Video opinion: Battle over San Luis Valley water draws in sandhill cranes — The #Colorado Sun

Here’s a guest column from Max Ciaglo that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

Sandhill cranes have been migrating through the San Luis Valley of Colorado for thousands of years. The Rio Grande River likely attracted the first cranes to the Valley, providing the ideal habitat and abundant food resources that they required to complete their migration.

Early settlers brought agriculture to the San Luis Valley with them. To irrigate fields to grow hay, farmers diverted water from rivers onto the land, mimicking natural wetlands and effectively expanding habitat for cranes to thrive. When wheat and barley farming began in the valley in the 1900s, it also provided a high-calorie food resource that buoyed crane populations that were dwindling throughout North America.

Max Ciaglo. Photo credit: Colorado Open Lands

More than 50% of land in the valley is now publicly owned, but over 90% of existing wetlands are on private farmlands. Although these lands and the water on them are managed as part of private business operations, they provide critical habitat for sandhill cranes.

However, we in Colorado relate all too well to the sentiment that “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting.”

The battles are fought on many fronts: agricultural versus municipal users; rural towns versus urban centers. Water often flows towards money.

Water in Colorado’s rivers and streams is sometimes diverted from one river basin to meet the demands of another. These exports take water from once-productive agricultural lands and dry them up in the process, and the wildlife that depend on these lands are often left out of the discussion entirely.

In the San Luis Valley declining groundwater and extended drought have already left the land thirsty for water. But even now, as Colorado knocks on the door of a third decade of consistent drought conditions, other interests are eyeing water from the valley’s underground aquifer to export to growing cities on the Front Range of Colorado.

Farmers and ranchers across the valley have been working together with partners like Colorado Open Lands and other local coalitions for decades to protect and conserve their water. As they come together once again to fight the threat of water export, they are fighting to make sure that there is a future for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin. And as long as there is a future for agriculture there will be a future for sandhill cranes.

Max Ciaglo is the Grain for Cranes Fellow at Colorado Open Lands, a statewide land and water conservation nonprofit. The Grain for Cranes program aims to support sandhill crane habitat by supporting agriculture in the San Luis Valley. Find out more at ColoradoOpenLands.org.

Sandhill cranes. Photo: Scott Helfrich/Audubon Photography Awards

New doppler radar installation in the San Luis Valley #RioGrande

From 9News.com (Cory Reppenhagen):

THE SAN LUIS RADAR PROBLEM

The closest National Weather Service (NWS) radar is in Pueblo County, more than 90 miles away. And the Wet Mountains and the Sangres block the radar beam.

The other radars are blocked by mountains as well, one in Denver, one in Albuquerque, and another on the Grand Mesa. So there is essentially no weather data available below 10,000 feet.

EVERY DROP COUNTS

There is a critical need to know how much new water will be available each year.

“Right here on the valley floor, it’s really one of the driest places in the state of Colorado,” said Simpson. “We get less than seven inches of precipitation all year, so we are very dependent on snowpack.”

Simpson said they are obligated by state compacts to allow a certain amount of water pass through the Colorado border every year along the Rio Grande and the Conejos Rivers.

“The diversions out of those river systems are what build and support our aquifer system here, and we depend on our aquifer system heavily,” said Simpson.

Simpson said the streamflow estimates could be off as much as 20-30% making it difficult to manage the rights to water during the summer.

THE EXPERIMENT

About seven years ago, [Cleve] Simpson heard about improvements being made to software and computer modeling that estimate precipitation totals based on Doppler radar data.

“We said why don’t we see if we can adopt that to snowpack here,” said Simpson.

Now all they needed was access to Doppler radar.

“That year in 2013, there was a significant wildfire in the area called the West Fork Complex Fire. They had to bring in a radar to help forecast how the weather was changing that fire,” said Simpson.

After that fire, the Conejos Water Conservancy District decided to rent that radar, move it to Alamosa, and try an experiment to better estimate the amount of snow that fell in there basin.

It was a basic radar system that needed quite a bit of attention, but they were determined that some hard work would pay off in the future. Every time there was a storm coming in, they had have a person go out to the radar site to get it running.

“They usually had to wake someone up, usually someone from the local university,” said Simpson. “That person would have to go down to the airport, crank up the unit, and start capturing radar data.”

Simpson said they rented that radar for five years, and over that time they saw very accurate streamflow forecasts based on their new data.

THE SOLUTION

Knowing that the radar data helped them better estimate how much water was available in the snowpack, the next step would be to get their own radar.

“It was a very exciting project to work on because all the players that came to the table wanted to be there, and everybody put in something,” said Gigi Dennis, the Alamosa County Administrator.

Dennis said various state agencies, counties, and water districts came together to get the project off the ground. A brand new Doppler radar was built on the San Luis Valley Regional Airport property in September last year.

“Once we got the all the funding in place, the rest of the project went relatively fast,” said Dennis.

This radar data won’t show up on your apps because it is not an NWS radar in the NEXRAD network, but the product is available on a website set up by those involved.</blockquote

Cranes make annual return to San Luis Valley; Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 6-8, 2020

The sandhill cranes are back in the San Luis Valley on their spring migration. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

Cranes make annual return to the San Luis Valley

In the San Luis Valley nature is again putting on one of its most memorable displays: the spring migration of greater sandhill cranes. In appreciation of this wildlife spectacle, area organizations, businesses and wildlife agencies are holding the 37th Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 6-8.

“Everyone who lives in Colorado should take the time to see this ancient and magnificent migration,” said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for the Southwest Region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “This is one of only a few great wildlife migrations in the United States that people can easily see. The sights and sounds are amazing.”

The cranes started arriving in mid-February, flying from their winter nesting grounds to the south, primarily in New Mexico. The large wetland areas, wildlife refuges and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds. The cranes stop in the valley to rest-up and re-fuel for their trip north to their summer nesting and breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Even if you can’t travel to the San Luis Valley during the weekend of the festival, there is still plenty of time to see the birds. The cranes usually stay in the valley for most of March.

Cranes are among the oldest living species on the planet: Fossil records for cranes date back 9 million years. The birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies standing 4-feet tall with a wing-span of up to 7 feet and weighing in at 11 pounds. Besides their imposing size, the birds issue a continuous and distinctive call. At this time of year cranes are engaged in their mating ritual and the birds perform an elegant hopping dance to gain the attention of other birds.

The birds are abundant in areas near the town of Monte Vista. They can be seen most readily in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, about five miles south of town of Colorado Highway 15. Birds also gather at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of the town of Alamosa, and at that Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas.

The cranes are most active at dawn and at dusk when they’re moving from their nighttime roosting areas to fields where they feed. In the middle of the day, they “loaf” and eat in the grain fields of the Monte Vista refuge.

Be sure to dress warm, as winter still reigns in the valley.

During the three days of the festival, free tours are offered at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the birds are most active. Visitors ride buses to various spots on the wildlife refuge and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers talk about the migration and the refuge. If you want to take a tour, be on time because the buses leave promptly.

Birdwatchers who travel on their own should be cautious when parking, getting out of vehicles and walking along roads. View birds from a distance with binoculars and spotting scopes, and observe trail signs and closure notices.

Many other bird species – including eagles, turkeys, and a variety of raptors and waterfowl – can also be seen throughout the San Luis Valley. Look in the many cottonwood trees for owl nests.

The festival headquarters and starting point for the tours is the Ski Hi Park building located near U.S. Highway 160 on Sherman Avenue on the east side of Monte Vista. Visitors can pick up maps, schedules and information at the headquarters.

Besides the tours, a variety of workshops are put on by bird, wildlife and photography experts. An arts and crafts fair continues through the weekend at the headquarters building.

Approximate distances to Monte Vista: Denver, 220 miles; Colorado Springs, 182 miles; Salida, 85 miles; Vail, 175 miles; Durango, 135 miles; Grand Junction, 230 miles.

For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, see: http://mvcranefest.org; or https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista. For more information on State Wildlife Areas in the San Luis Valley, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo.

Sandhill Crane via Colorado Parks & Wildlife

#NewMexico funds could help revamp management of #RioGrande — The Associated Press

Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico.
Sarah Tory

From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan):

New Mexico lawmakers are considering setting aside $20 million that could be used as seed money as water managers, municipalities and farmers scramble to find ways to reduce groundwater pumping that is at the center of a high-stakes legal battle.

The fight over the Rio Grande has pitted Texas against New Mexico as demands increase and drought persists. It will be up to a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to eventually decide how New Mexico goes about ensuring enough of the Rio Grande flows south to users in Texas and Mexico.

Right now, the system is out of balance, and Texas is arguing that New Mexico should be forced to reduce its pumping by as much as 60%. That would be equivalent to more than half of the water supplied annually to residents in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city.

Such a reduction would be disastrous for users in southern New Mexico, says John D’Antonio, New Mexico’s top water engineer…

The seed money would be used over three years for a combination of projects, from paying farmers to voluntarily fallow their land at certain times to efforts aimed at recharging the aquifer connected to the river. Other initiatives could involve importing more water…

About 85% of the water being pumped along the lower Rio Grande goes to irrigate the nation’s most productive pecan orchards, chile and onion fields and other crops. The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico State University and electric utility Public Service Co. of New Mexico are among other major users. They have proposed paying into a fund that could be used for rotational fallowing and other efforts to address problems along the river…

The Elephant Butte Irrigation District already has been looking at everything from stormwater capture to desalination of brackish groundwater and temporarily fallowing. But officials there agree with D’Antonio, saying the agriculture community alone cannot bear the full burden…

… some advocates say New Mexico lawmakers need to boost funding for the state’s water management agencies to improve planning, collect more data and ensure the state doesn’t violate its compact delivery obligations. They point to a high vacancy rate within the state engineer’s office, saying more workers are needed to deal with a backlog of water rights cases, for example.

D’Antonio said he’s trying to rebuild his agency following nearly a decade of austere state budgets and is hopeful the Legislature understands the importance of securing New Mexico’s water resources moving forward.

“My feeling is there’s not a more important issue for an arid state like New Mexico than its water issues,” he said. “You start and stop with water. If you don’t have water, it really puts a kibosh on everything else that we do from an economic standpoint.”

State looks to address #Texas v. #NewMexico water case — The New Mexico Political Report

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

From Santa Fe New Mexican (Robert Nott) via The New Mexico Political Report:

State leaders looking for a way to address a litigated claim that New Mexico is not providing enough water to Texas under a decades-old compact want funding for a water conservation pilot program south of Elephant Butte.

Though the plan remains vague, both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee are proposing to support it by allocating funding to the project in the 2021 fiscal year.

The plan would let water users in the southern part of the state figure out how and when to leave certain areas of their farms unplanted — or fallow — to conserve ground and surface water.

“It’s the start of a solution to the lack of water resources south of Elephant Butte,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who first announced the plan at a Journey Santa Fe event this month. “It’s critical that the solution comes from the farmers down there.”

The Governor’s Office is proposing a $10 million allocation in next year’s budget for a year’s implementation of the pilot program. The LFC’s $30 million proposal takes a three-year approach to the plan, Wirth said.

Either way, many state legislators from both political parties believe the far-from-fleshed-out pilot needs more legislative oversight…

Wirth and State Engineer John D’Antonio both said that while the plan in itself is a solid step toward conserving water, the shadow of the legal fight over the Rio Grande — litigation that is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court — adds urgency to the action.

The Rio Grande Compact of the late 1930s set up a complicated deal in which Colorado, New Mexico and Texas all are allocated a certain amount of water from the river…

The Texas-New Mexico legal conflict started in 2013 when Texas argued New Mexico farmers are using too much water, including through the drilling of wells, from the Rio Grande as it flows through New Mexico on its way to Texas.

In 2017, the Supreme Court denied New Mexico’s legal motions to dismiss the Texas complaint…

D’Antonio said his office is looking at temporarily fallowing some of the land that uses Rio Grande water and then studying the hydrological effects of it to see if the plan could sustain a similar long-term effort among farmers willing to take part.

The lower Rio Grande water users would “pay into a fund that would compensate those farmers for fallowing,” he said. “The initial money the state would put up would allow for that program to evolve over time.”

[…]

John Utton, a water attorney who represents several water-users in the southern part of the state — including New Mexico State University and the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority — said it’s vital planners look at areas that could be permanently fallowed without damaging the state’s agricultural business.

“There may be time where there is more land available and other times when we need to shrink a little bit but we don’t want to permanently fallow agricultural efforts,” he said. “Pecans, green chile and onions are all an important part of our economy and need to be kept viable.”

Even with above-average snowpack, #RioGrande faces uncertain future — Wild #Earth Guardians

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 21, 2020 via the NRCS.

From Wild Earth Guardians:

The National Resources Conservation Service has predicted that the Rio Grande flows at Otowi Bridge (just northwest of Santa Fe) will be 90 percent of average. At the same time, dry conditions this past summer and fall led to drier soils and aquifers in need of recharge—meaning there still will be less water available for rivers and streams.

Parts of Colorado and New Mexico are currently experiencing drought conditions. When soil moisture is low and aquifers are drawn down, much of the water from snowmelt is needed to replenish aquifers and soil.

In the hotter, drier world we live in, this is all the more evidence that we need to learn to manage water differently for both people and the environment.

Read the press release.

Albuquerque: New injection well installed for ASR

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

A new injection well built by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority will pump treated river water back into the aquifer for future use in the metro area. The $2 million well, built at the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Treatment Plant in north Albuquerque, is key to the city’s aquifer storage and recovery plan.

Project manager Diane Agnew said the well, which is the first of its kind in the city, is a “success for Albuquerque’s water sustainability.”

“This is like a ‘water savings account’ that builds up over time,” she said. “The injection well gives us an alternate source to meet our long-term water demand. It lets us take (treated) San Juan-Chama water and store it in the aquifer, where it won’t evaporate.”

[…]

To access the stored aquifer water, the new well pumps can be “flipped” from injection to extraction.

The project expands on the city’s efforts to recharge the aquifer and address long-term water demand.

Each winter, San Juan-Chama water is released into the Bear Canyon Arroyo. That water infiltrates the ground and eventually ends up in the aquifer.

Agnew said the Bear Canyon setup takes advantage of the arroyo’s natural recharge mechanism, but the water may evaporate before it seeps into the ground, and it can take as long as six weeks to reach the aquifer.

The new injection well can send 3,000 gallons of water a minute directly into the aquifer 1,200 feet below the well site, where it can be stored without risk of evaporation. Injected well water reaches groundwater in just a few days…

As with the arroyo project, water will be injected at the well site from October to March, when water demand is lower.

The water authority has worked with the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources to identify other areas in the city which would be optimal for future aquifer injection wells.

Albuquerque’s shift away from pumping groundwater has spurred recovery of the aquifer underneath the city.

A report released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey showed city groundwater withdrawals had dropped by 67% from 2008 to 2016. Aquifer levels in some parts of Albuquerque rose as much as 40 feet during that time.