impact on seismicity and Reclamation will closely monitor the injection pressure and seismic response. If any unfavorable conditions develop, such as increased magnitudes in seismicity, operation will be suspended until it is deemed safe to continue.
“The injection test results will be used to evaluate well conditions and help Reclamation create a plan for potential future injection operations,” said Western Colorado Area Office Manager Ed Warner. “A seismic risk analysis will be completed in 2023 and an operations plan may be developed, based upon the injection test results.”
The PVU started operations in 1996 and provides substantial benefits, up to $23 million annually, including improved water quality, increased life of municipal and industrial infrastructure, and increased crop yields for all downstream water users in the Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum meeting was held May 11, where the Basin states participated in discussion and coordination regarding PVU operations, seismic risk analysis, and post-EIS direction, to include the start of this six-month injection well test.
For more information about the PVU, visit our website.
Click the link to read “Reclamation resumes salt-water injection at reduced level as it evaluates seismic threat” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:
The agency’s Paradox Valley Unit has been used for decades to help keep salt from reaching the Dolores River, and ultimately the Colorado River. Salinity in the Colorado River watershed harms water quality, impacts municipal and industrial infrastructure and impairs crop yields within the river basin. The Bureau of Reclamation facility extracts brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injects it into a 16,000-foot-deep well, keeping it from reaching the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
The groundwater has been measured to be about eight times saltier than seawater, with saline concentrations exceeding 250,000 milligrams per liter, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. It estimates that its project has kept an average of about 95,000 tons of salt a year from reaching the rivers through operation of the injection well from 1996, when operations started, through 2019. This has resulted in up to $23 million in annual benefits by reducing river salinity and its impacts. The wastewater injection has a drawback, however, in that it induces seismic activity that has worsened over the years. In March 2019 a magnitude 4.5 associated with the facility was felt as far away as Grand Junction and Moab. It was the largest quake that has been linked to the injection well.
Following that quake, the Bureau of Reclamation suspended operations at the well for more than a year before briefly resuming them on a test basis. It also considered alternative salinity control measures in the Paradox Valley, including drilling and operating a new well at one of two new locations, using evaporation ponds, or building a plant to heat the brine to crystallize and remove the salt. But it ultimately decided against pursuing any of those due to concerns about things such as cost and potential aesthetic and wildlife impacts.
THE Renewable Water Resources proposal runs counter to the Colorado Water Plan, would likely trigger a federal review under the Wirth Amendment for the harm it could do to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn’t have a developed augmentation plan to meet the required one-for-one replacement within the same Response Area to get the plan through state water court.
Those are some of the findings Attorney Steve Leonhardt laid out in confidential memorandums released Tuesday by Douglas County. The problems Leonhardt sees with the proposal convinced Commissioner Abe Laydon to not support RWR’s request for investment by using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
However, Laydon and Commissioner George Teal remained open to Renewable Water Resources coming back to them if they can solve the concerns spelled out by Leonhardt, who Douglas County hired on contract to review the RWR plan. Commissioner Lora Thomas, who’s been opposed to RWR, said she did not want Douglas County to spend any more of its time and tax dollars on the RWR plan.
“This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal,” state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a released statement.
The problems detailed by Leonhardt are many, particularly as the water exportation proposal relates to the required augmentation plan and the need for Renewable Water Resources to solve that problem by changing existing state rules that govern groundwater pumping in the Valley.
RWR told Douglas County it’s developing a “legislative strategy” to address the requirement.
“In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” Leonhardt said in a bulleted memorandum.
“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”
The attorney said not only does the RWR proposal lack a developed augmentation plan but that it cannot meet the state rule that requires “one-for-one replacement within the same ResponseArea.”
“RWR cannot meet this requirement, even if it were to acquire and retire all wells within its Response Area. Therefore, RWR’s plan cannot succeed without an amendment to this rule. RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”
Leonhardt’s memo concluded that “the two reasonable options would be to (1) reject the proposal; or (2) continue discussions with RWR (and perhaps other interested parties in Douglas County and/or the San Luis Valley) to see if agreement can be reached on an acceptable proposal.”
Laydon and Teal chose option 2. Thomas wanted Douglas County to walk away altogether.
“Douglas County welcomes ongoing discussions with RWR, should they be able to provide new information or otherwise overcome these hurdles,” said a statement released by Douglas County.
Simpson, during a recent taping of The Valley Pod, told Alamosa Citizen that changing the rules and regulations governing groundwater pumping in the Valley would be a difficult challenge.
“To change the rules and regs, they’d have to go to court as well,” Simpson said. “They would be seeking authorization to change the rules that we all live by. Those are confined aquifer new-use rules and rules and regulations for groundwater withdrawals that everybody else here lives with.
“I’ve highlighted this from the very beginning, that’s a pretty tough hill for them to climb. The money behind this though, I suspect if Douglas County wants to participate in this we’ll see them in court.”
Douglas County officials said Tuesday they would not use their COVID-relief funding to help finance a controversial $400 million-plus proposal to export farm water from the San Luis Valley to their fast-growing, water-short region.
In a statement the commissioners said the federal rules would not allow the funds to be spent to help finance early work on the proposed project, and that it faced too many legal hurdles to justify the time and money the county would need to devote to it.
The county made public Tuesday two extensive legal memos, based on its outside attorneys’ review of engineering, and legal and regulatory requirements the project would have to adhere to in order to proceed. The memos formed the basis for the county’s rejection of the funding request.
“The Board of Douglas County Commissioners has made the decision, based on objective legal recommendations from outside counsel, that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are inapplicable to the RWR proposal and that RWR has significant additional hurdles to overcome in order to demonstrate not only a ‘do no harm’ approach, but also a ‘win-win’ for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley,” the board said.
The proposal comes from Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a well-connected Denver development firm that includes former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.
Among other things, the memos said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.
The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which outlines how the state will meet future water needs. That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.
County Commissioner Lora Thomas came out against the idea early, with Commissioner Abe Layden joining her this week in voting against the proposal. Commissioner George Teal voted for the proposal.
“I am ecstatic that I got a second vote to stop it,” Thomas said. “The hurdles are too steep for us to get over. I don’t see a future for it.”
RWR declined an interview request regarding the decision, but in a statement it said it planned to continue working with the county to see if the legal concerns raised could be resolved.
“Our team is eager to address the county’s remaining questions as raised in the legal analysis. We are confident in our ability to mitigate any areas of concern,” it said.
Opposition to the proposal sprang up quickly last December after RWR submitted its $10 million funding request to the commissioners.
Critics, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, argued that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well-shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.
RWR said its plan to shut down agricultural wells could help the valley, but many disagreed.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a statement that he was pleased with Douglas County’s decision. “This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal.”
Environmental groups also came out in opposition, as have numerous elected leaders including Democrats Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the valley.
Douglas County does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service. And they are all facing the need to develop new water supplies.
But two of the largest providers, Parker Water & Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.
What comes next for RWR’s proposal isn’t clear yet. RWR spokeswoman Monica McCafferty said the firm’s attorneys were still reviewing the legal memos the county released Tuesday.
RWR has said previously that it might ask lawmakers to change state water laws to remove some of the legal barriers to its proposal.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click the link to read “Douglas County commissioners reject using federal money for water project, will continue talks” on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:
At the heart of Tuesday’s decision: Two memos from water attorneys regarding the project that has been kept under wraps since mid-March. Commissioners authorized their release to the public Tuesday.
The first memo, dated March 23, is from attorneys Stephen Leonhardt and April Hendricks of the firm Burns, Figa & Will. Its executive summary said there is “no unappropriated water” available in the confined aquifer, the source for the RWR project. In addition, RWR has not come up with an augmentation plan in sufficient detail to demonstrate that its plan will meet the requirements of the state water rules and avoid injury to other water rights, the memo added. The RWR project “is not consistent” with the state’s water plan, so no state dollars would likely be available for it; and that Douglas County will face numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project after a decree from state water court is entered. “RWR does not intend to obtain permits before going to Water Court, and RWR’s current proposal calls for Douglas County to bear all responsibility for obtaining the required permits for this project. Obtaining the required federal, state, and county permits likely will take several years, at a substantial financial cost to Douglas County, with a risk that one or more permits will be denied.”
The May 2 memo notes that Leonhardt and Douglas County attorney Lance Ingalls attended a meeting with RWR’s attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck as well as RWR principal John Kim on April 1…
The May 2 memo is divided into several sections, including water availability, sale of water rights, water supply impacts, sustainability of the closed aquifer, and dry-up of irrigated agricultural lands. Among the findings:
Questions on whether ARPA money could be used for the project
Recognition that an RWR-supported community fund would not mitigate economic losses from the dry-up of irrigated lands and impacts on related businesses
Opposition from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is managed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a major opponent of the projects
Difficulty in rehabilitating the land once the water is removed
The closed aquifer cannot sustain any new pumping, and that a buyer of water rights could only use those rights for their originally decreed purposes, meaning RWR would have to go to water court to change those uses from agricultural to municipal, which could mean a lengthy court battle
Both Laydon and Teal directed the commission’s staff to continue working on a deal with RWR that does not use ARPA money.
The Douglas County commissioners have decided not to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars on a controversial water supply project but may consider it again in the future. Commissioner Abe Laydon, the decisive vote on the issue, announced his vote during a May 24 work session…
Laydon said his decision was because the county’s outside legal counsel concluded that the project was not eligible for ARPA funds and recommended the county not participate…
One issue outlined in the memo is that Renewable Water Resources has not formed an augmentation plan — as would be required by law — showing how they will avoid injury to other water rights through their project. Commissioner Lora Thomas has been against the proposal since it was brought before the county and said she is not in support of continuing any conversations with RWR or paying for outside legal counsel to continue assessing it.
Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed two bills into law that are aimed at conserving a precious and dwindling resource in the state: water. For the bill signings, the governor traveled to the San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region where farmers face mounting challenges from extreme drought driven by climate change.
Republican Sens. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa and Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, plus Reps. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, and Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican, sponsored the first bill, Senate Bill 22-28. It puts $60 million of federal COVID-19 relief money into a new “groundwater compact compliance and sustainability” fund to help finance projects that reduce groundwater use in the Rio Grande and Republican river basins.
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Such projects might include efforts to “buy and retire” wells used for irrigation as well as portions of irrigated farmland, with the goal of restoring water to underground aquifers and helping the communities meet deadlines to reduce their water use. The Colorado Water Conservation Board can allocate money from the groundwater fund based on recommendations from the boards of directors for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Republican River Water Conservation District.
“The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well,” Simpson told the Alamosa Citizen in April.
The other bill Polis signed, House Bill 22-1316, provides millions of dollars for construction projects approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The bill’s legislative sponsors included Reps. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, and Catlin, along with Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Simpson. Among the local and regional projects funded are:
$3.8 million for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. By increasing water flows through the central Platte River habitat area — which stretches across northern Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska — the project is aimed at improving conditions for the interior least tern, pallid sturgeon, piping plover and whooping crane.
$2 million to support the state’s efforts to comply with the Republican River compact, which was first negotiated between Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska in the early 1940s. The compact governs the three states’ use of the water resources in the Republican River basin, which begins on the plains of eastern Colorado and flows through northwest Kansas and eastern Nebraska.
$500,000 for the Arkansas River Decision Support System. The Arkansas River DSS project involves collecting data on characteristics like climate and groundwater in the Arkansas River basin, which covers the southeast quadrant of the state, and analyzing the data to help inform future decisions about water use.
Polis, a Democrat, signed both bills into law at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District offices in Alamosa. According to a statement from Polis’ office, the governor then joined state and national officials in the nearby town of Center to champion a major development for the San Luis Valley’s potato industry.
The U.S. recently began exporting potatoes — including those grown in the Valley — to new regions in Mexico under an agreement reached late last year between the two countries. Previously, potato exports were limited to a 16-mile border zone.
“This agreement, paired with the critical work the Valley is doing to protect and conserve our water, will make a major positive difference for our farmers, meaning more money in the pockets of hardworking Coloradans,” Polis said in a statement. “Colorado is strategically positioned to lead the nation in potato exports to Mexico.”
Colorado sent its first shipment of potatoes to Mexico under the new agreement last week, according to the statement.
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A Kansas farm boy goes home to understand his role in groundwater depletion. He finds the culture and politics as confused and confounding as the geology of the Ogallala Aquifer itself.
Simple metrics of the Ogallala Aquifer astound. This somewhat interconnected body of water underlying the high plains accounts for one-third of all irrigation in the United States. It supports one-sixth of the world’s annual grain production.
Water in the underground sands, silts, and gravels stretching from South Dakota to Texas – including parts of eastern Colorado — was deposited over millions of years. Now, in not even a flutter of geologic time, barely more than the lives of the oldest baby boomers, this most precious resource has been mined nearly to extinction across broad swaths of the High Plains.
This is particularly true along its edges, such as in New Mexico, but even in some central portions, including southwestern Kansas. Wells can be drilled deeper, but that can only hasten the reckoning that many seem to want to deny. The seeming plentitude of today manifested in the many circles of hay and alfalfa irrigated by center-pivot sprinklers simply cannot continue indefinitely. Evidence of precipitous decline abounds.
Lucas Bessire, an anthropologist and native son of southwestern Kansas, explores this depletion in his masterful “Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.” For good reason it was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award.
Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer has produced several books plus other journalism. Bessire has a more narrow but interesting approach. Instead of trying to tell this across the eight-state region, he focuses on southwestern Kansas through the lens of four generations of his family: a great grandfather who was a pioneer in this new groundwater mining of the mid-20th century, his grandmother who was at its ragged hard-to-reconcile edges, and a father from whom Bessire was at least semi-estranged but who becomes, in this book, a partner in detective work.
Not least Bessire’s book is of his own journey to the place of his upbringing to examine it with new eyes, as if a stranger, and in that way probe his own complicity.
Always in these pages Bessire looks over his shoulder, both to his family but also of the region’s history, rife with depletions of earlier times. In this, he seeks to make sense of the present so as to take responsibility for the future. In this struggle to define what it will take to live in a more sustainable way in the world, he takes guidance from his long-departed grandmother. She had in her life struggled to end her dependency on alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. The first step, she wrote in notes now a half-century old, “is to admit that I am not responsible for the past, but that I am accountable to tomorrow.”
That observation borne of his grandmother’s pain is one for all of those of Ogallala Country – and, although Bessire does not dwell on this, all of humanity.
Working through the many big ideas in “Running Out” never taxes. Every page has sentences to be savored and, in my case, paragraphs to be highlighted in yellow, for later savoring and deepened understandings.
“Running Out” has a dreamy, confusing theme, one clearly intended. In his quest to understand, Bessire finds mazes of depletion, layers of deception, a dried river, and a waterless spring that was part of his family’s operation, an area where hydrologists now estimate three-quarters of the water has been removed. There are clouded memories, a strange mist, a numbing vapor, and a ghostly presence.
Always, there is ghost of his grandmother who in her life was subjected by her handlers to electroshock therapy in an attempt to create amnesia. She spent the rest of her life, says Bessire, trying to recapture the water of her youth that had disappeared.
There are also blurred boundaries, conundrums, and contradictions, plus the confounding logic used to justify the depletion. Meetings of the groundwater management districts that he and his father attend showcase this distorted logic.
These districts, under Kansas Law, have authority over the depletion. At one meeting, he attends in expectation of debate about the future of the aquifer, he instead finds blandness, words, and a mood “strangely flattened and trivial, as if veiled behind some gauzy medium that muffled words and distorted time.” The gatherings of aging white men he describes as dishonesty disguised by dullness.
At one of these meetings, “John,” whom he describes as the official playing the part of emcee, belabors the distinction between “impairment,” a word he discourages, and his strong preference, “drawdown allowances.” The talk then extends to the solution, imported water.
Another meeting produces more fuzzy logic: Imposing limits on pumping does not provide an answer because it would force the transition of irrigated land to less valuable non-irrigated farm land and hence a yanking of the economic platform for the region. As such, depletive irrigation must continue. Again, the answer to the inevitable lies in importing water from elsewhere, presumably with the federal government footing the bill for a canal (and pumps) from the Mississippi River.
That solution is only slightly less improbable than the giant machines that some envision for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
The federal government played a role in creating this mess through its insurance programs for crops that favor irrigation, says Bessire. Even more clearly he blames corporate agriculture, the majority owners of the land in this county of southwestern Kansas and the mostly hidden influence that makes the groundwater districts forums for doublespeak. A few farmers use disproportionate amounts of water, and those farmers advocating for restraint in pumping have little voice. The exploitation, he says, is anti-democratic.
Bessire’s four chapters – Lines, Bones, Dust, Clouds – are carefully crafted, at least partly a result of a year’s fellowship at Harvard University. The prose constantly delights. Driving in the night with his father, he observes “the spinning pivots, under the turning stars.” On another trip through “towns with courthouse squares and false fronts” he sees “emptied houses (that are) falling down in arrested motion.”
Exploitation, extinction, and extermination are subthemes to his focus on depletion. He tells of the killing of the once vast bison herds that virtually disappeared in a burst of gluttony in 1872-74. The buffalo bones at the railroad siding in Granada, in southeastern Colorado, were 12 feet high, 12 feet wide, and a half-mile long. Most of the buffalo hunters made no money, he observed – a metaphor, if you will, for the farmers depleting the aquifer today.
The buffalo extermination was also a somewhat conscious decision, a way to force Native American tribes off the land so it could be farmed and ranched. Part of this was the Sand Creek Massacre, whose site in Colorado, just across the border from Kansas, he visited in the company of his grandmother in the 1990s. He wonders at his own lack of understanding of this history that was prelude to his existence there, a child of the plains. “We lived among the rubble of genocide and dispossession in a landscape that had been transformed,” he says.
No mention is made of critical race theory, but this conclusion does invite comparisons.
The book has no spare baggage. It has disciplined focus reflected in its relative brevity that belies enormous research. There’s no fat here. The bibliography cites more than 400 books and other sources. His telling of the Sand Creek Massacre, something I have ready deeply about, illustrates this depth.
One might have wished for just a bit more in two areas. A groundwater district in northwestern Kansas in 2017 voluntarily adopted restrictions on the pace of decline. Bessire explains this but does not identify what was different there, why corporate interests did not prevail.
The second element is about the end result of the water pumping. Most crops grown with Ogallala drafting feed livestock. Bessire addresses this – really, it’s at the heart of his book:
“The scale of industrial farming is staggering,” he says. “Southwest Kansas is home to some of the nation’s largest corporate feeders, beef- and poultry-packing plants, slaughterhouses, dairies, milk-drying plants, and hog farms. Multinational meat-packing companies operate slaughterhouses that process several thousand cattle each day. All are billion-dollar businesses. They drive farmers’ choices to produce corn, silage, sorghum, or alfalfa. Their profits depend on aquifer deletion. In other words, there is a multibillion-dollar corporate interest to prevent regulation and to pump the water until it’s gone.”
I might have liked to have seen this livestock story developed more fully, another full chapter, actually. Maybe it’s another book, a sequel.
The cost of eating meat is heavily, heavily subsidized and cannot continue at its current pace. We are borrowing against the opportunities of future generations with no clear way to pay that debt. I am, by the way, a meat-eater.
This conclusion was derived in part from my own research into the Ogallala in the context of eastern Colorado. My work has been marginal. My commissioned assignments have been to extol the efforts made to innovate. I was not given a blank check to investigate, nor did I take a second-mortgage on the house while I asked the hard questions that Bessire did (he camped out in the barn of his father).
But I sensed what Bessire explains in his opening, that “depletion of the High Plains aquifer is a defining drama of our times. Within it, planetary crises of ecologies, democracy, and interpretation are condensed. It demands a response.”
To that I will add a quote from my most recent interviews, a water district official who said that ultimately Ogallala farmers are selling water. As such, he said, they should be mining the groundwater for high-value crops.
Truth searching rarely comes easily. Geology can be very complex, too. In his opening passage, Bessire tells us about the difficulty of working through the politics and cultures of depletion.
“The sediments are vertically stacked in layers. They are patchy and unevenly spread. Repetitive themes run between them: memory and amnesia, homelands and exile, holding on and letting go. At times, the layers flow together and connect. At others, they are interrupted and blocked.”
That he emerged with a book worthy of being considered for the nation’s top book-writing award testifies to his success in navigating these physical and other subterranean passages.
The Colorado General Assembly adjourned its 2022 session on May 11. Among the water bills that passed, four share a common theme—funding. A rare confluence of new revenue sources led to strong bipartisan support of bills dealing with groundwater compact compliance and sustainability, state water plan projects, wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration, and urban turf replacement. A bill designed to strengthen Colorado’s water speculation laws failed.
Groundwater compact compliance and sustainability
Senate Bill 28 creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the purchase and retirement of wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. It appropriates into the fund $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) revenue that had been transferred into the state’s Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer. These are one-time dollars that must be obligated by the end of 2024; if not spent by then, they will be used to support the state water plan.
The bill seeks to reduce groundwater pumping connected to surface water flows in the Republican River to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It will also help meet aquifer sustainability standards required by state statute and rules in the Rio Grande Basin, home to the San Luis Valley. To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be retired in the Republican Basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. If the targets are not met, the state engineer may have no choice but to shut down wells without compensation.
Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, noted that agricultural production coming out of the two basins benefits the overall state economy, not just the local communities. “The state has some skin in the game,” he said, and the availability of ARPA revenue “presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to support the districts.
Simpson emphasized that neither district is looking for a handout. The Republican has already assessed its water users over $140 million since 2004 to retire irrigated land and purchase or lease surface and groundwater to meet Colorado’s water delivery obligations. The Rio Grande district has taxed its farmers nearly $70 million since 2006 to take irrigated land out of production and has cut groundwater pumping by a third. Simpson requested $80 million from the Economic Recovery Task Force and, by demonstrating the interconnectivity between the state and local economies and the commitment already shown by the districts—along with strong bipartisan support from legislators—was able to secure the $60 million appropriation.
State water plan projects
Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the CWCB’s “projects bill,” which, among other things, has included appropriations from CWCB’s Construction Fund to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan in recent years. The funding source for those grants is different this year, with gambling revenue from Proposition DD, which the electorate passed in 2019, becoming available for the first time. Proposition DD legalized sports betting and levied a 10% tax on sports betting proceeds, with the majority of that revenue going into the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund.
House Bill 1316 appropriates $8.2 million from the fund for grants to help implement the state water plan; $7.2 million of that amount is from sports betting revenue. Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said, “This is the first appropriation of funds from Proposition DD … and it looks like it’s starting to grow into what we had hoped.”
The bill also appropriates $2 million to CWCB from its Construction Fund to help the Republican River Water Conservation District retire irrigated acreage. Rod Lenz, district president, said the district has doubled its water use fee on irrigators but that “we’re in need of short-term funding while we wait for that rate increase.” The $2 million in state revenue will help the district meet its 2024 interim target of retiring 10,000 acres of the 25,000 acres necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact by 2029. This is on top of the funds the district will receive from Senate Bill 28.
Wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration
Like Senate Bill 28, House Bill 1379 takes advantage of ARPA revenue by appropriating $20 million from the Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund for projects to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from damage caused by wildfire-induced erosion and flooding. Testimony on the bill in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee emphasized how investing mitigation dollars now helps avoid spending even more on very expensive recovery efforts later.
The bill allocates $3 million to the Healthy Forests and Vibrant Communities Fund to help communities reduce wildfire risks by promoting watershed resilience. It moves $2 million into the Wildfire Mitigation Capacity Development Fund for wildfire mitigation and fuel reduction projects. And $15 million goes to CWCB to fund watershed restoration and flood mitigation projects, and to help local governments and other entities apply for federal grants under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act related to water and natural resources management.
While most of the focus at the Capitol in reducing water use has been on agriculture through retiring irrigated farmland, House Bill 1151 elevates urban turf replacement in importance. The bill requires CWCB to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial property owners to voluntarily replace non-native grasses with water-wise landscaping. It appropriates $2 million in general funds to a newly created Turf Replacement Fund and authorizes local governments, nonprofits and other entities to apply to CWCB for grants to help finance their programs. Landscape contractors, to whom individuals can apply for money to replace their lawns, are also eligible.
Rep. Catlin pointed out that “50% of the water that comes from the tap and goes through the meter and into the house is used outside.”
“We’re building ourselves a shortage,” he warned, “by continuing to use treated water for irrigation.” Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, added, “For too long the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains have borne the brunt of water conservation … but this is a bill that will give the tools to metro areas for them to play their fair part in this problem that is our drought.”
Investment water speculation
Senate Bill 29 was an attempt to strengthen protections against investment water speculation, defined as the purchase of agricultural water rights “with the intent, at the time of purchase, to profit from an increase in the water’s value in a subsequent transaction, such as the sale or lease of the water, or by receiving payment from another person for nonuse of all or a portion of the water.” It was aimed at curbing outside investors who may have little or no interest in agriculture from using the water right to maximize its value as the price of water increases during drought. It authorized the state engineer to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and, if found, to levy fines and prohibit the buyer from purchasing additional water rights for two years without the state engineer’s approval.
The 2021 interim Water Resources Review Committee recommended the bill, but it was never viewed as more than a “placeholder.” Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, a co-sponsor of the bill, expressed her disappointment that the bill did not generate more engagement between the water community and policymakers. “I was certainly hopeful that by having a bill we would force conversation,” she said, “but it did not result in having some forthright ‘let’s get around a table and hammer this out.’” Members struggled with trying to balance concerns over speculation with protecting property rights. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, the other co-sponsor of the bill, emphasized, “We are certainly not trying to take a farmer’s or rancher’s ability away from selling that water. In many cases that is their 401K, their retirement.”
Opposition from water user groups in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee sent a clear message: Existing legal requirements provide the necessary safeguards to address water speculation. Travis Smith, representing the Colorado Water Congress, said what’s needed is “having more voices, taking more time.”
Senate Bill 29 was amended to strike the language in the bill and refer the issue to interim study. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who was chairing the committee, expressed his frustration: “We have an ineffective water group that won’t have a conversation with lawmakers anymore. When they have a bill they just take a position and quit working with people.”
With that said he carried the bill over for further consideration, effectively killing it since this was the last committee meeting of the year. It’s unclear whether the issue will be studied this interim since it’s an election year and fewer committee meetings will be held.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colorado lawmakers unanimously voted to set aside $60 million of federal COVID relief money to create a fund to help water users in two river basins meet groundwater sustainability targets. If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the legislation would create a groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money would be used to buy and retire groundwater wells used to irrigate farmland in the Rio Grande River basin in the south and the Republican River basin in the east to keep the water in underground aquifers that are struggling to keep up with drought and overuse…
Farmers and ranchers in both river basins face rapidly approaching deadlines to reduce their water use, which are necessary to maintain interstate river agreements and preserve underground water supplies. If these goals aren’t met, state water officials say there could be alarming consequences — and thousands of well users could face water cuts.
In the San Luis Valley, the state water engineer is requiring some groundwater well users to limit pumping because too many wells are all pulling from the same groundwater source. Chris Ivers, the program manager for two subdistricts in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said farmers and ranchers have levied property taxes on themselves to fund similar local efforts to meet groundwater sustainability goals.
DOUGLAS County will release a redacted version of an attorney memorandum at the same time it gives its decision on whether to move ahead with a proposal by Renewable Water Resources to transport water from San Luis Valley aquifers to the affluent metro-Denver suburb.
The three county commissioners met for over an hour in a closed-to-the-public executive session Thursday to discuss which portions of water attorney Steve Leonhardt’s analysis and recommendations on the RWR plan would be redacted.
“We will release our decision alongside this redacted memorandum,” said Commissioner Abe Laydon, chair of the board. A disappointed Commissioner Lora Thomas said she was under the impression a redacted version would be released as early as Thursday but now the release will occur at a future board work session.
SLV WATER: Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE
Laydon said a “large majority” of the information contained in Leonhardt’s memorandum to the commissioners would be made public. Redacted would be any information privileged to Renewable Water Resources or any information that would harm Douglas County in any future water discussions. Personal information of individuals Laydon and Leonhardt said they met privately with in the San Luis Valley would also be redacted.
Meanwhile, the SLV Ecosystem Council submitted 255 signatures to the Douglas County commissioners in opposition to the water exportation plan. In the letter, SLV Ecosystem Council Director Chris Canaly slammed the commissioners for canceling a public meeting in the San Luis Valley and for their treatment of water and environmental experts who took time to educate the commissioners on the Valley’s dire water situation.
“… SLV representatives compiled critical research and presented significant facts and valuable findings that embody generations of historical water knowledge of the Rio Grande basin. Your reaction to this good faith effort has been complete dismissal, even disdain.”
MOTHER Nature will determine how much groundwater pumping occurs in ag-rich Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under a new plan of water management making its way to the state for approval.
The subdistrict and its parent Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been under pressure to bring the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin to a sustainable level or face curtailment of wells. The San Luis Valley has two aquifers – one unconfined and one confined.
In the draft of its new plan, which is the fourth amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management, Subdistrict 1 members spell out the situation with the unconfined aquifer:
“Although the Subdistrict successfully remedied injurious depletions to senior surface water rights caused by groundwater withdrawals from Subdistrict Wells, it has not been successful in achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer. This Plan is intended to address the now-apparent deficiencies of the previous Amended Plans of Water Management and adopts new means needed to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer.
“The Subdistrict realizes that if more restrictive steps are not taken to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer, the State Engineer will, at some point, be unable to approve a future Annual Replacement Plan, resulting in the curtailment of Subdistrict Wells. State Engineer denial of an Annual Replacement Plan could result in the curtailment of all Subdistrict Wells, causing severe negative impact on the agricultural economy of the Subdistrict and the San Luis Valley as a whole.”
The board of managers for Subdistrict 1 gave final approval to the plan on Tuesday. It now goes to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board for consideration. If approved there, it would be submitted to the Colorado Department of Water Resources and State Engineer Kevin Rein for review and approval.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this from everyone involved,” said Subdistrict 1 Board President Brian Brownell. “It’s been a struggle. Overall this is the best plan we could come up with.”
The amended plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits.
The subdistrict is asking the state for 20 years to make the plan successful in recovering the aquifer, with a goal to restore 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year over that 20-year period to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level.
TO get there the plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.
“Our pumping will be adjusted to whatever climate brings us,” said ex-officio board member Mike Kruse.
If the Valley experiences wet periods, groundwater pumping in Subdistrict 1 can match it. If the Valley continues with the persistent drought it has experienced over the past 20 years, groundwater pumping in the subdistrict will reflect the dryness.
“This plan takes into account the climate. That’s the beauty of it,” Kruse said
The predicament of the depleted unconfined aquifer is the result of the state granting too many well permits for groundwater pumping decades ago, now coupled with decades of drought going back to 2002.
“The state has to bear some responsibility,” said Subdistrict 1 board member James Cooley. “It isn’t all our fault.”
Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke said the subdistrict had been making progress toward meeting the state’s goals with the unconfined aquifer up until 2018, when a particularly dry year hit the Valley. A wet 2019 brought some relief to the aquifer, but the subdistrict lost the progress it made after back-to-back dry years in 2020 and 2021, and now so far 2022.
The change in climate, said Brownell, has been the biggest factor in working to restore the unconfined aquifer. “It’s nothing anybody could have foreseen and that is why we’re addressing it.”
“This concept we have is probably the only way we can address climate,” said Subdistrict 1 Board Member Jake Burris. “With this plan we’re living within our means.”
Based on modeling conducted by Willem Schreuder, president of Principia Mathematica in Denver, there is a high level of confidence among farm operators that the new plan will succeed in meeting the state’s requirement of a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The earliest the amended plan would take effect is for the 2023 irrigation season.
Some farm operators in Subdistrict 1 are filing their own augmentation plans with the state Division 3 Water Court in lieu of joining a new amended plan by the conservation district.
Renewable Water Resources, in its discussions with Douglas County, has tried to use the unconfined aquifer condition in Subdistrict 1 to further its case by approaching farmers with buyouts for their water rights. The RWR water exportation proposal is not in Subdistrict 1, but that hasn’t stopped RWR from trying to leverage the situation to their advantage, telling Douglas County that farmers in the Valley are facing imminent widespread water well curtailments, which isn’t the case.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon made it a point in his recent visit to the San Luis Valley to bring up well shut downs as a reason why Douglas County could help the Valley by investing in Renewable Water Resources and buying out farmers and establishing a Valley-wide community fund.
A state Senate bill offered by Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also works as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, would help address the strategy of retiring groundwater pumping wells in all the Valley’s subdistricts. If adopted – the proposed legislation has cleared major committee hurdles – the Compact Compliance Fund would make available at least $30 million to the Rio Grande Basin to help with groundwater sustainability measurements and would offer the Rio Grande Water Conservation District another pot of money to execute its strategies.
The Sunnyside Gold Corporation and its corporate owner will pay about $45 million under yet another settlement connected to the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, which dumped a yellow plume of heavy metals into the Animas River, federal officials announced Friday [April 29, 2022]. The federal government will kick in another $45 million as well. Under the finalized settlement, the company and its Canadian owner, Kinross Gold Corporation, will pay the United States $40.1 million and another $4 million to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for cleanup efforts, Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Rich Mylott said in a release.
Cleanup is needed in the broader Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, in southwest Colorado’s San Juan County. That site includes dozens of abandoned mines, which are polluting the area’s waterways but it’s also the location of the 3-million-gallon spill at the Gold King Mine, which EPA officials triggered…
Already, cleanup efforts have cost more than $70 million, The Denver Post previously reported. Sunnyside also agreed to a $1.6 million settlement in December and agreed last year to pay $10 million to the Navajo Nation and $11 million to New Mexico, downstream of the mines and spill site.
Running for the open seats are Tammy Essmeier, Allen Dreher, Frank J. Johns, Neil L. Arney and Frank McNulty. Each candidate answered questions about themselves to provide Centennial Water voters with some information about their reason for seeking a seat on the board.
Arney is an attorney with knowledge of Colorado special districts who is new to Highlands Ranch and running to give back to his community.
Essmeier is a consultant on environmental regulations and laws, who has served as a volunteer with Centennial Water’s Citizen Engagement Committee.
Dreher, a former journalist, serves on the Highlands Ranch Metro District and is interested in joining the board to protect water sustainability.
Also a volunteer with the Citizen Engagement Committee, Johns is an engineer with previous experience operating water and wastewater facilities.
A former Colorado representative, McNulty owns Square State Strategy Group and previously served as the consulting attorney for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Centennial Water users can vote in person from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 3 at 92 Plaza Drive or drop an absentee ballot in the drop-box at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Highlands Ranch substation by 7 p.m. May 3.
Rio Grande and Republican River would use funds to meet state groundwater sustainability, interstate compact compliance targets
COLORADO is moving toward putting $60 million into a new groundwater compact compliance fund for the Rio Grande and Republican River basins created and funded through a state senate bill drafted and championed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.
The bill, Senate Bill 22-028, creates the Compact Compliance Fund that would be administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and would receive an appropriation of $60 million from Colorado’s share of federal COVID relief money from American Rescue Plan funding.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, originally only established the fund, and then an amendment unanimously adopted Thursday by the Colorado House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee added $60 million into it. The bill next will be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.
“Given the unanimous votes every step of the way, so far, I am hopeful the bill with the appropriation will become law in the next week or two,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well. Still some work to do, but things look very promising for both of these Colorado communities.
If the Compact Compliance Fund is adopted by the Colorado Legislature it would pay for efforts to meet groundwater sustainability targets in the Rio Grande Basin and interstate compact requirements for the Republican River Basin. Each basin would get an earmark of $30 million to pay for efforts like retiring groundwater wells and other conservation and water sustainability measures. The goal would be to spend all $60 million within the time constraints put on federal COVID dollars, whether it’s a 50-50 split or not.
The threat to livelihood for farmers and ranchers and economic disaster for the regions tied to irrigated agriculture in the Rio Grande and Republican River basins was made loud and clear in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee.
“These farmers and ranchers have done everything they possibly can,” said Marisa Fricke, one of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s program managers. “They grow produce for us and hay for our cattle.”
Farmers and ranchers in both basins have levied property taxes on themselves through the water conservation districts to pay for their efforts to help the Rio Grande and Republican River meet groundwater sustainability and interstate compact compliance goals set by the state. It has meant fallowing of crop fields, permanently retiring irrigated acreage, taking groundwater wells off line either temporarily or permanently, and compensating farmers and ranchers for their efforts to help offset loss from less irrigated acres.
State Reps. Marc Catlin and Dylan Roberts made impassioned pleas for including $60 million of the ARPA money into the compact compliance fund during their presentation of the bill in the House Ag committee. Both are House sponsors of the bill.
“This is an opportunity with these funds to say, ‘We’re with you,’” said Catlin of the risk farmers and ranchers take their sacrifices to address compact and sustainability issues on the Republican River.
“This is a great bill for the San Luis Valley and Republican River Basin,” said Heather Dutton, district manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado through COVID relief bills provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in our communities. The imbalance between water use and supply is a critical issue facing Colorado and especially the basins highlighted in this legislation.”
Farmers in the San Luis Valley are looking to take even more drastic steps in their efforts to meet state targets on groundwater pumping and recharging of the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s unconfined aquifer. In Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, farmers are facing a new proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management that would tie the level of groundwater pumping allowed to the natural surface water of the property. Some farms in the subdistrict do not have natural surface water, in which case they would have to purchase water credits from a neighboring farm or pay an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot.
This concept keeps the system in balance by replenishing what has been withdrawn from the aquifer with surface water and allows the community within Subdistrict No.1 to work together through the exchange and sale of credits. In the event that more groundwater is withdrawn from the aquifer and not replenished an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot would be assessed, according to the proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s water management plan. Money collected by the conservation district from an over pumping charge would come back to the Subdistrict 1 community in the form of payments towards enrolling in water conservation programs, according to Fricke.
“For over a decade farmers and ranchers have worked to meet sustainability levels and have taxed themselves assessments for waters taken out of the aquifer,” Fricke told House ag committee members.
Eventually the water conservation districts would establish guidelines and the state Division of Water Resources would administer drawdowns of the fund. In the unlikely chance Rio Grande and Republican River water managers didn’t spend all $60 million, the money would revert to the division of water resources.
Future state appropriations to Compact Compliance Fund would hinge on executive and legislative budget priorities.
RIO Grande County Commissioner John Noffsker made Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon a counter-offer to the Renewable Water Resources exportation proposal: Douglas County gives the San Luis Valley its annual sales tax collections from Park Meadows Mall in exchange for some water.
Noffsker’s point? That the Valley has no more right to sales tax dollars collected by Douglas County than Douglas County has to water in the San Luis Valley aquifers.
Pleasantries were exchanged Saturday [April 23, 2022] between Laydon and a few mostly elected officials during a two-hour exchange at Nino’s Restaurant in Monte Vista. The conversation didn’t reveal anything new or anything Laydon and Douglas County haven’t heard over the past four months as Douglas County weighs whether to invest in the Renewable Water Resources water exportation plan.
“You’re the tip of the spear on this one,” Noffsker said in making Laydon aware that people watching Douglas County’s deliberations know Laydon holds the deciding vote on the three-member commission, with Commissioner Lora Thomas dead set against RWR and Commissioner George Teal in support.
“Once you start putting a straw in this body of water, there’s no end game,” Noffsker said.
“You’re basically saying to us, much as what happened to the Native Americans, that you have something we want and we can do more with it than you can, and that is wrong,” said Noffsker. “It’s morally wrong. When we have to sit here and defend how we use our water, we shouldn’t have to do that. This water belongs to the Valley. It should not be taken out of here to benefit somebody else.”
The meeting at Nino’s with Noffsker and other local elected officials was Laydon’s second of the day. Earlier Laydon and Special Counsel Steve Leonhardt met privately with farmers who Laydon said expressed a variety of concerns, from lack of knowing what’s going on in the subdistrict formations of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to concerns about their small operations and whether small farms would survive the period of persistent drought and climate change.
With the local elected officials, which included Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker and Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman and Commissioner Lori Laske, Laydon raised the idea of a community fund that Renewable Water Resources has touted as part of its proposal. The Douglas County commissioner was told the community fund was a slap in the face to residents of the San Luis Valley.
“It’s not about money, it’s about keeping the (water) resource here,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson. Carson works at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is coordinating the Protect San Luis Valley campaign fighting the RWR exportation proposal.
Karla Shriver, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Subdistrict 2 board, said additional financial relief for Valley farmers is on the way through legislation currently moving through the state legislature. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Cleave Simpson would create a new compact compliance fund and would have around $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act money awarded to Colorado in it to help farmers in the San Luis Valley meet groundwater compliance targets set by the state. Read more about the legislation HERE.
Renewable Water Resources has voiced opposition to the legislation. It sees the bill as a government bailout for San Luis Valley farmers at a time when RWR is asking for money from Douglas County and dangling those tax dollars in front of Valley farmers to buy them out.
Noffsker said the RWR proposal is only about making a return on investment, while the Valley fights for its economic livelihood.
“I don’t mean any urban/rural fights,” said Noffsker. “But what’s happening is an urban area that apparently wants to grow more, wants to take from us to do it. If we do something like this, we are being dictated to by the Front Range on what our lives are going to be. That is not correct.”
Laydon, as he’s said in other meetings, told the group that Douglas County only wants to partner with communities that welcome Douglas County and that want to partner with it. He didn’t find that broad support on his weekend trip to the San Luis Valley, and he hasn’t heard any outpouring of support in the months he and his colleagues have been studying the Renewable Water Resources exportation plan.
Unless, of course, Douglas County wants to give up its retail sales tax revenues. Sacrificing a golf course or two might help as well.
The White Mesa Mill produces refined uranium, vanadium and rare earth compounds used for nuclear fuels, the creation of steel, batteries and electric cars. Toxic compounds left over from the process, called tailings, are poured into massive ponds on site. White Mesa residents take note when smoke rises from the mill and keep close watch over the tailing ponds, Badback said. They cough painfully when the wind blows. Children suffer from respiratory problems and adults worry about cancer. Little information is shared with those in White Mesa, part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s territory that extends into Colorado and New Mexico, Badback said. Residents are mostly on their own.
Documents obtained and analyzed by The Denver Post show that Utah regulators have cited the mill at least 40 times since 1999 for violations ranging from administrative issues and failures to adequately collect and report data to “discharging pollutants” into the state’s waterways. For all those violations the mill has paid a total of $176,874.91 in penalties. For context, in the third quarter of 2021, Energy Fuels, the company that owns and operates the mill, reported that it had more than $100 million in cash. Monitoring wells at the site show concentrations of uranium, nitrates, cadmium, nickel and more regularly testing above state limits. Uranium levels at one well spiked over 600% higher than acceptable federal limits for drinking water, data collected by the mill shows.
Tribal officials say recent protests and official appeals against contamination in the ground water only resulted in state regulators raising the thresholds for acceptable limits. Experts hired by the tribe caught leaks at the tailing ponds and say other leaks are likely. Ultimately tribal officials and residents in the area say they’re concerned the toxins will seep deeper into the ground and contaminate the Burro Canyon Aquifer — which is already showing signs of contamination — and then into the Navajo Aquifer underneath, on which some 50,000 Native Americans depend.
The Pankey family’s resilience was put to a test when a wildfire burned nearly half of their ranch in 2018. Among the devastating impacts of the fire was livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from ponds because they were covered in ashes.
Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle with their sons, Kevin and Justin and their families, in Moffat and Routt counties. They have a history of doing right by their land. Following the fire, they cleaned the ponds and aerially reseeded native grasses on 900 acres in the fire’s path. It’s not the first time investing in conservation practices has paid off for this family and the landscape they share with livestock and wildlife.
Keith’s great grandfather homesteaded an area of high desert known as Great Divide. The Pankeys are still able to graze cattle in the drought-prone region from spring through fall thanks to improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems.
They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines were also added. By expanding the number of watering stations (from six to 12) the Pankeys increased their ability to properly graze cattle while creating wildlife habitat across the ranch.
Precipitation, range conditions, and animal performance all impact how the Pankeys plan pasture rotations and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotations to determine which areas benefit from early, middle or late season grazing. They’ve also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter periods of grazing, while others benefit from being grazed twice in the same season.
When cattle widely disburse themselves, the Pankeys find that grass recovers at a faster rate, and taller grass is left behind when the cattle are rotated to another pasture. The ranch’s wildlife populations have greatly increased thanks to rotational grazing and the improved water system. By working with neighbors to control noxious weeds, desirable grasses have become dominant across the ranch.
Pankey Ranch borders Colorado’s largest Greater sage-grouse lek, a breeding ground for this declining species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study grasses, insects, and Greater sage-grouse habitat in the Great Divide range. Their study was helpful in determining which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced off a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped water storage tanks with overflows that provide water and prolonged green vegetation to encourage production of insects that grouse chicks consume.
The Pankeys are involved with a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor. They have installed rock toe and erosion control mats, and reseeded stream banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in corridors to preserve wetlands and fish habitat. Less erosion in the creek means cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health, and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices, is inspiring other landowners to follow suit.
The Pankeys also provide public hunting opportunities on their land. In 2011, they obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to ensure future agricultural uses on the land. As a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethic and conservation practices with youth, neighbors and the general public.
Click the link to read “Pankey Ranch’s conservation efforts earn attention from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association” on the Craig Press website (Amber Delay). Here’s an excerpt:
According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Leopold Award was created in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold to recognize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands…
The Pankeys will be presented with the award June 13 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Convention in Colorado Springs…
To mention a few who have contributed in addition to Trout Unlimited were: The National Resources Conservation Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Craig, The Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable and The Lower Colorado River Habitat Partnership Program.
Zephyr Minerals’ Dawson Gold Mine permitting process has been extended by at least a year after they’ve been told by the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety that they need to drill five groundwater monitoring wells and monitor them for five quarters, as well as one compliance well. This pushes out the potential approval of the mining permit to late 2023. Under current regulations, DRMS must respond, by approving or denying the mining permit application, within one year from the date on which DRMS considered the application to be complete, July 15, 2021.
“Clearly, it is impossible timewise to do five quarters of monitoring between now and the 15th of July 2022,” said Will Felderhof, who is the executive chairman for Zephyr Minerals. “That’s why we withdraw the application, do our monitoring and then resubmit the application to address these questions regarding the information they are requesting with the water wells.”
Additionally, the decision to ask for a two-month extension will allow for more time to get more exact locations for the additional water monitoring wells. Once those are approved, he said, Zephyr will withdraw the application in order to move forward with the five quarters of water monitoring.
We write to you today, on behalf of our organizations and tens of thousands of supporters across the American West, to express extreme concern over Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to develop a groundwater pumping project in the San Luis Valley that would then export water to the Colorado Front Range. This project represents a serious threat to the water security of the San Luis Valley and to the plant, wildlife, and human communities that depend on this water source. As downstream neighbors we have grave concerns over the cascading effects of this project throughout the entire Rio Grande Basin, and we urge the Commission to reject this proposal.
The Rio Grande Basin cannot afford for any water to be exported out of the Valley.
This project would be the first pipeline built in the San Luis Valley with the intent to export water. But the idea of taking water out of the San Luis Valley for use in other basins is not new. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal is the most recent in a string of such schemes that began in the 1980s. Similar proposals have been decidedly shut down by Colorado courts, which have noted the adverse effects these proposals would have on the aquifer and to surface water rights. In fact, surface waters in the Valley have been recognized as over appropriated since the early 20th century, meaning every drop that flows through the Valley and more is promised to someone. It is incredibly clear that the San Luis Valley has no water to spare.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will threaten hope for a sustainable aquifer.
In addition to surface waters, groundwater is also over appropriated in the Valley. We have serious concerns over the effects of the proposed pumping on overall groundwater levels and their impacts to surrounding wetlands and streams. Of particular concern are potential effects to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Farmers in the Valley are already working together and making sacrifices to reduce water demand through the sub-district project, which was created following decades of drought conditions. This voluntary project facilitates farmers within the Valley combining efforts to ensure groundwater levels are maintained. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal undermines years of this difficult work. The demands for water and challenges associated with allocating it equitably will only increase as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, this proposal will make an already challenging situation worse and undo years of community-driven efforts to find solutions.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will have consequences for the entire Rio Grande Basin.
The concerns over this project expand beyond the San Luis Valley. The project also has the potential to threaten the downstream communities and the environment in the Rio Grande Basin for thousands of miles. The Rio Grande Compact and the 1944 treaty with Mexico define how much water must flow from the Rio Grande’s headwaters in Colorado to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. As a headwaters state, Colorado has a significant responsibility to its neighbors and it is keenly felt downstream when those responsibilities are ignored. For example, during the twentieth century, Colorado consumed more water than it was allotted under the Compact and subsequently accrued a nearly one-million-acre-foot debt to downstream states. This overuse had consequences to downstream communities, agricultural production, and ecosystems. It resulted in lawsuits that ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court requiring Colorado to repay this debt over time. Luckily for Colorado, a wet period of hydrology that filled downstream reservoirs triggered a provision of the Compact that forgave the prior debt and wiped the slate clean for better management going forward. With projected precipitation regime shifts under climate change, we are unlikely to see such a wet period again.
The water challenges we are facing within the Rio Grande Basin make it painfully obvious that a repeat of this situation would be catastrophic for water users across all three states and Mexico. We must think more holistically about the river systems on which we all depend. The San Luis Valley is an integral part of the Rio Grande Basin, a river that runs nearly 1,900 miles and sustains municipal and irrigation uses for more than six million people and two million acres of land across three states and two countries. We urge the Commission to not further complicate this situation by taking vital water from the San Luis Valley and threatening it and others’ water futures.
The communities of the San Luis Valley are working to address their water scarcity challenges in collaborative and inclusive ways. Although there is still much work to do to create a sustainable aquifer and healthy Rio Grande for people and the environment, Renewable Water Resources’ proposal flies in the face of these efforts. Please do the right thing for the communities within the San Luis Valley and those that depend on the water, also vital downstream, by rejecting this ill-advised project.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division is proposing the limits for 11 Colorado River tributaries in the valley with impaired water quality because of high levels of dissolved selenium and total recoverable iron, and in the case of two of the tributaries, E. coli. The river itself along that stretch, which meets water quality standards for selenium and E. coli, but not iron, is not itself targeted by the proposal, although it would benefit from it.
As required by the federal Clean Water Act and by Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the state is developing what it calls total maximum daily loads (TMDL) that would establish how much of those pollutants can enter each of the tributaries each day while maintaining water quality standards.
The area being targeted by regulators altogether encompasses about 138 square miles, stretching from Lewis Wash in the Clifton area to Salt Creek in western Mesa County. The area is all north of the Colorado River and is bounded on the northern end by the Government Highline Canal. That location beneath the canal is noteworthy because selenium is naturally occurring in the Mancos shale geological formation in the area, but at high levels in water can be harmful to fish and aquatic birds. The Water Quality Control Division, in its draft Grand Valley TMDL public notice, says that “the predominant source of selenium in all of the watersheds is likely groundwater inflow from canal seepage and deep percolation from irrigated lands.” Put another way, the valley’s irrigated agriculture, lying downgrade of the Government Highline Canal, is mostly driving the selenium problems in the drainages.
But as it happens, state water-quality regulators have little say over that agricultural activity. The Water Quality Control Division holds permitting authority over point sources of surface water discharges. Agricultural stormwater discharges, and return flows from irrigated agriculture, aren’t considered point sources under the Clean Water Act. The state relies on incentive-based approaches to encourage partners to work on voluntary measures to address contaminants, something that grant funding is available to support. This can include measures such as lining or piping canals and changing irrigation methods and schedules to reduce the leaching of selenium…Still, a concern for some people, including Trent Prall, public works director for the city of Grand Junction, is that because of the state’s lack of authority over the agricultural side of things, it will lean on permitted sources of surface water discharges to fix a problem that is largely agriculture-driven.
Bulkheads remain relatively obscure except to those involved in mine remediation, but their purpose is to plug mines and limit the release of mine waste while reversing the chemical processes that contribute to acid mine drainage. They can be simple fixes for extraordinarily complex mining systems and produce unintended consequences. But they are also a critical tool for the EPA and those working to improve water quality and reduce the lingering effects of more than a century of mining in the Bonita Peak Mining District…
The role of bulkheads in the Gold King Mine Spill
In its October 2015 technical assessment of the incident, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation argued that bulkheads were at least partially responsible for the Gold King Mine spill. The Gold King Mine is a maze of tunnels, faults and fissures located at different elevations inside Bonita Peak and the surrounding mountains in Gladstone. The mine opening that drained when the EPA crews struck a plug holding back water was actually what’s known as the “Upper Gold King Mine,” or Gold King Mine Level 7. A short distance away lies the “Gold King Mine,” which refers to a mine adit called American Tunnel…
With oversight from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, Sunnyside Gold Corp. first installed a bulkhead in American Tunnel in 1995 to stop mine drainage from entering Cement Creek. The company closed the valve on the first bulkhead in October 1996 and would go on to install two other bulkheads in American Tunnel. With the installation of the bulkheads, the flow of toxic mine waste into Cement Creek decreased from 1,700 gallons per minute to about 100 gallons per minute. But as the impounded water rose behind the bulkheads, the water rose elsewhere, including in Gold King Mine Level 7, which sits about 750 feet above American Tunnel, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s assessment…The EPA has yet to determine if it was faults and fractures in the rock or other internal mine workings that carried water from American Tunnel to Gold King Mine Level 7, but the EPA and the Bureau of Reclamation have both said the spill was in part the result of this buildup from the bulkheads in American Tunnel. Bulkheads have been used in mine remediation efforts in Colorado for more than three decades, and there are about 40 installed across the state, said Jeff Graves, director of Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety’s Inactive Mine Reclamation Program…Bulkheads back up water and fill mine tunnels. When they do so, they limit the air rocks can come into contact with, preventing the chemical reaction that creates acid mine drainage…
Acid mine drainage can also still make its way into river systems. Water naturally moves through rock and can turn into acid mine drainage when exposed to oxygen, though in smaller volumes.
Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.
The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.
With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.
Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]
“It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”
Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.
Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.
Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.
Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.
Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.
At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.
Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.
Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.
Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.
Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.
Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.
“For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.
The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.
“We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”
Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.
Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.
He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.
“All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.
Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.
Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
On an average day, 25 people move to Douglas County. Each one needs to drink, shower, water their lawn and wash their dishes. The full impact of that growth is difficult to see, but it’s easy to understand: more people need more water. And in a county where thousands of homes rely on a limited supply of underground aquifers, water providers are constantly working to shift to more sustainable resources before they run out.
Some aquifers buried under Douglas County have lost two to six feet in depth of water. Local water providers have noticed their supply wells aren’t producing like they once did.
“It’s like sucking water out of the bathtub with a straw,” said Rick McLoud, water resources manager for Centennial Water & Sanitation. “There’s only so much water in the bathtub and the sooner you suck it out with a straw, the sooner it will be gone.”
To meet those demands, water providers are planning a mix of conservation efforts, wastewater projects and new infrastructure for renewable resources of water. The county government is also looking at how to bring in more water and is considering spending a portion of their $68 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act on the issue.
‘Overreliance on groundwater’
As Douglas County’s development has surged since the 1990s, many of the largest communities such as Parker and Castle Rock have relied on groundwater to fill residents’ bathtubs and sinks, said State Engineer Kevin Rein…Groundwater from aquifers makes up about 65% of the water used by Parker Water and Sanitation, which is the provider for Parker and parts of Lone Tree and Castle Pines, and by Castle Rock Water. Centennial Water uses about 20% groundwater. Those ratios can change depending on drought conditions…
Douglas County sits on a layer of several aquifers, including the Arapahoe, Denver, Dawson and the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers. Most major water providers use the water in the Arapahoe and Denver aquifers, which reach depths of 1,700 and 600 feet beneath the ground, respectively…
Under Douglas County’s guidelines for development in unincorporated areas, only the western part of the county is not allowed to rely on their groundwater for development, said Steve Koster, assistant director of planning services for the county. Those communities must provide either a renewable water source or use groundwater from the eastern part of the county. Koster said the county is not actively looking at requiring or incentivizing developers to instead look for renewable resources of water…
Parker Water and Sanitation is working on a project that will partner with a water conservancy district in Sterling, a town in eastern Colorado, to capture unused water during high runoff years from the South Platte River there and store it to pipe back to the town. The project won’t impact existing water rights and won’t allow buy-and-dry of nearby agriculture, Redd said. In order to meet Parker’s projected water demands, the project will need to be complete by 2040, Redd said. That project would get Parker Water to 75% renewable water and would provide water for more than 300,000 people in Douglas County, including in Parker, Castle Rock and portions of Castle Pines and Lone Tree, according to a project proposal. Castle Rock Water is a partner on that project.
Over the next 20 to 30 years, Castle Rock plans to invest about $500 million in renewable water projects including new pipelines, additional storage and water rights. Marlowe said the reason they spread out those projects over time is to keep rates for their customers down. By 2050, Castle Rock plans to move to 75% renewable and by 2065 have a 100% renewable system for wet or average years.
Dominion Water and Sanitation, which serves about 1,200 homes in Sterling Ranch, plans to be 90% renewable by 2040. Sterling Ranch is slated to add about 11,000 more homes to their community in that same time period at a rate of 450 homes per year. Dominion also plans to include about 700 other existing homes from smaller communities to their service area soon. Right now, Dominion is 100% renewable but is set to drill wells in the Cherokee Ranch area to blend some groundwater into their system, making it more drought-resistant, Cole said. They are also planning to build a river intake on the South Platte River and a wastewater treatment facility, which will provide at least 1,600 acre-feet of water per year to Sterling Ranch…
Castle Rock plans to incorporate programs in the coming years that encourage more efficient utilities and lawns that don’t require heavy irrigation. At the statewide level, a bill being considered by the legislature this session would pay residents up to $2 per square foot to rip out their irrigated turf and replace it with less thirsty alternatives. Sterling Ranch has focused on a program they call “demand management” that allows residents to have a live look at their water usage and bills…Their community also has banned the use of bluegrass, a type of turf that demands lots of water. Instead they offer a variety of drought-resistant plants for landscaping…
As the commissioners consider how to approach the issue, $68 million in federal funds has the potential to aid in addressing the water demands of a growing community. One proposal for the money, which the commissioners have dedicated six two-hour meetings to discussing, would pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley. Renewable Water Resources, the private company proposing the project, says that’s enough for 70,000 houses. The project has been met with ire from many in the valley, though, as multiple water conservation districts and elected officials there have said they don’t have enough water to spare and it would damage their agriculture-based economy…So far, all the major water providers in Douglas County have said they are not interested in using the water from the RWR proposal. Darling says that’s in part because many providers have already heavily invested in other projects…
Commissioners have also heard presentations from Parker Water, who asked them to consider using about $20 million of the federal funds to help their South Platte River project, and Dominion, who asked for help funding their regional wastewater plant in partnership with Castle Rock Water and the Plum Creek Reclamation Authority.
Collaboration will yield a lot more South Platte River water for Nebraska than trying to finish a ditch that’s been abandoned for more than a century. That was the consensus at a freewheeling panel discussion in Sterling Monday afternoon as Nebraska Sen. Theresa Thibodeau met with water experts from Colorado to learn more about the water that flows into her state across the state line near Julesburg.
Thibodeau is a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in Nebraska. Her visit was prompted a proposal by incumbent Gov. Pete Ricketts to finish digging the Perkins County Canal from the South Platte River near Ovid to a reservoir somewhere in Nebraska. The canal is allowed under the terms of the South Platte River Compact of 1923, and can divert up to 500 cubic feet per second out of the river. But without the canal, Nebraska can’t exercise that water right…
The panel consisted of Thibodeau, Bruce Gerk, a member of the South Platte Roundtable, Jim Yahn, manager of the Prewitt and North Sterling reservoirs, Don Chapman, manager of Riverside Irrigation District near Sterling, and Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platter Water Conservancy District. Among the dozen or so attendees were Colorado Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, former state senator and agriculture commissioner Don Ament, Gene Manuello, vice president of the LSPWCD, and Logan County Commissioner Byron Pelton. During Monday’s discussion, Thibodeau made it clear that Nebraskans will do whatever is necessary to protect the water they now get and that they have a right o in the 1923 compact…
Yahn. Chapman and Frank gave Thibodeau a short course on Colorado’s water reality. The most important point, and one they stressed repeatedly, is that return flow and seepage from irrigation in Colorado is what makes the South Platte the year-round river it is today. Sonnenberg pointedly asked the panel what would happen to the multitude of water augmentation projects that operate during the winter months along the lower Colorado reach of the river if Colorado had to try to deliver 500 cubic feet per second into the Perkins Canal. Chapman said it was “very likely” that those projects, which replace water drawn out by pumps during the irrigation season, would be harmed, leading to curtailment of pumping. It also would probably diminish the return flow that ends up in Nebraska. Manuello said one of the worst myths about the river is the amount of water that flows out of Colorado. He said that, while it’s true spring runoff and occasional flooding send large amounts of water downstream, those events are of short duration and probably wouldn’t be available for use in the Perkins Canal.
What’s happening in the million-dollar homes of Rio Verde Foothills, one of the Phoenix metropolitan region’s choice places to live, is a future shock “buyer beware” scenario certain to be replicated over the next several decades in many other Arizona communities contending with urgent water constraints.
About 50 miles south, another scenario of 21st century Arizona is taking shape. The nearly 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community is modernizing: adding to its group of casinos, preparing to expand its irrigated farm acres, and elevating its influence in Arizona’s politics and economy. It’s doing so by virtue of one of the most secure and abundant water supplies in Arizona and the entire Southwest.
Following decades of brutal discrimination and abuse by white settlers and state authorities during which the two Gila River tribes’ rights to their historic water supply were not honored, Congress approved an agreement between the United States and the State of Arizona that essentially guarantees tribal access to 653,500 acre-feet of water per year…
…from previous statements by tribal leaders and in interviews with state water authorities, it is clear that the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, is using its abundant water to build a new age of wealth and influence on the 372,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. GRIC is constructing a federally-financed irrigation network to increase farming operations to 75,000 ancestral acres from the current 35,000. It negotiated lucrative agreements to lease water to Phoenix, Chandler, and other communities. It is also marketing water that it stores in aquifers to willing suburbs and subdivision builders interested in long-term leases.
Since 2016, GRIC has played a central role in storing over 370,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, plus 130,000 more acre-feet this year to keep lake levels high enough to prevent a water shortage declaration more dire than the one the federal government issued last August. GRIC received $274 per acre-foot from the state and federal governments. In short, ample and secure water supply is the basis of the community’s plan to rebuild the vitality of its 8,000 year-old desert civilization that was ruined in the 20th century…
Arizona’s Future Water Shock
The water-abundant and thriving Gila River Indian Community amounts to one bookend scenario of Arizona’s 21st century condition. The other bookend is the arid Rio Verde Foothills, where government decisions and meteorological disruptions trap residents in a water-related crisis that heat and drought aggravated, and state law did not anticipate.
In 1980, Arizona enacted an innovative groundwater management program intended to ensure adequate reserves of water for rapid home development and expansive population growth by designating four regions from Prescott to Tucson as Active Management Areas. (Santa Cruz, the fifth AMA, was carved out from the Tucson AMA in 1994.) The program included two important exemptions, however: its provisions did not apply to groundwater withdrawals outside of the AMAs. And within the AMA boundaries, owners of private wells that pumped less than 35 gallons per minute — in other words, many of the wells drilled for the state’s exploding residential real estate markets — did not come under state oversight.
In 1995, the law set in place a consumer protection measure to require developers building subdivisions in AMAs with six or more homes to assure buyers that their houses had a 100-year supply of water. But the requirement did not apply for residential construction projects with less than six homes. Builders constructing individual homes, or clusters of five homes or less in an AMA, avoided the 100-year water requirement. Outside the AMAs, groundwater safeguards did not apply, creating what amounted to a home construction free-for-all.
Little more than 40 years after the statute was enacted and less than 30 years after the 100-year assured water supply rules were adopted, the subdivision and private well waivers have resulted in Rio Verde’s emergency. They also influenced a boom in home construction that has caused — and continues to cause — thousands of wells to fail inside and outside of AMAs. It is clearer by the day that, without significant strengthening, the state’s water management program is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The emergence of serious instances of water shortage from Kingman in the north, to the Chino Valley north of Prescott, to Cochise County in Arizona’s southeast has prompted civic campaigns for reform. They have yet to attract sufficient legislative support.
That seems certain to change. And soon, because of climate change.
This year alone, the latest scientifically respected studies reveal a number of disconcerting findings. The megadrought that has Arizona in its tightening grip is the worst in 1200 years. Climate change is responsible for at least 40 percent of the decline in Colorado River water supplies. And the Southwest, like other desert regions, is getting steadily hotter, drier, and more dangerous. Though future weather conditions are always difficult to accurately predict, a worst-case scenario for Arizona looks like this: Population growth stops. Residents start to migrate in droves away from the stifling hot and dry state. Home values collapse. The state enters an era of relentless decline. By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent’s most uninhabitable places.
It’s not much of a reach to conclude that Arizona is at the intersection of two paths to the future. By mid-century it will be a model of desert dwelling resiliency. Or it will be a weakened civilization that is starting to waste away…
Taken as a whole, the data mean that Arizona’s share of the Colorado River will likely shrink to less than half the current 2.8 million acre-feet allotment. Arizona will rely much more heavily on its finite groundwater reserves to support population growth, residential construction, and new business starts that state officials continue to encourage. And though Arizona has stored over 13 million acre-feet of water underground to supplement supply during years of water shortage, never since statehood in 1912 has Arizona encountered such a long and deep period of water scarcity that science predicts will grow steadily more severe…
This year, the governor proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to pursue new supplies and also asked the Legislature for $1 billion more, framing the request around the n