When farmers must pay for groundwater, they cut use by a third — @CUBoulderNews

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

From the University of Colorado — Boulder (Lisa Marshall):

With record high temperatures scorching the Southwest this week, farmers were quickly reminded of the severe droughts that threatened their crops and livelihood in recent years. How will they manage increasingly scarce water when drought comes again?

A new CU Boulder-led study suggests that self-imposed well-pumping fees can play an important role, incentivizing farmers to slash use by a third, plant less thirsty crops and water more efficiently.

“When we talk about groundwater crises arising all over the world, the knee-jerk reaction among policymakers is often to ask, ‘What can government do?’ not ‘What can farmers do?’,” said Krister Andersson, director of the Center for the Governance of Natural Resources at CU and co-author of the paper in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. “This study shows that there exists a good alternative to top-down regulations—that self-organized efforts can have a huge impact on how much water farmers use.”

The study centered around a novel initiative in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where several hundred farmers voted to self-impose a fee on groundwater—which is typically free and largely unregulated—beginning in 2011. The move came after a historic drought in 2002 and subsequent dryer-than-average years left the region’s aquifer depleted and some farmers worried that the state might begin shutting down wells, as it had in other areas.

Historically, farmers have relied primarily on surface water from streams and run-off, but as population growth and climate change have strained supplies, agriculture has grown increasingly reliant on water pumped from underground.

The new fee, now at $75 per acre foot of water, is among the first in the nation. About 700 farmers who manage 170,000 acres are subject to the fee. Proceeds are used to help local irrigators buy supplemental surface water or to pay them to let their acreage go fallow, or unused, in dry years.

As part of a National Science Foundation grant aimed at assessing self-organized water conservation programs, CU Boulder researchers have spent years in the San Luis Valley Basin meeting with stakeholders and collecting data.

“With this study, we have been able to offer validation that what they are doing is working,” said co-author Kelsey Cody, a graduate research assistant in CU Boulder’s environmental studies program.

The study drew upon five years of data from farmers inside and outside the fee district before and after it was implemented. It found that farmers subjected to the fee pumped 32 percent less water per year on average. Some switched to less water intensive crops. Others upgraded to more water-efficient irrigation equipment. Notably, some did not reduce their water use at all and instead opted to pay extra.

“This is because a fee does not prescribe what one can and cannot do; it just forces the irrigator to consider the cost of the water itself,” notes lead author Steven Smith, who did the research as a doctoral student at CU Boulder and who is now an assistant professor of economics at Colorado School of Mines.

The authors stress that while the study confirms that irrigators are using less water and changing their farming practices, more research is necessary to determine how the fee has impacted them financially and whether the fee has caused the aquifer to recharge. Another study is in the works.

Despite wetter weather in the past year, the participating irrigators intend to keep the fee in place, and other nearby districts are moving to implement a similar one, said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which helps facilitate the fee.

“We are cautiously optimistic about it.”

As lawmakers in California, Texas, and other states ponder ways to regulate groundwater use, the researchers hope what’s happening in the San Luis Valley can serve as a lesson. The authors stress that a self-imposed groundwater fee may not be appropriate for all agricultural areas, but as the state looks for ways to conserve groundwater, it could be one effective tool.

“The punchline here is that irrigators are far more responsive to these price mechanisms than was previously believed,” said Smith. “Through their adoption, they may be able to induce a lot of conservation.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Rio Grande Basin @CWCB_DNR

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Alamosa News:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is a known name with an often unknown role. However, one thing is certain, it is the guiding force behind water policy in the State of Colorado and has been a key provider of financial means for many important water projects in the San Luis Valley.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board was formed more than 75 years ago. The mission it was charged with was/is “To conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water for present and future generations.” Today, the CWCB is Colorado’s most comprehensive resource for water information, expertise and technical support.

The CWCB is also about those who serve. Fifteen board members govern the CWCB. Members are appointed by the governor and serve three-year terms. Each member hails from one of the nine basins of Colorado which are the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and Yampa/White respectively. They are responsible for tasks such as protecting Colorado’s streams and rivers, water conservation, flood mitigation, watershed protection, stream restoration, drought planning, water project financing, and the creation and oversight of the Basin Roundtables. In addition, the CWCB collaborates with other western states, as well as federal agencies, to protect state water apportionments.

Other personnel include more than 40 CWCB staff members who maintain a total of six major program areas or sections. The sections are management, finance and administration, interstate and federal, stream and lake protection, water supply planning, watershed and flood protection. These are the teams that report to the board members, make recommendations and do all of the behind the scenes work. The combined efforts of the CWCB board and staff have produced beneficial and needed results with water projects and issues throughout the state.

One example of a key initiative that was recently completed by the CWCB is the Colorado Water Plan. Until 2015, Colorado was one of the only western states that did not have a water plan. With the population of Colorado expected to see enormous increases, the demand for water is also projected to see a huge spike. There were/are also many challenges facing Colorado including an increasing water supply gap, agricultural dry-up, critical environmental concerns, variable climate conditions, inefficient regulatory process and increasing funding needs. As a result, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an Executive Order in 2013 which tasked the CWCB with the creation of a water plan for the State of Colorado.

After three years, the completion of the Colorado Water Plan was celebrated in November of 2015. Goals in the plan include meeting the water supply gap, defending Colorado’s compact entitlements, improving regulations, and exploring financial incentives. Meanwhile, the objective is to honor Colorado water values and ensure the state’s most valuable resource is protected and preserved for generations to come. The implementation of the Colorado Water Plan continues by working through individual issues in each basin. This is just one of the many complex areas the CWCB tackles on a daily basis.

With the many and often difficult issues the Colorado Water Conservation Board handles, what do these efforts mean to the Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley? The answer is the Rio Grande Roundtable. The Roundtable serves two critical roles. The first is to develop a comprehensive communication platform for stakeholders, and the second is as a conduit for funding basin water projects. The Rio Grande Roundtable itself exists because of the CWCB. The concept of the Basin Roundtables was established through the “Water for the 21st Century Act” with the intent of facilitating discussion and common sense solutions for Colorado’s water needs.

Currently, the roundtables across the state bring more than 300 individuals to the table. There is an even larger amount of needs and interests represented. Each basin is also required to have a plan. These plans must identify both consumptive and non-consumptive water needs as well as available water supplies and proposed projects and methods. The projects and methods of course, require funding. This is where the CWCB Water Project Loan Program comes in. On an annual basis, the CWCB has close to $50 million available for this program. These low interest loans are available to any agricultural or municipal borrower who can establish a clear need for the design and/or construction of a raw water project. Proposed projects must then clear an application process and obtain board approval. Once each of these measures are successful, the project can begin.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has been the recipient of millions of dollars in funding for crucial water projects, thanks to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One notable example is the Rio Grande Cooperative Project. As a public/private partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, the Rio Grande Cooperative project was presented to the CWCB as a funding request for needed repairs to Rio Grande and Beaver Reservoirs. The request was successful and in 2013, Phase 1 of the repair process at Rio Grande Reservoir was complete. Beaver Reservoir completed its dam rehabilitation in 2016. This is just one way in which the CWCB has tremendously benefitted the San Luis Valley. In fact, it could possibly be argued that the Valley would be a much different place without the CWCB.

Colorado’s water and water in the Rio Grande Basin is and always will be an important matter. Many can agree that it must be used wisely. The Rio Grande Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board work to ensure that this valuable resource is managed well.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. Visit http://www.rgbrt.org. or http://cwcb.state.co.us.

RIGHT’s May ENews is hot off the presses

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Click here to read the newsletter from the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. Here’s an excerpt:

Monte Vista Middle School’s Seventh Graders at La Garita Creek Ranch for Conservation Day!
The entire seventh grade of Monte Vista Middle School participated in Conservation Day at the soon-to-be conserved La Garita Creek Ranch in Saguache County a couple of weeks ago. Students had the opportunity to learn about atlatls, water flows, archaeology, bugs and fish, the importance of conservation, and so much more! Check out our Facebook page for more photos of this fun day.

#Runoff news: Snowmelt Causing High Flows on the Rio Chama — @USBR

Map of the Rio Grande watershed, showing the Rio Chama joining the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Graphic credit WikiMedia.

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):

Flows on the Rio Chama are on the rise as the most robust spring runoff since 2005 continues in northern New Mexico.

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently releasing 3,000 cubic feet per second from El Vado Reservoir into the Rio Chama in an attempt to keep up with the snowmelt and is moving water at the request of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The safe channel capacity for this stretch of the Rio Chama is 4,500 cfs.

Reclamation is being proactive with the release to ensure there is adequate room to safely store the additional water that will be coming into the reservoir as there is still a considerable amount of snow at the higher elevations. As of this week, 25.8 inches of snow-water was being reported at Cumbres Trestle, which is the highest point on the contributing watershed. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s May forecast, there is still approximately 100,000 acre-feet of water to come into El Vado before the end of July.

The higher flows will provide great opportunities for recreation this Memorial Day weekend, but the public should use caution as water levels are higher and flows are faster than what has become the norm on the Rio Chama in recent years. Recreationists and those traveling along the Rio Chama between El Vado and Abiquiu should exercise extreme caution.

Those heading out for recreation on or near rivers and reservoirs throughout New Mexico should be aware of changing conditions and fluctuating water levels.

San Luis Valley aquifer system primer

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Snowpack/#Runoff news: Folks are upbeat for the Rio Grande boating season

Rio Grande at Del Norte gage May 14, 2017 via Colorado Division of Water Resources.

From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Sami Edge):

“We will remember 2017,” said [Steve] Harris, who from his porch on Friday could see willow trees bending in the fast-moving, brown current. “It’s been 10 years since we’ve seen this kind of water.”

The Rio Grande and other rivers in Northern New Mexico are surging. Experts say the heavy winter snowpack in New Mexico and Colorado mountains, coupled with recent cold snaps and a boost from spring precipitation, mean New Mexico will have more runoff than in past years, and it will last further into the summer season. And that is good news for irrigators, recreational users, municipal water systems and wildlife that depend on the rivers.

“We’ve had, particularly on the Rio Grande, a very good snowpack year,” said Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “The positive impacts are going to be that agriculture and water users on the Rio Grande and San Juan are going to have more water than they’ve had in recent years.”

The Rio Grande currently has twice as much water flowing through it than is typical for this time of year. On Friday, the river gauge at the village of Embudo recorded 4,020 cubic feet per second, which is more than double the 85-year average for the same date.

The Upper Rio Grande snowpack, which feeds the headwaters in Southern Colorado, was at 122 percent of its historical median Friday, according to a map published by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Snowpack in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which shed water into the river south of the state line, measured at 150 percent.

The Rio Chama snowpack, which supplies important reservoirs and the river for which it is named, had a snowpack Friday that was 266 percent of the historical median.

Mary Carlson, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, says the snowmelt is strong enough that, for the first time in a few years, Heron Reservoir will be able to fully allocate the water promised to contractors, and El Vado Reservoir is again allowed to store water, which isn’t allowed when reservoirs downstream are at a critical level. Water forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service estimate that El Vado inflow from March through July will be 171 percent of normal.

“We have been in extreme drought for many years here in New Mexico. All of our reservoirs are now really low. This above average snowpack is a really big deal at this point,” Carlson said. “It’s looking like it’s overall going to be a really good year for water.”

At the Santa Cruz Reservoir, water is cascading down the dam’s overflow spillways, said Kenny Salazar, water manager for the Santa Cruz Irrigation District He expects to see chile crops and kitchen gardens flourish along the eight miles of irrigation ditches in the district. He just hopes warm nighttime temperatures don’t make the Santa Cruz River jump its banks.

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, has a similarly optimistic outlook for New Mexico wildlife. More water and more plants means more turkey, elk, bighorns and songbirds, and next year, maybe even bears with two cubs…

Santa Fe stands to benefit, too. Snows in the canyon east of the city feed the McClure and Nichols reservoirs, a significant source of water supply for the community water, which, like Albuquerque, also diverts water from the Rio Grande. On Friday, flows in the Santa Fe River before it reaches McClure were at 22 cubic feet per second, which is above the 17-year average of 17 cfs.

From KOAA.com:

As of 5:30 a.m. Friday, the river stage was at 11.6 feet. If the water rises to 12 feet, water will start approaching Highway 194. At 13 feet, nearby structures will be threatened. According to the National Weather Service, the water could reach 12.2 feet as early as Friday.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Ryan Severance):

The Beulah area received anywhere from 2 to 6 inches of precipitation from Wednesday afternoon through late Thursday morning, according to the National Weather Service’s Pueblo office…

Pueblo Mountain Park in Beulah received 4.48 inches of precipitation from Wednesday to Thursday, the NWS said, and has received 5.82 inches in the past three days. Since March 23 there has been 16.04 inches of precipitation at the park.

The rain began pelting the town late Wednesday afternoon before turning into hail for a while. The hail then became rain again and fell consistently through the night and into early Thursday morning before tapering off by late morning.

Statewide snowpack Basin High/Low graph May 14, 2017 via the NRCS.

Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

From The Alamosa News (Ruth Heide):

Although there are currently no cloud seeding operations in the San Luis Valley, some folks believe this might be a good place for it.

Joe Busto, who oversees weather modification permits for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, gave the Rio Grande Roundtable group a crash course on cloud seeding during its Tuesday meeting. The Valley-wide water group funds many water related projects in the Rio Grande Basin from ditch repair to reservoir rehab. The group was not asked for funding at this time.

Busto said that another form of weather modification, hail cannons, previously operated in the San Luis Valley under a permit with Southern Colorado Farms, but the agricultural operation discontinued the practice.

Cloud seeding occurs all around the region from Texas to North Dakota, Busto stated.

Many of the cloud seeding operations in Colorado are associated with ski areas such as Vail, Crested Butte and Breckenridge, Busto explained. Others are connected to water districts. There are currently 110 machines in the state. He described the primary catalysts as either silver iodide, which is expensive but effective (and not harmful to the environment), or propane, which is cheaper.

Before setting up a machine, plume dispersion tests are conducted to determine how the winds are blowing and from what direction so the cloud seeding operation can be set up to provide the most good.

Operations are also the most effective when machines are set up at higher elevations, Busto explained.

Roundtable member Travis Smith asked, “Is the Rio Grande ready to start participating in a winter time cloud seeding program?”

Roundtable member Charlie Spielman said he saw this as a solution to the imbalance between water supply and demand.

“Cloud seeding is the best opportunity within our reach of making a real dent in that supply/demand gap,” he said.

He encouraged “getting a program going here … Let’s put something into this because I think this is our best chance.”

Busto said he believed a lean cloud seeding operation could be put in place for about $60,000 a year. He said he believed there could be many benefits to this area as well as downstream.