Hundreds of San Luis Valley farm wells at risk as state shortens deadline to repair #RioGrandeRiver — @WaterEdCO

A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Caitlin Coleman):

The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.

July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.

“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”

The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.

As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.

Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.

Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.

“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”

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

Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.

Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.

While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.

Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”

The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.

Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.

Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.

Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.

In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.

Colorado Drought Monitor August 7, 2018.

And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.

“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”

It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.

Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.

“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”

Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at caitlin@wateredco.org.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

International Boundary Water Commission: #Mexico must take immediate action to meet treaty obligations #RioGrande #aridification

Here’s the release from the IBWC:

U.S. Commissioner Jayne Harkins of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, today reiterated that Mexico must take immediate action to deliver Rio Grande water to the United States to comply with the bilateral 1944 Water Treaty. Under the treaty, Rio Grande water is allotted to the United States in quantities calculated based on cycles of five years. The current cycle ends on October 24, 2020. To meet its international obligations, Mexico must deliver an additional 416,829 acre-feet (514.2 million cubic meters [mcm]) to the United States between now and the end of the cycle.

“Mexican government officials have stated there is enough water stored in the Mexican reservoirs to enable Mexico to meet the needs of Chihuahua farmers during this year’s irrigation season while complying with the treaty. They need to increase their water releases to the United States immediately,” said Commissioner Harkins. “Mexico has failed to implement releases promised earlier and continuing to delay increases the risk of Mexico failing to meet its delivery obligation.”

Commissioner Emily Lindley of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “Mexico has not honored its commitments. Texas farmers, irrigators, municipalities, and industries along the Rio Grande rely on water that should be delivered as laid out in the 1944 Treaty. I echo Commissioner Harkins that it is vital Mexico deliver water immediately to the U.S.”

Mexico has only delivered 1,333,171 acre-feet (1,644 mcm) out of the minimum five- year obligation of 1,750,000 acre-feet (2,159 mcm). The remaining volume yet to be delivered exceeds the 350,000 acre-feet (431.7 mcm) minimum average volume the 1944 Water Treaty requires over an entire year, demonstrating that immediate action is required.

“I want to emphasize that farmers and cities in South Texas rely on this water to get them through the summer,” Commissioner Harkins added.

Under the 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico delivers Rio Grande water to the United States while the United States delivers Colorado River water to Mexico. The United States continues to meet its obligations to deliver Colorado River water and expects Mexico to fulfill its Rio Grande obligations to the United States. The International Boundary and Water Commission is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico.

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

Potential San Luis Valley water export topic of Saguache County Board of Commissioners “working meeting” March 12, 2019

Saguache Creek

From The Valley Courier (Teresa Benns):

A group of county residents is appealing to those concerned about water issues in the county to attend an important water meeting March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Road and Bridge Building in Saguache, 305 3rd Street, to sit in on a discussion with commissioners regarding water export plans.

The meeting is styled as “a listening work session,” meaning no public comment or questions will be allowed. The guest speaker is Sean Tonner, who will host a water export proposal presentation…

The water plan, apparently in the works for the past several years, was officially announced during a Rio Grande Water Conservation meeting in Alamosa, the Valley Courier reported Dec. 7, 2018…

Background

While some of those proposing the plan are newly arrived players, the proposal is not. The plan first emerged in the late 1980s with Maurice Strong’s Arizona Land and Cattle Co. and Stockmen’s Water. After reorganizing as AWDI, the new version of the plan was opposed and defeated in the early 1990s by the Rio Grande Water District and Valley citizens.

Originally AWDI, backed by then Baca Ranch owner Gary Boyce — also owner of numerous other water rights — presented a plan to pump 200,000 acre-feet of water annually from the underground aquifer. They claimed there would be no impact on the environment or existing water users. The application was later amended to 60,000 acre-feet annually, (approximately twice the amount consumed yearly by the City of Pueblo).

The new version of the water transport plan was most recently run past Saguache County Commissioners in 2014, prior to the death of Baca Ranch owner Gary Boyce. The entity then proposing the water was Sustainable Water Resources (SWR), now retitled as Renewable Water Resources (RWR). The new company is a mix of the previous organization and new members, a media advisor for the group said Tuesday.

Rio Grande River Basin via the Colorado Geologic Survey

More Than #ClimateChange Threatens Iconic Rio Grande — Wild Earth Guardians

Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

As temperatures in Albuquerque climb to triple digits, the Rio Grande’s flows continue to recede leaving vast islands and sandy channels where the mighty river once roamed. The contrast between conditions this year and last year is stark.

In 2017, the April forecast for the Rio Grande at the Otowi Gauge was 128 percent of average; this year it is 20. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s maps by Brian Fuchs show New Mexico going from only about a quarter of the state in abnormally or moderately dry conditions in June of 2017 to the majority of the state in extreme or exceptional drought this year.

West Drought Monitor September 25, 2018.

These conditions are driving the early low flows in the Basin, but are not the sole cause of the crisis as seems to be the nationwide narrative.

“Climate change is exposing cracks in western water policy and is shining a spotlight on the unsustainable allocation of water from our rivers and streams,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The emerging disaster on the Rio Grande this year comes from archaic water policies, lack of accountability by the states, and water managers acting like its business as usual despite the dire stream flow conditions.”

Three main flaws in water policy and enforcement are driving the situation this year. First, the Rio Grande Compact—an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that sought in 1938 to equitably allocate the waters of the Rio Grande between the states–is operating in dry years to magnify the climate changed induced flow declines. When flows are above average (128 percent), like in 2017, Colorado’s delivery obligations to downstream states roughly mimic the flows at the index gauge.

However, when flows cease to reach a threshold of about 4,000 cubic feet per second, the delivery obligation of Colorado ceases entirely meaning Colorado water users can take every last drop and be entirely within the terms of the compact.

The Rio Grande Compact, like other western water agreements, is based on data from an unrepresentative wet period in the historical record; therefore, the allocation system is far from equitable.

Second, the State of New Mexico provides no leadership or accountability to ensure water users in the state are only using what they need. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, for example, requested a permit in 1925 to irrigate over 100,000 acres in the Middle Rio Grande valley from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Dam. The District, however, has not (90 years later) ever proven that it has irrigated the acreage contemplated in the permit, nor that it needs the water it has claimed. This is a fundamental requirement under the New Mexico Constitution that is being blatantly disregarded.

Finally, the District—the entity that delivers water to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande—just last week finally limited its diversions to the more senior users. Despite anticipated flows of 20 percent of average, the District provided water to the most junior users—those that do not have any claim to water—from March 1 to June 12 (104 days).

“These institutional agreements and policies not only threaten the health of the river, but also put the most senior users’ ability to irrigate to the end of the season at risk,” added Pelz. “The wild west days are over and climate change is exposing these flawed choices. It’s time to find a new sustainable path forward.”

WildEarth Guardians works to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Our Rio Grande: America’s Great River campaign seeks to provide the Rio Grande with a right to its own water and to reform western water policy for a sustainable future for this icon.

A dry #RioGrande in springtime isn’t normal. But it will be — New Mexico Political Report #ActOnClimate

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

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

In early April, when the Middle Rio Grande should have been rushing with snowmelt, New Mexico’s largest river dried. It started through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, spreading to more than 20 miles by now. The Albuquerque stretch may dry come June or July, which would mean some 120 miles dry altogether this summer.

Already, if you live in Albuquerque, you may have peered over the bridges and seen sandbars and slow water this spring. Even in places like Velarde or Española, historically low flows are trickling through your town, the result of not enough snow in the mountains this winter.

To see this happening in spring is shocking. But we shouldn’t be surprised. We knew this could happen. Just like we knew the climate was changing.

We know, for example, that warming makes an arid climate even drier.

On average, our snowpack is decreasing, moving north and melting earlier. That leads to less water in the rivers when we need it—spring and early summer before monsoons arrive.

And even when there is snow, warmer temperatures transform more of it to water vapor before it can liquefy its way into the watershed. Warming dries out soils and sends more dust into the air. That’s bad news, both for breathing creatures and snowpack, as topsoil-coated snowpack melts faster.

Warming means less water in rivers and reservoirs, and also less water underground.

Groundwater isn’t being recharged through snowmelt and streamflows, and we’re pumping more to compensate for the lack of surface water. New Mexicans survived the drought of the 1950s by pumping groundwater when the rivers slowed and the rains failed to fall. Since then, we’ve kept pumping, depleting aquifers and groundwater supplies.

Warmer, drier conditions also mean bigger, hotter wildfires and a longer wildfire season.

And after the fires, some of our forests can’t regenerate. Where they once thrived, ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests can’t survive because it’s too warm—not to mention dry. In some places, even hardy junipers are drying out and dying off.

Before the Dome Fire and then Las Conchas, which burned here in the Jemez Mountains seven years ago, this was a dense conifer forest. Today, the climate is too warm for those trees to return.

In some places across this 30,000-acre burn scar, aspens and locust trees are sprouting where firs used to grow. In other places, the ground remains bare. When rains fall here, floods drive torrents of mud, ash and debris downstream.

Climate change means our forests change; our rivers and our grasslands change. It means our cities and small towns, farms and orchards change.

And we’ve known this for a long time.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisers told him humans were “unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by burning within a few generations fossil fuels that had accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. The carbon dioxide humans were injecting into the atmosphere would cause changes, they wrote, that would harm human beings.

In 1988, the New York Times reported on its front page that the Earth was warming. NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress, urging action to cut carbon emissions.

We knew what was happening.

In 2005, New Mexico released a report on the potential effects of climate change on the state. The 51-page summary report laid out a range of problems and potential solutions, related to everything from water and infrastructure to public health, wildfire and environmental justice.

New Mexicans then elected a governor who ended all state programs under her authority related to climate change.

Ten years later, scientists, economists and hydrologists worked together to understand New Mexico’s drought vulnerabilities. They handed off a report to the legislature that revealed problems with groundwater supplies in the Lower Rio Grande.

Our state Legislature didn’t renew their funding.

For decades, there have been scientific papers, government reports, planning documents, economic studies and international agreements.

We knew what was going to happen.

And yet, here we are.

No matter what you might hear from certain voices, this drying in the Middle Rio Grande is not normal for springtime.

That’s not to say that the river here has never dried in the spring, since records have been kept or before.

But just because something has happened before doesn’t mean it’s normal.

As it continues happening—as a river that supports millions of people in three states and two countries continues to dry—we all need to pay attention.

We also need to understand what biological, chemical and hydrological impacts are occurring, says Clifford Dahm, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology and an expert on intermittent and ephemeral rivers.

“The aquatic creatures that live in the river, as it’s drying and staying dry longer, are going to change,” he said. “There will be a shift towards completely different communities of fish, algae, invertebrates and trees.”

Right now, we don’t know how quickly those shifts will occur, which species will survive, die or recover. But when the water table drops to more than ten feet below the surface, we do know cottonwood trees struggle and then die, Dahm said.

Right now, we know that in the Rio Grande Basin, warming will lead to a four to fourteen percent reduction in flow by the 2030s and an eight to 29 percent reduction by the 2080s.

On the Colorado River—which New Mexico also relies upon—scientists have predicted a 20 to 30 percent decrease in flows by 2050. And a 35 to 55 percent decrease by the end of the century.

Even on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, warming will decrease flows by about 5 to ten percent due to decreasing snowmelt runoff.

#Texas v. #NewMexico and #Colorado update

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

From the Colorado Attorney General’s office via the Valley Courier:

[On Monday, January 8, 2018], Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman’s office presented arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, No. 141, Original, to protect the authority and jurisdiction of the Western States to manage water rights within their own borders and across state lines in cooperation with neighboring state officials.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court after Texas sued New Mexico over a dispute regarding water in the Rio Grande Basin. Colorado, Texas and New Mexico are all parties to the Rio Grande Compact, an agreement that since 1938 has regulated the interstate apportionment of the waters of the Rio Grande. Texas did not make any claims against Colorado, but because Colorado is a party to the Compact, Colorado was also included in the case.

While Texas’s claims against New Mexico were pending, the U.S. government attempted to independently sue the State of New Mexico under the Rio Grande Compact. The Supreme Court invited the State of Colorado to present arguments on whether the United States has a right to sue a State under an interstate water compact, despite not being a party to it.

“Arguments over water rights have been going on since the beginning of statehood, but the authority to manage this critically important natural resource has always belonged first and foremost to the States,” said Attorney General Coffman. “We cannot allow the federal government to encroach on our rights and interfere with our ability to manage water resources on equal footing with our Sister States.”

Colorado Solicitor General Fred Yarger argued on behalf of the State, explaining that the federal government does not have a right to sue New Mexico under the Rio Grande Compact. The United States is not a party to the Compact, he explained, and the authority, jurisdiction and responsibility to manage the water of the Rio Grande lies with the States. Solicitor General Yarger argued that allowing the federal government to sue under the Compact to which it is not a party would set a very concerning precedent, harming the ability of States to work together to solve water disputes cooperatively, without federal government intrusion.