New bridge to connect #RioGrande trail system at Adams State and Cattails — @AlamosaCitizen

Location of new pedestrian bridge over the Rio Grand in Alamosa. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Owen Woods):

OU’RE walking along the Rio Grande trail at Cattails Golf Course and you see the campus of Adams State across the way but can’t get to the other side. Patience, dear trail user. A crossing is on the way.

The city of Alamosa is moving forward with plans for a pedestrian bridge crossing at Stadium Drive behind the Adams State ballfields that will connect the west levee to the east levee at Cattails Golf Course.

The city has applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program to help fund the $4.1 million project. Other funding coming into the project is $220,000 from local contributors to cover design and permitting; SLV GO! kicked in $100,000 from private donors; the city of Alamosa $50,000; SLV Health $25,000; and Alamosa County $40,000.

Green bar shows location
of proposed pedestrian bridge. Read the report HERE.

This is a long-dreamt-of project, one that would no doubt change the way locals recreate. It would, with a seamless stitch, connect the most residential parts of Alamosa with the other side of the river, cutting down travel times and encouraging walking, running, and biking over driving.

Increased visits to Blanca Vista Park, the city’s Disc Golf Course and nearby trailheads are among the benefits, according to project consultant THK Associates. In addition, the pedestrian bridge would allow people to avoid the heavier traffic of the Highway 160 bridgeand the State Avenue bridge, giving a more direct route for runners like those from Adams State.

“The bridge will reduce vehicular traffic and result in reduced carbon emissions, potential traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths,” THK Associates said in its report. It added the State Avenue bridge was deemed a “High Conflict Area” and that runners, dog-walkers, and families with small kids could avoid potential danger with the new bridge.

Bridge on the river grand

THK presented three different bridge designs and locations, along with the costs. Of the three designs, the city chose to go with a more cost-effective, shorter bridge that will span just 370 feet at one of the river’s narrowest points. This particular design cuts down on the total overall cost, and also the impact to the river beneath it. The design proved to be the most direct line of access. To have this point of access, the city will have to purchase two properties on the west levee. As THK writes in its memo, “….the acquisition of additional land at this time is beneficial to allow for expanded parking, staging and access, and other possible benefits.”

Southwest River Engineers designed the bridge type and outlined where it would be and what it could look like. It’s a tied arch free span design that will have only two concrete supports placed on each side of the river bed. Each will impact 100 square feet of area once competed.

The earliest construction would begin is 2023, once funding is secured. An extensive design and permitting process is required before ground can be broken. A part of that permitting process is purchasing the two properties that border the west levee. After everything is moved along, permits are permitted and the Army Corps of Engineers is satisfied, construction could be completed by February 2024.

“With RAISE grant monies, the City will provide a safe corridor for pedestrians and cyclists separate from motorized traffic and improve economic competitiveness and resilience by supporting a growing outdoor recreation economy,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet wrote in a letter of support to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Keith Baker and Vern Heersink from the San Luis Valley Transportation Planning Region wrote in their letter of support, “The City of Alamosa and Alamosa County for decades have been in need of and in pursuit of a pedestrian bridge to cross the Rio Grande near Adams State University’s campus…. Multimodal projects such as this have become increasingly important to communities within the region as they develop new initiatives to improve pedestrian and bicycle routes to recreational opportunities and commercial centers.”

“The Rio Grande Intermodal Transportation Project builds on years of community planning with diverse stakeholders to develop the infrastructure needed to connect the public to multi-use trails along the river corridor,” said Emma Ressor, executive director for the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project in her letter of support. “This will increase sustainability and pedestrian accessibility, while creating space for the community to enjoy the Rio Grande and surrounding wildlife habitat.”

Widespread support for the project may help with grant selection. For small Alamosa, a bridge like this is apt to dissipate fear of traffic bridges, create an easier avenue to enjoy the nature and the sky, and ultimately increase the value of the town. The economic benefits from this are outstanding, yes, but the recreation opportunities are tenfold more.

Doing the math

Perhaps one of the most desired benefits of this project is the slashing of travel times.

Among the information studied by the city are two tables that show current travel times and estimated travel times after construction. The tables break down distance from Adams State, and travel times for driving, walking, and cycling to the North River Pavilion Trailhead, the Disc Golf Course, Blanca Vista Park, and the State Avenue Trailhead and Boatramp.

Say you start at Adams State University and want to catch up with some friends at the Disc Golf Course. You’re again limited to two ways to get there, but the obvious choice would be to take State Avenue. Let’s say you’re on your bike. The distance is 3.3 miles and if you’re enjoying a leisure ride, that would take you roughly 20 minutes.

With the new connecting bridge, the distance is cut by 2.5 miles and it would take you a mere 5 minutes to get there.

Now, of course, travel by car won’t change much if you want to park at the specific locations.

The flip side of this travel and distance also makes its case for anyone traveling from the east and north sides of town – the county side. Anyone can drive to these places and instead of taking the car downtown, they can take their own two feet. It encourages different means of travel for everyone.

It encourages taking the scenic route.

And for a community that relishes its outdoors, this bridge is a step toward making Alamosa’s wide open spaces and endless sky even more accessible and enjoyable.

Is the #ColoradoRiver a bellwether for the [#Colorado’s] other river systems? — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the guest column on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Eric Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel). Here’s an excerpt:

Unfortunately, the situation on the Colorado River is not unique. Colorado’s mountains are the headwaters of four major river systems: the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande. Each river provides critical water supplies for the present and future needs of our state; each is being impacted by the effects of climate change; and under Interstate water compacts signed decades ago, Colorado must share each with its neighboring downstream states. Climate change, or what scientists are now referring to as aridification, has caused all of Colorado to be hotter and drier. The combined effects of climate change, interstate water compact obligations and intense competition for the available water among different communities and water use sectors within our state means that future Coloradans will have to learn to do more with less water. This will take bold action, compromise and a new era of innovation and cooperation among competing water interests within Colorado and among Colorado and its neighboring states.

Rio Grande through the eastern edge of Alamosa July 5, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Already, the farmers in Colorado’s fertile Rio Grande Basin are struggling to maintain an aquifer by restricting pumping. They face an awful choice — reduce their collective uses of the aquifer to a sustainable level so that some farms can survive, or they all fail. At the same time, the surface water supply from the Rio Grande River, which must be shared with New Mexico and Texas, has diminished and most likely will continue to do so.

The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

The Republican River Basin, a small but agriculturally important river system that originates on the plains and flows east to its confluence with the Missouri River, is also stressed by overuse of the river supply. Productive farm fields are being fallowed so that Colorado can comply with the Republican River Compact. Fortunately for the Rio Grande and Republican river basins, the General Assembly set aside $60 million to buy out farms in order to leave water in the aquifers and river systems. That amount is a drop in the bucket for what will be needed to recover and sustain those systems.

The Arkansas River and South Platte River systems also have significant challenges. These basins are home to 85% of Colorado’s population and to most of its commercial agriculture. The farm economy in the Arkansas has already suffered when the Colorado State Engineer had to cut back the use of alluvial wells, which were depleting flows to the Arkansas River and causing Colorado to be out of compliance with the Arkansas River Compact. The South Platte River system, which relies on return flows to sustain the river past the state line, is seeing much higher demands. The current return flow regime is threatened by Nebraska reinvigorating the proposed Perkin’s Ditch, a century-old feature provided for in the 1923 South Platte Compact. Both these basins are being hammered by the combined impacts of Front Range cities rushing to buy and dry existing farms to provide water for future growth while their water supplies imported from the Colorado River Basin have become less reliable due to climate change caused drought and compact obligations.

Colorado’s future economy will depend on implementing innovative methods to sustain, deliver and treat water supplies while leaving enough water in our streams to maintain healthy and thriving aquatic ecosystems. Water delivery entities need to think broader to collaborate with others on ways to manage and share their supplies and their systems.

Las Vegas, #NewMexico declares #water emergency: The city said its reservoirs currently hold less than 50 days worth of water — KOAT #RioGrande #PecosRiver #GallinasRiver

Gallinas River watershed. Map credit: Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance

Click the link to read the article on the KOAT website (Nick Catlin). Here’s an excerpt:

Las Vegas is relying solely on its reservoirs to supply water, but it currently contains less than 50 days of water. Las Vegas normally relies on the Gallinas River as its primary water source. However, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fires damaged thousands of acres of the watershed for the river. The city said the fires have caused large amounts of ash and debris to enter the river, preventing Las Vegas from pulling from its primary water source.

New Mexico Drought Monitor map July 26, 2022.

#Colorado, #NewMexico struggle to save the blistered #RioGrande, with lessons for other #drought-strapped rivers — @WaterEdCO

The Rio Grande (Rio del Norte) as mapped in 1718 by Guillaume de L’Isle. By Guillaume Delisle – Library of Congress Public Domain Site: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3700.ct000666, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7864745

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Albuquerque, New Mexico — In late June, the mornings start out at 80 degrees but temperatures quickly soar past 100. Everywhere fields are brown and the high desert bakes in glaring sunlight. But there is one long, narrow corridor of green here: the Rio Grande.

Jason Casuga, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, and Anne Marken, water operations manager, have been watching the river’s water gauges around the clock for days, knowing that entire stream segments below Albuquerque may go dry at any time. If rains come over the weekend, everyone will relax, at least for a while.

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)

If that moisture doesn’t come, Casuga and Marken must move quickly to release to these dry stream segments whatever meager water they can squeeze from their drought-strapped system, giving the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation time to save as many endangered silvery minnow as they can from almost certain death.

“We only have so much time to start the drying operation,” Casuga said, referring to a practice where his district shifts water in its system so that Reclamation can rescue the fish before the stream goes completely dry and leaves them stranded to suffocate.

The Rio Grande Basin spans Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

“If we don’t do it, you might see 30 miles of the entire river go dry. It’s stressful. We’ve been doing this controlled hopscotching for weeks now.”

The Middle Rio Grande district, created in 1925, is responsible for delivering waters to farmers as well as helping the state meet its obligations to deliver water to Texas under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact. It coordinates management activity with Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of engineers on a river system that includes five major reservoirs and hundreds of miles of canals.

A crippled river

The district’s liquid juggling act is becoming increasingly common, and it is painful for everyone to watch, from the 19 tribes and six pueblos whose homes have lined its banks for thousands of years, to the 6 million people and 200,000 acres of irrigated lands that rely on the river across the three-state river basin.

“The worry is heavy,” said Glenn Tenorio, a tribal member of the Santa Ana Pueblo north of Albuquerque, who also serves as the pueblo’s water resources manager.

The Pueblo of Santa Ana lies just north of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande. Credit: Creative Commons


Under the terms of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas share the river’s flows before it reaches Mexico. They have watched drought cripple the river, with flows dropping by 35% over the last 20 years.

But unlike other Western states, in New Mexico water users share both supplies and shortages, and that’s a lesson other states might benefit from, experts say. In most Western states where the prior appropriation system, known as first-in-time, first-in-right exists, water users with younger, more junior water rights are routinely cut off in times of shortage, creating expensive, conflict-ridden water management scenarios.

Water scarcity grows

Still, in response to growing water scarcity, Texas sued New Mexico in 2013, alleging that groundwater pumping in the southern part of New Mexico was harming its own share of water in the river. After being heard briefly before a special master for the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the three states—Colorado is also named in the case—agreed to pause the lawsuit while they conduct mediation talks.

Want more background on the Rio Grande Compact?
Check out this fact sheet

Whether the talks will succeed isn’t clear yet. In addition to the groundwater dispute, New Mexico owes Texas roughly 125,000 acre-feet of surface water from the river and, under the terms of the compact, cannot store any water in its reservoirs until Texas is repaid.

But there is some hope emerging, as Colorado embarks on a $30 million land fallowing program to reduce its Rio Grande water use and as New Mexico seeks new federal rules that will allow it to store more water and re-operate its federal reservoirs.

Abiquiu Reservoir, in northern New Mexico, is one of several that are being drained by the mega drought. Credit: Mitch Tobin, Water Desk, March 2022

Page Pegram helps oversee Rio Grande river issues for New Mexico’s Office of the State Engineer. Unlike Colorado, New Mexico has never had the resources to quantify its various water users’ share of the river. Until now, the state has survived on healthy snowpacks and summer rains.

Though the drought has lasted more than 20 years, in the last five years, Pegram has seen the system deteriorate significantly.

“We’re seeing a fundamental change in water availability,” she said. “Suddenly, everything is different. Temperatures are higher, evaporation is higher, and soil moisture is lower. It’s new enough that we can’t pinpoint exactly what’s happening and we don’t have time to study the issue. It’s already happened.”

The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

In the beginning

The Rio Grande has its genesis in the lush high mountain tundra above Creede, Colo., flowing down through Monte Vista and Alamosa, making its way along Highway 287, crossing the Colorado state line as it flows toward Santa Fe and Albuquerque, then dropping down to the tiny town of Truth and Consequences before it hits the Texas state line. At that point it travels through El Paso and forms the border between Texas and Mexico until it hits the Gulf of Mexico.

It is in the headwaters region in Creede where the majority of its flows originate. And while the hay meadows outside Creede are lush, and the streams cold and full, water has become so scarce even here that if homeowners want to drill a water well, they have to buy water rights from elsewhere to ensure those farther downstream on the river have adequate supplies.

Creede circa 1920

Zeke Ward has lived in Creede for some 40 years, and has served on citizen advisory boards that oversee the river, water quality, and mine residue cleanup efforts.

He said the headwaters area has largely been protected from the most severe aspects of the mega-drought gripping the Rio Grande Basin and much of the American West because there are few people here and 80% of the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Still, he says, the river is vital to the region’s small tourist economy. “We don’t have a ski area,” he said. “So we have to make a living in 100 days, and that’s not easy.”

Follow the river below Creede and soon you enter the San Luis Valley, where irrigated agriculture dates back at least to the 1500s and where the combination of drought and overpumping have sapped an expansive, delicate series of aquifers. So much water has been lost that the state has issued warnings that it will begin shutting wells down if the aquifer, which is fed from the Rio Grande and its tributaries, is not restored within 10 years.

Craig Cotten is the top Colorado regulator on the Rio Grande and has overseen state and community efforts to make sure Colorado can deliver enough water to fulfill its legal obligations to New Mexico and Texas.

Craig Cotten, Colorado’s top regulator on the Rio Grande, stands on a ditch that delivers water to New Mexico to help meet Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact of 1938. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

To do so, Cotten routinely cuts water supplies to growers, based on where they fall in the valley’s system of water rights. Right now, Colorado is meeting its compact obligations, but the cost to the valley is high and the cost of failure higher still.

“The farmers are struggling with reaching sustainability,” Cotten said. “If they don’t get there, wells will be shut down.”

But Cotten said he is cautiously optimistic that the Rio Grande can be brought back to health as the climate continues to dry out, in part because there are new tools to manage its lower flows more precisely, including sophisticated airborne measuring systems that show with greater accuracy how much snow has fallen in remote areas and how much water that snow contains.

Knowing more precisely how much water is in the system means the state can capture more when flows are higher, and see more accurately when streamflows will drop. Previously, snow-water estimates have varied widely, miscalculating by as much as 70% or more how much water is in a given mountain region.

In addition, this year Colorado lawmakers approved $30 million to begin a program that will pay San Luis Valley farmers to permanently fallow their lands, something that will relieve stress on the aquifer and the Rio Grande and which could stave off a mass well shutdown.

Plenty to learn

Cleave Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa and is also a Colorado state senator.

He believes that the work on the upper Rio Grande holds important lessons for the three states sharing its water and others in the American West.

The people of the Rio Grande Basin have been living with whatever the river can produce for years now, and effectively sharing in any shortages. In addition, though the San Luis Valley aquifers are deteriorating, the farmers in the region have taxed themselves and used some $70 million from those tax revenues to fallow land, something that more and more experts agree will need to be done everywhere, including in the crisis-ridden Colorado River Basin.

“You don’t have very far to look to see your future on the Colorado River,” Simpson said. “Just look at the Rio Grande.”

Sunrise March 16, 2022 San Luis Valley with Mount Blanca in the distance. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Farmers in the San Luis Valley, including Simpson, are also testing new crops, such as quinoa and industrial hemp, which use less water than potatoes, a longstanding local mainstay.

“I don’t think I can keep doing what our family has been doing for four generations,” Simpson said. “I raise alfalfa because my dad and my grandpa did. But now I am raising 50 acres of industrial hemp for fiber … it certainly uses less water than my alfalfa crop.”

Daily prayers

The work in the San Luis Valley, including the new $30 million paid fallowing program, is a major step toward bringing the Rio Grande Basin back into balance.

And while “fallowing” is a term somewhat new to the water world, it is a management practice some of the oldest users of the river, its tribes, have practiced for millennia.

Tenorio’s family has lived in Santa Ana Pueblo for thousands of years. He said tribal members have learned to balance their needs with whatever the river provides. These days that’s not easy, but he said they focus on the future, to ensure their communities can grow and that their irrigated lands continue to produce the corn, melons, grains, beans and alfalfa that they’ve raised as long as anyone can remember.

“We only can do with what we’re given from Mother Nature,” Tenorio said.

Like other tribes in New Mexico, the Santa Ana Pueblo’s water rights have never been quantified, but because they are so old, they get their water first based on how much is available.

Looking ahead, Tenorio is hopeful that better coordinated use of New Mexico’s few reservoirs, as well as more efficient irrigation systems, will allow everyone to adapt to the drier environment.

“We pray every day for our farmers and everyone who lives on the river,” he said.

Wagon Wheel Gap on the Rio Grande, by Wheeler, D. N. (Dansford Noble), 1841-1909.jpg. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Unlocking manmade infrastructure
Casuga, of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, describes himself as the CEO of bad news. But he said he has some hope that the river can be better managed.

If new rules to operate the federal reservoirs are eventually approved, he says New Mexico could easily meet its water obligations to Texas. An effort is now underway in Washington, D.C., to make that happen.

“This river is highly developed from a human standpoint,” Casuga said. “We as men impact the river so we have to unlock this manmade infrastructure to help it.”

Until then though, the day-to-day reality of operating the river remains complex. In June, when the temperatures were soaring, the rain did come, but it offered only a brief respite for the Rio Grande.

This week, as the searing heat returned, the river began drying out, forcing Casuga and Marken to launch their elaborate hopscotch game again.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Reduced to a trickle, #RioGrandeRiver managers brace for more drying — The Associated Press

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Susan Montoya Bryan). Here’s an excerpt:

Triple digit temperatures and a fickle monsoon season have combined with decades of persistent drought to put one of North America’s longest rivers in its most precarious situation yet. Islands of sand and gravel and patches of cracked mud are taking over where the Rio Grande once flowed. It’s a scene not unlike other hot, dry spots around the western U.S. where rivers and reservoirs have been shrinking due to climate change and continued demand.

Local and federal water managers on Thursday warned that more stretches of the beleaguered Rio Grande will be drying up in the coming days in the Albuquerque area, leaving endangered silvery minnows stranded in whatever puddles remain.

The threat of having the river dry this far north has been present the last few summers due to ongoing drought, officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and one of the largest irrigation districts on the river said. But, this could be the year that residents in New Mexico’s most populated region get to witness the effects of climate change on a grander scale. It’s not uncommon to have parts of the Rio Grande go dry in its more southern reaches, but not in Albuquerque. Like a monument, the river courses through the city, flanked by a forest of cottonwood and willow trees. It’s one of the few ribbons of green to cut through the arid state, providing water for crops and communities.

“This is almost the sole source of water in the central part of New Mexico and we’re not trying to save it just for the fish,” said Andy Dean, a federal biologist. “It’s our job as the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent the extinction of this animal, but this water is also for everybody in the valley. We’re trying to save it for everybody and if the fish is that piece that helps us do that, then that’s what we have to use.”

The Bureau of Reclamation will be releasing what little supplemental water it has left in upstream reservoirs along the Rio Grande. Over the last 20 years, the agency has leased about 700,000 acre-feet — or 228 billion gallons — of water to supplement flows through the middle Rio Grande for endangered and threatened species.

Taps have run dry in Monterrey, #Mexico, where there is water for factories but not for residents — The Los Angeles Times

Click the link to read the article on the Los Angeles Times website (Kate Linthicum). Here’s an excerpt:

Drought has drained the three reservoirs that provide about 60% of the water for the region’s 5 million residents. Most homes now receive water for only a few hours each morning. And on the city’s periphery, many taps have run dry…

Many are angry at government officials and also the region’s mega-factories, which have largely continued work as usual thanks to federal concessions that allow them to suck water from the strained aquifer via private wells.

Experts say the crisis unfolding here is a stark warning for the rest of Mexico — as well as the American West…

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

Monterrey sits at the semiarid tail of the Rio Grande basin, which stretches 1,800 miles from the snowcapped Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico and is fed by tributaries from both sides of the border. The reservoirs behind two of the three dams that serve it are nearly empty…

Water has never been a given in poor parts of Mexico. Around half of Mexican households with access to piped water receive services on an intermittent basis, according to census data. Even rainy Mexico City faces occasional cuts in service because it lacks sufficient water catchment systems.

Monterrey was supposed to be different. Two hours south of the U.S. border, it is one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico, home to gleaming office towers, luxury car dealerships and modern factories that supply Americans with appliances, vehicles, soft drinks and steel.

Big #Water Pipelines, an Old Pursuit, Still Alluring in Drying West — Circle of Blue

The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, located in Sylmar, just east of the I-5 Freeway near Newhall Pass, in the San Gabriel Mountains foothills of the northeastern San Fernando Valley. The Cascades are the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water 338 miles (544 km) from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Construction of the aqueduct began in 1908 and completed in 1913. The cascades are a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM #742), a California Historical Landmark (#653), and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. By Los Angeles (talk · contribs) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4882240

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

  • As the region’s climate becomes drier, more pipelines are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks.
  • Pipelines that are advancing the fastest are rural and tribal projects backed by federal funding.
  • The proposals echo a century of large-scale water engineering that ushered in the modern era in the American West.
  • Across the country’s western drylands, a motley group of actors is responding to the region’s intensifying water crisis by reviving a well-worn but risky tactic: building water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to feed fast-growing metropolitan areas, or to supply rural towns that lack a reliable source.

    Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — potentially at great economic and environmental cost. Even as critics question the suitability of the water transfers in a new climate era, supporters in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions on water-supply pipelines.

    Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

    The pipelines range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred and the largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons per day. Among these is the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, a roughly $2 billion project that aims to deliver 86,000 acre-feet (28 billion gallons) each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner.

    Not all the projects are cut from the same cloth. Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have a leg up. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects, including one in progress in eastern New Mexico, were authorized more than a decade ago.

    The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement.

    Owens Valley

    The current batch of pipeline proposals traces its lineage to a century of engineering and building mammoth water supply projects that ushered in the modern era of the American West. State and federal canals snake the length of California. Los Angeles bullied its way into the Owens Valley in the 1910s, eventually siphoning the valley’s water through an aqueduct. A few years later, San Francisco reached into Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir and pipeline. The Central Arizona Project, which broke ground in the 1970s, was built to lift 1.5 million acre-feet of water — almost 500 billion gallons a year — more than a half mile in elevation along its 336-mile course to supply Phoenix and Tucson. In Colorado, at least 11 major projects pierce the Rockies, transferring water to the high-growth Front Range. States west of the 100th meridian would not have been able to attract millions of residents or develop their commercial and agricultural sectors without these water projects.

    As the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks. Large-scale engineering retains its appeal and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    Renewable Resources, a firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, is led by Aaron Million, who has dreamed for more than a decade of piping more Colorado River water to the Front Range. The potential water source for Water Horse is some 500 miles away: Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. Called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, it is still waiting on an key federal permit.

    In New Mexico, meanwhile, supporters of the Agustin Plains scheme wish to export 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from a high desert basin to communities along the Rio Grande, some 60 miles to the east. The state engineer rejected the permit in 2018, but the applicant is appealing.

    Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent came to light in April, when Escalante Valley Partners filed an application with the state Division of Water Rights for more than 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for export. The water, more than 44 million gallons a day, would come from 115 wells drilled between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where the state has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction.

    In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is championing the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way permit. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.

    The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. Critics contend that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that flows into it cannot handle any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency action to augment the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water than usual and releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.

    Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline project’s chief beneficiary. The basic logic of today’s water manager is not so different from an investment adviser: manage risk through a portfolio of investments. Critics assert that Washington County residents, though use has declined from its very high early 2000s peak, still consume more water than almost any community in the U.S. and that water conservation practices should be sufficient. But Renstrom defends the need for another water source — even a very expensive one, with an overall price tag of about $2 billion — because Washington County’s single source right now is the Virgin River.

    “Especially as someone who looks at climate change very seriously and believes in climate change and knows we need to account for that, to make sure the next generation has the tools that it needs to deal with those issues, I think we need to build these large water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told Circle of Blue.

    Utah officials are also pursuing a project in the state’s northern reaches to send water from the Bear River, the main tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, to communities some 90 miles distant along the Wasatch Front. The state does not anticipate needing the project for several decades.

    Map of the Mississippi River Basin. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47308146

    Those projects are miniscule compared to calls to divert eastern rivers like the Mississippi. An undertaking like that — which has legal, technical, environmental, and economic hurdles so enormous as to be implausible today, water experts say — echo even more grandiose and farfetched schemes that were proposed in the 1960s: engineering fantasies like the North American Water and Power Alliance, a continental-scale replumbing of North America’s watersheds, which never advanced much farther than the Parsons Company’s drafting board.

    Few of these projects have secured all required permits and fewer still have broken ground. But it is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles.

    One of the biggest obstacles is supply, says Denise Fort, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?

    Nearly a decade ago, Fort co-authored a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true.

    “Many of the pipeline projects under consideration today are dramatically different from those constructed in the past, in terms of sustainability of water supplies, available alternatives, costs, environmental impacts and energy use,” the report concluded. “The communities and agencies that are considering these projects would be well served by a careful analysis of the implications of these important choices.”

    Construction of the Monument Valley waterline extension, which was funded by The Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The pipeline provided 128 homes with water. Another water project, the Western Navajo Pipeline, has been on hold for at least 10 years.
    Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    Fort said that, in many cases, pursuit of these pipelines is an attempt to continue a water-consuming lifestyle in a region that can no longer support the burden of that demand. Scientists expect the flow of the Colorado River to decline by 9 percent with each degree Celsius that the planet warms.

    “We know what the future is, it’s coming,” Fort said. “And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”

    Fort believes that instead of sticking more straws into a shrinking pool, municipalities should seriously consider reallocating water from agriculture, which uses the lion’s share of the region’s supply. Instead of growing alfalfa for export, that water could be directed to cities. This approach is not without controversy and requires careful crafting — rural communities, in some cases, have resisted “buy and dry,” preferring leases that do not permanently sever water from land.

    But such a move is what El Paso is banking on. The largest city in West Texas has spent $220 million since 2016 to purchase 70,000 acres of ranch land about 90 miles east, in Dell City. Crucially, the land comes with water rights. Today, El Paso leases the land for farming. But in several decades the city plans to pipe the water beneath those fields to its residents.

    At the foundation of these debates about pipelines are competing views of the American West.

    One school of thought is that water follows growth. “I think it’s much cheaper to take the water to the people than move people to the water. You disrupt a lot less lives that way,” Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Summit last October.

    Great Basin wetland. Photo credit: The Great Basin Water Network

    The other view is one of conservation and restraint, championed by people like Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a group that advocates against transferring water out of its natural basin.

    “There is a suburban Manifest Destiny mindset throughout the region that I think is antithetical as it relates to the amount of resources that are available,” Roerink told Circle of Blue.

    Looking at the history of pipeline projects and water transfers in the West, Roerink worries about unintended financial and environmental consequences if the current contenders move ahead. In the arid Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and Utah, he is particularly attuned to dry soils if groundwater-dependent basins are depleted. It’s not an unheard of risk. To offset environmental damage in the Owens Valley from its aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has spent $2.5 billion in ratepayer funds to suppress dust storms.

    Many of the biggest projects were built in an era of minimal environmental review and major government subsidy. Those conditions have changed, one of many reasons why mega-projects like diverting the Mississippi River westward are implausible, even fanciful.

    Of the pipeline projects currently under construction, most are not fanciful. Most are like the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — smaller in scale and federally supported.

    Congress authorized the 140-mile project in 2009 and is contributing 75 percent of the cost. The rest is coming from local partners, which include four communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

    The project received $177.4 million from the federal government this year and $30 million from the state government. If funding in future years comes in as expected, construction should be completed in six to eight years, Orlando Ortega, the administrator of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, told Circle of Blue.

    Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

    The project is a federal priority because the partner communities are all served by groundwater from the depleting Ogallala aquifer. At some point, the water will run out. The pipeline is designed to bring surface water from the state-owned Ute Lake.

    Like all western water supply projects, there are questions about the long-term availability of Ute Lake as the region dries.

    “We are very sensitive to drought conditions, and would certainly be cutting back on our reservation, if needed,” Ortega said.

    Brett Walton

    Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.

    A 150-year-old #SanLuisValley farm stops growing food to save a shrinking #water supply. It might be the first deal of its kind in the country — Colorado Public Radio #RioGrande

    A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

    Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

    Farmers and ranchers across the San Luis Valley face a deadline: Their underground water source is drying up from a combination of overuse and a decades-long drought driven by climate change. To restore a balance of supply and demand, farmers and ranchers across the valley need to drastically cut how much water they pump out of the ground, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. If they don’t, the state has threatened to step in and shut off hundreds of wells, which local water managers say would devastate the valley’s agriculture-driven economy…

    Sarah Parmar, the director of conservation with Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit that works to protect land from development, looks down at the brittle ground and recounts her first visit to this farm last summer.

    “The farmer had a mix of peas and oats that he was growing, and they were up to his waist,” Parmar said. “It’s definitely a very productive farm.”

    No food grows here now. The farmer has stopped watering these 1,800 acres. Instead, he’s working with Parmar on a deal to leave that water alone to save the area’s shrinking groundwater supply and keep other farms in operation. The farmer plans to sign a contract with Parmar to permanently end the use of his water rights to grow food here, and that rule would apply to any future owner of the property. Parmar calls the agreement a groundwater conservation easement — and said it could be the first of its kind in the country…

    Once the agreement is signed, the farmer plans to sell the land to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which will work to revegetate the acres with native plants.

    How the Hazard ranch sale saved the day in Saguache County — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    The Hazard Ranch in Saguache County. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    AS you come into Saguache, about a half-mile out and to the west, you’ll find the start of the Hazard ranch and owners of the number one water right on Saguache Creek.

    The Hazards have been ranching in Saguache forever, back to the 1870s, as everyone in the town and the county will tell you, which is why it comes as somewhat of a shock to the ranching and farming community that the Hazard family has sold the ranch to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

    The transaction very likely could save the rest of what’s remaining of ranching and farming in Subdistrict 5 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Without the purchase of the Hazard ranch, neighboring farm and ranch operations were facing ongoing curtailment of wells from the state Division of Water Resources because the subdistrict was unable to offset the injury depletions to Saguache Creek.

    Saguache Creek. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    n this particular instance,” said George Whitten, vice president of Subdistrict No. 5 Board of Managers, “had we not been able to secure that water and we weren’t able to actually establish an annual replacement that satisfies the state, then there would have been about 8,000 acres of meadow land that would have been lost.”

    So now you understand the importance of the acquisition and how the Hazard family, a symbol of historical and cultural pioneering in Saguache, came to save the day.

    “What Perry (Hazard) told me is that as a family they decided the thing to do was sell it to the subdistrict and that way a lot of people around here could benefit from that water rather than selling it to a developer or something like that,” Whitten said.

    The sale was for $2.8 million. But really it’s the symbolism and meaning of the sale by one of the Valley’s oldest ranching families, a generational family that saw the end of the line and gave life to the other farms and ranches still trying to make it.

    Nightmarish well curtailment

    It’s been a rollercoaster 15 months for Subdistrict 5, with irrigators losing critical production time the last two irrigation seasons – 2021 and 2022 – after the state first shut down 230 or so wells in the subdistrict on April 1, 2021.

    The subdistrict, like the others in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is required to file an Annual Replacement Plan with the state Division of Water Resources that shows precisely how farm operators are returning water to the Upper Rio Grande Basin tied to the amount of well pumping that occurs.

    The state rejected the 2021 Subdistrict 5 Annual Replacement Plan because it didn’t have a source of water to remedy its depletions on Saguache Creek. When that happened the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict had their worst fears come true.

    The state initially had wells shut down from April 1 to June 22, 2021, before a challenge by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was successful and wells were turned on again. By that time, though, operators like North Star Farm, a hay provider for large dairy operations in California that runs 28 circles in Subdistrict 5, lost critical time in their growing season.

    he subdistrict also still did not have a remedy to its depletions on Saguache Creek when the 2021 appeal went through and had to figure that out in time to file its 2022 Annual Replacement Plan.

    The state has a period of May 1 to April 30 of the following year as the annual replacement plan year for Valley irrigators.

    The transaction on the Hazard ranch wasn’t finalized until May, and so at the start of May the state curtailed water wells in Subdistrict 5 for the second year in a row until it reviewed and approved the 2022 Annual Replacement Plan and the sale of the ranch.

    “We get credit for the water that that property is not going to consume for the rest of the year, and we use that water and leave it in the stream to remedy the injury caused by the wells,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 5.

    The subdistrict has been letting the ranch dry up the past 40 days or so since it’s owned the property, Ivers said.

    “The location of this water right and this property, it helps us tremendously because that stretch of the stream historically has always been wet,” Ivers said. “So we can have this water in place for dry years, and then in wetter years the stream goes farther so we can have sources of remedy down lower on the stream that can come to play in those years.”

    Saguache Creek

    The expectation is that the sale of the Hazard ranch will go a long way toward keeping that stretch of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the confined aquifer sustainable, and help other cattle ranchers and hay farmers stay in business.

    The sale also means there will be fewer cattle being raised in the Valley. It’s what the Hazard family did and had done for decades, but now it’s given up its farm and the water rights and others will carry on.

    “It’s an incredibly fortunate thing for us to be able to require that water right. You couldn’t pick a better one,” Whitten said.

    “We will need this water going into the future. It’s part of the long term plan,” said Ivers.

    Big shock in Big Bend — The #Texas Observer #RioGrande

    Some parts of the Rio Grande already experience a dry river most of the year. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

    Click the link to read the article on the Texas Observer website (Dylan Baddour). Here’s an excerpt:

    Near Santa Elena Canyon, a river gage measured 0 cubic feet per second for the first time on record on April 28, and it stayed that way for most of the next month. It’s a grim warning sign for the lower reaches of the Rio Grande, which provide water to millions of acres of crops and to many people in Texas and Mexico. The river has dried up in other spots off and on for decades now, battered by drought and overuse, but never in these places. No one alive has seen the river as it looks today.

    “The scope of this is significantly more widespread than I have ever seen,” said Raymond Skiles, a retired park ranger who spent 31 years at Big Bend National Park and grew up in the region.

    Heavy rains fell in West Texas and North Mexico over the first weekend in June, sending a raging pulse of water down the canyons of Big Bend and wetting the riverbed again. It was sweet relief from the ongoing drought, but nothing near enough to bring the once-great river of Texas back to life.

    What seems like the death throes of this river began slowly. Upstream, between El Paso and Presidio, the so-called “forgotten” stretch has run dry intermittently for the last 40 years. But water from the Rio Conchos, which meets the Rio Grande at Presidio, always brought the river back to life before.

    Skiles said he only saw the river dry up once below the Conchos in Big Bend National Park. It was 2003 and it happened along a particularly remote area, accessible only via a 15-mile round-trip hike. The phenomenon lasted only several weeks and never affected more visited stretches of river upstream, so few visitors noticed.

    The “Monday Morning Briefing” (July 4, 2022) is hot off the presses from the #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Click the link to read the briefing on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez). Here’s an excerpt:

    Those June rains

    June 2022 was a good month for precipitation, measuring 1.27 inches and finishing above the .043 inches that is normal for the month of June in Alamosa, according to the National Weather Service Pueblo station.

    For the past two years, 2021 and 2022, the month of June has measured above the historical norm, reversing a June pattern in 2020 and 2019 that fell below the norms.

    When the winter months don’t yield the snowpack and spring runoffs needed to feed the Upper Rio Grande Basin, then it becomes essential that the summer rains show up to deliver some relief. So far, so good in 2022.

    July 2021 was also good, bringing 1.14 inches of rain. Here’s to at least 1.04 inches of rain in July 2022 which would be considered a normal July year.

    Watershed Summit 2022 recap #shed22 #ClimateChange #COriver #ColoradoRiver #aridification #ActOnClimate

    Denver Botanic Gardens was live-Tweeting from the summit yesterday. Here’s their Twitter feed. (They did not use the hash tag #shed22.)

    Here’s the link to the #shed22 Twitter stream. I am always blown away at the insight and awareness displayed by others around me at theses events.

    Denver Botanic Gardens is a great venue for the summit. If you need to get up and walk around to clear your mind you can take in the sights of the gardens.

    Poll shows deep opposition to Renewable #Water Resources water export plan: #ClimateChange surfaces as top concern among #SanLuisValley residents — @AlamosaCitizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Mark Obmascik):

    THE IRS. Head lice. Bill Cosby. Nickleback. Congress.

    Every member of this unlikely group has one thing in common: Each is more popular than the Renewable Water Resources plan to pump water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.

    According to the Alamosa Citizen survey of voter attitudes in the San Luis Valley, the RWR plan is supported by less than 1 percent of local voters. It is opposed by 91 percent. Eight percent said they had no opinion of the water export project proposed by former Gov. Bill Owens and several other leaders of his administration.

    SEE THE RESULTS:
    Quality of life
    Water & climate
    Education & childcare
    Employment & financial security
    Internet use

    Widespread opposition to RWR was one of the major findings on natural resource issues to come from the random survey, which was directed by the Alamosa Citizen and financed, in part, by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

    The survey also yielded many other strong local opinions on the health of the Rio Grande (pessimistic), climate change (it’s hurting the river), and the impact of drought on local farms and businesses (not good.) More on those issues below.

    Still, it’s hard to find anything in modern American life liked less than RWR’s approval rating of 0.7 percent. Among the things with better approval ratings among voters than the RWR project: head lice, colonoscopies, used car salesmen, and dental root canal procedures, according to one national poll.

    Anchovies on pizza, as well as turnips and brussel sprouts for dinner, get higher ratings than RWR. Disgraced comedian Bill Cosby is 20 times more popular in the U.S. than RWR is in the San Luis Valley. The Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Congress all get higher marks, according to another poll.

    RWR backers said their own polling showed better numbers, but they declined to release the poll.

    “From day one to today, our team has never wavered in visiting the San Luis Valley, meeting with individuals and educating them about what we aim to do,” said Renewable Water Resources spokeswoman Monica McCafferty in a statement. “We are naturally suspect of this survey (Alamosa Citizen) that is likely agenda-driven. We stand by our proposal, which took years to craft and presents numerous advantages for the San Luis Valley.”

    The Alamosa Citizen conducted a 48-question survey which included questions on water and environmental issues. The survey was mailed to a random sampling of registered voters in each of the six counties of the San Luis Valley and was conducted by Nebraska-based rural survey specialist Craig Schroeder, who has surveyed attitudes of more than 60,000 people in 47 states over the past 20 years.

    RWR proposes to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from a deep aquifer in the San Luis Valley while buying and retiring 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”

    Local water officials have disputed RWR’s ability to export supplies from the Valley without harming existing farmers, wildlife, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The region faces increasing water restrictions after two decades of drought.

    RWR had been wooing suburban Douglas County as a destination for the water, but the Alamosa Citizen reported last month that county commissioners there backed away from the proposal after their attorney highlighted several legal and engineering hurdles.

    The company told Douglas County it is pursuing a “legislative strategy” for some of those issues.

    “People here have been hearing about these water export proposals for 60 years now, and we’re just tired of it,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “When it happened in other places, the outcome of selling your water rights for export has not turned out well for the community.”

    HE Alamosa Citizen survey showed citizen awareness of the water project is extremely high. Nearly 94 percent of respondents said they had heard of a project to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.

    About two-thirds of respondents said they had heard specifically of Renewable Water Resources.

    Of the residents who were familiar with RWR, 63 percent said they disapproved of the company. Eight percent approved. The remainder said they had no opinion about the company.

    “Leave our water here,” one survey respondent wrote. “If Denver can’t handle their needs, then they need to control growth.”

    “Exporting SLV water will devastate the valley – farming, wildlife, and habitat,” wrote another.

    “Water export to Douglas County would be an economic death sentence for the San Luis Valley and the communities it sustains,” said another respondent.

    The Alamosa Citizen survey showed the RWR plan comes at a tough time for water users in the San Luis Valley.

    When asked whether the Rio Grande aquifer had enough water to share with growing areas of Colorado that need more water, Valley residents responded with a resounding no – 89 percent disagreed.

    Eight of every 10 survey respondents agreed that the Rio Grande is “diminishing from severe drought.” By a 48 to 35 percent margin, Valley residents disagreed with this statement: “The Rio Grande is a healthy river.”

    Two-thirds of Valley residents agreed that climate change is negatively affecting the Rio Grande. Only 14 percent agreed that the Rio Grande can “withstand climate change.”

    In some ways, this means the San Luis Valley is more concerned about climate change than other regions, especially rural areas where voters have been more skeptical about the issue. The most recent national poll by Gallup on environmental issues found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.

    The Valley’s belief in climate change is unusual especially when politics are considered. Nationally, only 11 percent of Republicans say they believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their own lifetimes. But in the San Luis Valley, most survey respondents say the threat is already here.

    Only one in 10 local respondents agree that the Valley has enough water to meet local needs for the next 30 years. Nearly 85 percent of respondents say the Valley will face cutbacks in irrigation water in the next five years.

    “Farmers are out of time to self-regulate,” wrote one respondent. “The state should start imposing harsh restrictions now instead of kicking the can down the road.”

    “The San Luis Valley has become a desert because of climate change and the farmers / ranchers who have drained the aquifer by installing sprinkler systems,” wrote another respondent.

    “Farmers don’t need bossy legislators telling them how to use their water,” wrote another. “Most farmers are already on the brink of fiscal disaster. They need help, not more laws curtailing their use of water.”

    Almost every resident said there was a chance they would be personally impacted by drought.

    About seven of 10 Valley residents agreed with this statement: “We need to act now to reduce water use to continue to grow the San Luis Valley’s economy in the future.”

    Only 8 percent disagreed with this statement: “Rising temperatures will impact the San Luis Valley’s future water needs.”

    “Climate change is bigger than we are,” wrote one respondent.

    Monsoonal activity getting off to a good start in #Arizona, #NewMexico & southwest #Colorado — @DroughtDenise #Monsoon2k22 #drought

    Renewable Water Resources proposal to Douglas County is ‘dead in the water’ — The #MonteVista Journal #RioGrande

    Sunrise March 16, 2022 San Luis Valley with Mount Blanca in the distance. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Monte Vista Journal website (Priscilla Waggoner). Here’s a excerpt:

    Two memos the commissioners received addressed Laydon’s hesitation in making a decision. The memos, both generated by Stephen Leonhardt — Douglas County’s legal counsel who attended the public meetings, including the one held April 23 — presented a 26-point list of significant obstacles the county would have to overcome if deciding to vote for the export, not the least of which involved the need to “develop a legislative strategy” to change state law and “numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project”, including obtaining approval from the Secretary of the Department of Interior.

    As the memo explains, that may be problematic in relation to the Wirth Amendment, which specifically applies, at the federal level, to conditions that must be met for any project to export water from the San Luis Valley. The memo also suggests that that will be a solo effort, stating, “The RWR project is not consistent with the Colorado Water Plan so it likely will not qualify for any state assistance in meeting permit requirements.”

    Many of the points also validated concerns raised numerous times by opponents throughout the meetings, such as “RWR has not yet developed an augmentation plan in sufficient detail”, “there is no unappropriated water available in the confined aquifer for RWR’s proposed pumping” and RWR is presenting an inaccurate picture of how much water is available.

    Streamflow Response to Potential Changes in Climate: Upper #RioGrande Basin — USGS

    Rio Grande adjacent to Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of Janelle Golden, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Click the link to read the article on the USGS website (Shaleene Chavarria and C. David Moeser):

    The Rio Grande is a vital water source for the southwestern States of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas and for northern Mexico. Because streamflow in the basin is highly altered, disentangling the impacts of climate change and changes in streamflow due to anthropogenic influences such as dams, diversions, and other forms of water use is difficult. Therefore, a model that simulates naturalized flow (defined as streamflow that would occur in the absence of anthropogenic modifications) was developed to determine to what degree changes in streamflow can be attributed to potential changes in future temperature and precipitation without quantifying future changes in anthropogenic influences.

    In this study, the calibrated Upper Rio Grande Basin PRMS model (Moeser and others, 2021) was run with projected climate data (Dixon and others, 2020) to produce a set of streamflow projections through the year 2099 that represent potential future changes in Rio Grande streamflow due to changes in climate. The PRMS model was forced with projections of daily precipitation, minimum daily temperature, and maximum daily temperature from 27 datasets for 1981- 2099. These datasets include data generated from three general circulation models (GCM; Table 1) included in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5) suite of models, using three statistical downscaling methods for three RCP scenarios. To arrive at potential climate-induced impacts, simulated streamflow for the model historical period (1981–2015) was subtracted from three simulated future time periods (2022-47,2048-73, 2074-99), and an analysis of changes in [naturalized] streamflow volume and timing was conducted for the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

    In general, downscaled climate projections show consistent increases in temperature across the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The average projected change in total precipitation during the monsoon and snowmelt seasons suggests that, in general, precipitation will decrease during both seasons across the Upper Rio Grande Basin. However, there is considerable spread between individual downscaled climate projections and time periods. With the changes in temperature and precipitation, simulated hydrographs of streamflow and cumulative streamflow volume for streamgages on the main stem Rio Grande and outflow streamgages in near-native subbasins show changes from the historical period (1981–2015) in the magnitude and timing of streamflow for all future time periods and RCP scenarios. In general, changes in streamflow timing at all Rio Grande main stem gages showed shifts in timing of peak flow toward earlier in the year, whereas changes in streamflow timing at gages in near-native subbasins varied by location in the basin. Changes in streamflow volume along the Rio Grande main stem showed a similar trend for all RCPs and time periods where streamflow volume increases at headwater gages (Del Norte and Stateline) and decreases at all other gages below the headwaters. The largest percent differences in streamflow volume between the historical period and the future time periods were not found in the main stem gages but rather in the gages in the near-native subbasins.

    Read the report

    Projected change in cumulative streamflow volume for all Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System stream segments using the ensemble mean of general circulation models (GCMs) and downscaling scenarios for three future time periods based on the representative concentration pathways (RCPs) 2.6, 4.5, and 8.5.

    Projected change in streamflow timing for all Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System stream segments for the snowmelt season using the ensemble mean of general circulation models (GCMs) and downscaling scenarios for three future time periods based on the representative concentration pathways (RCPs) 2.6, 4.5, and 8.5. Center of mass date is defined as the date in which 50 percent of the total yearly (or seasonal) volume of water has runoff.

    Despite recent snow, high fire danger continues in the #SanLuisValley The Ark Valley Voice #RioGrande

    Click the link to read the article on the Ark Valley Voice website (Jan Wondra). Here’s an excerpt:

    While Chaffee and Fremont counties have been released (temporarily) from fire restrictions, such is not the case in San Luis Valley. The entire San Luis Valley is under fire restrictions. The Saguache County Office of Emergency Management is urging residents to prepare for wildfire…

    The three National Weather Service offices in Colorado issued 62 red-flag warnings in April — the most since record-keeping began in 2006. Snowpack levels were well below average with the San Luis Valley recording less than half of its normal levels, according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Center…

    Drought is expected to persist well into the summer according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Models from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center also suggest the coming months will be warmer and much drier than normal across Colorado. Above normal significant fire potential is expected to continue from June through September according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

    Monday Morning Briefing — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Yampa River photo by Colorado Parks & Wildlife

    Click the link to read the briefing on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    How water works: An important series by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable

    The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable does a great job of explaining how water works in the San Luis Valley and across Colorado with a running series of articles that are published monthly on AlamosaCitizen.com. The latest article looks at the Yampa River. Past articles have gone in depth on water augmentation in the San Luis Valley and work being done to improve snowpack and refined streamflow forecasting.

    You can find all the articles here and watch for more each month. They are educational and beneficial in understanding the water puzzle of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and other critical river basins in the state.

    Analysis: Push to export #water from San Luis Valley aquifers is NOT dead — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen webiste (Chris Lopez):

    Awise man once said, “developers only have to win once; the community has to win every time.” It’s the same with water exportation proposals. The Renewable Water Resources plan suffered a setback when Douglas County chose not to invest with federal COVID money, but the push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers is not dead.

    “I don’t think anyone should let down their guard and think we ‘won.’” That’s the voice of Karen Hickman, a Douglas County resident who’s been following the discussions in Castle Rock, and who emailed us her thoughts after listening to Monday’s meeting.

    She finished by saying, “Commissioner Teal doesn’t like to lose so there must be another plan in the works!”

    There is, and Douglas County hired-attorney Steve Leonhardt pointed to it in his first confidential memorandum to the three commissioners on March 23, 2022 when he wrote, “RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”

    The issue being the required augmentation plan and meeting the rules and regulations governing groundwater withdrawals in the Upper Rio Grande Basin of the high-desert San Luis Valley.

    Enter State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. He’s been pointing out the problems of the Renewable Water Resources plan from the beginning and understood all along that Bill Owens and Sean Tonner would look to take a path through the state legislature.

    “Since the first engagement with RWR proponents and the description of their pipe dream concept I felt the only path forward for them was some sort of legislative relief from the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules and the Rules and Regulations for Groundwater Withdrawals in Division 3,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “I suspect they would have to make the case that their concept was of such vital state interest that the state should create a variance of some sort for them to allow confined aquifer withdrawals outside of the Rules we all have adopted and operate under.

    “I can’t say for sure what that looks like, maybe as simple as a variance request,” he said. “I think the memo from Steve Leonhardt, the letter from their original attorney to the AG’s office, emails from Sean Tonner to Jerry Berry and the language in their presentation to the commissioners all point to the same thing, ‘but for the rules’ this would be a beneficial concept.”

    A legislative strategy for Owens and Tonner might revolve around the “public trust doctrine” that allows the public to decide the best and most appropriate use of the waters of the state. It’s an area that Simpson said he’ll be watching.

    As Renewable Water Resources regroups, keep in mind Douglas County commissioners are limited to two four-year terms and that Commissioner George Teal, who supported the request for $10 million of American Rescue Plan Act money from Douglas County, is in the second year of his first term. Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in November and was able to avoid a primary challenge at the Douglas County Republican assembly when county delegates denied a floor nomination from his challenger. Commissioner Lora Thomas is running for Douglas County Sheriff in November; her term as commissioner doesn’t end until 2025 so she could remain on the county commission if she loses the sheriff’s race. If she wins the sheriff’s race, Teal and Laydon will likely look to influence whoever takes her place.

    All of this matters because Owens, the former governor of Colorado, and Tonner, his former chief of staff, both live in Douglas County and are active in Douglas County Republican politics as well as state Republican politics.

    Owens; Tonner; their other partner, John Kim; Teal; and Laydon run in the same local political and social circles in Douglas County and along the Colorado Front Range.

    Expect them to push forward.

    Attorney: Renewable Water Resources plan has too many holes for Douglas County ARPA investment — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    THE Renewable Water Resources proposal runs counter to the Colorado Water Plan, would likely trigger a federal review under the Wirth Amendment for the harm it could do to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn’t have a developed augmentation plan to meet the required one-for-one replacement within the same Response Area to get the plan through state water court.

    Those are some of the findings Attorney Steve Leonhardt laid out in confidential memorandums released Tuesday by Douglas County. The problems Leonhardt sees with the proposal convinced Commissioner Abe Laydon to not support RWR’s request for investment by using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

    However, Laydon and Commissioner George Teal remained open to Renewable Water Resources coming back to them if they can solve the concerns spelled out by Leonhardt, who Douglas County hired on contract to review the RWR plan. Commissioner Lora Thomas, who’s been opposed to RWR, said she did not want Douglas County to spend any more of its time and tax dollars on the RWR plan.

    “This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal,” state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a released statement.

    The problems detailed by Leonhardt are many, particularly as the water exportation proposal relates to the required augmentation plan and the need for Renewable Water Resources to solve that problem by changing existing state rules that govern groundwater pumping in the Valley.

    RWR told Douglas County it’s developing a “legislative strategy” to address the requirement.

    “In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” Leonhardt said in a bulleted memorandum.

    “This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”

    The attorney said not only does the RWR proposal lack a developed augmentation plan but that it cannot meet the state rule that requires “one-for-one replacement within the same ResponseArea.”

    “RWR cannot meet this requirement, even if it were to acquire and retire all wells within its Response Area. Therefore, RWR’s plan cannot succeed without an amendment to this rule. RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”

    Leonhardt’s memo concluded that “the two reasonable options would be to (1) reject the proposal; or (2) continue discussions with RWR (and perhaps other interested parties in Douglas County and/or the San Luis Valley) to see if agreement can be reached on an acceptable proposal.”

    Laydon and Teal chose option 2. Thomas wanted Douglas County to walk away altogether.

    “Douglas County welcomes ongoing discussions with RWR, should they be able to provide new information or otherwise overcome these hurdles,” said a statement released by Douglas County.

    Simpson, during a recent taping of The Valley Pod, told Alamosa Citizen that changing the rules and regulations governing groundwater pumping in the Valley would be a difficult challenge.

    “To change the rules and regs, they’d have to go to court as well,” Simpson said. “They would be seeking authorization to change the rules that we all live by. Those are confined aquifer new-use rules and rules and regulations for groundwater withdrawals that everybody else here lives with.

    “I’ve highlighted this from the very beginning, that’s a pretty tough hill for them to climb. The money behind this though, I suspect if Douglas County wants to participate in this we’ll see them in court.”

    Douglas County says no to developers’ San Luis Valley #water export proposal — @WaterEdCO #RioGrande

    Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The community needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

    Douglas County officials said Tuesday they would not use their COVID-relief funding to help finance a controversial $400 million-plus proposal to export farm water from the San Luis Valley to their fast-growing, water-short region.

    In a statement the commissioners said the federal rules would not allow the funds to be spent to help finance early work on the proposed project, and that it faced too many legal hurdles to justify the time and money the county would need to devote to it.

    The county made public Tuesday two extensive legal memos, based on its outside attorneys’ review of engineering, and legal and regulatory requirements the project would have to adhere to in order to proceed. The memos formed the basis for the county’s rejection of the funding request.

    “The Board of Douglas County Commissioners has made the decision, based on objective legal recommendations from outside counsel, that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are inapplicable to the RWR proposal and that RWR has significant additional hurdles to overcome in order to demonstrate not only a ‘do no harm’ approach, but also a ‘win-win’ for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley,” the board said.

    The proposal comes from Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a well-connected Denver development firm that includes former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.

    Among other things, the memos said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.

    The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which outlines how the state will meet future water needs. That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.

    County Commissioner Lora Thomas came out against the idea early, with Commissioner Abe Layden joining her this week in voting against the proposal. Commissioner George Teal voted for the proposal.

    “I am ecstatic that I got a second vote to stop it,” Thomas said. “The hurdles are too steep for us to get over. I don’t see a future for it.”

    RWR declined an interview request regarding the decision, but in a statement it said it planned to continue working with the county to see if the legal concerns raised could be resolved.

    “Our team is eager to address the county’s remaining questions as raised in the legal analysis. We are confident in our ability to mitigate any areas of concern,” it said.

    Opposition to the proposal sprang up quickly last December after RWR submitted its $10 million funding request to the commissioners.

    Critics, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, argued that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well-shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.

    RWR said its plan to shut down agricultural wells could help the valley, but many disagreed.

    State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a statement that he was pleased with Douglas County’s decision. “This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal.”

    Environmental groups also came out in opposition, as have numerous elected leaders including Democrats Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the valley.

    Douglas County does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service. And they are all facing the need to develop new water supplies.

    But two of the largest providers, Parker Water & Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.

    What comes next for RWR’s proposal isn’t clear yet. RWR spokeswoman Monica McCafferty said the firm’s attorneys were still reviewing the legal memos the county released Tuesday.

    RWR has said previously that it might ask lawmakers to change state water laws to remove some of the legal barriers to its proposal.

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

    Click the link to read “Douglas County commissioners reject using federal money for water project, will continue talks” on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

    At the heart of Tuesday’s decision: Two memos from water attorneys regarding the project that has been kept under wraps since mid-March. Commissioners authorized their release to the public Tuesday.

    The first memo, dated March 23, is from attorneys Stephen Leonhardt and April Hendricks of the firm Burns, Figa & Will. Its executive summary said there is “no unappropriated water” available in the confined aquifer, the source for the RWR project. In addition, RWR has not come up with an augmentation plan in sufficient detail to demonstrate that its plan will meet the requirements of the state water rules and avoid injury to other water rights, the memo added. The RWR project “is not consistent” with the state’s water plan, so no state dollars would likely be available for it; and that Douglas County will face numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project after a decree from state water court is entered. “RWR does not intend to obtain permits before going to Water Court, and RWR’s current proposal calls for Douglas County to bear all responsibility for obtaining the required permits for this project. Obtaining the required federal, state, and county permits likely will take several years, at a substantial financial cost to Douglas County, with a risk that one or more permits will be denied.”

    The May 2 memo notes that Leonhardt and Douglas County attorney Lance Ingalls attended a meeting with RWR’s attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck as well as RWR principal John Kim on April 1…

    The May 2 memo is divided into several sections, including water availability, sale of water rights, water supply impacts, sustainability of the closed aquifer, and dry-up of irrigated agricultural lands. Among the findings:

  • Questions on whether ARPA money could be used for the project
  • Recognition that an RWR-supported community fund would not mitigate economic losses from the dry-up of irrigated lands and impacts on related businesses
  • Opposition from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is managed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a major opponent of the projects
  • Difficulty in rehabilitating the land once the water is removed
  • The closed aquifer cannot sustain any new pumping, and that a buyer of water rights could only use those rights for their originally decreed purposes, meaning RWR would have to go to water court to change those uses from agricultural to municipal, which could mean a lengthy court battle
  • Both Laydon and Teal directed the commission’s staff to continue working on a deal with RWR that does not use ARPA money.

    Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

    New agreement opens #Mexico to more San Luis Valley potatoes — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Photo credit San Luis Valley Heritage.

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    Governor visits Valley to make the announcement; signs Simpson bill that brings $30 million to Rio Grande Basin

    EXPECT more truckloads of potatoes grown in the San Luis Valley to be headed south into Mexico in the near future.

    Gov. Jared Polis showed up in the Valley on Monday bearing good news. Joined by potato growers and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt, Polis announced a new agreement that opens up the entire country of Mexico to potato exports from Colorado.

    “As you know we are the second biggest potato producing region overall, but we are the best-situated potato region for export to the Mexican market and we are very excited about what the opportunity means,” said Polis.

    He said the state and the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee headed by Jim Ehrlich will work next at identifying the specific regions of Mexico to increase Colorado potato exports and identifying buyers in Mexico.

    Increasing potato exports to Mexico was one of two stops Polis made in the Valley. He also joined State Sen. Cleave Simpson and a host of local dignitaries to sign two water-related bills into law that were sponsored by Simpson:

  • SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund that will provide $60 million to the Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin for groundwater compact and interstate compliance regulations.
  • HB22-1316, the Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund which pays for items like satellite monitoring system operation and maintenance, weather modification permitting, Colorado floodplain map modernization, among other projects.
  • Cautious optimism

    Working with Mexico to get more potato exports from Colorado was greeted with cautious optimism by Valley farmers. The U.S. and Mexico had worked out a similar arrangement seven years ago, said Ehrlich, only to have Mexico revert back to limited exports 11 days into the agreement.

    Ehrlich said there is hope this new agreement will last longer, which Polis said it will since Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed off on the agreement and López Obrador will be in office through September 2024.

    Ehrlich credited U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet for their persistent efforts to get Mexico to open up on agriculture exports. “For years, I’ve worked with Colorado’s potato growers to cut through red tape and restore access to the industry in Mexico,” Bennet said. “I’m pleased to see the first shipments of U.S. fresh potatoes to Mexico in over 25 years. I’ll keep fighting to keep this market open.”

    Ehrlich said Vilsack, during his time as ag secretary under President Obama, had been working on getting Mexico to agree to more exports and was able to pick up that work and complete it when President Biden named Vilsack his ag secretary.

    “We hope this will be a durable agreement over time,” Ehrlich said.

    Last year, Colorado exported more than 122 million pounds of potatoes to Mexico, according to the governor’s office. Colorado exported $1.4 billion of goods to Mexico, including potatoes, making it Colorado’s second largest export destination. With this new announcement the U.S. has begunexporting potatoes beyond the 26-kilometer border zone that previously marked the limit of their export, the governor said.

    The Valley exports potatoes by truck into Mexico. The Mexicans are partial to the alpha potato, but Ehrlich and Polis said the new agreement will yield Mexico all types of potatoes grown in the Valley.

    “Our growers here are some of the best potato growers in the world,” Ehrlich said. “I anticipate that we will only ship our very best product to Mexico.

    “We’re going to expose them to all different kinds, reds, yellows, russets, we anticipate we’ll expose them to everything.”

    The competitive Polis, who has chided neighboring New Mexico that the green chile grown in Colorado is superior, took aim at Idaho with the potato announcement.

    “We are the second largest (potato-growing state), but Idaho we’re coming for you.”

    Douglas County will not use COVID funds on San Luis Valley #water project: County may consider proposal in future, but Laydon’s vote puts on brakes for now — The #CastleRock News-Press #RioGrande

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    Click the link to read the article on the Castle Rock News Press website (Elliot Wenzler). Here’s an excerpt:

    The Douglas County commissioners have decided not to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars on a controversial water supply project but may consider it again in the future. Commissioner Abe Laydon, the decisive vote on the issue, announced his vote during a May 24 work session…

    Laydon said his decision was because the county’s outside legal counsel concluded that the project was not eligible for ARPA funds and recommended the county not participate…

    One issue outlined in the memo is that Renewable Water Resources has not formed an augmentation plan — as would be required by law — showing how they will avoid injury to other water rights through their project. Commissioner Lora Thomas has been against the proposal since it was brought before the county and said she is not in support of continuing any conversations with RWR or paying for outside legal counsel to continue assessing it.

    Governor Polis signs bills to reduce #groundwater use, fund water #conservation projects — #Colorado Newsline

    Irrigation equipment on a farm in Montrose County, Colorado on May 29, 2021 with Lone Cone in the background. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

    Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed two bills into law that are aimed at conserving a precious and dwindling resource in the state: water. For the bill signings, the governor traveled to the San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region where farmers face mounting challenges from extreme drought driven by climate change.

    Republican Sens. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa and Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, plus Reps. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, and Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican, sponsored the first bill, Senate Bill 22-28. It puts $60 million of federal COVID-19 relief money into a new “groundwater compact compliance and sustainability” fund to help finance projects that reduce groundwater use in the Rio Grande and Republican river basins.

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    Such projects might include efforts to “buy and retire” wells used for irrigation as well as portions of irrigated farmland, with the goal of restoring water to underground aquifers and helping the communities meet deadlines to reduce their water use. The Colorado Water Conservation Board can allocate money from the groundwater fund based on recommendations from the boards of directors for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Republican River Water Conservation District.

    “The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well,” Simpson told the Alamosa Citizen in April.

    The other bill Polis signed, House Bill 22-1316, provides millions of dollars for construction projects approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The bill’s legislative sponsors included Reps. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, and Catlin, along with Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Simpson. Among the local and regional projects funded are:

    • $3.8 million for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. By increasing water flows through the central Platte River habitat area — which stretches across northern Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska — the project is aimed at improving conditions for the interior least tern, pallid sturgeon, piping plover and whooping crane.
    • $2 million to support the state’s efforts to comply with the Republican River compact, which was first negotiated between Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska in the early 1940s. The compact governs the three states’ use of the water resources in the Republican River basin, which begins on the plains of eastern Colorado and flows through northwest Kansas and eastern Nebraska.
    • $500,000 for the Arkansas River Decision Support System. The Arkansas River DSS project involves collecting data on characteristics like climate and groundwater in the Arkansas River basin, which covers the southeast quadrant of the state, and analyzing the data to help inform future decisions about water use.

    Polis, a Democrat, signed both bills into law at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District offices in Alamosa. According to a statement from Polis’ office, the governor then joined state and national officials in the nearby town of Center to champion a major development for the San Luis Valley’s potato industry.

    The U.S. recently began exporting potatoes — including those grown in the Valley — to new regions in Mexico under an agreement reached late last year between the two countries. Previously, potato exports were limited to a 16-mile border zone.

    “This agreement, paired with the critical work the Valley is doing to protect and conserve our water, will make a major positive difference for our farmers, meaning more money in the pockets of hardworking Coloradans,” Polis said in a statement. “Colorado is strategically positioned to lead the nation in potato exports to Mexico.”

    Colorado sent its first shipment of potatoes to Mexico under the new agreement last week, according to the statement.

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    Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

    San Luis Valley shows off diversity of farm operations to #Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    KATE Greenberg, agriculture commissioner for Colorado, is leaving Cactus Hill Farm in Conejos County when she reflects on the farm operations she’s visited so far on her weekend tour of the San Luis Valley.

    Greenberg had made stops at the non-profit Rio Grande Farm Park in Alamosa, the large-scale Esperanza Farms managed by Virgil Valdez, and then the niche Cactus Farm where Elana Miller-ter Kuile spoke about the unsustainable nature of fast fashion that the wool farmer sees in an era of water scarcity and climate change.

    It was during her time as western program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition that Greenberg would begin to acquaint herself with the area, particularly neighboring New Mexico where she was schooled on the practice of acequia farming and the generational ties to agricultural lands in the high-desert terrain of the region.

    It’s been pointed out that she is the first female ag commissioner for Colorado, and maybe the youngest ever after she was appointed to the position in 2018 by Gov. Polis. What’s less described is her ease of command on the issues facing farmers at different scales of operation, and her willingness to engage in the divide between Front Range and rural Colorado as it wrestles with issues like the affluent bedroom community of Douglas County looking to raid the aquifers of the San Luis Valley to quelch its population thirst.

    On her visit to the Valley, she sat in the living room of Virgil and Sherry Valdez at Esperanza Farms and heard about fears of getting crops out of the ground and to market this summer due to the lack of farm labor. Earlier she spent time with Jesus Flores and conversed entirely in Spanish with the Rio Grande Farm Park manager, and helped bottle-feed newborn sheep at Miller-ter Kuile’s Cactus Hill Farm.

    Across America agricultural leaders like Greenberg wrestle with how to balance the rise of corporate farms that have sliced away at mid-level farming and ranching operations but left a bit of space for the family farmer, community organic operations, and enterprising people like Elana Miller-ter Kuile who clearly has found a niche in the wool-making world.

    “Here in the Valley I feel like the different scale, whether it’s very small, or very large, or somewhere in between, it’s all about how do you support your family, support your business, take care of the land and find a market,” Greenberg said.

    “I think all of the different operations we’ve seen, whether it’s Rio Grande Farm Park helping families provide food for themselves or for farmer’s markets, Elana selling wool all across the country, or Virgil and Sherry (Valdez) growing for potato sheds for exports, all of that has a place in our ag economy and you could see that just within a few miles of each other here.”

    She grasps the very real burnout of farmers and the disappearance of the next generation of ag producers, but even there she found new hope in what’s happening across the San Luis Valley to maintain an agricultural sector.

    Her trip into San Luis and Costilla County to attend Saturday’s Congresso de Aquequias 2022 and to learn about the Move Mountains Youth apprenticeship in acequia farming gave her more thought and more ways to move forward in her job handling Colorado’s $7 billion ag economy.

    “I think from my experience throughout the years in New Mexico in particular, I come here humbly,” Greenberg said. “Even though I was invited to speak (at the Congresso), I intend to listen a lot more than I speak. I have a farmer friend whose dad always said, ‘We were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.’ So I hope that’s what I can do, is listen and learn from the folks in San Luis.”

    In this video interview with Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Greenberg, she reflects more on the job of ag commissioner, her visit to the San Luis Valley, and why the Renewable Water Resources exportation plan is the wrong approach for managing water in Colorado. Watch our car-ride interview with Commissioner Greenberg:

    Pueblos again seek inclusion in #RioGrande decision-making: Experts say 2022 looks grim for the river, and irrigation season is likely to be brief and dry — Source #NM

    Some parts of the Rio Grande already experience a dry river most of the year. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

    Click the link to read the article on the Source NM website (Danielle Prokop). Here’s an excerpt:

    Members of six New Mexico Pueblos are calling for a seat at the table from the body that oversees how the Rio Grande’s water is split, managed and used between states. A coalition representing Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta attended the annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting on May 6. Gov. Vernon Abeita (Isleta) spoke on behalf of the coalition, saying the Pueblos should be included in all correspondence and meetings that may impact access to Rio Grande water. They should also be invited to future commission meetings, he said.

    The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    “In the past, Bureau of Indian Affairs represented Pueblos at commission meetings,” Albeita said. “It is now time the coalition interacts with the commission directly, and for the commission to engage the coalition Pueblos, so that our voices can be heard.”

    Cochiti Pueblo between c. 1871-c. 1907. By John K. Hillers, 1843-1925, Photographer (NARA record: 3028457) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17208641

    He said the Pueblos have cultivated and lived on their land “for time immemorial” and want a formal relationship to manage the water they depend on. This also the first time the Pueblos have sought “a seat at the table,” a direct quote from a 1999 request to join discussions on the operating contract between the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation. The U.S. Department of the Interior relaxed rules last month to allow tribes more control over their water rights. The department also established a federal assessment team to help the six Pueblos resolve water claim issues between the state of New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Abeita said.

    Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

    2022 #COleg: Turf replacement, wildfire, #groundwater sustainability funding among #water wins as #Colorado legislative session ends — @WaterEdCO

    Colorado State Capitol. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Larry Moriandi):

    The Colorado General Assembly adjourned its 2022 session on May 11. Among the water bills that passed, four share a common theme—funding. A rare confluence of new revenue sources led to strong bipartisan support of bills dealing with groundwater compact compliance and sustainability, state water plan projects, wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration, and urban turf replacement. A bill designed to strengthen Colorado’s water speculation laws failed.

    An orangethroat darter, one of the nine remaining native fish species in the Arikaree River. Photo: Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated.

    Groundwater compact compliance and sustainability

    Senate Bill 28 creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the purchase and retirement of wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. It appropriates into the fund $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) revenue that had been transferred into the state’s Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer. These are one-time dollars that must be obligated by the end of 2024; if not spent by then, they will be used to support the state water plan.

    The bill seeks to reduce groundwater pumping connected to surface water flows in the Republican River to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It will also help meet aquifer sustainability standards required by state statute and rules in the Rio Grande Basin, home to the San Luis Valley. To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be retired in the Republican Basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. If the targets are not met, the state engineer may have no choice but to shut down wells without compensation.

    Water sustains the San Luis Valley’s working farms and ranches and is vital to the environment, economy and livelihoods, but we face many critical issues and uncertainties for our future water supply. (Photo by Rio de la Vista.)

    Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, noted that agricultural production coming out of the two basins benefits the overall state economy, not just the local communities. “The state has some skin in the game,” he said, and the availability of ARPA revenue “presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to support the districts.

    Simpson emphasized that neither district is looking for a handout. The Republican has already assessed its water users over $140 million since 2004 to retire irrigated land and purchase or lease surface and groundwater to meet Colorado’s water delivery obligations. The Rio Grande district has taxed its farmers nearly $70 million since 2006 to take irrigated land out of production and has cut groundwater pumping by a third. Simpson requested $80 million from the Economic Recovery Task Force and, by demonstrating the interconnectivity between the state and local economies and the commitment already shown by the districts—along with strong bipartisan support from legislators—was able to secure the $60 million appropriation.

    State water plan projects

    Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the CWCB’s “projects bill,” which, among other things, has included appropriations from CWCB’s Construction Fund to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan in recent years. The funding source for those grants is different this year, with gambling revenue from Proposition DD, which the electorate passed in 2019, becoming available for the first time. Proposition DD legalized sports betting and levied a 10% tax on sports betting proceeds, with the majority of that revenue going into the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund.

    House Bill 1316 appropriates $8.2 million from the fund for grants to help implement the state water plan; $7.2 million of that amount is from sports betting revenue. Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said, “This is the first appropriation of funds from Proposition DD … and it looks like it’s starting to grow into what we had hoped.”

    The bill also appropriates $2 million to CWCB from its Construction Fund to help the Republican River Water Conservation District retire irrigated acreage. Rod Lenz, district president, said the district has doubled its water use fee on irrigators but that “we’re in need of short-term funding while we wait for that rate increase.” The $2 million in state revenue will help the district meet its 2024 interim target of retiring 10,000 acres of the 25,000 acres necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact by 2029. This is on top of the funds the district will receive from Senate Bill 28.

    A forest fire next to the Bitterroot River in Montana. UCLA-led research revealed that larger fires tend to be followed by larger increases in streamflow. | Photo by John MacColgan/Creative Commons

    Wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration

    Like Senate Bill 28, House Bill 1379 takes advantage of ARPA revenue by appropriating $20 million from the Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund for projects to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from damage caused by wildfire-induced erosion and flooding. Testimony on the bill in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee emphasized how investing mitigation dollars now helps avoid spending even more on very expensive recovery efforts later.

    The bill allocates $3 million to the Healthy Forests and Vibrant Communities Fund to help communities reduce wildfire risks by promoting watershed resilience. It moves $2 million into the Wildfire Mitigation Capacity Development Fund for wildfire mitigation and fuel reduction projects. And $15 million goes to CWCB to fund watershed restoration and flood mitigation projects, and to help local governments and other entities apply for federal grants under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act related to water and natural resources management.

    Mrs. Gulch’s Blue gramma “Eyelash” patch August 28, 2021.

    Turf replacement

    While most of the focus at the Capitol in reducing water use has been on agriculture through retiring irrigated farmland, House Bill 1151 elevates urban turf replacement in importance. The bill requires CWCB to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial property owners to voluntarily replace non-native grasses with water-wise landscaping. It appropriates $2 million in general funds to a newly created Turf Replacement Fund and authorizes local governments, nonprofits and other entities to apply to CWCB for grants to help finance their programs. Landscape contractors, to whom individuals can apply for money to replace their lawns, are also eligible.

    Rep. Catlin pointed out that “50% of the water that comes from the tap and goes through the meter and into the house is used outside.”

    “We’re building ourselves a shortage,” he warned, “by continuing to use treated water for irrigation.” Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, added, “For too long the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains have borne the brunt of water conservation … but this is a bill that will give the tools to metro areas for them to play their fair part in this problem that is our drought.”

    WAM bought this 57-acre parcel as part of a $6 million deal in January 2020, leading some to suspect the company was engaging in investment water speculation. WAM’s activity in the Grand Valley helped prompt state legislators to propose a bill aimed at curbing speculation.
    CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Investment water speculation

    Senate Bill 29 was an attempt to strengthen protections against investment water speculation, defined as the purchase of agricultural water rights “with the intent, at the time of purchase, to profit from an increase in the water’s value in a subsequent transaction, such as the sale or lease of the water, or by receiving payment from another person for nonuse of all or a portion of the water.” It was aimed at curbing outside investors who may have little or no interest in agriculture from using the water right to maximize its value as the price of water increases during drought. It authorized the state engineer to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and, if found, to levy fines and prohibit the buyer from purchasing additional water rights for two years without the state engineer’s approval.

    The 2021 interim Water Resources Review Committee recommended the bill, but it was never viewed as more than a “placeholder.” Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, a co-sponsor of the bill, expressed her disappointment that the bill did not generate more engagement between the water community and policymakers. “I was certainly hopeful that by having a bill we would force conversation,” she said, “but it did not result in having some forthright ‘let’s get around a table and hammer this out.’” Members struggled with trying to balance concerns over speculation with protecting property rights. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, the other co-sponsor of the bill, emphasized, “We are certainly not trying to take a farmer’s or rancher’s ability away from selling that water. In many cases that is their 401K, their retirement.”

    Opposition from water user groups in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee sent a clear message: Existing legal requirements provide the necessary safeguards to address water speculation. Travis Smith, representing the Colorado Water Congress, said what’s needed is “having more voices, taking more time.”

    Senate Bill 29 was amended to strike the language in the bill and refer the issue to interim study. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who was chairing the committee, expressed his frustration: “We have an ineffective water group that won’t have a conversation with lawmakers anymore. When they have a bill they just take a position and quit working with people.”

    With that said he carried the bill over for further consideration, effectively killing it since this was the last committee meeting of the year. It’s unclear whether the issue will be studied this interim since it’s an election year and fewer committee meetings will be held.

    Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at larrymorandi@comcast.net.

    The #DoloresRiver and the #RioGrande are melting-out quickly (May 17, 2022) — @Land_Desk

    2022 #COleg: To help refill two struggling underground aquifers, #Colorado lawmakers set aside $60 million to retire irrigation wells and acres of farmland — #Colorado Public Radio

    Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke clears paths for water to flow onto land the subdistrict owns. The property is one of the subdistrict’s investments in recharging the aquifer. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

    Colorado lawmakers unanimously voted to set aside $60 million of federal COVID relief money to create a fund to help water users in two river basins meet groundwater sustainability targets. If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the legislation would create a groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money would be used to buy and retire groundwater wells used to irrigate farmland in the Rio Grande River basin in the south and the Republican River basin in the east to keep the water in underground aquifers that are struggling to keep up with drought and overuse…

    Farmers and ranchers in both river basins face rapidly approaching deadlines to reduce their water use, which are necessary to maintain interstate river agreements and preserve underground water supplies. If these goals aren’t met, state water officials say there could be alarming consequences — and thousands of well users could face water cuts.

    In the San Luis Valley, the state water engineer is requiring some groundwater well users to limit pumping because too many wells are all pulling from the same groundwater source. Chris Ivers, the program manager for two subdistricts in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said farmers and ranchers have levied property taxes on themselves to fund similar local efforts to meet groundwater sustainability goals.

    Douglas County to release redacted Renewable #Water Resources memo with their decision — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    San Luis Valley irrigation crop circles. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website:

    DOUGLAS County will release a redacted version of an attorney memorandum at the same time it gives its decision on whether to move ahead with a proposal by Renewable Water Resources to transport water from San Luis Valley aquifers to the affluent metro-Denver suburb.

    The three county commissioners met for over an hour in a closed-to-the-public executive session Thursday to discuss which portions of water attorney Steve Leonhardt’s analysis and recommendations on the RWR plan would be redacted.

    “We will release our decision alongside this redacted memorandum,” said Commissioner Abe Laydon, chair of the board. A disappointed Commissioner Lora Thomas said she was under the impression a redacted version would be released as early as Thursday but now the release will occur at a future board work session.

    SLV WATER: Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE

    Laydon said a “large majority” of the information contained in Leonhardt’s memorandum to the commissioners would be made public. Redacted would be any information privileged to Renewable Water Resources or any information that would harm Douglas County in any future water discussions. Personal information of individuals Laydon and Leonhardt said they met privately with in the San Luis Valley would also be redacted.

    Meanwhile, the SLV Ecosystem Council submitted 255 signatures to the Douglas County commissioners in opposition to the water exportation plan. In the letter, SLV Ecosystem Council Director Chris Canaly slammed the commissioners for canceling a public meeting in the San Luis Valley and for their treatment of water and environmental experts who took time to educate the commissioners on the Valley’s dire water situation.

    “… SLV representatives compiled critical research and presented significant facts and valuable findings that embody generations of historical water knowledge of the Rio Grande basin. Your reaction to this good faith effort has been complete dismissal, even disdain.”

    #Aridification Watch: May edition As the snow season wraps up, how are things looking? — @Land_Desk #snowpack #runoff

    Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson) and to drop some dough in the tip jar:

    It’s that time of the year, again, folks. Yep, you guessed it, it’s … Yukigata Time! Okay, maybe you didn’t guess it. Maybe you have no idea what the word even means. But I’m willing to bet you are familiar with the concept and, if you are a farmer or a gardener, you probably use a yukigata.

    A yukigata is a pattern formed by melting snow on a mountain slope or hillside in the spring. They often serve as agricultural calendars, letting farmers know when to plant certain crops, or when the danger of a tomato-killing freeze has passed. The calendars can be simple: over in the Montezuma Valley gardeners wait until Ute Mountain is free of snow to plant. Or more elaborate: In the Grand Valley of Colorado, it would be foolish to plant before the Swan’s Neck has melted. And in the North Fork Valley of Western Colorado, gardeners wait for the Devil’s Neck on Mt. Lamborn to “break.”

    But the yukigatas have been doing their thing, or disappearing, sooner than in the past, tricking people into planting too early and making their crops vulnerable to the inevitable spring freeze. In Durango, Colorado, for example, gardeners once planted according to when the snow melted off the north face of Smelter Mountain. Now that can happen as soon as March—if there’s snow on the mountain at all—which is just too early.

    This also messes with plants’ internal calendars, tricking fruit trees into blossoming too early. A study published this spring found wildflowers in the sagebrush ecosystem now bloom weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s. And here’s a cool map from the National Phenology Network showing where trees leafed out earlier (or later) than usual this year.

    Clearly the premature melting of the yukigata is caused by less snow to begin with combined with warming temperatures. Dust on the snow causes it to melt faster, too. As does, wait for it, atmospheric thirst! That’s right, the increasing temperatures are making the atmosphere thirstier, and it’s guzzling up snow, drying out plants, sucking up reservoirs, and so on. Last month, scientists from the Desert Research Institute published a study tracking changes in evaporative demand and found it is increasing everywhere, especially in the Southwest.

    As evaporative demand increases, it pulls more water from the land into the air via evaporation and transpiration from plants (and snow and reservoirs), leaving less in the streams and soil. In the Rio Grande Basin, the authors say, that means crops need 8% to 15% more irrigation now than they did in 1980. They go on to note, “These increases in crop water requirements are coincident with declining runoff ratios on the Rio Grande due to warming temperatures and increased evaporative losses, representing a compounding stress on water supplies.”

    The authors conclude:

    “These higher evaporative demands mean that, for every drop of precipitation that falls, less water is likely to drain into streams, wetlands, and aquifers across the region. Soils and vegetation spend more time in drier conditions, increasing potential for forest fire, tree mortality, and tree regeneration failure.”

    So the thirsty atmosphere is likely a factor in the catastrophic fires currently burning in New Mexico. The Hermits Peak Fire—in the Pecos River watershed, east of the Rio Grande—has grown to a monstrous 166,000 acres and is threatening Las Vegas, Mora, and Montezuma.

    This year neither the Rio Grande nor the Pecos watershed has done all that well, snowpack-wise. Not many watersheds have, although Southwest Colorado is in better shape than it was last year. Snow season is pretty much over. That doesn’t mean it won’t snow any more in the high country. It’s just that the snowpack peak has almost certainly passed, runoff is underway, and many lower elevation SNOTEL stations are registering zero, which can throw off basin-wide graphs. So, below we offer the snowpack season finale with May 1 readings at our three go-to high country SNOTEL , plus the current graph for the Rio Grande Basin.

    The bright spot is definitely Columbus Basin, high in the La Plata Mountains. It’s below the average level for the period of record, but still doing far better than 2021. The La Platas feed the Animas, La Plata, Mancos, and Dolores Rivers. Last year the Dolores had an awful year. Things are looking up this time around—relatively speaking. The Dolores River through its namesake town shot up to 1,800 cfs at one point, dropped, then shot back up again, pushing up levels at McPhee significantly. Still, don’t goo excited. McPhee’s only at 59% of capacity and water managers are releasing virtually nothing from the dam.

    River runners better get out on the water now, while they still can.

    [San Luis] Valley farmers tie their fate to Mother Nature — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

    Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke clears paths for water to flow onto land the subdistrict owns. The property is one of the subdistrict’s investments in recharging the aquifer. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    MOTHER Nature will determine how much groundwater pumping occurs in ag-rich Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under a new plan of water management making its way to the state for approval.

    The subdistrict and its parent Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been under pressure to bring the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin to a sustainable level or face curtailment of wells. The San Luis Valley has two aquifers – one unconfined and one confined.

    In the draft of its new plan, which is the fourth amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management, Subdistrict 1 members spell out the situation with the unconfined aquifer:

    “Although the Subdistrict successfully remedied injurious depletions to senior surface water rights caused by groundwater withdrawals from Subdistrict Wells, it has not been successful in achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer. This Plan is intended to address the now-apparent deficiencies of the previous Amended Plans of Water Management and adopts new means needed to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer.

    “The Subdistrict realizes that if more restrictive steps are not taken to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer, the State Engineer will, at some point, be unable to approve a future Annual Replacement Plan, resulting in the curtailment of Subdistrict Wells. State Engineer denial of an Annual Replacement Plan could result in the curtailment of all Subdistrict Wells, causing severe negative impact on the agricultural economy of the Subdistrict and the San Luis Valley as a whole.”

    The board of managers for Subdistrict 1 gave final approval to the plan on Tuesday. It now goes to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board for consideration. If approved there, it would be submitted to the Colorado Department of Water Resources and State Engineer Kevin Rein for review and approval.

    “A lot of hard work has gone into this from everyone involved,” said Subdistrict 1 Board President Brian Brownell. “It’s been a struggle. Overall this is the best plan we could come up with.”

    The amended plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits.

    The subdistrict is asking the state for 20 years to make the plan successful in recovering the aquifer, with a goal to restore 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year over that 20-year period to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level.

    TO get there the plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.

    “Our pumping will be adjusted to whatever climate brings us,” said ex-officio board member Mike Kruse.

    If the Valley experiences wet periods, groundwater pumping in Subdistrict 1 can match it. If the Valley continues with the persistent drought it has experienced over the past 20 years, groundwater pumping in the subdistrict will reflect the dryness.

    “This plan takes into account the climate. That’s the beauty of it,” Kruse said

    The predicament of the depleted unconfined aquifer is the result of the state granting too many well permits for groundwater pumping decades ago, now coupled with decades of drought going back to 2002.

    “The state has to bear some responsibility,” said Subdistrict 1 board member James Cooley. “It isn’t all our fault.”

    Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke said the subdistrict had been making progress toward meeting the state’s goals with the unconfined aquifer up until 2018, when a particularly dry year hit the Valley. A wet 2019 brought some relief to the aquifer, but the subdistrict lost the progress it made after back-to-back dry years in 2020 and 2021, and now so far 2022.

    The change in climate, said Brownell, has been the biggest factor in working to restore the unconfined aquifer. “It’s nothing anybody could have foreseen and that is why we’re addressing it.”

    “This concept we have is probably the only way we can address climate,” said Subdistrict 1 Board Member Jake Burris. “With this plan we’re living within our means.”

    Based on modeling conducted by Willem Schreuder, president of Principia Mathematica in Denver, there is a high level of confidence among farm operators that the new plan will succeed in meeting the state’s requirement of a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The earliest the amended plan would take effect is for the 2023 irrigation season.

    Some farm operators in Subdistrict 1 are filing their own augmentation plans with the state Division 3 Water Court in lieu of joining a new amended plan by the conservation district.

    Renewable Water Resources, in its discussions with Douglas County, has tried to use the unconfined aquifer condition in Subdistrict 1 to further its case by approaching farmers with buyouts for their water rights. The RWR water exportation proposal is not in Subdistrict 1, but that hasn’t stopped RWR from trying to leverage the situation to their advantage, telling Douglas County that farmers in the Valley are facing imminent widespread water well curtailments, which isn’t the case.

    Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon made it a point in his recent visit to the San Luis Valley to bring up well shut downs as a reason why Douglas County could help the Valley by investing in Renewable Water Resources and buying out farmers and establishing a Valley-wide community fund.

    A state Senate bill offered by Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also works as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, would help address the strategy of retiring groundwater pumping wells in all the Valley’s subdistricts. If adopted – the proposed legislation has cleared major committee hurdles – the Compact Compliance Fund would make available at least $30 million to the Rio Grande Basin to help with groundwater sustainability measurements and would offer the Rio Grande Water Conservation District another pot of money to execute its strategies.

    2022 #COleg: Bill would set $60 million fund for #groundwater sustainability — The Alamosa Citizen

    The Rio Grande Canal is the largest water right in Colorado.

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    Rio Grande and Republican River would use funds to meet state groundwater sustainability, interstate compact compliance targets

    COLORADO is moving toward putting $60 million into a new groundwater compact compliance fund for the Rio Grande and Republican River basins created and funded through a state senate bill drafted and championed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.

    The bill, Senate Bill 22-028, creates the Compact Compliance Fund that would be administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and would receive an appropriation of $60 million from Colorado’s share of federal COVID relief money from American Rescue Plan funding.

    The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, originally only established the fund, and then an amendment unanimously adopted Thursday by the Colorado House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee added $60 million into it. The bill next will be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.

    “Given the unanimous votes every step of the way, so far, I am hopeful the bill with the appropriation will become law in the next week or two,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well. Still some work to do, but things look very promising for both of these Colorado communities.

    Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

    If the Compact Compliance Fund is adopted by the Colorado Legislature it would pay for efforts to meet groundwater sustainability targets in the Rio Grande Basin and interstate compact requirements for the Republican River Basin. Each basin would get an earmark of $30 million to pay for efforts like retiring groundwater wells and other conservation and water sustainability measures. The goal would be to spend all $60 million within the time constraints put on federal COVID dollars, whether it’s a 50-50 split or not.

    The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines. Credit: USBR/DOI

    The threat to livelihood for farmers and ranchers and economic disaster for the regions tied to irrigated agriculture in the Rio Grande and Republican River basins was made loud and clear in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee.

    “These farmers and ranchers have done everything they possibly can,” said Marisa Fricke, one of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s program managers. “They grow produce for us and hay for our cattle.”

    Farmers and ranchers in both basins have levied property taxes on themselves through the water conservation districts to pay for their efforts to help the Rio Grande and Republican River meet groundwater sustainability and interstate compact compliance goals set by the state. It has meant fallowing of crop fields, permanently retiring irrigated acreage, taking groundwater wells off line either temporarily or permanently, and compensating farmers and ranchers for their efforts to help offset loss from less irrigated acres.

    State Reps. Marc Catlin and Dylan Roberts made impassioned pleas for including $60 million of the ARPA money into the compact compliance fund during their presentation of the bill in the House Ag committee. Both are House sponsors of the bill.

    “This is an opportunity with these funds to say, ‘We’re with you,’” said Catlin of the risk farmers and ranchers take their sacrifices to address compact and sustainability issues on the Republican River.

    “This is a great bill for the San Luis Valley and Republican River Basin,” said Heather Dutton, district manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado through COVID relief bills provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in our communities. The imbalance between water use and supply is a critical issue facing Colorado and especially the basins highlighted in this legislation.”

    Farmers in the San Luis Valley are looking to take even more drastic steps in their efforts to meet state targets on groundwater pumping and recharging of the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s unconfined aquifer. In Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, farmers are facing a new proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management that would tie the level of groundwater pumping allowed to the natural surface water of the property. Some farms in the subdistrict do not have natural surface water, in which case they would have to purchase water credits from a neighboring farm or pay an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot.

    This concept keeps the system in balance by replenishing what has been withdrawn from the aquifer with surface water and allows the community within Subdistrict No.1 to work together through the exchange and sale of credits. In the event that more groundwater is withdrawn from the aquifer and not replenished an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot would be assessed, according to the proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s water management plan. Money collected by the conservation district from an over pumping charge would come back to the Subdistrict 1 community in the form of payments towards enrolling in water conservation programs, according to Fricke.

    “For over a decade farmers and ranchers have worked to meet sustainability levels and have taxed themselves assessments for waters taken out of the aquifer,” Fricke told House ag committee members.

    Eventually the water conservation districts would establish guidelines and the state Division of Water Resources would administer drawdowns of the fund. In the unlikely chance Rio Grande and Republican River water managers didn’t spend all $60 million, the money would revert to the division of water resources.

    Future state appropriations to Compact Compliance Fund would hinge on executive and legislative budget priorities.

    ‘Morally wrong’ for Douglas County to be coveting water from the San Luis Valley — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

    Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, right, with attorney Steve Leonhardt, who Douglas County has hired to help it work through RWR’s water exportation proposal. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    RIO Grande County Commissioner John Noffsker made Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon a counter-offer to the Renewable Water Resources exportation proposal: Douglas County gives the San Luis Valley its annual sales tax collections from Park Meadows Mall in exchange for some water.

    Noffsker’s point? That the Valley has no more right to sales tax dollars collected by Douglas County than Douglas County has to water in the San Luis Valley aquifers.

    Pleasantries were exchanged Saturday [April 23, 2022] between Laydon and a few mostly elected officials during a two-hour exchange at Nino’s Restaurant in Monte Vista. The conversation didn’t reveal anything new or anything Laydon and Douglas County haven’t heard over the past four months as Douglas County weighs whether to invest in the Renewable Water Resources water exportation plan.

    “You’re the tip of the spear on this one,” Noffsker said in making Laydon aware that people watching Douglas County’s deliberations know Laydon holds the deciding vote on the three-member commission, with Commissioner Lora Thomas dead set against RWR and Commissioner George Teal in support.

    “Once you start putting a straw in this body of water, there’s no end game,” Noffsker said.

    “You’re basically saying to us, much as what happened to the Native Americans, that you have something we want and we can do more with it than you can, and that is wrong,” said Noffsker. “It’s morally wrong. When we have to sit here and defend how we use our water, we shouldn’t have to do that. This water belongs to the Valley. It should not be taken out of here to benefit somebody else.”

    The meeting at Nino’s with Noffsker and other local elected officials was Laydon’s second of the day. Earlier Laydon and Special Counsel Steve Leonhardt met privately with farmers who Laydon said expressed a variety of concerns, from lack of knowing what’s going on in the subdistrict formations of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to concerns about their small operations and whether small farms would survive the period of persistent drought and climate change.

    With the local elected officials, which included Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker and Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman and Commissioner Lori Laske, Laydon raised the idea of a community fund that Renewable Water Resources has touted as part of its proposal. The Douglas County commissioner was told the community fund was a slap in the face to residents of the San Luis Valley.

    “It’s not about money, it’s about keeping the (water) resource here,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson. Carson works at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is coordinating the Protect San Luis Valley campaign fighting the RWR exportation proposal.

    Karla Shriver, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Subdistrict 2 board, said additional financial relief for Valley farmers is on the way through legislation currently moving through the state legislature. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Cleave Simpson would create a new compact compliance fund and would have around $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act money awarded to Colorado in it to help farmers in the San Luis Valley meet groundwater compliance targets set by the state. Read more about the legislation HERE.

    Renewable Water Resources has voiced opposition to the legislation. It sees the bill as a government bailout for San Luis Valley farmers at a time when RWR is asking for money from Douglas County and dangling those tax dollars in front of Valley farmers to buy them out.

    San Luis garden. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

    Noffsker said the RWR proposal is only about making a return on investment, while the Valley fights for its economic livelihood.

    “I don’t mean any urban/rural fights,” said Noffsker. “But what’s happening is an urban area that apparently wants to grow more, wants to take from us to do it. If we do something like this, we are being dictated to by the Front Range on what our lives are going to be. That is not correct.”

    Laydon, as he’s said in other meetings, told the group that Douglas County only wants to partner with communities that welcome Douglas County and that want to partner with it. He didn’t find that broad support on his weekend trip to the San Luis Valley, and he hasn’t heard any outpouring of support in the months he and his colleagues have been studying the Renewable Water Resources exportation plan.

    Unless, of course, Douglas County wants to give up its retail sales tax revenues. Sacrificing a golf course or two might help as well.

    Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

    Reading the Rio: The #RioGrande gaging station near #DelNorte has told the story of the river’s flow since 1889 — #Alamosa Citizen

    The Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte has told the story of the river’s flow since 1889. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

    It’s a commonly known spot off County Road 17 between Del Norte and South Fork. Driving in you might see a blue heron standing off in the marsh and river rafters looking to get onto the Rio Grande at the very spot Colorado has been measuring the river since the summer of 1889 – June 1, 1889, to be precise.

    This time of year, with any ice on the river gone and the weather warming, Jessie Jaminet comes every two weeks to the stream gaging station operated by Colorado Division of Water Resources to make sure everything is functioning for measurements that are closely watched by water managers up and down the Rio Grande. He was there this past week to get an early spring reading and when prompted for a prediction on this year’s flows said, “I think we’re probably going to be slightly below average from what I’ve seen.”

    1934 and 1960. Credit: Alamosa Citizen

    Average over the past decade has been 491,000 acre-feet of water; historically going back to 1889 the Rio Grande has an average measurement of 639,000 acre-feet, according to figures maintained by the state.

    Jaminet, lead hydrographer for state water resources division 3, cautions that the river “changes daily right now.”

    “Any storm that hits right now is a huge benefit for the whole system. People watch the snowpack numbers, but it really depends on what happens this time of year. Wet spring storms really benefit the system,” he said.

    The Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte is the highest profile gage station in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. That’s because it’s the gaging station the state uses to help determine how much water from the Rio Grande is available and will be delivered downstream into New Mexico and Texas as part of the three-state Rio Grande Compact.

    Besides measuring lower-average acre-feet the past decade, another phenomenon has been occurring: an earlier peak to the river flow and then a quick dropoff, which means less water and shorter irrigation seasons downstream for New Mexico and Texas.

    The stream gaging station operated by Colorado Division of Water Resources highway 17 between Del Norte and South Fork. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

    “Historically the river would peak and we would maintain those flows for a while before we would fall into base flow conditions,” Jaminet said. Peak flow used to hit mid- to late-June and the Rio Grande would maintain itself through the summer. Now the state is seeing peak Rio Grande flows as early as late May and then drastic drop offs to the height of the river. It’s attributable to the aridification of the Valley floor from persistent drought and climate change.

    Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact is another aspect to the management of the upper basin of the river that water managers, irrigators, and outdoor recreationalists have to factor in when planning their own water usage.

    “This is what we base pretty much all of our numbers on, this upper index here. Anything that passes this gage here we have to deliver a percentage of it downstream. This is why this is an important gage here,” said Jaminet.

    He’s been working the measurements the past 15 years as part of his job with Colorado Division of Water Resources to operate and maintain the gaging stations along the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s not what he planned on doing for a career when he graduated from Mountain Valley High School in Saguache in 2001 and then the University of Wyoming, where he majored in rangeland geology and watershed management. But he’s learned and come to understand the importance of taking the river’s measurement, and the fact he grew up in the San Luis Valley makes him appreciate the work he does even more.

    “This is a continuous record that we produce here,” he said of the Del Norte gaging station, pointing to the readings from 1890 through 2021. One of the most eye-popping historical figures is Oct. 5, 1911, when the Rio Grande was flowing at 18,000 cubic feet per second. The day Jaminet was at the gage station the river was moving at 519 cfs.

    Most of the big diversions to the Rio Grande happen a bit farther downstream in Rio Grande and Alamosa counties, making the gaging station near Del Norte a natural location to determine the depth and velocity of the river.

    A float sitting in a stilling well reads the height of the river. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

    In the 1890s and early decades of the 1900s the state division of water resources would take a measurement of the Rio Grande twice a day and then daily as it kept improving the system. It eventually installed a continuous reader in 1983, and then in the summer of 1984 a satellite monitoring system was installed.

    Now the gaging station takes a reading every 15 minutes and logs and transmits the data every hour to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website, where it’s tracked and followed by the three states party of the Rio Grande Compact. Fishermen and rafters will also monitor the web site to help them determine the best times to fish and float the river.

    One of Jaminet’s responsibilities is to make sure the gaging station is calibrated and reading accurately. A float sitting in a stilling well reads the height of the river and then a rating table unique to the gaging station is applied to give an accurate measurement. In the winter months, with ice on the river, the measurements are more estimates.

    Coming off a dry 2021, in January the Rio Grande was at its lowest point to start a year since Colorado began taking measurements 132 years ago. A cooler March and April have helped, but without significant summer rain, the Rio Grande will run dry again early in the summer irrigation season.

    “If you go into the fall really dry, even if you get these big spring storms it seems like it just goes into the ground,” Jaminet said. “A lot of it is not making it to the river anymore.”

    The measurements at the Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte tell the story.

    Jaminet makes regular checks on calibration. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

    The El Paso region braces for deeper #drought, less #RioGrande #water for farming — El Paso Matters

    Click the link to read the article on the El Paso Matters website (Danielle Prokop). Here’s an excerpt:

    In previous years, water would begin to flow in the Rio Grande in springtime, released from storage from Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, and pour into fields and ditches for cotton, pecans, chiles and other crops. Instead, once again, the riverbed remains sandy and bare, and Elephant Butte is at just 12% of its capacity, awaiting snowmelt from the mountains in Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

    US Drought Monitor map April 12, 2022.

    The U.S. Drought Monitor map currently shows about half of El Paso county remains “abnormally dry,” but experts said Tuesday they expect hotter temperatures and little rain to desiccate the Western United States — 90% of which is already in a drought.

    Local irrigation managers for New Mexico, Far West Texas and Mexico anticipate a short, small season starting in June, despite the predicted hotter temperatures. A formal announcement with the exact numbers for irrigation will be released from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation later this month, Mary Carlson, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 13, 2022 via the NRCS.

    Snowpacks in New Mexico were boosted by winter storms, and a late March snow, as records showed snowpacks at 100% of median, or higher, in New Mexico. But even good years are not replenishing the river as well as before. That threatens the Rio Grande, which relies on snowmelt for three-fourths of its water…

    Hotter temperatures dry out soils, and that can absorb as much as 20% of water before it hits the riverbed, meaning less water to flow downstream…

    Projections show El Paso farmers are expecting only 18 inches of water per acre, rather than the full 48 inches, said Jesús Reyes, the manager for El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1.

    Wild Earth Guardians letter to Douglas County April 12, 2022

    Sunrise March 16, 2022 San Luis Valley with Mount Blanca in the distance. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

    Click the link to read the letter on the Wild Earth Guardians website (Jen Pelz):

    Dear Commissioners Laydon, Teal, and Thomas,

    We write to you today, on behalf of our organizations and tens of thousands of supporters across the American West, to express extreme concern over Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to develop a groundwater pumping project in the San Luis Valley that would then export water to the Colorado Front Range. This project represents a serious threat to the water security of the San Luis Valley and to the plant, wildlife, and human communities that depend on this water source. As downstream neighbors we have grave concerns over the cascading effects of this project throughout the entire Rio Grande Basin, and we urge the Commission to reject this proposal.

    The Rio Grande Basin cannot afford for any water to be exported out of the Valley.

    This project would be the first pipeline built in the San Luis Valley with the intent to export water. But the idea of taking water out of the San Luis Valley for use in other basins is not new. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal is the most recent in a string of such schemes that began in the 1980s. Similar proposals have been decidedly shut down by Colorado courts, which have noted the adverse effects these proposals would have on the aquifer and to surface water rights. In fact, surface waters in the Valley have been recognized as over appropriated since the early 20th century, meaning every drop that flows through the Valley and more is promised to someone. It is incredibly clear that the San Luis Valley has no water to spare.

    Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

    Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will threaten hope for a sustainable aquifer.

    In addition to surface waters, groundwater is also over appropriated in the Valley. We have serious concerns over the effects of the proposed pumping on overall groundwater levels and their impacts to surrounding wetlands and streams. Of particular concern are potential effects to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Farmers in the Valley are already working together and making sacrifices to reduce water demand through the sub-district project, which was created following decades of drought conditions. This voluntary project facilitates farmers within the Valley combining efforts to ensure groundwater levels are maintained. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal undermines years of this difficult work. The demands for water and challenges associated with allocating it equitably will only increase as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, this proposal will make an already challenging situation worse and undo years of community-driven efforts to find solutions.

    Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

    Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will have consequences for the entire Rio Grande Basin.

    The concerns over this project expand beyond the San Luis Valley. The project also has the potential to threaten the downstream communities and the environment in the Rio Grande Basin for thousands of miles. The Rio Grande Compact and the 1944 treaty with Mexico define how much water must flow from the Rio Grande’s headwaters in Colorado to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. As a headwaters state, Colorado has a significant responsibility to its neighbors and it is keenly felt downstream when those responsibilities are ignored. For example, during the twentieth century, Colorado consumed more water than it was allotted under the Compact and subsequently accrued a nearly one-million-acre-foot debt to downstream states. This overuse had consequences to downstream communities, agricultural production, and ecosystems. It resulted in lawsuits that ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court requiring Colorado to repay this debt over time. Luckily for Colorado, a wet period of hydrology that filled downstream reservoirs triggered a provision of the Compact that forgave the prior debt and wiped the slate clean for better management going forward. With projected precipitation regime shifts under climate change, we are unlikely to see such a wet period again.

    The water challenges we are facing within the Rio Grande Basin make it painfully obvious that a repeat of this situation would be catastrophic for water users across all three states and Mexico. We must think more holistically about the river systems on which we all depend. The San Luis Valley is an integral part of the Rio Grande Basin, a river that runs nearly 1,900 miles and sustains municipal and irrigation uses for more than six million people and two million acres of land across three states and two countries. We urge the Commission to not further complicate this situation by taking vital water from the San Luis Valley and threatening it and others’ water futures.

    The communities of the San Luis Valley are working to address their water scarcity challenges in collaborative and inclusive ways. Although there is still much work to do to create a sustainable aquifer and healthy Rio Grande for people and the environment, Renewable Water Resources’ proposal flies in the face of these efforts. Please do the right thing for the communities within the San Luis Valley and those that depend on the water, also vital downstream, by rejecting this ill-advised project.

    Fast-growing Douglas County communities need more #water. Is a controversial San Luis Valley export plan the answer? — @WaterEdCO #Water22 #RioGrande

    Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The community needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith:

    Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.

    The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.

    With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.

    Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]

    “It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”

    Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.

    Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.

    Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.

    Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.

    Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

    Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.

    At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.

    Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.

    The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.

    Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.

    Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.

    Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.

    Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.

    “For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.

    The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.

    “We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”

    Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.

    Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.

    He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.

    “All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.

    Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.