The first major snowstorm of the 2021-22 winter season came late this year, but when it finally rolled into Northern New Mexico on New Year’s Eve, dropping several inches to a couple of feet, depending on elevation, it dramatically changed the picture of what snowpack levels could look like this year.
According to data recorded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, precipitation levels in Taos County more than doubled from mid-December through Tuesday (Jan. 18), rising from approximately 5.1 inches on Dec. 19 to 11.6 inches as of Jan. 18.
Data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that the Sangre de Cristos currently have between 65-82 percent of expected snowpack for a typical winter season. That varies depending on location, of course, with the lower spine of the mountain range near Santa Fe seeing about 69 percent, the area near Cimarron at 65 percent and Taos with the highest at 82 percent.
On Jan. 18, Taos Ski Valley reported 38 inches of snow at its base and 54 inches of “packed powder.” Nearly all of its lifts are open, except for two and 76 of its 110 runs are open.
Despite the sudden shift from unusually dry to snowy, historical studies of snowpack levels don’t bode well for the future of snow in the Western United States or for the ski resorts that rely on it to keep their businesses thriving.
A November 2021 study, “A low-to-no snow future and its impacts on water resources in the western United States,” estimated that snow water equivalents are expected to decline by 25 percent by 2050, largely due to persistent greenhouse gas emissions. The study drew its conclusions from what is already known: since the 1950s, snowpack in the Western U.S. has fallen by 20 percent.
The implications of this decline, and the continued reduction in snowpack for the future, predict more serious consequences than resorts suffering or recreationalists missing out on their favorite winter activities.
“Diminished and more ephemeral snowpacks that melt earlier will alter groundwater and streamflow dynamics,” the study reads. “The direction of these changes are difficult to constrain given competing factors such as higher evapotranspiration, altered vegetation composition and changes in wildfire behavior in a warmer world.”
New Mexico has been under varying levels of drought for roughly 20 years, which was part of the motivation behind a cloud seeding operation that was introduced last year by the Roosevelt Soil and Water Conservation District in Southeast New Mexico. Despite evidence that shows cloud seeding can enhance precipitation levels significantly, the application, submitted by Western Weather Consultants of Durango, Colorado, was retracted in November following strong public pushback from opponents who believe cloud seeding can be harmful to the environment and public health.
Douglas County Commissioners hold work session as they decide on $20 million investment
DOUGLAS County Commissioners were told [January 18, 2022] that there is ample water in the San Luis Valley that can be exported to the Front Range and were shown a preliminary wellfield design for the northern end of the Valley.
Bruce Lytle, engineer for Renewable Water Resources’s proposal to move 20,000-acre feet of water a year to Douglas County, walked the three Douglas County commissioners through the Valley’s complex two-aquifer system and left them with the idea that there is water available for exportation.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s any controversy about the water being there. The water is there,” said Commissioner George Teal.
“I would agree with that,” said Lytle.
While Teal demonstrated interest in Douglas County partnering with Renewable Water Resources, Commissioner Lora Thomas voiced opposition to exporting water from the San Luis Valley. (You can read her letter to The Citizen explaining her position HERE.) That would leave Commissioner Abe Laydon as the deciding vote on whether Douglas County spends $20 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act money, or COVID relief funds, to push the project forward into state water court.
Laydon said he’s planning to visit the San Luis Valley, including possibly having a community forum in mid-March at Adams State, to hear from Valley residents. RWR is dangling a $50 million community fund as part of its plan, and said it would also make a “$68 million investment to pay local San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above the market rate,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty.
Colorado State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan offered the Douglas County Commissioners a starkly different picture of the Valley’s water situation.
“There’s no extra water,” Sullivan said, explaining that the groundwater supply is over-appropriated and actual Upper Rio Grande Basin streamflows in decline.
State Engineer Kevin Rein told AlamosaCitizen.com in an earlier story that RWR has misrepresented Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer that RWR said would drastically affect Douglas County’s reliance on the Denver Basin.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” said Rein.
While Douglas County Commissioners were going through the RWR proposal in Castle Rock, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors was also in session. Board members heard little encouraging news about the Valley’s aquifers heading into the 2022 irrigation season:
The unconfined aquifer is at its lowest point since January 2013, with concerns that it hasn’t recharged as it typically does when there is little irrigation happening in the Valley.
Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park experienced its fourth hottest year on record and the SNOTEL station that measures the runoff expected from Medano Creek is at 50 percent of normal for the season.
RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes on the northeastern end of the Valley. Lytle, the engineer for RWR, said they expect to have 22 to 25 groundwater wells pumping, with the well depth at 2,000 feet and wells spaced a mile apart.
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. “The orientation of the project is designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off Sangre de Cristos,” said Lytle.
Convinced that there is water available for Douglas County, commissioners Teal and Lytle played out the scenario.
“And so it would be the water court process that determines ‘Is that water available for us?’” said Teal.
“You have to follow the rules. To me, if we follow the rules, then you can get a decree augmentation plan,” said Lytle. “Now, there’s always issues. I’ve been in water court enough to know that nothing is a slam dunk in water court.
“But obviously your best chance of success is if there’s a set of rules, and you follow those rules, then it makes it more difficult for issues to be raised relative to injury.”
RENEWABLE Water Resources has made an “inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts” in its pitch to Douglas County to partner in exporting water from the San Luis Valley, State Engineer Kevin Rein said.
Rein, in an email response to a series of questions from AlamosaCitizen.com, said RWR misrepresents Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and how a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer would drastically affect Douglas County’s relationship with the aquifer.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” Rein said.
Rein said his office has not taken a position on the RWR proposal because the project, led by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, has not been formally submitted for regulatory review to the State Engineer’s Office. RWR is courting Douglas County as an investor in its efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s Front Range. To move the project to formal review both by Rein’s office and state Division 3 Water Court, RWR needs to identify an end user for its effort to export water from the Valley.
The project has created an uproar, with city officials from Monte Vista the latest to blast it as a “scheme to transport our valuable water resources out of the San Luis Valley.”
“The idea that there is an abundance of water for Douglas County suburbia to continue to sprawl at the San Luis Valley’s expense is shameless,” Monte Vista officials said in a letter to AlamosaCitizen.com. The full letter is here.
In its pitch, Renewable Water Resources said Douglas County is overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its main water supply, and remaining dependent on it threatens the Denver suburb’s property values, economic growth and quality of life.
“Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer,” RWR states in its pitch to Douglas County for money. “Colorado’s State Water Engineer recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer. This new guidance will limit the use of the Denver Aquifer and essentially maintain the Aquifer as a ‘preserve.’”
Rein, when asked about the accuracy of RWR’s statements, said, “First, as a matter of hydrogeology, there is one hydrogeologic feature known by scientists and water users as the ‘Denver Basin.’ It stretches from approximately Greeley to Colorado Springs and from the foothills to Limon. Within the Denver Basin is a layering of discrete aquifers that for administration purposes are treated as separate sources. Those aquifers, from the top layer to the bottom layer are: the Dawson Aquifer, the Upper Dawson Aquifer, the Lower Dawson Aquifer, the Denver Aquifer, the Arapahoe Aquifer, the Upper Arapahoe Aquifer, the Lower Arapahoe Aquifer, and the Laramie-Fox Hills Aquifer.
“This information is relevant because the (RWR) report states that ‘Douglas County is currently overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its principal water supply…’ However, I know that Douglas County municipal water suppliers and private well owners rely on nearly all of the aquifers I’ve listed, from the Dawson to the Laramie-Fox Hills. Their reliance is not on only the Denver Aquifer.
“Second, the (RWR) Report states, ‘Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’
“The Report does not cite the claimed ‘rule change.’ For your information, the Division of Water Resources recently proposed amended Statewide Nontributary Ground Water Rules, which rules we regard as consistent with the General Assembly’s statutorily-described allocation of nontributary ground water (see SB73-213; section 37-90-137(4), C.R.S.). To my knowledge, neither RWR nor those Douglas County entities have shown evidence that the State Engineer has ever shown a different application of the General Assembly’s intended allocation. Therefore, I find no support for RWR’s claim that ‘a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’ As the State Engineer I believe that RWR should account for this claim since it appears to have no basis.
“In summary, there has been no rule change. If RWR believes the State Engineer’s long-standing application of state statute ‘drastically impacts’ Douglas County, they should also be aware that the State Engineer has not changed its application of the statute in the last 48 years. I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary.”
Renewable Water Resources said it relied on information from a January 2021 environmental law and policy alert on a call for public comment around the proposed amended statewide nontributary groundwater rules.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer. And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty. “This is a known fact in the Front Range and likely to be discussed more in the Douglas County public hearings.”
Rein had a third rebuttal to RWR when the group said in the proposal to Douglas County that Rein had recently urged Denver Metro water providers “to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer,” and called it “new guidance” from the State Engineer.
“I see no basis for this claim,” Rein told Alamosa Citizen. “Since 1996, the State Engineer’s Office has included notes on our correspondence to Douglas County regarding subdivision water supplies that remind the county of the non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin as a water supply. We include the same information on Denver Basin well permits that we issue. We provide this information as a courtesy since we are an agency that knows the science and administrative aspects of the Denver Basin.
“The next statement in the report states that ‘(f)or Douglas County, this ruling is an imminent and practical challenge and catalyst for necessary change.’ The basis of this statement is confusing since there has been no ‘ruling.’ The non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin is the result of hydrogeologic events that occurred millions of years ago. Allocation directives that were put in statute in 1973 reflect that nature of the Denver Basin. Nothing that the State Engineer has done has made the challenge any more ‘imminent.’
“Each of these items may seem small,” Rein said, “but the cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts.
“I have only commented on the aspects of the letter that portray the State Engineer and our actions in a way that I believe is inaccurate. I will not comment on RWR’s opinions or judgments of Douglas County’s ongoing efforts.”
RWR also misrepresents a Dec. 2018 letter from Rein to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Rein said. At that time, Rein had sent correspondence to General Manager Cleave Simpson on the amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, and the legal authority he has to curtail groundwater diversions from Subdistrict 1 wells if the conservation district isn’t making progress toward restoring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level as ordered by the state water court.
RWR said in its proposal to Douglas County that Rein would shut down wells in the subdistrict for a minimum of three years, boosting its project since its efforts do not rely on the unconfined aquifer.
“Regarding RWR’s reference to my December 2018 letter, if the State Engineer is put in a position of curtailing wells, it would not be ‘…so the objective of the Subdistrict 1 groundwater management plan can be achieved…’ as I read in the proposal. Rather, it would be the result of a regulatory decision that would be necessary due to the fact that the Subdistrict’s Annual Replacement Plan does not meet the objectives of the Rules and the Groundwater Management Plan. This is stated in the December 2018 letter. My letter did not address the amount of time the wells would be curtailed and I don’t know the basis of RWR’s claim that the wells would be curtailed for a minimum of three years.
“As I noted earlier, for RWR’s concept to operate, among other things, they would need to demonstrate through a detailed court approved plan that they would have no impact on the basin as a whole. That is yet to be seen.”
FromThe High Country News [January 1, 2022] (Christine Trudeau and Kalen Goodluck):
On a late November morning, Julia Bernal walked a stretch of riverbank along the Rio Grande in Sandoval County, New Mexico, between Santa Ana and Sandia Pueblo. Bernal pointed out the area between the cottonwood trees and the edge of the Rio Grande, a 30-foot stretch of dry earth covered in an ocean of tiny pebbles intermixed with periodic sandbars, tamarisk and willow shrubs.
“It never used to look like this,” Bernal said. “The reason the cottonwoods look the way that they do is because of the Cochiti Dam — that hyper-channelization of the river did cause this riparian forest to just kind of (disappear) along with it.”
Bernal grew up in the 1990s watching the river shrink every year, even as Sandia Pueblo, where she is enrolled, and other Rio Grande pueblos were left out of the state’s surface-water management process. Knowing that her community’s water, central to its culture, was in danger, Bernal resolved to work in the water sector after she graduated college in 2016, perhaps in the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But everything changed later that year.
Bernal, along with the rest of the world, watched as tribal communities came together at Standing Rock to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. The event galvanized her, forcing her to confront the fact that it was impossible to work on behalf of the Rio and the pueblos without centering the Indigenous environmental justice perspective. The time had come — for Standing Rock, for the pueblos, for all Indigenous communities — to enforce their sovereign right to lead on water policy.
“It was a fight to protect water, but also protect culture, respect treaties,” Bernal said. “It taught me a lot about how any sort of planning initiative is going to include some sort of justice component if you’re dealing with Indigenous peoples.”
Later that year, Bernal helped found the Pueblo Action Alliance, which she directs. The organization, which prioritizes youth involvement, aims to advocate for the pueblos’ water rights and explain their complex history. Bernal is determined, she said, to “ensure that not just tribal nations but communities also have participation in decision-making processes.”
Bernal is not alone — far from it. She is part of an intergenerational group of Pueblo women working, advocating and organizing on behalf of the 19 pueblo nations and their right to be policy leaders when it comes to the future of the Rio Grande. Bernal and her contemporaries fight on several fronts at once: Convincing state and local governments to recognize their legal water rights; getting those rights quantified by the courts; and navigating the reality that pueblo nations have to depend on federal officials to actually enforce the existing water-quality regulations. The state has put the pueblos in a tenuous position regarding water rights, particularly given the two-decade-long drought, and these community leaders are done waiting for the state and federal governments to act.
Indigenous water rights are intensely, often frustratingly, shaped by centuries-old colonial law. The disbursement of water within the United States is determined by a process that prioritizes what are known as senior water rights. According to Indian law and civil litigation attorney Richard Hughes, most federally recognized tribes generally have the most senior water rights across the country, secured by a 1908 Supreme Court Decision known as Winters v. United States. The legal precedent for pueblo water rights, however, can also stem from the Mechem Doctrine, from New Mexico v. Aamodt, which holds that the pueblos’ aboriginal water rights were solidified by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the U.S. and Mexico in 1848. Despite their senior status, tribes often wait decades — some for over a century — to have their rights quantified through litigation or settlement with New Mexico and subsequent congressional approval. Whether through Winters or the Mechem Doctrine, this process is particularly cumbersome for the pueblo nations, Hughes says, which are often required to have a documented “precedent for what the tribe would be entitled to were the case to be fully litigated.”
Thanks to New Mexico’s attitude, the opportunity for such litigation abounds. In 2020, the pueblos of Santa Ana, Jemez and Zia withstood an attempt by the state to diminish their aboriginal water rights along the Jemez River. The case was the latest entry in a decades-long campaign of antagonism by New Mexico — the very environment that taught Judge Verna Teller how to leverage her people’s sovereignty.
Teller, chief justice of Isleta Pueblo, grew up just south of Bernal. And like Bernal, Teller witnessed disconcerting changes in the river. Like other Isleta community members, she was unnerved by the discolored foam in the Rio. After traditional elders had to stop using water in ceremonies in the mid-1980s, they asked Teller to find out what was wrong.
“I just felt obligated to help, because I knew it wasn’t just for them,” said Teller. “It was for the whole community, and for everybody in the future — our children, our babies that weren’t born yet.”
Before long, elders realized Teller needed to be in a position of authority to hold local and state agencies accountable. Teller was only 35 when traditional elders asked her to run for governor of Isleta Pueblo, and she faced an uphill battle, given the existing council’s gender-based discrimination. But once in office, she was able to work with various agencies, legal experts and hydrologists to establish a water-quality standard for Isleta. It took a decade of legal tussling with the city of Albuquerque, but under Teller’s guidance, in 1998, Isleta became the first tribal nation to establish water-quality standards under the Clean Water Act.
“It was all spirit,” she said. “I still really get emotional when I think about it, because it was so important to us. As mortals, as humans, we don’t realize sometimes how powerful spirit is. They come to your aid when you need it.”
Over the years, however, alleged violations by the city have rarely been punished by federal agencies. And as Teller pushes for Isleta’s government to use its regulations to hold New Mexico accountable, others, like Phoebe Suina, also work to ensure that the pueblos keep fighting for their rights to the river and for the Rio’s water quality.
Suina, who hails from the Pueblos of San Felipe and Cochiti, is a hydrologist by training and the owner of High Water Mark, an Indigenous-women-led environmental consulting company that focuses on water-resources engineering. “We really need to address the water quality along with the water quantity in this very rigid, restricted framework,” Suina said. Like Teller and Bernal, Suina is still grappling with the overarching question that has defined every facet of this struggle: Is adjudication — going to court to obtain a more permanent answer on water rights and quantification — the best way to strengthen Indigenous water rights? And if not, what long-term strategy should the Pueblo nations pursue to achieve justice, given the flexibility that climate change is going to demand?
Christine Trudeau, Prairie Band Potawatomi, is a contributing editor for the Indigenous Affairs desk at High Country News, and the Indigenous Investigative Collective’s COVID-19 project managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @trudeaukwe or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RWR’s proposal to Douglas County is, for an initial payment of $20 million, to build a pipeline that would bring 22,000 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley aquifer to the Front Range. If Douglas County agrees, the $20 million would come from ARPS stimulus money.
Struggling with water scarcity, changing climate, and aquifer depletion, San Luis Valley residents object to the proposal. A formidable group has organized around the belief that there is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.
Protect Our Water–San Luis Valley lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. On its website local governments in opposition to RWR’s proposal include the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Towns of Crestone and Saguache.
Despite their marketing assertions, RWR’s plan to export water from the San Luis Valley was not devised by locals nor will it benefit the entire valley.
RWR needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its proposal forward. The plan relies on drawing water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin and exporting it to the Front Range. Without an identified end user for the exportation and sale of the water, RWR can’t file its plan in Colorado Water Court.
While the project has been in the works for some time, many questions remain unanswered.
RWR does not own municipal water rights, and RWR would need to buy wells and well rights before filing in court to convert irrigation water rights to municipal water rights.
Until recently, RWR executives asserted specifics about project locations, timetables, or costs were uncertain because they are focused on winning valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, the proposal before Douglas County Commissioners reveals that RWR would build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass to two access points along the South Platte River Basin, one at Antero Reservoir and another Elevenmile Reservoir, both in Park County.
In addition, a $50 million “community fund” would be developed under the RWR proposal to assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training. A separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
Those dollars will come from long-time private investors, according to Sean Duffy, a spokesman for RWR.
An agreement using stimulus money would give Douglas County access to needed water at less than half the typical rate of $40,000 to $50,000 per acre-foot, said RWR spokesman Sean Duffy…
Duffy also pointed out that both the water and economic status quo in the valley are not currently sustainable. Critics say the RWR project will only make the situation worse, while supporters argue it offers a more sustainable solution to the state’s water woes.
The San Luis Valley is described as one of the most arid regions in Colorado, receiving less than 9 inches of precipitation annually. In recent years snowfall on the Sangre de Cristos has been perceptibly less, resulting in reduced stream flows and reduced recharge of the two aquifers below the valley floor.
The shallow unconfined aquifer has been tapped with wells for crop irrigation for several generations and is over-appropriated. Below lies the confined aquifer which Renewable Water Resources believes holds a billion-acre foot of water.
That one-billion-acre foot estimate is highly disputed by local water managers, farmers and ranchers.
Since 2012 many farms and ranches in the valley have already made self-imposed cuts in irrigation to try and prevent further depletion of the shallow aquifer. A number of subdistricts have been formed as local farmers’ only way of buying more time to solve depletions to the aquifer in their own way. Each subdistrict has until 2031 to replenish water to a predetermined level. Failure to meet those targets could result in the State Engineer’s office shutting down wells until the aquifer reaches that target through unimpeded recharge with no groundwater pumping.
RWR’s proposal is offering very similar benefits to those proposed by Stockman’s Water in 1998, a project that ultimately failed.
Stockman’s Water proposed to export at least 100,000 acrefeet annually, mitigating any water losses by offering, in exchange, 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of senior water rights.
Gary Boyce, the manager/ owner of Stockman’s Water, also promised a $3 million trust fund to be administered by Saguache County, and environmental benefits—more riparian and wetland habitat. Renewable Water Resources offers the potential opportunity to add over 3,000 acres to the Baca Wildlife Refuge located off of County Road T.
Cleave Simpson has met with the Douglas County Commissioners. Using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the RWR proposal is a twist he didn’t see coming.
“I think it’s unconscionable to use those federal dollars to diminish one community in support of another community,” he said. In addition to representing the San Luis Valley in the Colorado Senate, Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is leading the opposition to the RWR plan.
Simpson reminds us that there is a long history of legal fights over water export claims in the San Luis Valley. The Rio Grande Water Conservancy District already had money set aside to challenge the RWR proposal after the court awarded valley residents legal fees from a previous failed export case involving a developer in the 1970s, called American Water Development Incorporated.
‘How are we helping the landscape, how are we helping the community and what’s our long-term vision?’
The mid-December day was balmy, normal for these times. James Fischer, forestry manager for the 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, was explaining and pointing out aspects of the Trinchera’s adaptive management forest plan as he gained elevation in the SUV, barely a trace of snow even in the higher reaches.
“We’re trying to adapt and go ‘OK, what is it going to look like in the future?’ That’s hard,” he said, explaining how one of the largest conservation easements and pieces of property in Colorado is learning to adapt to the changing climate conditions.
“I mean, we’re basing it on models so you’re going ‘OK, it’s going to warm up. It’s going to dry out.’ How do we manage for that? I don’t know. As a profession, we’re trying different things right now, hoping they’re going to work. I mean, this is a long-term process. We’re only here for just a short period of time.”
Spruces and mixed conifers 120 to 150 years old are thinned from the forest and hauled to the Blanca Forestry Products sawmill maybe 15 miles away – down the mountain to the Valley floor and on the outskirts of the town of Blanca.
Of Trinchera’s total acreage, 90,000 are timbered, said Fischer. “Then out of that, there’s 30,000 of spruce, 30,000 of mixed conifer and about 30,000, roughly, of aspen in there.” He can recite those numbers because the saw mill’s business model pushed him to update the Trinchera’s forest management plan and conduct a new inventory to give him precise numbers of what exists.
The saw mill itself was a stroke of genius. Like the Trinchera Ranch, it is owned by conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon. Operated by Blanca Forestry Products, it came online in 2017 and produces 8.5 million to 9 million board feet of timber a year out of the Trinchera.
“I think that evolution to get to the sawmill was really important because it helped not only the ranch understand, but it was an opportunity to work with the community and understand what fits those needs,” said Judy Lopez, conservation and sustainability manager for the Trinchera Ranch. “When we think about the sawmill, it’s just not a place for timber but it also created this pool of jobs for all local folks.”
“The same thing up here. As James continues to expand the logging operation, we’re seeing more and more folks in the area getting higher quality jobs and being able to do work here at home that’s meaningful. I think that is one of the key pieces of everything that goes on here and looking at it through that big, broad lens: how are we helping the landscape, how are we helping the community and what’s our long-term vision? Those are two really key pieces of that vision.”
Since July, crews have focused on an 8-mile stretch of the Trinchera Ranch. Operations are a mosaic across the different landscapes to help reduce fuels. Using some of the cleanest and most technologically-advanced equipment, logs are cut to the precise size for the saw mill.
“The big change is how we get this material out, the equipment that’s being used,” said Fischer. “There’s only two pieces of equipment doing all of this. One cuts and manufactures the logs out in the woods, the other piece goes behind, picks it up, brings it up here, puts it by the road or decks it.”
Decks of logs, guessing 25 feet high or higher, line the mountain roads over those eight miles. The cut timber is evidence of how the forest is actively managed. During the day, four semi-trucks will go back and forth to the saw mill, each hauling eight loads a day, 12 at best.
It’s not only the proactive and adaptive nature of the forest management plan, but the importance of it. Protecting the Trinchera Watershed which feeds into the Rio Grande Basin is critical to the Valley’s ecosystem.
“Everything is tied holistically because we all realize in the West, water is our limited resource,” said Aaron Swallow, environmental manager for the Trinchera and Tercio Ranches. “What James is trying to do here is protect this watershed, again, from that high-severity fire that’ll just essentially nuke it out. Then we don’t have water, and we don’t have fisheries for a couple of years. That’s very scary.”
The dryness of the Valley and the scenario of a forest fire hit close to home for the Trinchera most recently in 2018, during the Spring Creek fire. Since then, the severe drought over the past two years causes a variety of concerns for Fischer as he surveys the forest around him.
“The problem is, come summer, if we don’t get moisture, then these trees . . . they’re stressed going into the winter, then spring comes and we get little moisture, they’re just going to get more stressed so then they’re more susceptible for those beetles to bore in and kill those trees,” said Fischer.
“What happens when these beetles fly, they’ll start boring into the closest tree they can get to and, if one of them is, say, stressed and can’t produce enough sap to pitch that beetle out, it gets in and then they send a pheromone out or release a pheromone for all of their buddies to go “Hey, I got in, come join the party,” and they go attack that tree.”
An overstocked forest means the trees are competing for limited nutrients, water and sunlight. “Throw drought in there, and that’s kind of the final nail in the coffin,” Fischer said.
The Trinchera Ranch is part of a Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which is a certification program that examines the ranch’s harvesting practices. As the only certified forest in Colorado, Fischer’s forest management plan is scrutinized through on-site visits and data he provides on the inventory of the forest to road layouts.
“Our planning, our whole implementation, everything from start to finish, is gone over with a fine-tooth comb,” said Fischer. “They look at our forest management planner, our inventory, that all needs a check. Then, how are we doing with road layout? They look at that and ‘OK, you’re meeting it. Are you exceeding it? OK, you’re doing that.’”
The benefits are to the land itself and the protection of the natural environment of the San Luis Valley.
“I think it’s critical for the Sangre de Cristos and the wildlife corridors that are moving around here,” said Lopez. “Especially as we see dryings happening, we’re going to need places for animals to move, we need places for species to move. We need to have a place where there’s a protected area where all of these things can begin to happen. I think, in that way, what we’re doing is super important.”
From The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable via The Alamosa Citizen:
THE Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (RGBRT) began its water advocacy efforts in 2005 as a result of the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. This act created nine Roundtables across the state to represent the eight major river basins and the Denver metro area.
Like all the state’s roundtables, the RGBRT is run by local stakeholders and is focused on local community values and water issues. Funding for roundtable project implementation comes from through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. With these state funds, each Roundtable can financially support local projects that further the goals laid out in the Colorado Water Plan and the respective Basin Implementation Plan.
Since its inception in 2005, the RGBRT has helped fund more than 50 projects, including Irrigation Infrastructure, Reservoir Improvements, River and Watershed Restoration, Conservation Easements, Water Education, Water Management and Water Research Projects. These projects addressed a variety of uses in every corner of the San Luis Valley.
This didn’t stop in 2021. Despite the pandemic, work continued – allowing five amazing projects to be completed. These projects demonstrate the power that can be garnered when groups come together and create projects that benefit many users, including irrigation, water administration, recreation, the environment, municipal needs and education. The projects and their purposes are listed below.
Del Norte Riverfront Project
The Del Norte Riverfront Project was a community-led effort to improve public access, create recreation infrastructure, and enhance aquatic and riparian habitat along the Rio Grande in Del Norte. The overall purpose of the project was to create connectivity between the communities and visitors of the SLV and the river that sustains it. The new Riverfront Park includes a whitewater playwave, boat ramp, fish habitat structures, pedestrian river access, parking area, an ADA accessible picnic shelter, and interpretive signage. The project has provided a significant positive benefit to the community of Del Norte and the San Luis Valley by creating a welcoming, safe space for community members, boaters, and anglers, while also improving river health. The Del Norte Riverfront Project was made possible through collaboration between the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP), Town of Del Norte, Del Norte Trails Organization, Riverbend Engineering, Trout Unlimited, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), local businesses, and countless community members.
Rio Grande Cooperative Project
The Rio Grande Cooperative Project improved infrastructure and optimized management on the Rio Grande. Both Rio Grande and Beaver Creek Reservoirs were repaired to address seepage issues and improve outlet works. With upgraded infrastructure for the storage and release of water, stakeholders on these reservoirs came together to develop a management strategy that maximizes the benefits of timed reservoir releases, resulting in optimized flows that benefit aquatic habitat, irrigation supplies, augmentation demands, and Rio Grande Compact compliance. The project was a partnership between the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, CPW, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Conejos Meadows Resilient Habitat Project
The Conejos Meadows Resilient Habitat project, which was identified in the Conejos River Stream Management Plan (SMP), enhanced habitat on 9,200 linear feet of the Conejos River below Platoro Reservoir, greatly improving connectivity and habitat complexity. During low flow time periods such as winter months and during droughts, the improved instream habitat provides a low flow channel to maximize available habitat and water delivery conveyance. Additionally, the project added rocks and large wood to existing deep pool habitat features in the area, providing increased winter and refuge habitat for the high value recreational fishery. The project is a partnership between Trout Unlimited, the Conejos Water Conservancy District (CWCD), CPW, the Rio Grande National Forest, and Riverbend Engineering. The project complements the Winter Flow Program led by Trout Unlimited and the CWCD, which is an effort to increase stream flows on this section of the Conejos River during the non-irrigation season.
Conejos River Partnership Project
The Conejos River Partnership Project (CRPP) was born out of the Conejos River Stream Management Plan (SMP) and has brought together the CWCD, RGHRP, CPW, Division of Water Resources, Bureau of Land Management, private landowners, and water users to address irrigation infrastructure and riparian and aquatic habitat degradation on the Conejos River. This multi-phased project helps meet aquatic habitat needs on the Conejos River through the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure, enhancement of aquatic habitat, and restoration of riparian and wetland habitats. The CRPP includes six sites along the Conejos River between Mogote and the confluence with the Rio Grande. In 2021, construction was completed at the Sabine Ditch to replace the diversion structure and headgate, revegetate and stabilize upstream streambanks, and reconnect the river with its floodplain. Construction will continue in 2022 at additional project sites.
Alamosa River Water Delivery Improvement Project
The Alamosa River Water Delivery Improvement Project was a collaborative effort between the Terrace Irrigation Company and the Alamosa-La Jara Water Conservancy District. Many diversions along the Alamosa River are manually diverted with headgates that are out-of-date and deteriorated. This project resulted in the replacement of the headgate on the Main Canal, installation of automatic controllers on the Main and Creek Canal, and installation of satellite recording devices on 5 of the larger upstream diversion structures. As a result of this project, the Alamosa River will be administered more accurately for the benefit of all stakeholders involved, including the Alamosa River Keepers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Division of Water Resources, the Town of Jasper, Expo Inc., and other water users along the river.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable continues to work on collaborative and innovative solutions that will keep the Rio Grande Basin water here and working for our communities. We want to thank the Colorado Water Conservation Board and their incredibly dedicated staff, along with other project funders that include Foundations, Agencies, Organizations and contractors who all work passionately to help us create a sustainable water future. We wish you all a Happy New Year and invite you to join us at our monthly RGBRT meetings.
When the 40th annual Southern Rocky Mountain Ag Conference kicks off in 29 days, attendees will christen the new Ski-Hi Regional Complex east wing complete with its spacious conference rooms – and avoid having to shuttle around to other venues in Monte Vista to catch the full flavor of the three-day event.
It’s a dream come true for event organizers Kyler Browner and Marisa Fricke, who now can envision a growing regional conference with daily guest speakers, concurrent breakout sessions, a trade show, and cattle ranchers and crop producers together in one space networking, sharing best practices, and swapping stories.
“Having everyone in one campus, one spot, just makes the logistics so much better,” said Browner.
What attendees won’t see is the rush to finish. On Monday, Alcon Construction crews were busy building handrails, installing countertops, and pushing forward to complete the work before the conference’s opening day on Feb. 1 rolls around.
With the COVID pandemic at play, it’s been that way throughout for Alcon on this project, first racing to get the main entrance on the west end completed in time for last July’s 99th Annual Ski-Hi Stampede and now racing to finish the east end of the 54,473-square-foot building to welcome farmers and ranchers back to the all-important ag conference.
Alcon has done yeoman’s work, understanding the importance of the Ski-Hi Regional Complex as a Valley-wide events center and the critical task of completing it in time, first for the Ski-Hi Stampede, and now the second half of the building for the regional ag conference.
The regional ag conference, established initially by CSU-Extension in the San Luis Valley to help share its research and embed itself among the Valley ag and farming communities, is the first big business and social event of the year in the Valley. The Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce brings the trade show together, with the goal this year of 30 additional vendor booths from years past.
Browner has a schedule in mind on the sessions he’d like to catch: A panel with some of the top producers of meat goat; a grazing seminar with Jim Gerrish, author of “Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming;” a discussion with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union on federal and state legislation affecting farmers and ranchers; and then on Feb. 3, the final day of the conference, a heavy discussion on a topic that is on the minds of everyone – water and the road forward.
“Whenever I talk to producers, I feel a lot of uncertainty,” said Browner on the mood of today’s Valley farmer. The rising cost of fertilizer and fuel, concerns about water and drought conditions, the difficulty in finding labor, all weigh heavily on the Valley’s ranchers and producers.
“We just think we need to solve our own problems ourselves, but this kind of conference gets you out of your little bubble and helps you reconnect with people and with a set of resources we have in the Valley.”
Alcon Construction will do its part and have the hall ready in time. When they step inside, attendees and participants to the 40th annual Southern Rocky Mountain Ag Conference will have a home that can serve their needs and bring them together like never before.
WHEN fire broke out in Boulder County late Thursday morning and quickly grew into a devastating climate event that triggered the evacuation of the communities of Superior, Louisville, and parts of Broomfield, the inter-connectivity of Xcel Energy’s mountain natural gas system became evident 225 miles away in the San Luis Valley.
With fire flashing through the area Thursday morning – initial local media reports monitoring emergency scanners began reporting fire around 10:24 a.m. – Xcel Energy soon realized its natural gas infrastructure that supports the neighboring mountain communities of Summit and Grand counties was being impacted, said spokesperson Michelle Aguayo.
That threat pushed Xcel to shut down the impacted natural gas infrastructure around the fires, which resulted in a loss of pressure on Xcel’s mountain natural gas system, she said.
“This part of the system helps provide pressure and gas supply to the natural gas system leading into the mountain communities,” she said.
Xcel’s next move was to institute controlled power outages, which included Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties, to help manage the residential and commercial use on its natural gas system and prevent the potential of a larger natural gas outage in its mountain system.
Alamosa Citizen reached out to Xcel through Aguayo to understand why those three San Luis Valley counties were included in the controlled outage, particularly given the distance from the fires.
Integrated pipeline system
“It has less to do with Alamosa, Rio Grande, Saguache being part of the ‘mountain communities’ and more with how the natural gas system is set up,” Aguayo said. “We operate a continuous, integrated pipeline system which runs throughout the mountains from approximately Boulder, southwest to Bayfield. The critical infrastructure which was impacted by the wildfire inhibited our ability to serve those mountain communities throughout the system, which include the San Luis Valley.”
Xcel issued public notice at 6:03 p.m. on Thursday that it was going to implement controlled outages in five counties – Summit, Grand, Lake, Eagle, Saguache, Rio Grande and Alamosa – that would continue over the next six to eight hours. By 10:13 p.m. Xcel sent a second public notice that it expected to end the controlled outages overnight into Friday, which it did.
“Not having these critical facilities available put customers and communities at risk of losing natural gas service, especially as more customers used their furnaces to heat their homes as the temperatures dropped after the sunset,” Aguayo said.
The controlled outages extending into the three San Luis Valley counties helped Xcel manage natural gas usage as furnaces in homes and businesses kicked on Thursday, drawing on Xcel’s natural gas system.
“The reason electric service had to be controlled is that within those furnaces is an electric fan. Without the fan operating the furnace does not begin to heat. Thus, using controlled electric outages helped us manage the use on the natural gas system and prevent the potential of a larger natural gas outage in the mountain system,” Aguayo said.
Historically dry conditions across Colorado’s Front Range set the stage for fire to grow quickly and intensely across Boulder County. The Front Range experienced its warmest, and among its driest, period on record from June 1 to Dec. 29, according to Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center and associate professor with the Department of Atmospheric Science at CSU.
DEVON Peña and The Acequia Institute in San Luis just landed a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation that promises to restore the Culebra River Acequia Communities of Costilla County to its healthy foods heritage.
The initiative “Growing a Healthy Community Foodscape, Food System & Food Economy for the Culebra River Acequia Communities” was awarded the funding over a two-year period. The most immediate work and initially most visible part of the effort is to finalize purchase of the R&R Market in San Luis and continue with its restoration and upgrade which has started through other grants.
The bold and comprehensive strategy includes:
Establishing a Food & Community Revolving Credit Association (RCA) that provides zero percent interest credit to local agriculture and food producers.
Creating a Milpa/Molino/Masa harina Marketing Collaborative that assists acequia farmers in transitioning from cow and alfalfa reliance to an “agroecosystem that includes growing traditional non-GMO corn and associated companion crops.” The farming effort involves producing companion plants like beans (bolita, fava), squash, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, beets, and other crops that are part of the region’s traditional and healthier adopted diets, according the prospectus for the grant.
Integrating youth and young adults into all of the stages of the collaborative through the Move Mountains Youth Leaders Partnership which supports young people (teenagers and young adults through their 30s) in growing food for elders and families; participating in the design and operation of the grocery and community food center; and developing their own food production and value-added food enterprises, among other youth-led efforts.
“The underlying objective of this project,” said Peña, “is to improve long-term community health through a resurgence of food sovereignty by reviving and strengthening the local agri-food system, rebuilding our polyculture agroecosystem traditions, unleashing the creativity and commitment among our youth and younger adults by participating in and establishing a set of local institutions to generate and keep our agriculture-generated wealth in the community.
“What concerns us is that our county also has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in Colorado. According to one recent report, 25.4 percent of the population in Costilla County is obese while 41 percent is overweight (Costilla County Public Health Agency 2018), more than twice the statewide rates. The same report indicates that 13.3 percent of the Costilla County population is currently diagnosed with diabetes compared to the Colorado rate of 5.6 percent. Among epigenetic factors, diet is strongly associated with emergent conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses. The evidence suggests community health and well-being in the acequia villages are casualties of the enclosure of the common lands and the dramatic long duration effects including the diminishment of our food sovereignty and healthier heritage foodways.”
It’s a heady effort that now has major investment from the state’s largest health foundation. The Colorado Health Foundation grant to The Acequia Institute announced Tuesday is among the single largest grants awarded to a San Luis Valley non-profit organization and community.
Other notable recent awards include a 2020 Great Outdoors Colorado $1.9 million grant to SLV Generation Wild through the city of Alamosa, and a $2.3 million RISE grant from the state of Colorado to a group of nonprofits working with Adams State on youth development. Antonito, also this week, received a $1 million grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade to restore the S.P.M.D.T.U., Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos building, on its main drag.
“Support for this initiative will increase food sovereignty and security while strengthening the local agriculture-food system in Costilla County,” the Colorado Health Foundation said in its award letter. “Local agriculture traditions will be rekindled, the San Luis grocery store will be renovated and expanded, a new commercial kitchen will increase production of local value added foods, and youth will reconnect to the land, acequias, and healthy food while developing skills that will support them to remain in their villages and secure employment.”
The youth component may be the most challenging of The Acequia Institute’s strategy. Like other communities in the San Luis Valley, San Luis struggles to keep its youth in the community and to find a next generation to maintain and sustain operations.
This past summer teen farmers, as part of a trial run for the grant, were paid $15 per hour to grow and maintain a one-acre garden. For the summer of 2022 the program will pay $17 per hour. Scholarships, training and internships in trade specialties needed in the agricultural community, an emergency fund for youth and young adults, and a paid staff member for counseling services are all part of the youth efforts under the grant.
“We still face the challenge of the next generation,” Peña said. “So we’re already working on youth leader development.”
Originally from Laredo, Texas, Peña first came to San Luis in 1984 as an assistant professor for Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A few years later, while on a field trip with Colorado College, he met the late Costilla County Commissioner Joe Gallegos who invited him to get involved with San Luis.
It was with Gallegos’ nudge that Peña started to more intently learn about the acequia farming system, the issues of Costilla County, and the plight of the land. In 2005 Peña established The Acequia Institute, and by 2007 he continued his transition by spending at least half his time living in San Luis while also teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, a position he still holds. Only now he resides full-time in the outlying area of San Francisco, a few miles east of the town, where he’s neighbors as the country roads go with Costilla County’s two world-renowned artists, sculptor Huberto Maestas and muralist Carlos Sandoval.
“My proudest accomplishment is helping the land heal,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of is repairing the damage to the land.”
Cottonwoods and willows have come back along the river corridor through a conservation easement that was put in place. The feeling of neighbors looking after each other, whether it’s through growing and sharing food, or learning new ways to do business in a technology-driven society, has San Luis and Costilla County looking ahead.
While the state of Colorado commonly refers to San Luis as the oldest town in the state, Peña has flipped it by saying San Luis is the “last town in Mexico, not the oldest in Colorado.” It’s his way of recognizing the land history of Costilla County and forcing a different interpretation of San Luis as he and The Acequia Institute work to re-establish its cultural heritage to the land and farming system.
He promises accountability and transparency to the San Luis community with the health foundation grant, and said he won’t draw a salary for the work because he’s already paid well through his professor work at the University of Washington.
His persistent rap about San Luis, work of The Acequia Institute and efforts to highlight the plight of local farmers, and his willingness to challenge traditional power structures of the San Luis Valley which he says have worked against San Luis and its interests, has won him audiences and influence.
National Geographic recently featured the community, and a grocery chain is expressing interest in carrying food grown through the program as part of its store offerings.
“The goal is to address community health through making good, fresh healthy food,” said Peña, and then making it available beyond San Luis and the R&R Market. He’s purchased two corn mills so that corn grown by the farmers can be turned into tortillas which can then be offered with other fresh food efforts locally.
The Revolving Credit Association (RCA) is the key to the plan, “the operational heart and soul of the entire project as it revives the soft infrastructure of our cultural heritage including the solidarity norms expressed in our acequia associations, land grant councils, and mutual aid and cooperative labor traditions and institutions,” according to the project prospectus.
Peña has patterned the RCA after the S.P.M.D.T.U., a Society for the Mutual Protection of Workers popular in the early 1900s to protect Hispanic property rights and fight discrimination. He sees the model as fitting for the type of rebirth of the community farmer that the project envisions.
The plan relies on local farmers committing one acre of their land for community growing, with a goal of 20 farmers participating in the effort. Over time the project is shooting for 1,000 acres set aside for community purposes out of the 23,000 acres of acequia irrigated farm land in the southern half of Costilla County.
It gets back to the community eating healthy with the assistance of local growers. “We are just as responsible as anyone for the failing health of our communities,” Peña said.
Of the request for farmers to set aside an acre for community purposes, Peña said, “We’re very happy with the response of the farmers around here.”
His role, he said, is to bring resources into the community and then to let community leaders like Shirley Romero-Otero and others take over.
“Colorado Health Foundation thinks we’re on the right track,” said Peña.
In the Río Culebra Villages of arid, desert southern Colorado, el agua es vida: Water is life.
The crux of ranching and farming is snowmelt and any supplemental rain. Natural waterways wind from the canyons through the desert terrain. The acequia system taps into these creeks and streams with a series of earthen and concrete-lined ditches that bring water to fields. Dug by settlers in the mid-1800s, acequias are physically cleaned, repaired and maintained by water rights holders. Today, many of those people are descendants of area settlers.
The federal government will allow a Clovis dairy to be reimbursed after its groundwater was contaminated by the Cannon Air Force base. The government announced it will finalize a rule change allowing compensation for cows that are not likely to be sold.
Art and Renee Schaap own Highland Dairy. They say a firefighting foam contaminated their water supply which reduced milk production in their cows.
The milk that was produced had to be thrown out for fear it was contaminated too. They filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2019 saying the military knew about the contamination but didn’t tell them.
ANGLING is a time-honored tradition that spans family generations and fills a spiritual or even religious void in many people’s lives. Above it all, though, it is an almost daily connection with nature. These days, changes in the environment around us are becoming more apparent and even alarming.
This story started out as a pursuit to gain an understanding of climate change through the gaze of the Valley angler. Most of the questions were broad and allowed the angler to speak freely, but as more interviews were conducted, there became a series of throughlines, common subjects, and themes that became present: water levels, the Hoot Owl, an increase in recreational angling, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
“The water is never gonna be what it used to be,” said Larry Zaragoza. He is an avid angler and fisher, who’s observed a stark decline in water levels and fish health over the past two years.
In his 53 years of fishing the Valley’s waters, Zaragoza said that he cannot compare these last two years to any other. He said the average 14-16 inch trout he catches are not as healthy looking, “not as meaty,” and slender-looking. As a catch-and-release fisherman, he said that there’s hardly even anything to catch and release.
What do he and his fellow anglers discuss when they meet or get together? “Water level is the first thing we talk about.”
Deacon Aspinwall, the City of Alamosa’s planning and development specialist, is an avid angler himself.
Aspinwall has a science background and prefaced his answers by stating that in the 10 years he’s fished in the Valley’s waters it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions. However, he did say that within the last 10 years we have seen climate shifts, with runoff occurring much earlier than it did 20 years ago. He’s observed, through the angler’s perspective, a two-phase runoff, with the initial snow melt surge dubbed the “meltoff,” which is occurring earlier in the season from drier and warmer days.
His climate concerns as an angler are the lower snowpacks and earlier runoffs. In 10 years of fishing here he has noticed some changes in the fisheries – such as more “snot moss” turning up, and in higher elevations. And some fisheries that 10 years ago were fishable have now dried up.
He said that trout populations in Cat Creek and East Pass Creek that existed 20 years ago no longer exist today. “What will the next 20 years look like?” he pondered, especially, at what high mountain lakes and streams will look like in two decades.
Aspinwall said that it’s often difficult to discuss climate in a meaningful way that resonates with people. He added that a changing climate is natural, but the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere isn’t.
On top of this, Aspinwall said that a real concern of his is the increase in angling pressure on fisheries. In the last year alone, he noticed that the Valley’s waters have seen an increase in angling and fishing.
“Some fisheries can’t handle more than one angler a day,” he said, pointing out that we all have a responsibility to fish and angle sustainably, for the next generation, and that all anglers and fishers should ask themselves, “Are we doing this sustainably, are we doing this responsibly?”
Conversations with the Hoot Owl
He said anglers need to be mindful of the “Hoot Owl.” This is the time to stop fishing. Catch-and-release fishing in warming waters after 2 p.m. can cause harm to the fish.
Trout Unlimited has worked closely with CPW to suggest that fishers and anglers voluntarily stop fishing between noon and 2 p.m.
Aspinwall and Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited’s Rio Grande Basin program director, both brought up the point that it is a common misconception that the coolest part of the day to fish during is as the sun goes down. For catch-and-release fishing on warmer days in warmer waters, this presents a problem, as the warmest water temperatures, in fact, often don’t break until 9 or 10 at night.
So, the solution to this is to fish earlier in the day.
Terry said that if the water temperatures are high, and cause for concern, then fishing in the evening and at night is a problem, but if the temperatures are fine, then fishing in the afternoon is also fine. He said that it is the anglers’ responsibility to take a temperature reading of the stream to be certain it’s okay to fish there.
This goes against traditional thinking, but anglers have to evolve. This becomes more difficult for traveling anglers who spend time and money and travel to fish in the Valley’s waters. Though it is voluntary to adhere to the Hoot Owl, most catch-and-release anglers respect it.
Terry works for the National Trout Unlimited, and is a board member of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter.
It’s worth noting that during the interview, Terry stressed that anglers and farmers are having similar water issues. There is a larger picture of the San Luis Valley’s water and how it affects everyone who lives here – and it brings attention to recent attempts to export water to the Front Range and the chronic unease that is felt around the Valley’s water.
Terry talked more on the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and its dwindling historic range. Native RGCT now only live in about 10 percent of that range, with about 10 “aboriginal” populations that have “never been messed with.” Those populations have never been reintroduced, moved, or hybridized.
A consistent population of RGCT requires isolation, with “fish barriers” such as waterfalls, culverts, or man-made structures. These allow the fish to maintain genetic isolation and avoid other risks. However, isolated streams can become vulnerable. Wildfires can send ash and soot down a high mountain stream and wipe out populations, or low-flow streams (less than 1 CFS) during one drought season can be “blinked out.”
For fishery biologists, Terry said that the conservation of RGCT is an “extremely high priority.”
He noted that these fish are not at historic sampling sizes, and that 2-3 populations have “blinked out” in the past 8 years.
The solution is to reintroduce these fish to more streams and bigger streams to make them less localized, isolated, and less at-risk. It is slow work.
Mark Seaton, president of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter, said that the organization is anything but a fishing club. It’s a conservation organization that works closely with local groups to focus on habitat.
Seaton has noticed that shoulder seasons (spring and fall) have become longer and that winter temperatures are not as cold.
He stressed that rising temperatures are not good for trout.
The fly fishing community is aware of climate change he said, and that the last couple of years have been tough to fish.
The “number of boats on the river (Rio Grande) have increased dramatically,” he said.
For Seaton, the most concerning issues are low snowpack and the lack of water in streams and creeks. He said climate change is “a pretty big deal” in Trout Unlimited.
Trout Unlimited is a conservation-based organization with 400 unique chapters. There are 300,000 members from Maine to Alaska. Within TU’s ranks, there are state councils that organize the chapters. Through these state councils, state-wide efforts can be identified and tackled. Trout Unlimited can also provide state agencies with support through its members, providing much needed eyes, ears, and flies on the ground to provide empirical data.
Disease, algal blooms and the Rio Grande cuttthroat trout
Though the Valley has many species of fish, including kokanee salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, northern pike, and bluegill, the trout is the most abundant and diverse species found in our waters. The Valley is home to rainbow, brown, brook and native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago.
Being the only native fish species to our land, it has been near extinction more than once. According to the book The Geology, Ecology, and Human History of the San Luis Valley, “mining, logging, over-harvesting, and extensive stocking of non-native fish drastically reduced their populations.” The biggest threats are “non-native fish, over-grazing, and the myriad issues associated with a warming climate: low snowpack and early melting, rising summer stream temperatures, high-severity wildfires, and low stream flows.”
The biggest issue facing fish populations is rising water temperatures. Trout are a cold water fish, requiring water temperatures between 37-66 degrees Fahrenheit for their life cycle from spawning, incubation, and growth. Water temperatures that exceed 70 degrees contain less dissolved oxygen. Trout, at these temperatures, have a difficult time getting oxygen and are more prone to disease such as Whirling disease.
Whirling disease is a parasitic infection that occurs in salmonid fish species – in Colorado, rainbow and cutthroat trout are the most at risk. Estevan Vigil, CPW’s Valley aquatic biologist, says it is the biggest disease to combat in the Valley.
Rising water temperatures can also lead to algal blooms. Algal blooms are a rapid growth of algae that bloom to the surface. Most blooms occur through a high nitrate content in the water which can occur through nutrient pollution from surrounding farms, industrial buildings, or cities. However, with high mountain lakes, blooms occur with warmer water or rural nutrient runoff, which allows more harmful bacteria to thrive in the algae causing it then to take in more light and grow.
Most blooms create foul odors and mucky surfaces, but some are toxic. Humans and animals exposed to toxic algae can show symptoms ranging from lung irritation to neurological damage.
Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.
Angling in a fish-less world
The act of angling is a method in mindfulness and a grounding meditation that has proven to de-stress. In England there are some therapists that have prescribed fly fishing to their patients. Project Healing Waters helps veterans with disabilities recover through time spent on the water. Casting for Recovery is an organization that helps women with breast cancer enhance their lives through fly fishing.
The lessons learned about angling in an unsteady climate are clear. The future remains the only unclear, murky aspect of angling. Some data from hundreds of years ago can be fun to look at, but averages can’t fully paint the picture of what’s happening now and a year from now, let alone 20 years from now.
Angling and fishing will continue for a long time in the Valley. There will still be safe havens on our streams and in our reservoirs for anglers and fish alike, but there needs to be constant attention to sustainability and responsibility. Meat fishing must be done within state regulations and angling must be done with temperature and conservation in mind.
Snowpacks will become more unpredictable. With meltoffs occuring in off seasons, the downstream effects are yet to be determined.
Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.
Unseasonably warm temperatures and low chances of significant winter precipitation have deepened concerns among regional water experts and farmers that extended drought conditions will compound stress on the Rio Grande, a key source of water for wildlife, agriculture and the city of El Paso.
Climate change has already decreased snowfall levels in the mountains and raised temperatures in the region…
Alex Mayer, director at the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he’s watching for drought impacts to the Rio Grande, the sole regional source of surface water for irrigation and a significant portion of El Paso’s drinking water.
“We’re most concerned with the headwaters of the Rio Grande, where the snowpack is,” Mayer said. “The vast majority of the river water that does reach us comes from that snowmelt in the southern Colorado, northern New Mexico headwaters.”
Mayer said the season could still see storms, but the chances are low for the near future. Predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect hotter and dry conditions for at least the next month, raising alarms for the snowpack’s chances.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, monitors and measures snowpack in Colorado to forecast the spring and summer runoff downstream.Wetlaufer said Rio Grande headwaters in Southern Colorado have seen 55% of the normal amount of rain and snow in October and November, and the snowpacks are only 30% of their normal size.
Wetlaufer said it’s early in the season as the peak snowpack usually develops through April. But even large snowpacks may not be enough to move the Rio Grande out of its water deficit. The hot and dry summers suck the moisture out of the soils, and absorbing snow melt before it makes it into a river channel compounds the drought conditions further,Wetlaufer said.
He used a simple analogy: If there is 100% of snowpack there is nearly 100% more water in the river, but the dry soil can absorb 20% or more. That means the river would only be 80% higher.
With two dry and hot years in a row, that translates to less snowmelt for the Rio Grande.
“We are going into winter with pretty considerable drought conditions,” Wetlaufer said. “We’re definitely anticipating streamflow to be much, much lower than usual relative to whatever snowpack we do see in the mountains.”
Federal forecast predictions show Colorado and New Mexico will most likely see warmer, drier conditions through February due to the La Niña weather pattern. La Niña describes a cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that shapes weather around the world.
John Fleck, a professor in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, said La Niña shifts the odds against a wet winter in the West.
“It’s like we’re playing with a loaded dice, and it’s more likely to come up dry this winter,” Fleck said.
FOR an initial payment of $20 million Douglas County can become a partner of Renewable Water Resources in its plan to export approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the San Luis Valley, according to an RWR proposal to the Douglas County Commissioners.
In its proposal to Douglas County, RWR said it currently owns approximately 9,800 acres in the San Luis Valley and has options to purchase an estimated 8,000 additional acres. “The Parties will enter into one or more agreements (the “Contract(s)”) governing the adjudication of approximately 22,000 acre feet of water per year (the “Water Rights”) in Water Division No. 3 (the “Water Case”),” according to the terms of agreement presented to Douglas County.
The proposal establishes terms of value for the water rights that Douglas County would own and how it would get a fixed per annual acre-foot rate below current water market rates that other Front Range communities are paying.
“In consideration for the Initial Payment, the Purchase Price for the water rights will be fixed at $18,500.00 per annual acre foot. At that Purchase Price, the Water Rights would be substantially below their current market value, especially for trans-basin water that can be used to extinction. Currently, metro districts and other water service providers in the Colorado Front Range are acquiring water rights for more than $40,000-$50,000 per acre foot for senior rights. With an early investment in RWR, the County can take a leadership role in securing renewable water rights at a significant discount.”
The three Douglas County Commissioners are split on the proposal, based on interviews Alamosa Citizen conducted Tuesday with the county commissioners…
Douglas County has been seeking community input on how to spend $68.2 million of federal funding received through the American Rescue Plan Act. Securing additional water rights to meet its growth is one of the priority areas Douglas County has identified for the federal funding.
Douglas County will host a Town Hall on Thursday to hear from residents on how to prioritize spending of the American Rescue Plan Act. The water rights proposal from RWR is one of the proposals expected to be discussed at the meeting…
Renewable Water Resources needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its proposal forward. The plan relies on drawing water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin and exporting it to the Front Range. Without an identified end user for the exportation and sale of the water, RWR can’t file its plan in Colorado Water Court.
If Douglas County moves ahead with RWR, State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa said RWR would need to acquire the water rights and then file in district water court a change to the water rights decree to go from agricultural use to municipal use. He said land RWR owns doesn’t have irrigation well water rights and that RWR would need to buy wells and well permits for its exportation plan…
Simpson has met with the commissioners. He said that Douglas County thinking it can use money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for the RWR proposal is a twist he didn’t see coming.
“I think it’s unconscionable to use those federal dollars to diminish one community in support of another community,” he said. In addition to representing the San Luis Valley in the Colorado Senate, Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is leading the opposition to the RWR plan.
Read more of Alamosa Citizen’s journalism on the Rio Grande Basin and the RWR project:
THROUGH their research on the San Luis Valley wetlands and bird migration patterns, Cary Aloiaand Jenny Nehring can tell you ducks that are divers are arriving on average 1.24 days earlier in the Valley, and ducks that are dabblers 1.7 days earlier.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
“Means that every year the peak migration is occurring 1.5 days earlier,” said Aloia. “If we look at historic records, peak migration was end of March-ish and now we’re looking at getting close to the beginning of March. What’s significant to that is that the irrigation season starts April 1. That means that farmers aren’t putting water out on their properties, they aren’t flood irrigating when the peak number of birds are there.
“What that also means is because peak numbers are March, the beginning of March, the birds start coming in the end of January now and February, and so we’ve got this period of time where we’re really limited because of an irrigation system.”
It’s complicated, but then it isn’t. Simply, climate change – where we experience extreme weather events hot and cold, and experience an overall warming to the seasons – is having a damaging effect on the natural wildlife of the Valley, the natural lands of the Valley, and how we all use it.
The complication enters with solutions put forth to address the changing climate and how far the Valley is willing to go to address it. Spending time with Aloia and Nehring helps in understanding the circumstances and conditions.
The Alamosa Citizen visited recently over a Zoom call with Aloia and Nehring to talk about their research and ongoing work to address the Valley’s changing environment. Aloia and Nehring are biologists who work together as Wetland Dynamics and consult with companies and governmental agencies to preserve and conserve wetlands, riparian areas, and ecosystems like the San Luis Valley.
Their study, “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment” published in 2019 and updated in 2020, is in the category of must reading if you care an iota about the San Luis Valley and how it’s faring in the first decades of the 21st century as climate change makes its presence more acutely felt.
“I would say we’ve got the climate change aspect, but we’ve also got sort of this urban push into wildlife habitat and the change in not only conversion of different types of wetlands, but the complete loss of wetlands,” said Aloia. “As the assessment pointed out, we have about a third of the wetlands that we had historically, and we continue to keep pushing that envelope, converting wetlands, and part of that conversion is, of course, the drought that we’re going through. We’ve lost a lot of wetlands because the water doesn’t get where it was historically.
Now we’re getting into climate change, human migration patterns as people seek out lesser-known and less-crowded spaces, land development, and intersecting it with the natural habitats that are being impacted by it all.
Here’s how Nehring follows up her partner Aloia’s comment when she said, “‘We have an exponential number of people coming here.”’
“I was reading a book on migration this last year,” Nehring said, “and they were talking about how if you watch a warbler foraging through just trees on the bank of a river, and it’s a bird that’s migrating. Neotropical songbirds migrate at night and they land in the morning, and they’ll feed and rest through the day, and then they’ll take off and fly another stretch that night. Or maybe they’ll stay two days. And it’s very weather dependent, and they follow rivers. Rivers are huge landmarks for migrating birds, and so if you watch a warbler foraging during migration, about once every three seconds, it’ll glean a little bug off a leaf and it’s eating.
“And if an area is cleared of that vegetation, and maybe the bird has to fly a bigger distance between clumps, and maybe their foraging goes from once every three seconds to once every four seconds, seemingly minuscule, but that means it’s a 25 percent increase in its energy expenditure to just eat.
“So if you think of the development Cari has referenced, people have moved to the Valley and there are a lot of rural areas across Colorado and the U.S. that have seen this shift because of COVID. If you just drive from South Fork to Creede, or anywhere along our river ways, you can see where a new house is, and you can see that people clear vegetation to the water because it gives them a better view, better access or whatever. But if you imagine, if you add all that cleared vegetation up, you’re having a huge impact in foraging areas for neotropical migrants and other wildlife.”
“And the same goes for grassland species,” Aloia adds, bringing more context and perspective to the conversation. “Nationally, continentally, we’ve seen a huge decline in grassland species. They took it really hard with that September snow that we had a year ago, and if you drive down the (county road) 8 South between Monte Vista and Alamosa, if you drive that road, the amount of clearing that has gone on just with greasewood, rabbit brush, sort of the more upland species that you don’t usually equate with wetlands, and having those sort of temporarily flooded areas that we identified in the assessment as being something that we’ve lost significantly, those areas are being cleared, and what we have is exposed ground now and weeds, and all kinds of things.
“If you drive that in the spring and the fall, or if you’ve ever walked through a greasewood area, the amount of birds that are utilizing those types of areas is astounding. And we’re losing that habitat. As we know, at least 82 percent of all wildlife species use riparian areas or wetlands in some capacity during their life history. So even though we may look at those as really upland species, there is a lot of crossover between different habitat ecosystem types. So then we can’t just focus on a specific riparian or wetland area, we have to look at the system as a whole and see how we’ve really fragmented everything.
This year Nehring and Aloia noticed what they characterized as a “huge change in the bird migration for water fowls coming to the San Luis Valley.”
“We saw a three week shift in when the geese were breeding and bringing off their broods,” said Aloia. “We didn’t see the water fowl coming into the Valley as early as they usually do in the fall. It’s much later, and honestly I don’t even know that we’ve really seen it yet.
“We obviously have the cranes coming through and they sort of straggle in, in the fall. But in terms of water fowl they know that our water resources this year were low, they have a sense for that, and can just pass us by. Because they have wings, they are able to shift and go where resources are and I think we’re going to see that more and more.”
Nehring referenced a widely publicized study first reported in the journal Science that documented the loss of 3 billion birds, or one in every four birds, since 1970. “I’m thinking now, 3 billion birds in 30 years, that’s really dramatic but I think we’re entering into a new time period where we’ll have equally dramatic losses in a shorter period of time,” she said.
“And I think it’ll not only be birds,” said Aloia, “but it’s going to be other bigger wildlife species that may garner more attention because they’re more identifiable, more people know about them. We as biologists have definitely seen how the birds have changed in their movements and numbers, but I think that it’s definitely going to become more apparent to a bigger part of the population.”
FromThe High Country News [November 23, 2021] (Sarah Tory):
Every summer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a long, high desert valley ringed by mountains, Jose Martinez watches in admiration as water flows from an irrigation pipe across the contours of his land, feeding the eight acres of alfalfa he grows near his home in San Francisco, a town of less than 90 people. The water comes from a network of communal irrigation ditches, or acequias, which comes from an Arabic word meaning “water bearer.” The acequias were built in part by his ancestors who arrived in southern Colorado more than 150 years ago with other Hispanic families from what is now New Mexico, establishing seven villages around Culebra Creek.
“I get to thinking, back in the day, these men dug it all by what we call pico y pala — pickaxe and shovel,” Martinez, 76, told me when I visited recently. We were sitting in his kitchen on a cold October day with his wife, Junita, 70, while the two of them explained how acequias work.
Unlike normal irrigation ditches, acequias are a communal resource, collectively owned and governed by their parciantes, or members — the group of small-scale farmers with water rights to the ditch. Acequias are egalitarian, too: whether you irrigate one acre or 100 acres, you get one vote in decisions about the ditch in exchange for helping to clean and maintain the acequia. The parciantes elect a three-member commission to make decisions around ditch maintenance and operations, as well as a mayordomo to manage the irrigation infrastructure and tell people when they can irrigate and when they have to shut their gates.
In Colorado, acequias are found in four of the southernmost counties and irrigate only a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural output. But in a region where some water rights have been sold to the highest bidder and private gain is sometimes prioritized over collective well-being, acequias remain a powerful antidote to the forces threatening rural communities — a way of valuing local resources beyond their dollar amount and a catalyst for sharing them in times of scarcity. During dry years, acequias work to ensure that everyone weathers the shortages equitably; occasionally, Jose has opted to forego his water entirely when he sees no prospect of a decent crop, so that other parciantes can have more.
“Our concept is community,” Junita explains. “If I can’t get something, why should I hurt my neighbor, if I could just let him have my water — maybe he can grow something?”
THAT COMMUNAL MINDSET originates in part from the families who arrived in the southern San Luis Valley in the mid 19th century to settle the one-million-acre Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. Drawn by promises of land and resources, they established small farming communities on land where the Cuputa band of Ute people had roamed for thousands of years, until they were gradually killed or forced out by European colonizers beginning in the 1600s. The families settling the valley beginning in the 1850s were primarily from Mexico, which had sold the territory now known as New Mexico — including the southern end of the San Luis Valley — to the U.S. government a few years earlier at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.
Families built acequias and shared access to a mountainous tract of land in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, known locally as La Sierra, which they relied on for water, firewood and foraging. The land grant was eventually sold, but its subsequent owners honored the historical rights of local families to access La Sierra.
Growing up, Jose Martinez remembers how families built cellars to store the vegetables grown on the land nourished by the acequias, as well as meat from deer and elk hunted in La Sierra — food that would last them the winter. Although they live in what is now one of Colorado’s most impoverished counties, “we ate like kings,” he said.
That all changed in 1960, when John Taylor, a North Carolina timber baron, bought 77,500 acres of La Sierra, renaming it the Cielo Vista Ranch and closing it off to the local community to create a logging operation. Taylor’s logging wrought lasting damage on the land. Poorly constructed roads created erosion, reducing the amount of water that flowed from the mountains into the acequias, according to area residents.
The water wasn’t the only resource reduced or eliminated as a result of Taylor’s actions. Without access to La Sierra for grazing, local families lost their herds and the culture of self-sufficiency that had sustained them for decades. Many, like Jose Martinez’s family, moved out of the valley. Those that stayed saw their health and well-being deteriorate. People went on food stamps and rates of diabetes soared. There were psychological impacts, too.
“You lose the relevance of what your land means,” said Shirley Romero Otero, the head of the Land Rights Council, which formed in the town of San Luis in the late 1970s to stop Taylor from denying access to the property. (A group of San Luis community members are participating in The Colorado Trust’s Community Partnerships strategy; Romero Otero previously was part of this effort.)
In 1981, the Land Rights Council mobilized local residents to sue Taylor for blocking their historical right to access the property. The ensuing legal battle lasted 40 years, fought by generations of the same families and leading to an April 2003 Colorado Supreme Court ruling, Lobato v. Taylor. The ruling granted people the right to graze their animals, cut timber and gather firewood on the land, if they could prove they were heirs to property that was part of the original Sangre de Cristo land grant.
“WE’RE SUCH DIEHARDS,” Junita told me, pointing to an old black-and-white photo from the early days of the land rights struggle taped to their refrigerator. Her husband was among the roughly 5,000 people given keys to access the ranch gates after a nearly 15-year process of identifying the land grant descendants.
“We won’t let go,” Jose added.
The Martinezes owe their persistence in part to the acequias, which are the lifeblood of each village, binding people to the land and to each other. Every spring, acequia communities gather for an annual ritual called La Limpieza to clean the ditch in preparation for the irrigation season. For families, it serves as a de facto reunion — regardless if someone has moved to Denver or to California, people come back for La Limpieza.
For Junita, that communal aspect is why acequias are important: working together to cultivate a shared resource. It’s also why she feels so strongly about protecting those resources from wealthy outsiders who threaten that culture. “We’re a land- and water-based people,” Junita explained.
The current owner of the Cielo Vista Ranch is William Harrison, heir to a Texas oil fortune, who bought the Cielo Vista property in 2018. According to its real estate listing, the ranch was listed at $105 million and encompasses 23 miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, including 18 peaks over 13,000 feet and one over 14,000 feet, Culebra Peak — the highest privately owned mountain in the U.S., and quite possibly the world.
Harrison’s ranch hands have intimidated and harassed local people who tried to access the property, according to court filings and residents — despite the legal rulings affirming the rights of the land grant heirs. With the threat of a violent confrontation growing, Jose and Junita’s children told their father they don’t want him going up onto the ranch alone to collect firewood, which he, like many locals, uses to heat their home.
A week before I visited, the Land Rights Council filed a motion in Alamosa Municipal Court to safeguard local residents’ rights to access the ranch. During a two-day hearing, a judge heard testimony about how the ranch’s aggressive surveillance tactics infringed on the community’s hard-won traditional land rights, including tracking people with drones and armed ranch hands approaching people with dogs. The ranch denied use of such tactics.
In an email, Harrison, through his lawyer, wrote that he believes that a few “bad apples” have abused those rights on occasion, illegally hunting, joy-riding ATVs and sneaking onto the property to fish. “That being said, we are fully committed to bringing the animosity of the past to a close, and are making a good-faith effort to bring healing and peace,” he added.
“Some of those places look like ghost towns because of that,” said Peter Nichols, a lawyer with the Acequia Project, a pro-bono legal assistance program supported by the University of Colorado Boulder Law School.
Thus far, acequia communities have resisted those efforts, ensuring their water stays with the land. With the help of the Acequia Project and Colorado Open Lands, an environmental nonprofit, acequias have adopted bylaws that protect acequias from outside buyers.
Still, like any collaboration, acequias are not perfect, said Sarah Parmar, the director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands. “It’s messy because there are human relationships involved, and anytime you have a community that goes back multiple generations, there are going to be grudges and things that have happened that they’re going to bring into those situations,” Parmar said.
But more than anything, acequia communities recognize that water is not just an asset; “it’s a piece of everything,” Parmar told me. “If you pull on that thread, the whole sweater unravels.”
JOSE GRABBED JUNITA’S ARM to steady her as the two walked outside to show me the Nana Ditch, the “mother ditch” that gurgles beneath the willow trees in their backyard.
“It would kill me to see water flow by that doesn’t belong to us,” Junita said. “We’d have to go away.”
Today, abandoned houses are scattered amongst the roads and villages of the Culebra watershed — a reminder of how this community, like so many rural communities, has changed. North of the villages, giant agricultural operations have replaced the smaller family-run vegetable farms that once filled the San Luis Valley, while their high-tech center pivot irrigation systems are depleting the aquifers beneath the valley floor at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, so many people have left, with the population of Costilla County nearly half what it was in 1950. When their children were growing up, Jose and Junita moved to Colorado Springs so the girls could get a better education. But people are returning to the valley, too, like Martinezes did in 2002. Jose began growing alfalfa on his family’s eight acres again, and a few years ago, two of the girls bought the lots on either side of their parents, where they hope to one day build their own homes.
In the Spanish dialect spoken in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, there is a term called querencia, which translates roughly to “heart home or place.” Even after they left the valley, Jose and Junita would bring the girls back to San Francisco every summer to remind them: “This is where you come home.”
This story was republished with permission from Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.
Sarah Tory writes from Carbondale, Colorado. Follow @tory_sarah
Acequia La Vida via Greg Hobbs.
Santa Cruz River, Acequia de La Puebla, Chimayo
Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO Photo by Devon G. Peña
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.
Water from acequias, a shared collection of gravity-fed irrigation ditches have been a historical part of irrigation in the San Luis Valley. Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia del Cerro, San Luis
Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season
San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Bella Cruz has lived next to the People’s Ditch in San Luis for more than 60 years. Appropriated in 1852, it is the first surface water right in Colorado. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen
San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
San Luis People’s Ditch spanning the long lot system
Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO Photograph by Devon G. Peña
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. San Luis People’s Ditch
From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable via The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
THE 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) was developed in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2013 Executive Order and is focused on strategies to address the state’s growing water demands. Alongside the CWP, eight Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) were also developed in 2015 by the state’s basin roundtables to identify short- and long-term objectives and projects that are critical to meeting each basin’s current and future water challenges.
The original 2015 Rio Grande BIP, developed by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Roundtable), identified several goals aimed at addressing the basin’s major water challenges. Another key focus of the 2015 BIP was identification of projects that would help meet the basin’s water needs and have multiple benefits for water users and the environment.
As conditions change from year to year, updates to the BIP are important. In 2019, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) worked with the state’s basin roundtables to initiate the first update to the original BIPs. and the roundtables are currently in the final stages of completing this update. The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable selected a local nonprofit watershed group, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) to facilitate the BIP Update process. Led by the RGHRP, the Roundtable formed BIP Update subcommittees, made up of diverse local stakeholders, from local, state, and federal agencies to nonprofits, landowners, and community members. The subcommittees were tasked with developing strategies to meet the basin’s water needs, from agricultural and municipal/industrial water use to water administration and water resources education.
The updated Rio Grande BIP features project accomplishments since 2015, new data and analyses related to the basin’s current and future water use, projects and strategies to meet the basin’s water needs, and updated basin goals. Since the publication of the 2015 BIP, a variety of projects have been completed, many of which were funded in part by the Roundtable. During the BIP update process, more accurate agricultural and municipal water use data and well defined environmental and recreational attributes allowed the Roundtable to identify strategies to meet these water needs. Finally, the updated goals center around healthy watersheds and sustainable surface and groundwater that supports the basin’s communities.
CWCB and the Roundtable are seeking feedback on the draft BIP Update, which is currently available on the website: http://engagecwcb.org This public comment period will remain open through Nov. 15.
COLORADO State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa said this week that a legislative bill in draft form that tries to address “investment in water speculation” is not a good bill and isn’t convinced there is a “need for a bill like this.”
“What you’re really trying to do is keep water attached to the land and productive agriculture,” Simpson said in a wide-ranging interview with The Alamosa Citizen. “So for me, rather than trying to force it this way, I take the advice of (state) representative Marc Catlin, that the best way to protect that is to make sure ag stays profitable, because profitable operations generally aren’t looking to sell their water or water rights.
“I encourage people to think about the things we do in the legislature,” he added, “either from a tax policy or environmental impacts. Just don’t overregulate or overtax the industry so much and give them a chance to succeed.”
One section of the bill addresses the sale or transfer of shares in mutual ditch companies. Simpson said he is a shareholder in a mutual ditch company and doesn’t support how the draft legislation attempts to control how shares are sold or transferred.
“I just think they’re better ways to do that versus you’re on this fine line of interfering with people’s private property rights,” Simpson said. “It’s like very generally going to you and saying you bought a house and going, ‘Well, you can’t sell the house for either a profit or you can’t buy a house on speculation and then sell it for more than you paid for it.’ There’s just this fine line we’re walking down about trying to protect water and ag, and people’s private property rights.”
Why it matters:
In addition to his state senate role, Simpson is general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is among the Colorado water experts working to address climate change and impacts on irrigitable ag land.
Through his role at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District he has worked to implement a variety of conservation measures to address the declining Upper Rio Grande Water Basin and the 20-year drought the San Luis Valley has been experiencing.
He also has been battling an effort led by former Gov. Bill Owens called Renewable Water Resources, which is a project that aims to purchase SLV ag land for its water rights and then control enough water on private land to pipe into the Front Range. Owens’ front man for the project is a person named Sean Tonner.
Asked if the draft legislation could help blunt the Renewable Water Resources project, he said it could help but he is still more concerned about the unintended consequences of the proposal.
“We have a handful of pretty rigorous and substantial barriers that make those kinds (RWR) of acquisitions and transfers pretty hard,” he said. “Not impossible, but pretty hard. I guess on the surface, this bill might give you another protection and maybe make it almost impossible. But then the unintended consequence again is, what does it do to everybody else?”
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture:
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) joined together in strong support of $15,000,000 “high impact” stimulus funds in Governor Polis’ FY 2022-2023 budget to preserve agriculture, meet interstate river compact obligations, and reduce rural economic impacts in the Republican and Rio Grande River basins .
“The producers in the Republican and Rio Grande basins are up against quickly approaching deadlines to reduce their water use to avoid mandatory curtailment of groundwater pumping on a scale that could devastate these agricultural communities,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. “Directing federal funds to water users in these two basins will help ag producers mitigate the costs of reducing water use while ensuring a future for agriculture in these regions. With Governor Polis’s leadership, CDA is working closely with the Department of Natural Resources to ensure these funds support the farmers, ranchers, and other water users who are facing the greatest challenges.”
The Republican and Rio Grande River basins contain some of Colorado’s most productive farm and ranchlands, and agriculture remains the economic backbone of these regions. Governor Polis’s proposal is for $15,000,000 in high impact American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the Task Force on Economic Recovery and Relief to consider.
The Republican River basin needs to come into compliance with its downstream river compact by retiring 25,000 acres of groundwater irrigated land by the end of 2029, 10,000 of which must be retired by the end of 2024. Simultaneously, the Rio Grande basin is facing imminent groundwater curtailment to prevent further drawdown of confined underground aquifers.
Despite efforts by water conservation districts and water users in both basins to solve this challenge on their own, one bad drought year can push back years of progress. This was the case in 2021 and with the high probability of subsequent droughts, more resources are needed to assist local farmers and ranchers in transitioning to a future of greater water scarcity in a way that sustains agriculture, the economy, and local communities.
“With Colorado’s ongoing systemic drought many of our communities are feeling the impact, none more acutely than agriculture, as our water supplies diminish,” said Dan Gibbs, the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. “Working with the Colorado Department of Agriculture we need to do all we can to preserve our agricultural lands and the rural economies that depend on them. The Governor’s high impact stimulus proposal will help these river basins meet our river compact obligations and protect our groundwater resources while ensuring agriculture continues in these productive regions of Colorado.”
If passed by the legislature, this additional funding will augment local and federal conservation incentive programs to ensure the retirement of groundwater pumping is voluntary, compensated, and on a scale that minimizes disruption to agricultural production while still meeting Colorado’s compact obligations.
Agriculture generates nearly $370 million worth of ag products in the seven Colorado counties the Rio Grande supplies with water. Staple crops include barley, oats, hay, and potatoes. Colorado’s Eastern Plains are home to nine of the state’s top ten agricultural counties in terms of value of agricultural products sold, with the majority of crops grown used to feed livestock. The Republican River Basin produces nearly $1.4 billion in agricultural products, including corn, wheat, cattle, and hogs.
WHILE Colorado remains largely an observer in the ongoing federal court case over the Rio Grande Compact, the issues that could increase its involvement have become clearer since Texas filed its initial complaint eight years ago.
Texas originally made no claims against Colorado as its arguments focused on New Mexico’s delivery obligations and the use of groundwater below Elephant Butte Reservoir. Colorado was named a party to the initial complaint simply because it is a signatory to the 1938 compact. But the state’s role in the proceedings could change, depending on whether the case impacts Colorado’s ability to manage Platoro Reservoir, the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s largest post-compact reservoir, and the debits the state is allowed to accrue under the compact. Likewise, court decisions might change how federal water compacts are interpreted, which could also spur greater involvement by Colorado.
In August, Special Master Michael J. Melloy ordered Texas to file a supplemental complaint with the U.S. Supreme Court because it raised issues distinct from the original complaint and had the potential to greatly expand the scope of the lawsuit. That supplemental complaint claimed, among other issues, that New Mexico violated the compact by not keeping a pool of water equal to the delivery debits it is allowed to accrue in reservoir storage.
While Colorado was not named directly in the complaint, Colorado sees that claim as an attack on how the state manages its reservoirs and the 100,000 acre-feet of debits it is allowed to accrue against its downstream delivery obligation. “It is a bigger concern because it directly affects us,” Division Engineer Craig Cotten said earlier this month.
Water users in Colorado’s section of the Rio Grande have also informed Attorney General Phil Weiser that they would seek amicus status to join the case should Texas prevail with its claim. “If Texas were to prevail on its claimed interpretation of Arts. VI-VIII, Platoro Reservoir would be rendered effectively useless to the Conejos District because it would be the only reservoir where Colorado could store debit water,” stated the memorandum signed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Water Users Association.
Platoro Reservoir has a storage capacity of only 53,571 acre-feet, which would put Colorado in the position of losing roughly half of its allowable debits under the compact. Those debits, as the memorandum noted, were intended to recognize that variations in stream flow would impact Colorado’s ability to strictly adhere to the delivery obligations laid out by the compact.
Colorado is also leery of the proceedings giving the Rio Grande Project, which is made up mainly of Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs in New Mexico, an authority not called for by the compact. Both the United States, which operates the reservoirs under the Bureau of Reclamation, and New Mexico have argued that the project and its contracts with downstream irrigation districts are silently incorporated into the compact. “They’re really trying to add a lot to the compact,” Cotten said. A brief by Colorado has asked the special master to rule as a matter of law that the Rio Grande Project is not incorporated into the compact and does not impose obligations to the states under the compact. The issue of obligations under those contracts should be addressed outside the compact, Colorado argued.
Virtual testimony in the case began last week, with in-person testimony coming later in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both Cotten and Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan are expected to testify as fact witnesses, although they may not take the stand until a second phase of the trial in spring.
The San Juan Mountains and parts of Larimer County also had their hottest September on record, the data shows. Statewide, it was the third-warmest September in Colorado’s history, tying with September 1998…
It was also a drier month than usual for the Front Range and much of southern Colorado, according to state climatologists. After a wet spring and summer — the result of timely monsoon rains — moderate to severe drought conditions have started to return to eastern parts of the state. A swath of northwest Colorado remains under exceptional drought.
State officials anticipate fall will be warmer and drier than normal, stressing vegetation and soil that is already parched across the state, according to a report from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
San Luis Valley residents are currently fighting about how much water is available to them, McCracken said. Farmers growing potatoes, barley and alfalfa are pumping much of that water from wells, he said, all while the area’s snowpack is melting earlier than normal and evaporating before it can recharge local water sources.
OCTOBER 1 is a date virtually every farmer in the San Luis Valley’s ag-rich Subdistrict 1 has circled on their calendar. It’s when farm managers across Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will go to their center pivot sprinkler and read their flow meter, and then record that number with the subdistrict’s program manager, Marisa Fricke.
The reading will tell the farm operator how many acre-feet of water they’ve used this irrigation season, and the total of all the meter readings that Fricke records will determine the next steps in the urgent efforts to replenish the shallowest aquifer in the Valley, the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict 1.
“It’s the ‘hold your breath’ couple of months,” said Fricke, as she navigates her SUV through the subdistrict on a recent fall morning and gives lessons on the state of the Rio Grande. “Everything is riding on it.”
The number she’s looking for is 240,000-acre-feet of water or less. Remember that figure.
The Valley’s Most Lucrative Corridor
Subdistrict 1 came into being in 2006 to “take action to help restore a balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.” Remember, the unconfined aquifer had lost an estimated 1 million acre-feet of water to the changing climate from 2002 to 2004, and now efforts to replenish it have become vital to the Valley’s way of life, its $340 million annual ag economy, its growing tourist economy, and the quality of life, particularly in Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande counties where the boundaries of Subdistrict 1 largely lie.
It’s the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley, with 3,000 water wells. When you think about Subdistrict 1, think of Coors and barley. Think about the Valley as the fifth-largest producer of potatoes in America. Think about lucrative ag contracts with Walmart and Safeway. Collectively the cash crops in the subdistrict are valued at approximately $400 million, said Fricke. Think about the farming communities of Center and Sargent and Mosca. Think about the Gator Farm, and the hot springs at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool in Hooper. All of these attributes of the Valley reside in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1, and collectively they show what a devastating blow it would be to the Valley if the state of Colorado were to ever shut down wells in the subdistrict.
The state hinted at such a drastic step as recently as 2018 and 2019, when State Engineer Kevin Rein sounded the alarms about the importance of reducing groundwater withdrawals during a drought season and concerns about bringing the aquifer to sustainable levels by 2031. That’s what’s been agreed upon and what a state court-approved water plan calls for.
ENTER Marisa Fricke. After she receives the October flow meter readings from approximately 310 farms in Subdistrict 1, she will analyze the figures and draft a report to the State Engineer and Colorado Water Resources Division on the status of the unconfined aquifer. Her report will tell the state the total amount of groundwater pumped out and the amount of surface water diverted and re-charged through ponds and irrigation ditches.
She’ll get around 1,800 meter readings in October, and she’ll then calculate how much groundwater was pumped, minus the amount of surface water that was diverted in. The net balance will reveal the amount of water that was truly over pumped from the aquifer.
She will also convey that it’s been yet another dry year in 2021 for the San Luis Valley, compounding an even drier 2020. Without consistent snowpack and summer monsoon seasons, the surest way the unconfined aquifer gets restored is through voluntary conservation efforts put in place by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Those efforts include:
A Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that pays producers to not use their well for 15 years.
Paying farmers not to plant a field.
Purchasing acres of farmland and retiring the water wells on that land.
Creating water credits so farmers who return more water to the aquifer than they took out can sell credits to other farmers who need more water for their fields.
All of these items will show up in Fricke’s report. “We are trying everything,” she said.
The odd thing is the unconfined aquifer, because of its unique hydrology and recharge decree, adds little injury to the Rio Grande Basin itself. The change in climate, though, means the aquifer struggles to restore itself naturally and farmers then must shoulder more of the burden.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen the climate changes,” said Fricke, an Alamosa High and Adams State graduate. She was raised in Alamosa county, knows farming, understands the agricultural life of the San Luis Valley, and worries about what’s to come.
“Everyone is very concerned,” she said.
Nine years left to 2031
The subdistrict basically has nine years left to recover 864,000 acre-feet of water, maybe. If Rein determines that it has become evident that the goal to return the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 can’t be met, then the state could take action sooner.
Now you understand the importance of October 1. In 2020, 247,000 acre-feet of water was pulled out of the aquifer. While this year hasn’t been as dry, 2021 certainly has not been a good year for precipitation in the San Luis Valley, and the forecast for October, November and December shows a probability of more of the same – dry and little moisture, which likely translates into an earlier spring runoff in 2022 if snow arrives late in the winter.
This is how the changing climate affects the situation, and why the conservation efforts in Subdistrict 1 are critical to the Valley’s ag and farming industry. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has purchased another 11 wells this year in an effort to retire groundwater and will offer the same program again in 2022.
Fricke will litter her report to the state with these types of facts to show all the work being done to preserve the aquifer. She describes the next few months as “the worst stress ever.” But then she smiles and flexes her determination to prove to the state that the water plan is working.
Asked what would be a good figure for 2021, she paused, gave it some thought, and said 240,000 acre-feet or less would signal some relief.
Asked when she’ll know, she turned and said, “December we’ll know the numbers.”
THE Colorado Water Conservation Board handed out roughly $2.8 million last week to five projects in the San Luis Valley, including a first-of-its kind conservation easement program aimed at protecting the region’s groundwater.
Colorado Open Lands garnered $1.4 million for a voluntary conservation easement program, which would reduce groundwater pumping while allowing for continued agricultural use. The management plans accompanying the easements would draw on the experience of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The total cost of the project is $8.2 million, the majority of which will come from the NRCS.
CWCB granted $818,030 to the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project for work on the Anaconda, Independent No. 2, Knoblauch, Ehrowitz, and Billings ditches. The project would improve diversions for the respective ditches, all of which are in Rio Grande County, while also including fish and boat passage. Work crews would also restore 3,960 linear feet of stream bank and enhance aquatic habitat through willow planting, channel and stream bank shaping, and the installation of rock clusters.
The board awarded $163,406 to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to develop an in-basin water marketing strategy to secure the roughly 16,000 acre-feet needed by the Subdistricts to offset stream depletions. The program’s managers are eyeing tools such as temporary water leases or rotational fallowing toward that end. The Rio Grande Basin Cooperative Project, as the effort is known, also received $212,105 from the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, and roughly $163,000 from three other funders toward the $425,511 project cost.
The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association received $24,500 to hold seminars around irrigation, soil health and cropping in 2022. Funds would also go toward developing a stakeholder group to implement projects and the association’s hosting of the Congreso de Acequias.
Colorado Master Irrigator, a nonprofit educational group, received $414,875 to expand trainings on water and energy conservation and other efficiency practices across the state. Part of those funds will focus on expanding offerings into the San Luis Valley through a partnership with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Subdistrict No. 1.
All of the funding for the Valley projects came from the Colorado Water Plan Grant Program. State lawmakers and Governor Jared Polis gave the grant program a boost in spring with $15 million from the state’s General Fund.
Groundwater provides an important source of irrigation for farmers in southern New Mexico, but Texas alleges that New Mexico’s use of groundwater below Elephant Butte reservoir has reduced surface water in the Rio Grande that is available for farmers downstream.
Texas filed a lawsuit in 2013 before the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico has violated the Rio Grande Compact. This week, special master Judge Michael Melloy heard witness testimony and opening arguments during the first week of a virtual trial. Melloy is tasked with compiling a report for the U.S. Supreme Court. The virtual section of the trial will be followed by an in-person section in the spring in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in March.
The United States has intervened in the case, arguing that New Mexico has failed to administer the groundwater use and that failure threatens not only the compact but also the 1906 treaty agreement with Mexico. This treaty requires the United States to provide Mexico with up to 60,000 acre-feet of water annually. The amount of water that Mexico receives can be reduced due to drought conditions and, when this occurs, the reductions must be proportional to reductions to water allocations for the two irrigation districts that use Rio Grande project water.
While Texas says groundwater pumping has hurt deliveries of Rio Grande project water to El Paso County Water Improvement District Number 1 (EP1), New Mexico claims a 2008 operating agreement that shifted some of the surface water to Texas has led farmers to rely more on groundwater.
New Mexico argues that the operating agreement led to farmers receiving less Rio Grande project water, however it allowed farmers to use groundwater. The two water districts agreed to this operating agreement as a way to address drought conditions, but neither Texas nor New Mexico were parties to the agreement.
Elephant Butte Irrigation District Vice President Robert Sloan said that the operating agreement is one of the factors that has made him more dependent on groundwater at his farm located south of Las Cruces. Sloan was on the EBID Board of Directors in 2008 and voted in favor of the operating agreement.
The Rio Grande project water is stored in two reservoirs in New Mexico—Elephant Butte and Caballo. Each year, based on the amount of water in storage, the allocations are made to the two irrigation districts. About 57 percent of the project water is allocated to EBID and 43 percent is allocated to EP1.
Groundwater pumping is not unique to New Mexico. There are also wells in Texas that impact the Rio Grande.
History of groundwater pumping
The Rio Grande project dates back to the 1930s. In the 1940s, a drought hit the region. EBID Treasurer and Manager Gary Esslinger told the court that this prompted farmers to drill groundwater wells. And, until 1980 when the state engineer closed the basin, Esslinger said property owners did not have to seek approval to drill a well. After the state engineer closed the basin, property owners had to get permission from the Office of the State Engineer prior to drilling a well.
Esslinger said in the 1940s farmers approached EBID about using groundwater to augment the surface water supplies. The U.S. Geological Survey was brought on board to study the impacts that this could have. While the study found there could be impacts to return flows and the amount of water in the drains–which take project water that seeps into the groundwater and return it to the river–the study did not address the impacts that these wells could have on deliveries of surface water to downstream users.
Now, as New Mexico is once again in a period of drought, groundwater provides a vital resource to farmers.
New Mexico farmers rely on groundwater
Sloan has about a dozen irrigation wells on his property. These wells were first drilled in the 1950s, however about six of them have had to be replaced since then. Sloan said when they replaced the wells they did drill deeper.
Prior to 2011, Sloan said farmers were able to pump as much as they needed. But then a court adjudication process resulted in a cap. This cap means that farmers can use four and a half acre feet of combined surface and groundwater. He explained that means that if he receives two acre feet of surface water then he can pump two and a half acre feet of groundwater. The wells have been metered since a 2006 order from the Office of the State Engineer. The OSE tracks the amount of water used and, if too much groundwater is pumped, the farmers receive a notice of over-diversion, Sloan said.
Sloan said farmers prefer the surface water because it is better quality as groundwater tends to have higher levels of salt, which can be detrimental to crops.
In the early 2000s, following 23 years of good water supplies, New Mexico entered into a drought that continues today. And, while farmers are hopeful that the drought will end soon, climate change is anticipated to lead to less water available.
“We are looking at a warmer, drier, more arid future where we will have to deal with less water, in fact we will have to deal with a lot less water,” said J. Phillip King, a consultant for EBID who has also been involved in the Interstate Stream Commission’s water planning.
This year, Sloan was allotted four inches of surface water, which was not enough to irrigate any of his crops. While he bought additional water from his neighbors, Sloan said he did have to rely on his groundwater wells to grow crops.
Groundwater salinity impacts Texas farmers
Further downstream, Art Ivey is a Texas farmer and board member of EP1. Like Sloan, Ivey grows pecans and uses both surface and groundwater. His original farm has seven wells on it and acreage he recently bought has two wells. Unlikely New Mexico, Ivey said Texas does not require farmers to meter their groundwater use.
Ivey said farmers prefer surface water because the groundwater has high salinity. If he was to only use groundwater, Ivey said it would be like “putting poison on our ground” and within a few years the plants would die.
He provided details about how he manages salinity on his farm, including trying to rebuild soil. This has included removing some clay and bringing in sand. Spraying sulfuric acid on the soil can also leach out salt, he said. However, Ivey said he no longer uses sulfuric acid because it is very dangerous. Gypsum and elemental sulfur can also be used and Ivey said he applies these soil amendments annually.
Ivey said when using well water he has to provide the trees with more water because of the salt levels.
Ivey was on the board of directors during the 2008 negotiations. He said the operating agreement included the ability to carry over water, which he described as “vitally important.” That means if the district does not use all the water it is allocated for one year, it can store the unused water for future use.
Ivey said this can allow the district to provide early season irrigation water.
Not all of the farmers in his valley have wells and, Ivey said, cotton farmers rely on early season water. He said cotton farmers need water in March and, this year, surface water was not available until June.
“If they don’t have wells, they don’t plant. And so they’ve lost a year of trying to grow a crop,” Ivey said.
Attorneys laid out their arguments Monday during the first day of a virtual trial in a lawsuit over Rio Grande water with Texas and the federal government alleging that New Mexico’s use of groundwater cut into Texas’ share of river water.
The appointed special master, Michael Melloy, a senior judge for the U.S. 8th District Court of Appeals, is hearing arguments in the 8-year-old case and will compile a report for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Melloy determined in late August that the long-awaited three-month trial would be split into two portions, one virtual and one in-person later in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He cited a health emergency for one of the Texas attorneys and concerns about the increase of COVID-19 cases for splitting the trial.
Virtual testimony from a mix of members of federal agencies, farmers, irrigation managers, hydrologists and city officials from El Paso and Las Cruces will continue over several weeks.
In the 2014 complaint in the case, officially called No. 141 Original: Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, Texas attorneys allege New Mexico’s groundwater pumping reduced Texas’ Rio Grande portion by tens of thousands of acre feet each year, and owes Texas damages. An acre-foot of water is equal to about 325,851 gallons.
Colorado is named as a defendant only because it is a signatory to the 82-year-old Rio Grande Compact…
The longstanding tug-of-war over the river’s water between the states and the federal government started a decade ago. In a 2011 federal lawsuit, New Mexico alleged the federal government shorted New Mexico its Rio Grande water, and gave too much to Texas. It escalated when Texas filed a new lawsuit against New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court three years later.
On Monday, attorney Stuart Somach, who represents Texas, opened with an apology for repeating arguments, saying he’s presented Texas’ case since 2012…
The basis for Texas’ case, Somach said, was that New Mexico’s groundwater pumping south of the Elephant Butte Reservoir depleted the Rio Grande and violated the Rio Grande Compact.
Historically, the Rio Grande was split 57% to New Mexico and 43% to Texas. Somach said that the increased groundwater use from the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico State University and agriculture in New Mexico reduces the total amount of river water available to Texas.
“We don’t quibble with the fact that we get 43% of something,” Somach said. “But what we’re entitled to is 43% of the conditions that existed in 1938, not the conditions that have been created by New Mexico groundwater pumping.”
Somach said over the next few weeks, Texas farmers, the irrigation district and officials from the city of El Paso will testify to the “injury caused directly by New Mexico’s actions.”
James DuBois, an attorney in the Department of Justice, told the court that New Mexico has known that groundwater pumping would impact the amount of water in the Rio Grande…
DuBois said New Mexico’s actions threatened the compact, and the 1906 treaty that guarantees Mexico’s portion of the Rio Grande, up to 60,000 acre-feet…
DuBois said the court would hear from federal officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees irrigation projects in the West, about a 2008 operating agreement between the federal government and irrigation districts that updated allocations.
He said to expect testimony from the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational agency which enforces the water treaty with Mexico, in coming weeks.
The opening arguments for New Mexico were split between the outside counsel and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.
Balderas said the uncertain climate future and a shrinking river make this case pressing…
Balderas said the state maintains that New Mexico is not receiving its fair share of water. He referenced the federal civil case from 2011, when the then-Attorney General Gary King sued the federal government over the 2008 operating agreement with the irrigation districts. King alleged the agreement gave too much water to Texas and shorted New Mexico. That 2011 case remains unresolved, because when Texas filed the lawsuit in the Supreme Court in 2014, action halted in the lower courts.
“It’s not Texas that is being harmed in this case, it is New Mexico,” Balderas said…
Attorney Jeff Wechsler, representing New Mexico, said the 2008 operating agreement meant that New Mexico is shorted on surface water, making area farmers more reliant on groundwater pumping…
Wechsler said that additional water in Texas is sold by the El Paso irrigation district to Hudspeth County, which is allowed to use Rio Grande project waste water…
Wechsler went on to say that groundwater pumping in the Hueco Bolson by El Paso, a major source of water for the city, has impacted Rio Grande project waters.
Wechsler said that New Mexico farmers, relying on groundwater because of the federal government’s allocation changes since 2008, are paying more in maintenance and in soil changes, which he said amount to millions in damages.
Weschler asked the court to rule that “New Mexico receives 57% of project water” and allow the state to collect damages.
Drought isn’t a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.
“You’re really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it’s both, right?” said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). “You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast.”
And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.
“And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it’s crops, or whether it’s nuts, or whether it’s wine,” he said. “And on the supply side, the question is, ‘Who gets what water? And why?'”
He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast…
And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there’s one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.
“We could say, ‘Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'” he said.
Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it’s managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that’s becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west…
But because of Wyoming’s high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost – water is valued by the acre-foot.
“On average, it’s about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there’s these crazy, really big numbers out there,” said Minckley. “And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?”
The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.
Another idea that’s been floated is cloud seeding…
[Bart] Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.
Because there’s natural variability between the years, you can’t pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it’s needed.
“It’s really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient,” he said. “Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content.”
But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.
“So it can work either way. We don’t really have an answer,” he said.
It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that – “we don’t really have an answer.” But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.
Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.
She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,” she said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”
Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.
Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.
For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.
Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on…
Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.
Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.
What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.
Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example…
After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought…
When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without.
As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.
Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval…
Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.
At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.
In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don’t miss out on early runoff…
Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.
While monsoon season does not conclude officially until the end of September, it is clear the summer weather pattern that typically brings a good deal of moisture to the Southwest has helped ease the drought’s grip on much of New Mexico.
Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the agency will not have figures on monsoon rain totals until early October, after the season has drawn to a close.
But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map for New Mexico — and the rest of the Southwest — shows substantial improvement over the past two and a half months. Many parts of the state that were bone dry at the beginning of summer have emerged mostly, or even entirely, from the drought.
Nowhere has that change been more dramatic than in the southeast corner of the state. According to the Southwest and California Drought Status Update issued June 24 by the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, parts of seven counties in that corner of New Mexico were characterized as being in exceptional drought — the worst category — and every county in that region was suffering from severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the three worst categories.
Now, two and a half months later, the picture there is much different, as portions of six of those counties are now characterized as normal. Much of the remaining territory in the southeast corner of the state is classified as being only abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought.
While other parts of the state also saw marked improvement — portions of 13 counties in New Mexico now are drought free, compared to parts of just two counties on June 24 — others have not been so fortunate. Many parts of central, southwest and northwest New Mexico that were locked in drought at the beginning of the summer remain that way, even though their status has improved, as well.
The drought continues to take a heavy toll on San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Las Alamos, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, with each of those counties still showing substantial territory characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category.
That’s not to say those locations are as bad off as they were even a month ago, when large portions of all those counties were experiencing exceptional drought. In fact, the percentage of the state that is classified as being in exceptional drought has declined from more than 50% at the start of 2021 to approximately 33% three months ago, 4.5% on Aug. 10 and 0% on Sept. 9. And while 21.2% of New Mexico was in extreme drought on Aug. 10, that percentage declined to 19.1% by Sept. 7.
According to drought.gov, this was the 32nd wettest August in New Mexico over the last 127 years. Las Cruces has enjoyed an especially good monsoon so far, having racked up 5.06 inches of precipitation over that period, the third-wettest monsoon on record, according to drought.gov.
San Juan County has not seen that kind of bounty, but it has experienced a relatively good monsoon season, at least by the paltry standards of recent years. Jones said Farmington has received 1.6 inches of moisture at Four Corners Regional Airport over the three-month period, a figure that nearly matches the 30-year average of 1.62 inches.
For the year, Farmington has drawn 4.31 inches of precipitation, which comes close to matching the figure of 4.68 inches the city has received on average through the end of August for the last 30 years. Over the last three decades, Farmington has averaged a total of 7.76 inches annually.
As of Sept. 7, the vast majority of San Juan County was still characterized as being in extreme drought, with only slivers of the southwest and southeast corners in severe drought. But on Aug. 10, approximately half the county was in exceptional drought, and now none of it is.
ALAMOSA just experienced its driest August ever, .01 inches of precipitation. The year also has seen Alamosa tie or break 12 high temperature records, according to the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
Don’t let the raindrops in the forecast fool you, either. What little precipitation falls now won’t change the trends of a warmer San Luis Valley and the challenges the change in climate is bringing to the Valley’s surface water and groundwater management practices. The average temperature this year to date is running 3.1f above the long term average for the January-to-July period.
Why it matters
“The concern for me is, we’re in months like August when we expect to get some of the monsoonal moisture,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, “and when we don’t, we go into the winter time dry. Even if we get above average precipitation in the winter months we can’t expect average stream flows in the spring because the moisture has to go back into wetting the landscape that was dried out this summer.”
If you’re looking for a silver lining, 2021 isn’t as warm as 2020. But then again, the January to July period of 2020 was also the 9th warmest of the past 73 years for maximum temperatures, according to NWS data.
Alamosa Record Temps 2021
Aug. 28 Temp 87, tied the record set in 2017
July 10 Temp 94, old record of 92 set in 2020 and 1992
July 9 Temp 92, tied the record set in 2003
July 8 Temp 91, tied the record set in 1989
June 17 Temp 92, old record of 89 set in 2012
June 16 Temp 94, old record of 87 set in 1950.
June 15 Temp 90, tied the record set in 1946 and 2000
June 14 Temp 91, old record of 88 set in 1952 and 2004
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorad