Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board…The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state…Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it. [Sean] Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission…The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county…The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.
Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:
• James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)
• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.
• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.
Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:
• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.
• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.
• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.
Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:
• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.
• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.
• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.
Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.
Questions raised whether retirement of Trinchera wells would help reduce groundwater use
Monty Smith, president of the Trinchera Groundwater Management Subdistrict, raised objections at last week’s Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly board meeting with how two applications to retire groundwater wells from the Trinchera subdistrict are being reviewed through rules the water conservation district adopted to administer the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund established under Colorado Senate Bill SB22-028.
Smith and Trinchera subdistrict engineer Jason Lorenz said Trinchera irrigators are not getting the same consideration as irrigators in the Valley’s other subdistricts to access the $30 million in the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund due to how the subdistrict allocates groundwater each irrigation season.
“I’m kind of feeling like our applicants are being treated unfairly because they happen to be part of a subdistrict that took the bull by the horns from the beginning and did something that makes a real difference for the subdistrict as a whole,” said Smith.
The Trinchera subdistrict operates within the Trinchera Water Conservancy District and away from Rio Grande Water Conservation District governance. Two farmers operating in the Trinchera subdistrict have applied to be compensated through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund for retiring groundwater wells under the rules the Rio Grande Water Conservation District adopted to access money in the fund.
“You’re changing the rules for Costilla County, you are,” said Lorenz, who designed the water allocation formula the Trinchera subdistrict uses to tell farmers how much they can use each irrigation season. Like irrigators in the six subdistricts of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, irrigators in the Trinchera subdistrict have to contribute to the overall sustainability of the aquifers under state groundwater pumping rules.
The debate centers around whether the retirement of the groundwater wells in the Trinchera subdistrict will actually contribute to the state’s overall goal to reduce the amount of groundwater pumped by Valley irrigators.
“We have not denied those applications. They are still in the line for the money,” said Amber Pacheco, deputy general manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
She said the review of the two applications from the Trinchera subdistrict are ongoing in consultation with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, which has to also approve each application to the state’s Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund.
“The state engineer does have the same concerns as the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District) board in general,” said Craig Cotten, the state water engineer in the Valley. He said State Engineer Kevin Rein is concerned whether the applications from the Trinchera subdistrict farmers will withstand state audits of the money since there are questions whether the retirement of the Trinchera wells would lead to a cutback in groundwater use.
Smith said each of the applicants is nearing retirement and could use the money to help retire farm debt since they likely won’t continue on with farm operations.
“If you don’t approve these funds, it sucks for them. You’re just hurting them. You’re not hurting the subdistrict,” said Smith. “By reading the rules, we think they are eligible for this money. The rules are clear. I think you did a good job. They are very straight forward. But when it came to the application of them, it feels like the rug got pulled back from us.”
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has approved at least two contracts with crop producers worth $1.2 million through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund. While it reviews additional applications submitted initially, it has opened up a second-round of applications that allows crop producers to submit proposals to get compensated through the fund by retiring groundwater wells.
The Pershing County Water Conservation District’s headquarters in Lovelock sits off Interstate 80 a few miles before the Humboldt River disappears into a desert sink. Farmers here have priority rights to water in times of drought, according to the laws that govern the Humboldt River, which rises in northeastern Nevada and cuts a meandering blue line through valleys of sagebrush.
But despite their high-priority rights, these irrigators face shortage after shortage.
Recent droughts have hit the Humboldt River hard, yet drought alone is not to blame. Officials with the district point to another factor that’s depleting the river’s flows: groundwater extraction.
As is true across Nevada and the West, groundwater and surface water — rivers, streams and springs — can act as one interconnected supply. In certain parts of the Humboldt Basin, thirsty wells intercept water that would have otherwise flowed into the river, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which is working to model and quantify how underground pumping captures surface water.
All the while, farmers downstream are getting less water. Ryan Collins, the general manager of the water district, said that the pumps have stayed on, even in years of drought and in places where groundwater use exceeds what is considered sustainable.
When the district’s water allocations are cut to zero, “they’re still getting their full allocation,” Collins said.
Since the mid-1900s, extensive groundwater pumping has become stitched into the Northern Nevada economy. It’s the backbone of vast upstream agricultural fields, drinking water supplies and the massive gold mines along I-80. State water regulators have long struggled to keep pumping in check.
The problem extends beyond the Humboldt River watershed. Groundwater stretched far beyond its limits is a nationwide issue, causing the ground to sink in some places, springs to disappear in others and river tributaries to run drier than usual.
After prodding, lawsuits and rulings (many of which have generated more litigation), the state is trying to do something about the issue of groundwater depletion in the Humboldt and elsewhere, from the Walker River Basin to central Nevada. Exactly how to curtail groundwater pumping has proven to be a headache. Regulatory rules are often contested, and the law is far from settled.
Now, armed with $25 million in federal funds, the state is trying a different tack: Pay irrigators to voluntarily cut back.
Following a handful of other states, Nevada officials are now looking to fund entities that want to facilitate the buyback and retirement of state-issued water rights. Where there is simply not enough water to go around, policymakers want to take water allotments off the balance sheets.
Six entities, from the Southern Nevada Water Authority to the Nevada Land Trust, applied to the state program earlier this month, requesting a total of just over $65 million in funding.
An advisory committee plans to review the applications and provide feedback to the state’s natural resources agency and Conserve Nevada, which is responsible for allocating the grants. The state expects to issue the grants shortly after the advisory board meets Oct. 26.
The grant applications exceed the funding budget by $40 million, demonstrating the high interest in addressing groundwater overuse across the state. In Southern Nevada, the water authority and Clark County are looking for $18 million to address water rights involved in the Lower White River Flow System, which feeds the Muddy River, a tributary to the Colorado River. The area is the subject of a contentious groundwater dispute before the Nevada Supreme Court.
What happens next is being closely watched by water users in overextended aquifers. Many water managers see the program as a test for a permanent buyback program.
Central Nevada Regional Water Authority
Water Right Retirement Program
Nevada Land Trust
Forest Legacy Eastern Sierra
Humboldt River Basin Water Authority
Water Right Retirement Program
Nevada Land Trust
Carson River – Ricci Ranch
Walker Basin Conservancy
Walker Groundwater Retirement
Southern Nevada Water Authority
LWRFS Water Rights Retirement
Nevada Land Trust
Red Rock Water Retirement
Clark County Desert Conservation Program
Muddy River Acquisition
Grant requests totaled more than $65 million. (Source: Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
“This is an opportunity to demonstrate that it’s an effective tool for addressing water shortages in the state,” said Jeff Fontaine, who submitted applications on behalf of the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority and Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, two organizations that he leads.
“We’re looking at the long-term here,” he added.
The concept of using public funds to retire water rights is not new. Colorado, Kansas and Oregon have set up similar programs. Such buyback programs are meant to provide financial incentives to willing sellers, what Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) has referred to as a “soft landing” for irrigators in areas where groundwater tables are dropping.
When lawmakers met in Carson City earlier this year, Goicoechea introduced legislation to create a permanent water buyback program. It received little formal opposition and backing from a coalition of agricultural and environmental interests. Even though legislators failed to advance the proposal, the state was able to fund a temporary program using $25 million in conservation funds, allocated to Nevada as part of the federal American Rescue Plan.
“There’s probably a number of different scenarios” that would motivate an agricultural user to participate in a program, according to Doug Busselman, who leads the Nevada Farm Bureau.
One scenario could be a farmer close to retirement, looking to cash out as they wind down their operation. Another might be someone who sees an opportunity to continue farming with less water. Another reason looming in the background: state action. If the water rights are at risk of being cut-off as state regulators crack down on overuse, irrigators might be willing to sell now.
The federal funding is a one-time allocation, and even supporters acknowledge that $25 million is not enough to fix the larger problem. State officials are going to have to make difficult choices about how to prioritize the limited funding. Still, Peter Stanton, executive director of the Walker Basin Conservancy, said the program could ease some pressures groundwater overuse puts on a watershed.
“I see this largely as a demonstration program,” Stanton said . “It’s going to take more work like this — with local solution, state support and probably bringing in federal support — to make long-term movement on the withdrawal [of water] within these groundwater basins.”
The goal of the conservancy is to secure water to restore Walker Lake, and addressing groundwater overuse is a part of those efforts. The Walker River starts in the eastern Sierra and flows through the Nevada communities of Smith Valley, Yerington and Schurz, until it reaches Walker Lake. Once a critical habitat for birds and a tourist draw for Mineral County, the lake has shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to agricultural diversions.
Over time, groundwater withdrawals have depleted water stored underground and affected the river’s efficiency. That could make it harder to move water downstream in the future.
“We want to work with farmers and ranchers who are already at points of transition [and] are facing increased pressure — whether we’re talking about economic development or climatic variation and challenges in farming — to identify willing sellers” of groundwater, Stanton said.
Several other conservation groups have backed the concept of water buybacks.
If the pilot program is well-executed, the Nature Conservancy’s Laurel Saito said she sees an opportunity to develop a permanent and long-term program in the state. Saito, the group’s water strategy director for Nevada, has advocated for a program that considers ecosystems naturally dependent on the way groundwater interacts with wetlands, springs, playas, rivers and streams.
“If it’s done right, it could be a stepping stone,” she said.
There are many ways in which future programs could address overuse while prioritizing ecosystem restoration. Oregon’s program in the Harney Basin, just north of the Nevada border, includes incentives for retiring water rights that affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems — a structure she said that the nonprofit could potentially help seek funding for in Nevada.
In this pilot phase, though, those larger conversations are constrained by a key factor: time.
With limits on federal funding, the $25 million must be spent on a tight turnaround. The state is aiming to have seller contracts in place for the transfer of water rights by next fall.
One year might sound like a lot of time, yet in the world of water rights, that deadline is already fast-approaching. Once awarded the grant, entities will have to work on developing a price for the water. They will also have to conduct outreach to get the word out that a program is in place. Then they will have to prioritize how to divide up funds.
Figuring out the value of water can be extremely hard, said Fontaine, whose organizations have looked to what other states have done and have worked with a consulting group to model prices.
“That’s the tricky part here,” Fontaine said. “We have to be good stewards of these dollars … We need to make sure we’re not overvaluing the water and paying more than they’re really worth. On the other hand, we want to be fair and respectful to those who are considering selling their water rights — and purchase water rights so we can make a difference in these basins.”
In recent years, state and federal agencies have often looked to publicly funded conservation as a way to address water shortages in the West, particularly in the Colorado River Basin. Many of these programs have implemented temporary conservation measures, such as paying irrigators to fallow their land or to improve farming efficiency when drought conditions were most severe.
What makes buyback programs different is that they are permanent cutbacks to supply in places where there is a structural imbalance, with more rights to water than there is water to go around.
Taking water rights off the books, Goicoechea said earlier this year, is “better than just ignoring it and looking the other way, and that’s what we’ve kind of been doing over the last 40 years.”
In many places, state and federal officials allowed for excessive water use by issuing rights that exceeded the supply and incentivizing farmers to move to areas where water was scarce. Even when the issue was identified, state regulators sometimes turned a blind eye, deferring action.
This was particularly pronounced in Diamond Valley outside of Eureka. In 2015, Diamond Valley was designated the state’s first critical management area, and irrigators had to come up with a plan to cut back. Some are eyeing the buyback program as one way to get there.
“They see this as an opportunity to reduce some of the conflict, where the state buys back the water and they are out of the game,” said Jake Tibbitts, who serves as the natural resources manager for Eureka County. “But it’s all going to come down to the dollars and cents.”
Some groundwater users in Diamond Valley are waiting to see what price the buyback program offers and have voiced different opinions about what their water rights are worth. Tibbitts noted that there’s also “concern from quite a few of the agricultural water rights holders about establishing a value for water outside of a typical real estate transaction.”
As for the Humboldt River, the Pershing County Water Conservation District has backed water buyback programs as one potential solution for reducing groundwater use.
During the drought, the district petitioned the state to regulate upstream groundwater overuse, linked to diminishing streamflow in the Humboldt River. But it has also continued to pursue its case through the courts, said Collins, the district’s general manager.
Sitting at a conference room table in the district’s office building — filled with old maps and a bulletin board displaying the ever-important amount of water held in upstream reservoirs — he was hopeful that the buyback program could be one part of the solution.
“It can be a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “But it’s not the silver bullet.”
From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
When it meets this week, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board will announce it has closed on its first two deals with crop producers to purchase groundwater wells that will be permanently retired. The deals are part of the $30 million earmarked to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under state Senate Bill 28, which was adopted to pay Valley irrigators for their groundwater wells as part of Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater usage among Valley farmers and save the Rio Grande Basin. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is paying $1.2 million to two crop producers in the first of the deals. The district opened up a second-round of applications on Oct. 10 that allows crop producers to submit a proposal for the state dollars. The second-round application period ends on Dec. 29.
More than 50 people applied to serve on the Douglas County Water Commission, a new entity that is expected to help shape the future of water supply in a continually growing county. After county leaders narrowed the pool of applicants down to 12 whom they wanted to bring in for interviews, the applicants fielded questions, including ones about their connections and any conflicts of interest they might carry. The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county’s elected leaders.
The forming of the new body comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley, a region of Southern Colorado. Renewable Water Resources is the private company that proposed the project. Last year, county leaders Laydon and Lora Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while county leader George Teal has continued to support it.
In response to claims by principals of Renewable Water Resources, officials this week with the Colorado Division of Water Resources reiterated that the Upper Rio Grande Basin is over-appropriated and has no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation.
The reply from state water officials came in response to questions from Alamosa Citizen after the Douglas County Future Fund made a series of claims in a recent newsletter it publishes to influence decision-makers in Douglas County.
RWR principals, who include former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and political strategist Sean Tonner, have been working to convince Douglas County commissioners that there is water available in Rio Grande Basin that Douglas County could own and pump into the Front Range bedroom community.
The search for a future water source by suburban communities like Douglas County is one of the pitched battles of the climate-influenced 21st century. The storyline goes like this: Sprawling suburban communities that blew up during the 1980s and ’90s and first decades of the 21st century are on the hunt for new water sources as periods of extreme drought and intensified changes to surface temperatures reduce the availability of water as a natural resource.
The agricultural corridors of America, meanwhile, are working to reduce their own consumption of water through technological advances and through reducing the amount of acreage used to grow crops.
It’s a classic new battle: population centers vs. rural regions, and there is no clearer example of the conflict than Renewable Water Resources and its efforts to export 22,000 acre-feet of water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin to Colorado’s Front Range on a perpetual basis.
“The San Luis Valley has 1.02 billion acres of unused water, because it sits over the second-largest aquifer in the United States,” is one of the claims RWR made in a Douglas County Future Fund newsletter in September.
Another claim it made as fact: “The RWR project proposes to use 22,000 acre-feet. This water would come from the confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley, which is fully renewable within five days of runoff from the San Luis Valley mountain ranges.”
Neither is the case and both claims fly in the face of state groundwater rules governing irrigators’ use of water in the Valley. The lack of recharge and dropping levels of the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Rio Grande Basin have pushed state water engineers to develop specific groundwater usage rules in an effort to restore the aquifers and save the Rio Grande Basin. Each irrigation season, the state curtails water usage along the Rio Grande Basin, which impacts farming and ranching production in the Valley as Colorado works to control the water availability and meet its own obligations to New Mexico and Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
“At this time the Division of Water Resources is not going to comment on the specific details included in the newsletter produced by the Douglas County Future Fund. However, due to the over-appropriated nature of our water system, there is no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation in Water Division 3, the Rio Grande Basin in Colorado,” said state water Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.
Douglas County recently created a 12-member water commission to advise it on water issues. The new committee includes Tonner, who uses the Douglas County Future Fund newsletter to make the case for Renewable Water Resources’ water exportation proposal.
The Douglas County water commission members include:
District 1 Merlin Klotz, James Myers, Donald Lagley
District 2 Clark Hammelman, James Maras, Roger Hudson
District 3 Frank Johns, Evan Ela, Kurt Walker, Harold Smethillis
At-large Seats Sean Tonner, Tricia Bernhard
Water managers on the Rio Grande Basin continue to monitor the efforts in Douglas County. The county government in Douglas County is not set up to be a water provider and is dealing with its own conflicts.
The Douglas County commissioners have been advised by attorneys that the Renewable Water Resource concept is littered with problems and would have difficulty gaining traction in state district water court.
Any effort to export water from the San Luis Valley would get tied up for years in state water court. The six counties in the San Luis Valley also recently banded together to create local planning rules that local officials believe would block a water exportation plan from moving forward.
“Whether we had a good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.” Those were the final words from District 3 Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales just before adjourning court last Thursday in the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group case. The water court trial may have ended suddenly, but the issues surrounding the unconfined aquifer do not, and therein lies the problem. The irrigators in Subdistrict 1, who are responsible for restoring the unconfined aquifer and feel the pressure of the clock running on a state engineer order to make it happen by 2031 or else, just did adopt and the state engineer approved, a new strategy to recover the aquifer. Problem is the plan, called the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, will undoubtedly end up in District 3 Water Court due to objections. And once it lands there, it’s likely to be a couple of more years before the chief water judge makes a decision on whether to approve, according to the experts. In the meantime, expect more retired acres to permanently retire water. It seems to be the only way.
WHEN the town of Del Norte terminated its agreement this week to lease water to the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group, it effectively killed the SWAG’s efforts to get an alternative augmentation plan through state District 3 Water Court.
Sustainable Water Augmentation Group withdrew its application Thursday for its own augmentation plan separate from Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Conservation District, whose rules SWAG operators have been following and now will continue to follow in the irrigation seasons ahead. The owners of SWAG irrigate 17,255 acres in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties and had proposed fallowing 5,014 under the plan.
The withdrawal of SWAG’s application was a sudden end to a water court trial that had been scheduled to last five weeks by Chief District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales due to the technical and complicated issues of managing the supply of water for irrigators in the San Luis Valley.
Gonzales’ ruling earlier in the day Thursday, in which he denied a motion by SWAG on how it wanted to address the loss of the Del Norte water in its application, convinced members of SWAG to withdraw.
Since it had lost the Del Norte water as a replacement source for groundwater pumping, SWAG attorneys had proposed that they be allowed to update their application with data from the 2023 water year to demonstrate how the SWAG plan never really needed the Del Norte water to begin with.
Gonzales ruled that wouldn’t be fair to water users and the state Division of Water Resources opposing the plan. Gonzales said SWAG knew going into the water trial that the Del Norte water may not be legally available to it and could have anticipated that before Del Norte actually took the water away.
“The Del Norte lease went away on the second day of trial through no fault of the applicant. I realize that,” Gonzales said. SWAG at that point, he said, had an option to “simply remove reference to the Del Norte water” from its application and provide updated numbers for the trial to move forward.
Instead, said Gonzales, “the applicant made what may be a strategic decision … to amend their disclosures to not only reflect that they would no longer be relying on the Del Norte water, but in addition to that to incorporate the 2023 numbers from the subdistrict and to ultimately change their theory of the case. I think that’s the best way to summarize it.”
“That I find significant. That is significant and substantial,” Gonzales said.
The district court judge told applicants and opposers that it was unfortunate for the trial to come to such a sudden end given the important and complicated issues facing irrigators in Subdistrict 1 as they work to restore the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin.
“I’m sorry we’re at this point … I think our issues that we as a community and we as a district number three have to address, those don’t end today. We know that full well. Whether we had good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.”
THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The group of 12 – umbrellaed under the name SWAG or Sustainable Water Augmentation Group – is seeking the first group augmentation plan filed under the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Season Rules. The rules govern groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley and are a constant source of state government oversight on the Valley’s groundwater and surface water users.
Opposing the SWAG application is the influential Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which applies the state groundwater rules through a formation of subdistricts with oversight from farmers and ranchers who own water rights and wells within a subdistrict. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and host of local water users have also filed objections to the SWAG plan.
The fact Chief Water Court Judge Gonzales set five weeks to hear from the applicants, and water managers and users in opposition, speaks to the weight of the case, both in substance and precedence, to the arguments and the sheer volume of court documents associated with the SWAG case.
There are 1,946 scanned documents and over 1,000 exhibits in the voluminous court file – all part of a water augmentation plan that has the potential to upend the years of collaboration that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauded during a recent trip to the Valley.
“This community has shown the state of Colorado what collaboration looks like,” he said. “The Rio Grande Basin issues related to groundwater really have called for people figuring out how we work together.”
That notion of collaboration and everyone-in-it-together gets flipped on its head with the SWAG case.
What it’s all about
SWAG producers are part of Subdistrict 1, the Valley’s most lucrative for crop sales of the six subdistricts, but also the most challenged when it comes to reaching the state engineer’s order to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply.
In this case that means bringing stability to the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, a directive the subdistrict has been working on since it first formed in 2006 only to find itself continuing to fight an uphill battle.
Here’s the problem: The state engineer has given the subdistrict until 2031 to reach the sustainable benchmark, but during the past 12 years that subdistrict irrigators have been reducing groundwater pumping and retiring once-productive land, the bar to water sustainability has hardly moved.
OW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval.
It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.
Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future.
The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.
SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.
The finer arguments to be made
To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”
And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”
The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.
“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”
Augmentation Plan: Historically required of junior water users on over-appropriated streams, like those in the Rio Grande Basin, to obtain sufficient replacement water to offset any injurious depletions to senior water rights. Under the state Department of Water Resources 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Rules, an augmentation plan also must help achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply and not interfere with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact and annual water delivery to New Mexico and Texas.
Subdistrict – A defined territory within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that helps promote local interests and accomplish improvements within that defined “special improvement district” or “subdistrict.” Currently there are six subdistricts, numbered consecutively as they were created. Subdistrict 1 was formed in 2006, and others subsequently after. Participation among crop producers is voluntary. Each subdistrict has a board of managers. Their decisions are voted on by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors.
SWAG – A group of groundwater users within Subdistrict 1 who have crafted their own augmentation plan rather than participate in the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management and Annual Replacement Plan that have been approved by the state. The group says it has 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres.
Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management – Specific to Subdistrict 1, it establishes how irrigators will meet the state Division of Water Resources order to recover and create a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The first Plan of Water Management was approved in May 2010, and there were subsequent amendments to the plan approved in June 2017 and August 2018. The fourth amended plan was approved by Colorado Division of Water Resources in June 2023 and final by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board on July 14. There is a 10-day period from when the RGWCD board gave final approval that allows irrigators to challenge the plan in district water court and there are already challenges, meaning it won’t go into effect until it’s approved by the water court.
The start of an El Niño period was acknowledged in June by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization. As it forms in July and August we’ll have a better sense of the impacts to the Valley lands and the Rio Grande Basin. Some global experts are beginning to suggest a moderate to strong El Niño increases the chance that 2024 will be the warmest on record. We’re paying attention to the condition of the Rio Grande Basin and in particular the change in the unconfined aquifer storage after what’s been a strong runoff from the winter snowpacks. It’s a critical indicator on the overall health of the Rio Grande Basin and one that ultimately determines the state of agriculture in the SLV.
It is irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District who shoulder the greatest responsibility for recovering the ailing unconfined aquifer. To that end, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Managers will hold a public hearing this week on the Subdistrict 1 Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management to manage groundwater pumping in the unconfined aquifer area. It’s been a year or so in development with lots of difficult conversations on how to reduce groundwater irrigation in the Valley’s most lucrative agricultural subdistrict. The state Division of Water Resources has signed off on the plan and now comes the final public comments. The idea of a lawsuit challenging the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management also hangs out there. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, July 14.
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is moving forward on two major fronts: It’s ready to open the application window for Upper Rio Grande irrigators to apply for some of the $30 million set aside under state legislation, SB 22-028, to permanently retire irrigated acres in the San Luis Valley. The money sits in the Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund, and Valley farmers can submit applications beginning Thursday to access it. The RGWCD is also moving to implement its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for its Subdistrict 1. The board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is accepting public comments on the amended plan, with a public hearing slated for July 14. Both the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund and the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management are key to the Valley’s efforts to restore and bring sustainability to the Rio Grande Basin.
2. Douglas County plans for water commission
Up north, Douglas County commissioners this week will continue their discussions around establishing a Douglas County Water Commission to assist in the broader effort to bring more water into the sprawling Front Range county. Douglas County has been reaching out to water providers and residents to pitch the idea and plans this week to continue those conversations around initially establishing a Technical Advisory Committee. In the background of it all is Douglas County’s interest in Renewable Water Resources and the Rio Grande Basin as a source of water. We’ll keep tracking to see where it all goes.
3. The Valley’s water checkmate
The various county commissions in the San Luis Valley have been working to put in place their own checkmate when it comes to pumping water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin like the RWR proposal to Douglas County. We first told you about it back in January, and now Alamosa County last week adopted the “Intergovernmental Agreement to Protect Water Resources” and the Valley’s other county and municipal governments are expected to become signatories to the agreement as well. The agreement establishes the San Luis Valley Joint Planning Area to protect surface water and groundwater resources. The essence of the agreement is that anyone looking to transfer water out of the San Luis Valley would have to apply for a 1041 permit from each of the county and municipal governments and get sign off from all local governments to move a project forward. “This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board, said at the time of our first article. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”
Real estate developers interested in exporting water they own from the San Luis Valley to fast-growing, water-short Douglas County have contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for the Parker Water & Sanitation District Board, one of the largest water providers in the county.
Last month, Robert Kennah won a seat on the Parker water board and had received two donations from partners in Renewable Water Resources, a real estate development group whose principals include former Colorado Governor Bill Owens. The contributions were made by RWR principals John Kim and Hugh Bernardi, according to filings at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
A second RWR-backed candidate, Kory Nelson, also received $10,000 in donations from RWR, but did not win a seat on the Parker water board. Nelson is contesting the results of the election. If Nelson had won, RWR would have ties to three members of the five-member board, according to Parker Water and Sanitation District Manager Ron Redd.
Parker board member Brooke Booth is related by marriage to RWR principal Sean Tonner, Redd said.
Neither Booth, Kennah nor RWR responded to a request for comment. Nelson could not be reached for comment.
Such large contributions are unusual in low-profile water district board elections, where candidates often provide their own funding for their campaigns of a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands, according to Redd.
“That’s a lot of money for a water board race,” Redd said.
The donations come after Douglas County Commissioners last year declined to invest in RWR’s controversial $400 million San Luis Valley pipeline proposal using COVID-19 relief funding. Douglas County Commissioners Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon voted against the funding, while Commissioner George Teal supported the proposal.
Among other objections, the county said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the San Luis 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 favors projects that don’t dry up productive farmland and which have local support.
Opposition to the proposal in the San Luis Valley is widespread. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa argues 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.
Out of compliance
That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.
Last year, after the county rejected the San Luis Valley proposal, RWR said it would continue to work with Douglas County to see if its objections could be overcome. It has also maintained that the agricultural water it owns in the San Luis Valley would be pulled from a portion of the valley’s aquifer system that is renewable, minimizing any damage that might occur from the project, and that even though farmlands would be dried up when the water is exported, the valley’s water situation would benefit from a reduction in agricultural water use.
RWR’s water rights, however, have not yet been converted to municipal use, as is required under Colorado law. That process could take years to complete and would likely be fiercely contested by farm interests in the San Luis Valley, as well as other opponents.
Still RWR continues to deepen its ties to Douglas County water districts. RWR principal John Kim, one of the contributors to the Parker water board elections, won a seat last year on the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District Board, according to the district’s website. Kim lives in that district. He declined a request for comment.
Douglas County government does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service. Fast-growing towns and water districts early on simply drilled wells into aquifers, but the aquifers have been declining and water districts have been forced to implement aggressive water conservation programs, water reuse programs, and use of local surface supplies to meet their needs.
Two of the largest water providers in Douglas County, Parker Water and 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.
A host of politicians across the political spectrum came out against the RWR proposal as well, including Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the San Luis Valley.
Still, Douglas County’s Teal, who has also received funding from RWR principals, said he believes the RWR water could have a role to play in helping ensure the county has enough water to grow over the next 50 years.
“I don’t know [if we have enough water,]” Teal said. “That is part of what makes me wonder if we do have enough. Water projects take time. There is no snapping your fingers and then delivering 10,000 acre-feet of water.”
But Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas says the county’s water providers are well prepared for the future and there is no need to spend money on a project that has little public support and which may never come to fruition.
“We are secure without it,” Thomas said. “But I think that RWR is doing everything it can to get Douglas County to buy into their scheme.”
Floyd Ciruli, a pollster and veteran observer of Colorado politics who has done extensive work in the past for Douglas County water providers, said the RWR initiative faces an uphill battle.
“They have resistance at both ends,” Ciruli said, referring to opposition in the San Luis Valley and in the metro area. “It’s interesting that [RWR] is contributing to these boards. It’s is a real long shot.”
Parker Water and Sanitation District says it plans to continue its development of the South Platte pipeline project in northeastern Colorado and to craft deals with farmers so that agricultural water won’t be removed from farmlands, helping preserve the rural economy there. Most of Parker’s water rights have already been approved for municipal use, according to Redd.
“We’re concerned because Parker water has no interest in the RWR project and we basically stated that a year ago when Douglas County was looking at their project. It has no clear path to being done. It’s years if not decades before they could even get started,” Redd said.
“We have a clear path. We already have the water. I am not sure what the intent was to try and get people on our board. It is just concerning.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
COLORADO is estimating 750,000 acre-feet on the Rio Grande and 405,000 acre-feet on the Conejos River, both dramatically up from a year ago thanks to healthy snowpack in the San Juan Mountains, State Engineer Kevin Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission on Friday.
“Forecasted river flows are much better this year, especially for the rivers starting in the San Juan Mountains,” Rein said. “Streamflows from the San Juan Mountains are estimated to be 130 to 250 percent of the last 30-year average.”
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are at near average snowpack conditions, but still better than recent years, Rein said.
Streamflows on the Trinchera, Culebra, and Crestone creeks are forecasted at 90 to 120 percent of the last 30-year average, he said.
In 2022, the Rio Grande had 442,000 acre-feet and the Conejos 266,000 acre-feet for a third straight year of below average stream flows.
Rein’s presentation to the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which manages water on the Rio Grande for the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, included a report on the San Luis Valley’s subdistrict system and Colorado’s groundwater pumping rules that Valley irrigators have to follow.
Subdistrict 1, which is the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley with 3,000 water wells and where farmers hold contracts with entities like Coors, Walmart and Safeway, has submitted a fourth plan of water management to Rein and the Colorado Division of Water Resources in its effort to meet the sustainability requirements for Upper Rio Grande’s unconfined aquifer.
“It is struggling with meeting its sustainability requirements in the unconfined aquifer,” Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission.
The proposed fourth plan of water management by Subdistrict 1 would require irrigators to cover groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or through the purchase of surface water credits. 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.
In the San Luis Valley, well owners must replace their injurious river depletions by participating in a subdistrict or by getting a court-approved augmentation plan. The subdistricts, governed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, must get state approval for annual replacement plans that show how farmers and ranchers are covering their water depletions.
There are three upcoming state water court cases involving irrigators in Subdistrict 1 who filed their own augmentation plans in an effort to stay out of the subdistrict.
The largest of the three cases involves the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), which consists of 17,000 irrigated acres in Subdistrict 1. That case is set for a five-week trial in July and will be closely watched to see how a proposed augmentation plan this large is reviewed by state water court.
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THE federal government’s Closed Basin Project reared its head at Thursday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.
In question was whether Closed Basin water could be included in annual replacement plans as a potential resource for subdistricts to help offset winter depletions to the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins.
The majority of the board answered in the affirmative, with some dissent, and approved resolutions to that effect and then separately approved the respective annual replacement plans of the six subdistricts. Those now get filed with the state Division of Water Resources for review and sign-off and are key plans to show the state how Valley irrigators are replacing the water they pump out in efforts to bring sustainability to the Upper Rio Grande aquifers.
The meeting drew a crowd of water users along the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins, who had heard the subdistrict annual replacement plans were in jeopardy of not being approved because the plans included potential use of Closed Basin water. Without a board-approved annual replacement plan in place, irrigators wouldn’t be able to begin groundwater pumping, hence the turnout and pleas to the board to vote for the plans.
No annual replacement plan, no groundwater pumping, no Valley ag economy was the message the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board members heard.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-managed Closed Basin Project, positioned in the northern end of the Valley, pools surface water and groundwater and pumps the water into a canal to meet Rio Grande Compact and Treaty of Mexico requirements.
In rulings from the Colorado Supreme Court, the water also can be prioritized for private use if there’s water left after meeting annual downstream obligations to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, and delivering water to the Valley’s wetlands and wildlife refuges.
But rarely is that the case.
With the persistent drought conditions, the Closed Basin Project has reduced its pumping to about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year, said Amber Pacheco, acting general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Of that, about 4,000 acre-feet is used to protect the wetlands areas and the rest of the water, or around 8,000 acre-feet, heads downstream.
The Closed Basin has an absolute water right of 42,000 acre-feet annually if conditions allow for it, and pumping is constantly monitored because under federal statute the Closed Basin Project cannot withdraw water to a level two feet below the area being pumped.
“They can’t pump it dry,” Pacheco said. “The Closed Basin Project can’t operate that way.”
Pacheco said the Rio Grande Water Conservation District cannot use Closed Basin water for anything other than wintertime depletions. “We pay all our irrigation-season depletions by other means. We don’t use the Closed Basin for that.”
And despite there being plenty of water users who would like to see the Closed Basin Project shut down and the water kept in the San Luis Valley, including some members of Rio Grande Water Conservation District board, a vote to shut it down isn’t within the boards power.
“This board can’t shut down the Closed Basin. It’s a federal project. They can ask and make comments, but they can’t vote to shut it down.”
But the Rio Grande Water Conservation District can approve an annual replacement plan for a subdistrict that includes the option of using Closed Basin water to offset winter depletions. The meeting at least made that clear.
Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE
IRRIGATED agricultural land in the San Luis Valley is worth $250,000 for 160 acres, or $2,000 per acre-foot of groundwater withdrawn.
At least those are the valuations on irrigated acres that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board agreed to during a special meeting Tuesday when it debated requirements for farmers and ranchers to apply for a $30 million pool of state money.
The water conservation district board will meet again on Friday, March 3, to formally adopt the requirements.
Cleave Simpson, the architect of SB22-028 and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, always said drafting the requirements would prove to be more difficult than getting the legislation adopted, and he was right.
“This whole plan is not easy to understand,” said board member Peggy Godfrey in her pleas for simplicity in drafting the requirements.
The state law is intended to help irrigators in the Upper Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin meet their water obligations by retiring irrigated acreage. Each basin has an earmark of $30 million. In the case of San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers, the money has to be spent to permanently retire groundwater pumping wells to help the Upper Rio Grande meet the state’s groundwater pumping regulations and stabilize the two aquifers in the San Luis Valley.
David Robbins, the water conservation district’s long-standing attorney, emphasized that the requirements have to result in a “verifiable reduction in groundwater wells.” The state program is essentially a $30 million “buy and dry” for irrigated acres in the Valley, Robbins has said.
Once adopted, the Colorado Division of Water Resources will review the requirements before they go into effect. The state takes at least a month to review and approve the requirements adopted by the water conservation board, according to Robbins.
That means it would be sometime in April and into the spring that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District would begin to accept applications and start to spend down the $30 million earmark. Amber Pacheco, acting general manager, said the water conservation district is already getting phone calls from groundwater well irrigators looking to apply for the money.
Under the state law, any of the $60 million not spent by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and Republican River Conservation District by Aug. 15, 2024, goes into the state’s kitty for spending. The money is part of Colorado’s federal appropriation of COVID-19 relief funding.
In opting to establish a “base payment” that values a quarter section of irrigated land (160 acres) at $250,000, the board knew that it may overpay on some properties and underpay on others.
“We’re going to hear that,” said board member Steve Keller. “This is where simplicity works against accuracy.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s debate when some revisions were made to the draft, Robbins advised board members to be careful not to advocate for criteria that could benefit their own farm operations. That prompted board member Mike Kruse to recuse himself from the deliberations. Kruse has said he plans to submit an application for some of the $30 million.
The water conservation district board had to account for different sizes of farming operations that may apply for the money. The section on land compensation reads, in part: “Applications that seek to include parcels of property that are either larger or smaller than a standard quarter section (160 acres) will receive a prorated base payment that will rely on the decreed and/or permitted irrigated acres for the serving well(s), using $250,000 for 160 acres as the base. [For example: a half quarter at 80 acres would have a base payment of $125,000 or a parcel of 240 acres would have a base payment of $375,000].”
“I don’t want this $30 million to go away. I want to spend it all,” said Greg Higel, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board.
Once the state approves the requirements, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will publicize them on its website. A draft of the requirements is posted here, but note that this draft was slightly modified in language in a few sections during Tuesday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is not the final draft.
RIO GRANDE RESERVOIR, Colo — After 15 miles of pockmarked dirt road, the Rio Grande spreads wide in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains. It glitters, aqua, whitecaps whipped up by the wind. But even in the birthplace of the river lay the stark stains of climate change.
Deep, bald scars pucker the mountaintops, shorn of trees. In older burn scars, grass grows, flowing in the first summer breezes. In the newer scars, the thin rows of trees list, blackened and cracked, only a skirt of green growth at their base to mark the passage of time.
Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas. Read more: A river wounded
The Rio Grande meanders south and east through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a region of about 8,000 square miles spanning six counties, tucked between two mountain ranges. Agriculture drives the economy. More than 46,000 residents rely on $370 million generated by alfalfa, barley, potatoes, wheat, beef cattle and sheep.
“Now you just really feel that that’s all on a collision course with climate, and that may have some severe ramifications,” said valley farmer and rancher Kyler Brown as he passed over the low Rio Grande that cuts across his father-in-law’s farm in Monte Vista, Colorado. The valley’s way of agricultural life is imperiled.
The San Luis Valley depends on water, for the herds, the crops, for next year’s planting. And for mortgages, farm insurance, sometimes for the shareholders, sometimes for keeping the business in the family.
Average rainfall is only 7 inches to 9 inches annually.
Three-fourths of the water in the Rio Grande instead starts as snow, folded into the crevices of the mountains, slowly seeping through soil or streaming down to the riverbed.
The snowpack acts like a bank, a savings — water frozen for the future. In past decades, that meant cold snowmelt would start filling the rivers in April, peaking in June, eventually slowing through the autumn.
But warmer temperatures, less tree cover due to wildfires, more dust and thirsty soils from years of compounded drought prevent the just-melted snow from ever reaching the riverbed. Over the years, the smaller snowpack is becoming liquid earlier and changing the rhythm of the river.
In scarcity, relationships change
Though the San Juans had all of the snow they usually would in early spring 2022, it didn’t translate to a full river. Brutal May winds stripped away snowpack.
“There was a tension in my gut,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Because as the winds were howling, we knew we were losing snowpack. Every day, we were losing our opportunity to have flows in the river and put water in our aquifers.”
Threats are present. Farmers pump groundwater to make up for the river’s shortfalls, but that means falling groundwater levels. Populations swell on the Front Range around Denver, and downriver, too. And there’s always potential for devastating wildfire.
“We’re living on the knife’s edge with water,” Dutton said.
Water managers talk of new efforts to curb water use. They’re trying to change relationships between conservation groups, environmental nonprofits, farmers and the quasi-governmental irrigation districts.
Nathan Coombs, who manages the Conejos River District, said years of trust-building with groups typically at odds means there’s a greater willingness to face issues.
“Once we took down barriers of communication between project partners, we could start clearly seeing problems,” Coombs said. “If you want to solve those problems, you’ve got to talk to people you have never wanted to talk to before.”
It’s not perfect.
“Look, there’s always going to be a skunk at the picnic. I’m not saying everything is always totally kumbaya, but the biggest players for the vast majority are engaged.”
SAN LUIS VALLEY, Colo — Groundwater made the valley green, but climate change and over-pumping across time has depleted those water sources.
There are two aquifers underlying the valley. One is called the “confined aquifer,” trapped under an impermeable clay layer deep down, concentrated centrally. The other is a shallow “unconfined aquifer” generally found between 15 feet to 100 feet underground across most of the valley.
In certain spots in the valley, water used to gush out in artesian wells from the unconfined aquifer. But in recent decades, levels declined steeply after years of too many wells and too little recharge from the river or precipitation.
And the aquifers, explained Colorado State Engineer Mark Rein, take a double hit.
“There’s less water flowing naturally into aquifers that the wells rely on. At the same time,” he explained, “due to the lack of surface water, the wells are going to be more reliant on the aquifers.”
Farmers in the San Luis Valley have just eight years to stop the freefall of groundwater levels, or face the state shutting off wells.
In the valley’s most affluent district stretching between Alamosa and Saguache Counties, the aquifer declined 1.3 million acre feet by 1976, most of that over just 20 years. District officials submitted a plan to replenish the aquifer.
Rein acknowledged the efforts of Valley residents to reduce pumping, saying in June that it was too soon to tell if they could succeed in replenishing the aquifer before the 2031 deadline.
There’s a nexus Subdistrict 1 is dealing with, Rein said.
“We have this very rich culture in the San Luis Valley of irrigation, crops — and the economy is so dependent on it,” Rein said. “And at the same time, they’re facing a reality of less water.” One push to curb use might not go far enough. Another may go too far and erode culture and economy. “That’s what makes success more or less possible.”
All across Colorado, farmers have to offset any groundwater they pump either by submitting plans to water court for individual wells or joining a conservancy district in any of Colorado’s river basins.
People in the Rio Grande basin went further, carving up the basin into seven hyper-local subdistricts with a role in restoring the “balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.”
Dutton, 36, brims with verve when she speaks about the river. Growing up on a potato farm, both her father and grandfather took on water leadership positions.
She said decisions at the local level were how changes were made to water policy.
The entities, the districts, the boards, they’re all made up of people that have a dog in the fight, she said. “They live and work in the community. They’re water users.”
Farmers in the valley taxed themselves, paying an additional fee for every acre-foot of groundwater they pumped to fund conservation measures.
Rio Grande and River Conejos conservation districts use the money to pay farmers to stay off their wells, to retire them, to retire fields, to purchase farmland. Or the funds go to creating a system of “water credits,” allowing farmers who need more water to buy from farmers who returned excess flows to the aquifer.
In 2022, the Colorado Legislature chipped in another $30 million out of federal coronavirus relief funds to buy land and retire irrigation wells along the Rio Grande.
The efforts are unique. Hundreds of wells were shuttered by the state in northeast Colorado in 2011.
“There were large-scale wells shut-offs, and those wells are still shut off,” Dutton said. “But here, we took the initiative as a community, and we said, ‘We want to regulate ourselves. We want to work together to make this work.’”
Recent cycles have not been kind, either. After a few frugal years of farmers cutting pumping recharged the aquifer some, bad drought struck again. Without much replenishment from the struggling river, the past three years nearly erased those gains for groundwater.
Even when, in 2021, the district’s farmers pumped the least they had in a decade — the aquifer still dropped to a new historic low.
“It was incredibly disheartening,” Dutton said.
When a near-record monsoon season doused the valley in the summer of 2022, with some places receiving double the annual average rainfall, the river still ran at only 67% of its long-term average.
“It really wasn’t a great year as far as streamflow goes,” Dutton said. “Hopefully enough people saw what was happening in May and made some choices to change their farming plan for the year.”
Time is running out. Subdistrict 1 has to replenish the unconfined aquifer by more than 900,000 acre feet, or face the state capping wells.
Despite all their efforts and sacrifices, Dutton said, “we’re anticipating seeing a significant drop in the aquifer.”
Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):
SOMETIMES playing defense can be your most effective offense.
Anticipating another eventual push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers and the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande, officials in each of the six counties are drafting an intergovernmental agreement and specific planning regulations they hope will legally block any water exportation project.
Through an intergovernmental agreement, the counties would look to establish a “Joint Planning Area” to protect the Valley’s water resources and then adopt specific 1041 planning regulations that address protecting the Valley’s water resources from exportation.
“This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” said Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”
It’s through the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments that county officials and city officials have been meeting to draft the intergovernmental agreement and eventually establish 1041 regulations specifically around water exportation proposals. Any proposal that would aim to take water out of the Valley, such as the Renewable Water Resources plan, would have to satisfy all the regulations in applying for the required county permits.
The city of Alamosa and the city of Monte Vista are expressing interest in being part of the water resources intergovernmental agreement as well.
In a speech last April where he addressed the RWR plan, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser encouraged the use of 1041 regulations so that communities have a “seat at the table in shaping the water projects that impact them.”
“Broadly speaking, a local government can use its 1041 powers to limit the negative impacts associated with the development of certain ‘areas’ or ‘activities of state interest.’ Such areas or activities might be related to everything from water infrastructure to buy-and-dry projects. Overall, these powers are intended to allow local governments to protect our lands, their value, and their use,” Weiser said.
CONVERSATIONS among county commissioners began in earnest early last summer following interest by Douglas County in the Renewable Water Resources proposal to pump 20,000 acre-feet every year out of the Valley to the Front Range bedroom community.
A visit by Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon last year to talk to RWR supporters in the San Luis Valley heightened concerns among county commissioners. Following Laydon’s visit, local county commissioners began conversations on how to counter both Douglas County’s interest and the ongoing efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the Valley.
“I do still see a need and I feel good about the movement that’s been made,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink, who has been involved in the discussions from the beginning.
“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice,” Heersink said, “and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”
As headwater counties in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to battling water projects with smaller counties banding together to counter efforts by a large suburban county like Douglas County.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments offers a template to the approach in how that region battled the Two Forks project in the 1990s.
“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together,” said attorney Barbara Green. Her law firm, Sullivan Green Seavy, is advising the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments in the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement itself has no regulatory effect but simply forms the “Joint Planning Area,” Green explained to commissioners at a meeting last week in Alamosa.
It’s the 1041 regulations that provide the teeth.
THE strategy could also provide a checkmate to Douglas County’s own interest to get into the business of being a water provider, which it currently is not.
At a recent Douglas County Commissioner work session, Laydon raised the idea of creating a volunteer water commission, similar to a county planning commission, to help Douglas County plan forward on securing water for its future needs.
“We know that the state does not have a concrete water plan. I think that’s to come,” Laydon said. “In the west and certainly in Douglas County we know that water is a top priority issue, a scarce resource that we need to have some long-range, thoughtful planning around.
“I think we’re overdue in Douglas County to really activate a water commission and have a comprehensive plan much like we do in transportation and our comprehensive master plan in land use.”
Bill Owens, former Republican governor of Colorado and RWR pitchman, has been courting Douglas County to buy into Renewable Water Resources. Attorneys hired by Douglas County have outlined the significant legal and logistical hurdles to the RWR proposal.
Having each of the San Luis Valley’s six counties adopt specific planning regulations around water exportation and enter into intergovernmental agreements adds another layer of local regulation around water projects.
The effort is not so Valley counties can meddle in each other’s business, said Heersink, but a specific response to any plans for water exportation.
“We want to prevent a diversion that takes the water out of the Valley,” he said.
From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:
The new year likely will bring a new amended Plan of Water Management for irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The subdistrict’s board of managers in December approved a new amended plan that ties the allowable groundwater pumped to the natural surface of water of the property. This is a huge change that values snowpack, and if there isn’t any, irrigators can expect to pay a handsome fee to get surface water from a neighbor. The plan will get a hearing and vote before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Jan. 17. If approved there, as is likely, the amended Plan of Water Management then gets filed with Colorado Division of Water Resources for its blessing, or not.
We frequently note the activity of farmers in Subdistrict 1 because it is the subdistrict that pulls from the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and is under state watch to reduce its groundwater pumping to recover water flows in the unconfined aquifer. It’s also the Valley’s most lucrative corridor for irrigated agriculture, and as such, the bellwether for farming in the Valley. The amended Plan of Water Management is a way for farmers in the subdistrict to try to stay in business while making gains in recovering the unconfined aquifer. More to come in 2023.
WHEN State Sen. Cleave Simpson reports for duty at the Colorado Capitol this week, he does so representing a newdistrict that was carved out as part of the 2021 Colorado redistricting process.
What isn’t changing is his legislative focus and the issues he plans to continue working on. He also has some serious thinking to do, specifically on what his political future may look like entering 2024.
Colorado redistricting shifted Simpson into Senate District 6 which consists of the San Luis Valley’s six counties and then lower southwest Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and counties north to Montrose County. In 2020, when he was first elected, he represented state Senate District 35 which included the San Luis Valley and counties of southeastern Colorado.
“It’s really about people, and honestly it will still be about water,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen ahead of the 2023 legislative session. “Folks on the Rio Grande and the Arkansas (River) worry about water. The folks on the Western Slope, given the condition of the Colorado River and how much water gets moved out of that transbasin to support front range interests, that similarity will continue and that sense of urgency may even escalate more going west.”
AS a Republican in a Colorado Senate controlled by Democrats, Simpson finds himself in an oddly comfortable spot. In his two years as state senator, he’s managed to carve out a reputation as a leading bipartisan legislator who Republicans and Democrats alike can work with.
He has major pieces of bipartisan legislation to his name, including Colorado’s 988 Crisis Hotline in 2021 and the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund which remarkably sailed through both the state senate and state house with no opposition in the 2022 session. He’s also focused his early legislative work on behavioral health legislation and sits on the legislature’s influential Capitol Development Committee and his favorite, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.
“I like to think I spent two years building some credibility where folks will listen to what’s important to me, which is hopefully what’s important to rural Colorado,” he said.
“It’s been very intentional,” he said of his bipartisan approach, “but it’s also who I am. I didn’t change who I was when I got elected to the legislature. It feels like I’ve built that reputation in two years and folks on the other side of the aisle are always willing to engage with me.”
Not always the case with the Colorado Republican Party. He still smarts about the time the party chair wouldn’t help when he was rallying state leaders to oppose the proposed transbasin diversion of water from the Rio Grande to Douglas County that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a fellow Republican, is behind through Renewable Water Resources. Owens himself has called out Simpson. “When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in an op/ed published just a year ago.
Will he run again?
Simpson finds himself uncomfortable with the politics of the time and wonders if he will run again when his state senate term expires in two years. His job as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and farming with his dad and son provide him with more than enough to do. When he travels north for legislative work he thinks about the work he’s leaving behind and wonders if being a gentleman legislator it’s what he truly wants to do.
Friends back home in the Valley are in his ear about running again in 2024, some even suggesting he challenge Rep. Lauren Boebert to represent the 3rd Congressional District. He’s heard the calls and understands the water issues he cares so much about will find their way to the nation’s capital.
Like others in the water community he’s frustrated by Boebert’s apparent lack of engagement on the critical issues of the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. There was frustration at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that a federal House bill called the Rio Grande Water Security Act was introduced last session by New Mexico Rep. Melanie Stansbury without their knowledge and without Boebert, their congressperson’s, involvement.
The bill actually made it out of the House but was detoured through the U.S. Senate through political maneuvering to make sure it wouldn’t advance into law. Simpson and his team at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, along with staff in U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office, helped bring attention to the flaws they saw in the bill.
If Simpson is tempted to challenge Boebert it would be because of the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande basins.
He’s vowed to work the 2023 legislative session and then give more thought to his political future. He has a new state senate district to represent and spent the summer traveling to Telluride, Cortez, Durango and other communities west of the San Luis Valley which coincidentally aligns to the 3rd Congressional District.
“They are definitely different, but they are also similar in a lot of respects,” he said of representing communities west of the San Luis Valley versus his travels east the past two years.
“It’s still rural Colorado,” he said. “The southeast is dominated by irrigated agriculture. There is certainly an abundance of some of that going west but not to the same level. There will be more ranching and there’s a lot more public land going west.”
And there’s the Colorado River and its troubles, which Simpson is deeply attuned to given his work at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and efforts to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
It’s the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande that Simpson said are most critical and where he plans to continue to focus his legislative attention.
“There’s just such a compelling and growing concern on my part and others about where water is going to push this state, and I think legislators need to be better engaged and better informed,” he said.
Heading into this third legislative session he enters the Capitol more confident and with friends, as they say, on both sides of the aisle.
The Citizen’s 2022 Year in Water compilation will help you see more of the big picture – both with the unconfined aquifer and the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s important to see the fuller landscape, and we think the 2022 year in review does the trick. We would also direct you to our most recent podcast with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who talks both about the upcoming 2023 legislative session and the critical time we’re in when it comes to water and irrigated ag in the San Luis Valley.
WHEN you’re working on an enormous issue like water – in this case how to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the two aquifers of the San Luis Valley – you have to stretch your mind to find new approaches.
The idea that groundwater pumped to irrigate crops could be restricted through a conservation easement is one of those moments when something that’s never been tried bubbles to the top and provides a new way to look at an urgent problem.
On Nov. 8, Valley farmer Ron Bowman signed the first-ever groundwater conservation easement to restrict the use of groundwater on his nearly 1,900-acre ranch in Mosca. The commitment also set a timeline for Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to purchase the ranch for $2.6 million, a deal it will be looking to close in 2023 with a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The subdistrict’s acquisition of the entire ranch not only saves groundwater from being pumped, but importantly helps Subdistrict 4 achieve its sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer as well as offset stream depletions to nearby San Luis Creek from groundwater pumping that occurs in Subdistricts 4 and 5.
“How the law is written and works, we’ll hold those water rights and they’ll still be water rights but we won’t pump them ever again,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 4 and one of the architects of the deal. “That protects those water rights from being abandoned and somebody else coming in and saying ‘Because these water rights have been abandoned, I can pump water over here.’ So we’re holding their place in line but saying, you can’t pump this water, this is our water to pump.”
Bowman’s groundwater pumping has accounted for about 10 percent of that being pumped by irrigators across Subdistrict 4. The farm has been operating with 12 center-pivot irrigation circles, growing mostly forage crops including some alfalfa.
“If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do,” Bowman said. He and his wife, Gail, purchased the property about five years ago.
The reduction in groundwater pumping and the fact the water is being placed in a conservation easement so it’s never pumped again creates a new way for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the state agencies and nonprofit land trusts it partners with to address depletion in the aquifers.
“The nice thing about a groundwater conservation easement is each one can be tailored to that property,” explains Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands.
Parmar has been instrumental in helping create a framework for the groundwater conservation easement that Bowman entered into. She credits Cleave Simpson, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the Valley’s six counties, with the initial brainstorm.
From there it was getting other smart water people in the room, like Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District; local farmers Sheldon Rockey and Nathan Coombs; and state division engineer Craig Cotten to lend their expertise to determine if groundwater could be placed in a conservation easement.
The concept also went through a rigorous exercise with water attorneys to determine the legality of such a move, and Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in Del Norte lent support to the project. There was also the matter of figuring out how to appraise the land given the new construct of groundwater being placed in an easement as part of a sale.
Over 20 years ago conservation easement work began to grow in the San Luis Valley largely with the establishment of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which was formed primarily out of concern for the surface water provided by the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” Colorado Opens Lands noted. “Now through this new application of a conservation easement on the Valley’s groundwater resources, the land trust community in the Valley is reinforcing its commitment to supporting the community in protecting its most precious resource: water.”
More common in the Valley are announcements of land conservation easements, where a portion of agricultural land is placed in an easement to prevent future development and preserve the land as a natural habitat.
Now water managers like Simpson have figured out that groundwater can also be placed in a conservation easement, which creates a new way for farmers to think about their operations as they continue to reduce the amount of water they use to farm to meet the state’s groundwater pumping rules.
“We are used to keeping water rights in irrigation through conservation easements, so it feels wrong to intentionally dry a farm, but by drying this particular farm, we are ensuring that the other farms in the subdistrict are sustainable and we ensure that this groundwater stays in the aquifer and out of the hands of anyone who might want to try to move it outside of the basin,” said Parmar.
Other approaches to a groundwater conservation easement may be different, she said. Instead of a farmer putting all the groundwater in a conservation easement as Bowman did, maybe only a portion of it is conserved through an easement and the rest continues to be used for crop production.
“Our hope is to work with landowners across subdistricts to avoid the state stepping in to shut off wells,” said Parmar. “I am continually amazed by the willingness of farmers and ranchers to step up to the challenge and grateful to work with irrigators like Ron Bowman, who want to be part of the solution.”
THE water attorney Douglas County hired to advise it on the proposed San Luis Valley water exportation project by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his Renewable Water Resources group said “many hurdles” remain and that his legal concerns are unchanged.
Stephen Leonhardt, Douglas County’s lead water attorney consultant, made his concerns known in a Sept. 13 closed-door meeting with the three Douglas County commissioners. An executive summary of that meeting was made available to Alamosa Citizen on Friday following a Colorado Open Records request.
Leonhardt, engineer Bruce Lytle and water attorney Glenn Porzak – all Douglas County consultants – met with John Kim of Renewable Water Resources on July 26, according to the memo, as a follow up to an outline of issues and concerns Leonhardt earlier presented to Douglas County following a “deep dive” into the RWR proposal.
“While it was a good meeting, the discussion did not alter my initial analysis and conclusions and there remain many hurdles to a successful project, which are not resolved at this time,” Leonhardt wrote in a Sept. 28 executive summary released to The Citizen. “The legal concerns with the project remain unchanged.”
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas has been pushing her fellow commissioners, Abe Laydon and George Teal, to release more details from their executive session meetings with Leonhardt. She said Friday on Twitter, “I remain OPPOSED for @douglascounty continuing to spend time and resources on taking water from the San Luis Valley when none of the water providers in Dougco are interested in participation with the concept.”
Laydon is facing re-election against challenger Kari Solberg in November. For Douglas County to continue showing interest in the Owens-led plan, RWR needs Laydon to earn a second term in the commissioners’ chambers.
But even then, the RWR water exportation concept faces major barriers, not the least of which is complying with state groundwater pumping rules that govern water in the San Luis Valley and the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa is already gearing up to knock back any legislative push Renewable Water Resources attempts to make in an effort to amend state rules governing groundwater pumping. He said RWR has lobbyists in place, and he expects the group to begin a lobbying process.
“I’ve always said they’ll be at the legislature at some point, going, ‘This is so important to the state we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules and regs,’” Simpson said.
He said he’s heard recently that RWR might approach the legislature with this plan in the 2023 session, which would align with RWR telling Leonhardt that it was developing a “legislative strategy” when he first outlined the problems.
“Why would they do that? They have zero chance of being successful, but that’s why they’ve hired lobbyists,” Simpson said.
“They don’t need a lobbyist if they’re just going to follow the rules as written,” Simpson said, alluding to RWR’s own statements in its proposal.
Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, said, “The last line of the memo says it all. The Douglas County Commissioners should take the extensive review provided by their independent water counsel to heart and move on from RWR. The legal issues with RWR’s proposal are insurmountable. In my opinion, any continued discussions or study of the RWR proposal is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The plan Douglas County has been reviewing would pump 22,000-acre feet a year from the northern end of the Valley in Saguache County and Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
One monumental task RWR faces is getting a state water court-approved augmentation plan in place that would demonstrate to the court that RWR has a portfolio of replacement water on the injured streams under a worst-case scenario.
Leonhardt has raised the required augmentation plan as a major barrier. “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,” he wrote in his bulleted May memorandum to Douglas County Commissioners.
“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.”
‘Innovative thought and hard work’ have helped with sustainability
State Engineer Kevin Rein said his current description of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is “actually quite good” and acknowledged in a recent interview with the Alamosa Citizen the efforts of San Luis Valley farmers to restore sustainability to the river system.
Rein also recognized in an email QA the ongoing challenges in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and with the unconfined aquifer. The Valley has two aquifers, the confined and unconfined, and Rein had characterizations of both based on the state’s rules and regulations governing the Upper Rio Grande.
The State Engineer will curtail water wells as part of the Colorado Division of Water of Resources’ daily administration of surface water and groundwater in the Valley. His views then of the Upper Rio Grande Basin carry significant weight with water users up and down the Rio Grande.
“My description of the current state of the Upper Rio Grande Basin (that portion of the basin within Colorado) is actually quite good. The water users have responded to the implementation of the Groundwater Rules, which brings about balance to the use of the water sources in the Basin.” said Rein.
He said he expects the $30 million earmarked for the Valley through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa will help Subdistrict 1, in particular, with efforts to retire more irrigated acres.
San Luis Valley farmers will talk until the cows come home about the critical work they’ve done to help restore the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, acknowledges as much.
“It has taken a lot of innovative thought and hard work from a lot of people in the Basin to achieve that,” he said. “These administration tools allow us to manage our water in good water years and bad water years. Add to that, we are in compliance with our interstate compact on the Rio Grande with Texas and New Mexico.”
To be clear, the Upper Rio Grande is far from being called a healthy river – particularly the unconfined aquifer, which runs west from the Alamosa and Saguache county lines in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and provides water to the lush potato and alfalfa fields that largely drive the Valley’s agricultural economy.
In a Q&A exchange with Alamosa Citizen, Rein gave further context to how efforts from the Valley’s farming and ranching community are paying dividends, but with a lot more work and sacrifice to come.
SLV WATER: Find more coverage of Valley water issues HERE
Too many groundwater wells permitted by the state and two-plus decades of drought have taken a toll.
“I can’t downplay the frequency of the ‘bad water years’ and the fact that persistent drought has impacted both surface water users and groundwater users; that impact is felt across the Basin,” Rein said.
“It’s in the context of this climatic trend of reduced water supplies that the struggle to achieve sustainability in the unconfined aquifer is an acute issue,” he said. “Subdistrict No. 1 has a standard, as required by state statute and articulated in their current Plan of Water Management, that is very specific in terms of an aquifer storage level and the need to achieve that level within a specified time.
“While the Subdistrict has taken steps to meet that goal during the last decade, the current drought and the associated reduction in available surface water has impacted the Subdistrict’s ability to recover the aquifer. This is not new information for the members of the Subdistrict and I believe that meeting the current goal within the specified time would require measures more drastic than the Subdistrict anticipated 11 years ago.”
The unconfined aquifer is specific to Subdistrict 1, and it’s the farmers and ranchers in that area of the Valley who have asked Rein and the state Division and Water Resources for more time to meet the state’s sustainability requirements. Subdistrict 1 board of managers recently submitted an amended plan of water management that would see farm operators pumping only the amount of their natural surface water. For farms that have no natural surface water, they would be forced to purchase surface-water credits from a neighboring farm with excess surface water or potentially watch their fields dry up.
“The published data showing levels of aquifer storage in the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict #1 indicates that the aquifer is not at the level that must be met by 2031 according to Subdistrict No. 1’s current Plan of Water Management,” Rein said. “The Division of Water Resources is in discussion with Subdistrict No. 1 regarding their efforts to achieve sustainability and a revised POWM (Plan of Water Management). To allow for a fair and constructive discussion with the Subdistrict, I will limit my comments at this time to just say that we are developing feedback for their consideration.”
The only other unconfined subdistrict in the Rio Grande Basin is the Trinchera Subdistrict, and “it too is having difficulty with sustainability of the aquifer in its area,” Rein said. “Currently the Trinchera Subdistrict is significantly curtailing the production of wells in order to build the aquifer level back up to a point where full production will again be allowed.”
As for the confined aquifer, Rein said artesian pressures associated with the confined aquifer are currently at levels consistent with the state’s Groundwater Rules for all of the confined aquifer subdistricts except Subdistrict 4, the San Luis Creek subdistrict. Subdistrict 4, he said, is taking steps to reach sustainability by limiting pumping in that area.
“Therefore, at this time, almost all subdistricts are operating in a sustainable environment in regard to the confined aquifer,” he said.
Simpson, who is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, took that to mean “we’re not pumping any more today than we pumped in 1978 to 2000.” The state’s definition for sustainability of the confined aquifer is “allow the pressures in the confined aquifer to exist as they did 1978 to 2000.”
Through the signing of SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by Simpson in the state Senate, another $30 million will be made available to help the Rio Grande Water Conservation District purchase and retire additional groundwater wells to reduce the number of irrigated acres even more. Rein expects Subdistrict 1 to benefit.
“Funding and authorization from SB22-028 is available to help the Subdistrict retire more irrigated acreage that currently relies on groundwater from the unconfined aquifer and the Subdistrict is also considering an amended Plan of Water Management to set a standard and put processes in place to achieve true sustainability. With these positive steps, I’m optimistic that the Subdistrict can successfully address their challenges.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
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.
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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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
THIS was supposed to be the week that the three Douglas County Commissioners, Lora Thomas, Abe Laydon and George Teal, visited the San Luis Valley to host a community meeting on Douglas County’s consideration of the Renewable Water Resources proposal to export water out of the Valley north.
There’s still an expectation that Laydon and Teal will find their way down, on their own, away from the public spotlight in their own pursuit of reasons to support or not the Renewable Water Resources plan.
For her part, Thomas has been opposed from the outset and prefers that Douglas County focus on a water project in its own backyard – the Platte Valley Water Project with Parker Water & Sanitation and Castle Rock Water.
She’s also been troubled by what she sees as conflicts of interest among her fellow commissioners for their public positioning of RWR and their perceived coziness with Republican moneyman Bill Owens, a former governor of Colorado, and his entourage at Renewable Water Resources.
It would have been those dynamics, a split and at times feuding Douglas County commission, that would have arrived at the Ski Hi Regional Events Complex in Monte Vista to hear from Valley residents. But after Teal made comments that there was nothing to gain from such a meeting since Valley residents didn’t seem interested in finding a deal with Douglas County and supporters of RWR felt threatened and silenced, the commissioners punted.
That doesn’t mean Douglas County – and Laydon and Teal, specifically – has lost interest in RWR. Quite the contrary. What’s puzzling is nobody outside RWR understands why, particularly since Douglas County is not a provider of water services and would find itself entangled in years of litigation at a minimum.
“I have zero ulterior motives, other than wanting to secure proactive win/win water solutions for both communities,” Laydon said to Alamosa Citizen. “I’m persuaded by facts, not noise or propaganda. We have engaged in a deep-dive water series and study with a hydrologist and water attorney who have yet to compile their findings into final recommendations.”
The three commissioners huddled in executive session for two hours Monday to hear from Stephen H. Leonhardt with the law firm Burns Figa & Will, and Tom Hatton from Applegate Group, Inc. Leonhardt and Burns Figa & Will have been retained as special counsel to help Douglas County understand the legal issues surrounding the Renewable Water Resources proposal, while Applegate Group, Inc., has been retained to consult on engineering and hydraulic aspects of the RWR plan, according to public files.
Both the special legal counsel and Applegate consultants had their contracts recently amended to include more money and more time on the RWR plan. Douglas County also this month issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for additional water consultant services. The RFQ has an April 8 deadline.
Following Monday’s lengthy executive session, the commissioners will receive a confidential memo summarizing what they heard. Where they are with a decision on RWR is harder to determine. Since Thomas is opposed and Teal is in support of RWR, the past weeks have become the Abe Laydon show to see where he lands.
“I don’t know where we’re headed,” said State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who is also general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is a farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley.
Like others who have made presentations to help Douglas County commissioners understand the ever-declining water conditions of the San Luis Valley aquifers – the unconfined and confined – and threats to the Valley’s ecosystem from 20 years of drought and loss of wetlands, Simpson is frustrated at the spectacle Douglas County has created.
“To make this thing work they have to change the rules and regulations that we all have lived under and crafted over the last 20 years,” he said of the Renewable Water Resources proposal.
It’s not simply Laydon casting the deciding vote to move the RWR proposal forward. If he were to take that gamble for Douglas County, RWR then would have to ask State Engineer Kevin Rein to change the rules governing water to meet the intent of their proposal, said Simpson.
“If I was Douglas County I’d say ‘I’m not going to give you a dime until you get the rules changed’ and the likelihood of them changing the rules here is nearly zero percent from my perspective,” Simpson said.
Coming out of Monday’s executive session with their special counsel and hydrologist consultant, Laydon said he was happy to hear the expertise and “objective facts” that were discussed. He and Teal have made it a point to say Valley representatives and residents they’ve heard from are not objective and instead overfilled with emotion.
“I very intentionally have taken the emotion out of my presentations and conversations with them,” said Simpson. “And honestly, even the folks at RWR from the very beginning, I said ‘I appreciate this is a business proposition from your perspective, I’m happy to sit down with you and let’s debate the pros and cons, but you can’t put out false information.’
“They claim we’re putting out false information and I can say with absolute certainty none of the stuff that I’ve presented or the meetings I’ve been in with them is false information. It’s all 100 percent accurate and quite the contrary from the other perspective. I can demonstrate without doubt that the information they’re getting is false.”
Simpson has sat with Laydon and extended invitations to bring in others like Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and one of Colorado’s foremost experts in water law, to help Laydon better grasp the drought conditions and over pumping situation in the Valley. Former Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen is another person Laydon has been invited to hear from.
For Laydon, he’s focused on the consultants that Douglas County has hired to help him make a decision. Presumably he heard some of what he’s looking for in Monday’s closed meeting. Following it he, Thomas and Teal sat through their first presentation on the Platte Valley Water Project.
A group of Valley farmers announced in a press release that they have come together to create the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), an alternative to Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1.
“It is no secret that we are at a critical moment for the future of the San Luis Valley, as drought deepens, climate change intensifies, and the unconfined aquifer’s water level continues to drop at a dangerous rate. Decisive action is required now before the aquifer runs dry and the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force is threatened,” the release stated.
The San Luis Valley has a mostly unconfined aquifer and is subject to many variables including drought. A confined aquifer is surrounded by rock and clay pieces which confine it to an area and make it less at risk for loss, but an unconfined aquifer is exposed and can be impacted more severely by outside factors. A confined aquifer is found deep beneath the ground, while an unconfined aquifer is just below the ground level…
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1 covers much of the San Luis Valley area. According to the Subdistrict 1 Plan of Water Management, “The goals of the Subdistrict are to cause groundwater levels in the Unconfined Aquifer of the Closed Basin to recover, and then to maintain a sustainable irrigation water supply in the Unconfined Aquifer with due regard for the daily, seasonal and longer-term demands on the aquifer and to protect senior surface water rights and avoid interference with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. To achieve these goals, reducing and managing overall groundwater consumption is essential.” The group of farmers behind SWAG disputes the effectiveness of the plans in place and proposed by Subdistrict 1.
“Despite making little progress towards sustainability with the fee-based model, Subdistrict No. 1’s Board of Managers is now poised to vote on raising the over-pumping fee from $150 to $500 per acre-foot. That’s a 233% increase on top of a 386% increase over the past decade. While this plan may work for some producers, it is not a viable option for the members of SWAG who have paid these ever-increasing fees only to see reduced yields and declining water levels in the aquifer. It is clear the status quo is unsustainable for the farmers of the Valley, nor the aquifer that we rely on for our water. We simply do not have the time to double down on a one-size-fits-all fee-based approach,” SWAG stated in the release.
The SWAG press release included an answer to the ongoing water crisis in the Valley.
“SWAG has entered into an agreement to purchase and retire approximately 4,500 acres, irrigated by wells, that have historically consumed an average of 5,678 acre-feet per year from the unconfined aquifer at a cost of over $35 million. If real progress towards sustainability is not made, the sad truth is that SWAG members’ wells are subject to the very real threat of forced curtailment; whether by the State of Colorado if the subdistrict cannot prove its plan for sustainability will work; or by the Subdistrict itself through ever-increasing fees for pumping which would punish those water users who rely on their decreed water rights for their wells, or the absence of water at their wellheads due to the overuse of the unconfined aquifer. The only way to solve this threat and ensure the future vitality of the Valley is to work together to find solutions which work for everyone. We need more options to promote conservation, not less. SWAG’s augmentation plan is one of those options, and we hope that other members of the community make your voices heard before it is too late,” SWAG concluded.
ERIC Harmon is the type of person Douglas County says it wants to listen to.
He’s a hydrogeologist with expertise on the San Luis Valley aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. In fact, his team completed the groundwater component of the Rio Grande Decision Support System, which is generally described in state water court documents as “an interactive computer-based system that utilizes data and computer models to help decision makers solve unstructured problems.” The RGDSS is what the state relies on to determine the impact of groundwater pumping.
Harmon is also retired and hasn’t been part of any of the presentations that the three Douglas County commissioners have heard on Renewable Water Resources and its pitch to Douglas County to partner on exporting from the San Luis Valley.
What does Harmon’s experience and expertise say about the RWR proposal? He wrote a letter to the Douglas County commissioners outlining his concerns and recommendation that Douglas County reject the RWR proposal. He has yet to hear back from the commissioners. Alamosa Citizen also asked Douglas County for a response to Harmon’s letter.
“The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposal to Douglas County to use ARPA funds should be rejected in favor of less risky projects,” Harmon told the commissioners. “RWR’s project would place undue risks on San Luis Valley (SLV) water users and ratepayers (water customers) in Douglas County. Why? For that, we need to get down into the weeds on the SLV aquifers.”
Harmon said he has given expert testimony in the Division 3 Water Court (San Luis Valley) in the AWDI case (1991), the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules case (2006), the Great Sand Dunes In-Place Groundwater Right case (2008) and the Groundwater Rules case (2018).
“Confined aquifer tests in the SLV by my testing team were done as part of Colorado’s Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS) in the early 2000s,” he said to the commissioners. “Our tests showed repeatedly that pumping impacts move outward from a confined aquifer well very rapidly, often causing drawdown (water level decline) up to ½ mile away within one day of pump startup. At several locations, pumping a deep well caused measurable drawdown in layers much shallower than the pumping zone. This is how confined aquifers work: drawdown spreads out very far, very fast. The SLV confined aquifer is ‘leaky.’”
After he sent along his letter to AlamosaCitizen.com for publishing, we asked him a few additional questions. The exchange is below:
AC: What concerns or thoughts, if any, can you share on the drought the San Luis Valley has been experiencing going back to 2002?
EH: Conditions are never static in hydrology. The dynamic nature of water, weather patterns, and the hydrologic cycle means that conditions are always changing. But where there is a long-term drought, the job of scientists and engineers becomes harder. It means that any predictions we are asked to make may be less reliable than we would like, because we don’t always have similar historic conditions we can look back on to compare to.
AC: The streamflow measurements documented by Davis Engineering for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District demonstrate troubling patterns. Have you recently looked at those streamflow measurements? In your view what type of impact is drought, climate change having on the basin and should that be a concern with the RWR proposal?
EH: I have tried to keep up with the general hydrologic trends in the Valley, including snowpack and streamflow. I have also kept up with the trends of Unconfined Aquifer storage change that Davis Engineering has done for RGWCD for many years. It is clear that even after a number of years of self-imposed pumping reductions in the Subdistricts, there is still too little water available to meet the irrigation demand, and to replenish the groundwater storage deficit in the Unconfined Aquifer in the Closed Basin. If drought or climate change persist in the future, as appears likely, then these impacts should be of concern in any new appropriation of water, whether by RWR or anyone else.
AC: Would the change in conditions, drought persistence, declining snow melt, particularly along the Sangre de Cristo range factor into a water court proceeding?
EH: Declining snowpack, earlier and faster runoff, and drought persistence certainly are of concern in the Sangre de Cristos, as they are in the San Juans. Valley-wide, the water supply from the Sangres is considerably less than it is from the San Juans. Smaller drainage areas, the “rain shadow” effect of the San Juans before the snowstorms get to the Sangres, and differences in topography and geology between the two ranges all are factors. If asked, I would advise the water court to look very hard at all of these factors. If groundwater recharge is less in the future than is predicted, it would almost certainly have an impact on the question of injury.
AC: Commissioner Teal said at the last meeting (March 8) that Douglas County has heard repeatedly that there is a “million acre feet” of water in the SLV aquifer. How does one address that notion?
EH: I can’t find any reference to a “million acre feet” in RWR’s proposal or in the presentations to Douglas County. RWR has stated that 22,000 acre-feet per year, the amount they intend to pump, is 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge. So RWR’s number for annual recharge is 880,000 acre-feet. I do not know if this is what Commissioner Teal is referring to. The important thing, however, is not the annual groundwater recharge or the volume of groundwater in storage in the aquifer. The important thing is that the Valley’s water resources are over-appropriated. As Colorado Division of Water Resources officials have pointed out, this means there is no water available for appropriation and full (“1 for 1”) replacement is required under the Rules.
The decision to cancel the event came during a March 9 work session in which county staff told the commissioners they were expecting 300 to 400 people to attend and that it appeared a protest was planned to take place…
Commissioner George Teal, who has voiced his support for the project, said was in favor of canceling the meeting, adding that he had initially hoped to have “actual conversations” with residents and “get past the visceral, emotional aspects of this project.”
He said he’s heard from people in the valley who support the RWR project but feel they are being intimidated to remain quiet….Commissioner Abe Laydon, who has said he hasn’t yet decided if he supports the project, said he still wants to go to the valley but said the event had been “hijacked by a group of folks” and said he didn’t want to be part of it…Commissioner Lora Thomas, who has vocally opposed the plan, said she’s not interested in going to the valley…
When asked where the county learned of reports of intimidation, a county spokesperson referenced comments from a speaker during one of the commissioners work sessions on the topic — Jerry Berry, who is a farmer in the San Luis Valley and a representative for RWR…
In a Feb. 28 meeting, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority Lisa Darling told the commissioners that none of the major water districts in Douglas County are interested in the water from RWR.
Polis has issued a statement that he is: “against any inter-basin transfer without local support of impacted communities. This is a proposed inter-basin transfer with deep concerns and opposition in the San Luis Valley and the governor is opposed.”
Polis joins Colorado Attorney General, Phil Weiser, who has already expressed strong opposition to the trans-basin export.
Last week, US Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper issued a statement opposing the RWR proposal and invoking Public Law 102-575, also known as the Wirth Amendment. The Amendment, named for former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, provides for review by the Department of the Interior prior to approval of any export of water from the San Luis Valley.
Trouble swirls above the aquifers of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where farmers and ranchers raise and grow much of the region’s cattle, potatoes, alfalfa and barley. Those aquifers are losing water as the American West dries out and whatever remains is spoken for. Farmers and ranchers have labored for decades to use less of the valley’s most precious resource. Today, the farmers say, a new but familiar threat approaches.
A Front Range company called Renewable Water Resources, backed by a cadre of builders, developers and former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to drill into the aquifers storing the valley’s declining water supply and pipe it to the ever-growing Douglas County.
The Front Range has money, Renewable Water Resources’ Managing Partner Sean Tonner often says. And the San Luis Valley has water. Tonner is quick to cite poverty statistics for valley residents and says his company can pay those willing to sell their water rights and bring millions more to stimulate the local economy. It’s a win-win deal, he said.
Opposition is widespread among the valley’s farmers, ranchers, water managers, environmentalists, bankers and politicians. Alamosa, Rio Grande and Mineral counties, alongside the cities of Alamosa, Monte Vista, La Jara, Manassa and Crestone passed resolutions opposing the project. So have Conejos Clean Water, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. People in the valley describe the plan as an old-fashioned “buy and dry” scheme…
Not only would Tonner’s plan further dry life in the mountain valley but, residents warn, it would also set a dangerous precedent that other fast-growing Front Range communities could quench their thirst by taking the one thing the San Luis Valley needs most. Money the project would bring into the valley – including a $50 million community fund – isn’t the “magic bullet” for the area’s economic woes, but Tonner argues it’s the best plan proposed yet. And in return, if Douglas County moves now, he said its commissioners can lock-in a renewable source of high-quality water at rates far below market prices.
The deal hinges on Douglas County’s split, three-person Board of County Commissioners.
Douglas County Commissioners should not move forward with Renewable Water Resources’ (RWR) request to utilize American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds to export water from the northern San Luis Valley (SLV). The RWR proposal would significantly impact the economy, environment, and culture of the San Luis Valley, a unique region home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and three national wildlife refuges, which collectively attract more than 600,000 visitors annually to the SLV. The SLV cities, farmers, and residents universally oppose the RWR proposal. The project would result in the “buy and dry” of agriculture, which has led to the devastation of other rural communities in Colorado.
As conservation organizations, we represent thousands of hunters and anglers in Colorado. Healthy wildlife habitats are necessary to sustain wildlife populations, and wetlands, riparian corridors, and mesic areas are critical in our arid state. The proposed RWR project would impact fish and wildlife habitats on multiple fronts. Groundwater and surface water resources in the SLV are connected, with aquifers sustaining streamflow, which supports habitat for cold-water fisheries. Therefore, removing water from the aquifers could negatively affect aquatic ecosystems important to the region. For example, the proposed wellfields of 22 to 25 groundwater pumping wells for the RWR project would neighbor the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, potentially impacting the wetland and aquatic ecosystems that support breeding and feeding grounds of migratory birds and waterfowl. Baca is also home to the state’s most viable population of Rio Grande Chub, a state species of concern. Other potentially affected species include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Gunnison Sage Grouse. The RWR proposal would also require the dry-up of 20,000 irrigated acres in the valley. Impacts to irrigated agriculture in the SLV resulting from the RWR project would also negatively affect fish and wildlife since most of the SLV’s wetlands occur on private property and are sustained through irrigation and water delivery.
The RWR plan runs contrary to the Colorado Water Plan. The plan, which guides state water planning and policy, establishes a conceptual framework for guiding negotiations around new transbasin diversion projects, including developing adequate measures to reduce socio-economic and environmental impacts on the basin of origin, which the RWR fails to accomplish meaningfully. The Colorado Water Plan also strongly condemns the practice of “buy and dry,” which has led to significant socio-economic and environmental impacts in rural communities and instead supports alternative approaches such as investments in conservation and smart land-use planning.
More cost-effective strategies exist, including investments in water conservation and water recycling/reuse. And there is no surplus water in the SLV to export. The SLV aquifers are over-appropriated and climatic trends point to less available water. Therefore, the RWR proposal presents a likely expensive, unpopular, and risky approach to meeting the growing water needs of Douglas County.
Our organizations recognize that Douglas County is growing and reliant on an unsustainable groundwater resource. We encourage Douglas County to use the federal funds to make needed investments to address water supply needs in a way that prioritizes local water supplies, promotes conservation, and creates jobs for the community rather than siphoning these funds to a speculative and costly water export proposal that will have significant impacts on rural Coloradans and the unique environment of the San Luis Valley.
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
National Wild Turkey Federation
Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
Colorado Wildlife Federation
Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
We write today to bring to your attention a matter in Colorado’s San Luis Valley where your agencies play an important and unique oversight role under Public Law 102-575. Through the attached letter from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (the District), we have been alerted to a proposal called Renewable Water Resources which would transfer groundwater out of the basin from the confined aquifer beneath the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and Closed Basin Project. After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the District’s letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal. Further, we ask for your attention under the Wirth Amendment, if an opportunity for review comes before your agencies.
The San Luis Valley is experiencing unprecedented drought that has placed a severe demand on local water resources. Valley residents, including farmers, ranchers, and business owners, rely heavily on groundwater aquifers to support their economy and way of life. Since 2005, in response to this drought, local farmers have undertaken an ambitious, collaborative effort to reduce their own pumping with the goal of achieving sustainability. This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact it would exacerbate local water challenges, even with conservation efforts. In addition to concerns from the District, five San Luis Valley counties are opposed to this proposal.
Public Law 102-575, also called the “Wirth Amendment”, was passed in 1992 and provides a legal framework and elevated standard of environmental review for any transfer of groundwater out of the basin that may adversely affect these public resources. We highlight this law because of its relevance to the San Luis Valley and an elevated standard of review for any project that might adversely affect Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project, Baca National Wildlife Refuge. For your convenience, we have pulled out the relevant language on page 64 of P.L. 102-575 (Title XV, Section 1501-1504):
SEC 1501: PERMIT ISSUANCE PROHIBITED
(a) No agency or instrument of the United States shall issue any permit, license, right-of way, grant, loan or other authorization or assistance for any project or feature of any project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or export to any portion of another State, unless the Secretary of the Interior determines, after due consideration of all findings provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, that the project will not:
(1) increase the costs or negatively affect operation of the Closed Basin Project;
(2) adversely affect the purposes of any national wildlife refuge or Federal wildlife habitat area withdrawal located in the San Luis Valley, Colorado; or
(3) adversely affect the purposes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado.
(b) Nothing in this title shall be construed to alter, amend, or limit any provision of Federal or State law that applies to any project or feature of a project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or another State. Nothing in this title shall be construed to limit any agency’s authority or responsibility to reject, limit, or condition any such project on any basis independent of the requirements of this title.
The Colorado delegation previously raised similar concerns with your agencies. In 2014, Senator Bennet led a letter with Senator Udall, Congressmen Tipton and Gardner elevating these same responsibilities to your attention in the face of a similar groundwater export proposal.
On behalf of our San Luis Valley constituents and the water resources so critical to their economic future, we must oppose the Renewable Water Resources proposal. We thank you for your assistance when your agencies are presented with the opportunity to review this matter.
A morning tour of property owned by Renewable Water Resources, a tour of an irrigated farm, a meeting with elected officials and a community meeting at the Ski-Hi Regional Events Center in Monte Vista is how Douglas County commissioners plan to spend March 26 in the San Luis Valley.
The three Douglas County commissioners – Abe Laydon, George Teal and Lora Thomas – have scheduled the visit to help them decide if they should invest in Bill Owens’ Renewable Water Resources plan and pump groundwater from the Valley to the Denver suburb.
Laydon called it an opportunity to “listen and learn” when the commissioners discussed the visit and tentative agenda on Monday.
Thomas, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the RWR plan because of its impact on the Rio Grande Basin and the Valley communities, said it was important to show respect when Douglas County officials arrive at the end of March.
As for Teal, who supports the RWR plan, he is hoping to find compromise among the Valley’s elected officials to what otherwise has been what he called a lot of unfactual rhetoric coming from Valley residents toward the Renewable Water Resources plan, he said.
“Nine out 10 words we’ve heard is ‘You’re going to dry us to the bone,’” Teal said of the four meetings Douglas County has held so far to study the RWR plan, “while 10 percent has been ‘We’re only taking a little bit and we’re giving something back.’”
By meeting with local elected officials, “hopefully we can get to a workable deal that reasonable people can come to,” Teal said.
He said presentations and comments made to the Douglas County commissioners have been “very contrary to the facts of this case.” He thinks elected officials in the Valley will be more sensible in the conversations.
“What I was hoping for with the elected official lunch is being able to have elected officials talk beyond the simple rhetoric and maybe, yeah, come up with a compromise that could be an element in the town hall,” Teal said to his fellow commissioners as they discussed their visit.
Renewable Water Resources has approached Douglas County about partnering in its water exportation proposal as a way to bring water to the Front Range bedroom community noted for its golf courses and sprawling housing developments. Owens, the former governor of Colorado, is pushing the water exportation plan. Teal was heavily backed by RWR-affiliated money in his 2020 run for Douglas County commissioner.
The RWR plan continues to be met by opposition among Colorado elected officials. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weisner has voiced concerns and opposition to the plan, and so now has Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Polis, through a spokesperson, told Colorado Politics that he is opposed to the Renewable Water Resources plan. In a statement to Colorado Politics, the spokesman said Polis is “against any inter-basin transfer without local support of impacted communities. This is a proposed inter-basin transfer with deep concerns and opposition in the San Luis Valley and the governor is opposed.”
Visit our water archives to read more on the Rio Grande and Renewable Water Resources: https://www.alamosacitizen.com/slv-water-archives/.
Colorado lawmakers have given initial approval to a bill that would provide millions of dollars to help two major water-short farm regions reduce water use and comply with legal obligations to deliver water to Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and New Mexico.
On Feb. 10 the Colorado Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved [SB22-028 Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund: Concerning the creation of the groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund] that creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay to buy and retire farm wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. Colorado and federal tax revenue would bankroll the fund, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board would 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.
The fund is needed, according to proponents, to help reduce groundwater use that is depleting surface water flows in the Republican River and threatening Colorado’s ability to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It is also intended to help drought-stressed aquifers in the San Luis Valley recover and to meet aquifer sustainability standards required by the state in the Rio Grande Basin.
To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be taken out of production in the Republican basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. David Robbins, general counsel for both districts, noted that, “Both districts have received letters from the state engineer indicating that if they fail in the task they will receive orders shutting down the wells in each basin, which will have dramatic and very difficult consequences for everyone in both basins.”
The bill’s proponents hope to take advantage of a one-time funding opportunity—federal Covid-19 stimulus dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The General Assembly created the Economic Relief and Recovery Cash Fund last year to receive ARPA dollars and transferred nearly $850 million into it; investment in water infrastructure is among the eligible uses. It also established an Economic Recovery Task Force to recommend how to spend those funds. Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, who is also General Manager of the Rio Grande district and a co-sponsor of the bill, has requested $80 million from the task force to support the bill. The governor’s budget includes $15 million as a starting point.
Neither district is looking for a handout. The Republican has already assessed its water users $148.5 million to retire irrigated land, purchase or lease surface and groundwater, and pipe groundwater to the river near the Nebraska border to meet Colorado’s water delivery obligations. Aaron Sprague, a member of its board of directors, said the district had retired 42,000 acres of irrigated land since 2006 and thought they were in compliance, but then a court stipulation signed in 2016 by the three states, requiring 25,000 acres additional acres be retired, “effectively moved the goal posts on us.” The district has retired 3,000 acres of that additional land so far. Sprague figures the economic impact of well shutdowns to be $2.2 billion annually on local, regional and state economies.
Although the Rio Grande is also part of an interstate compact among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, the issue there is reducing groundwater pumping to sustainable levels pursuant to state law. What constitutes sustainability is different in the shallow and deep aquifers that underlie the Rio Grande’s San Luis Valley, but it basically boils down to balancing inflows and outflows—precipitation, which averages less than 7” per year in that region, and return flows equaling groundwater withdrawals. As in the Republican basin, the Rio Grande district has taxed its farmers $69 million since 2006 to take irrigated land out of production and cut groundwater pumping, with 13,000 acres retired and well pumping reduced by a third in that period.
But 3,000 wells and 170,000 irrigated acres are at risk if the Rio Grande doesn’t meet the 2029 deadline. How would that affect the valley? Simpson emphasized that, “Irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley has about a $1 billion annual impact on our community…the culture, the economy were all built around it.”
So how much would it cost and where would the money come from? David Robbins suggests that each district would need at least $50 million “over and above” what they already have spent to achieve compliance. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, another co-sponsor whose district includes the Republican River Basin, said he wasn’t sure $150 million total would be enough. “When commodity prices are where they are,” he noted, “it’s much more difficult to retire acres.” Corn now is selling at over $6/bushel, its highest level in years, making irrigated acreage more valuable.
The bill will go next to the Senate floor for debate. It has strong bipartisan support and is identical to a bill recommended by the interim Water Resources Review Committee last fall. But as Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, committee chair, pointed out, there is no appropriation attached. “This bill just creates an entity,” she cautioned, “and then we’ve got the real hard work to do of making sure we find money to put into it.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click the link to read the article on The Crestone Eagle (Lisa Cyriacks). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado released a report in January that identified 282 new projects within the South Platte River Basin on their side of the border, at a total cost of $9.87 billion…
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican, said Colorado has been issuing water usage permits that would cut into Nebraska’s rightful share…
Douglas County Commissioners are currently considering a plan to supplement their water supply by bringing water from the San Luis Valley (SLV) to their county. Douglas County relies primarily on water from the Denver Basin. The South Platte serves as a principal source of water for the Colorado Front Range and the Eastern Plains.
Renewable Water Resources (RWR) is proposing to move 20,000 acre-feet of water annually from the San Luis Valley’s aquifer to Douglas County…
The unconfined aquifer, which provides irrigation water, has not recharged this winter as it typically does during the off-irrigation season.
Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district (western Saguache County) will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down…
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. Both these creeks supply the wetlands on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge created under the Great Sand Dunes National Park Act.
RGWCD plans to challenge RWR’s proposal in the Water Court. “We can’t see a path forward without injury or that would comply with rules and regulations as they exist today,” [Cleave] Simpson said.
RENEWABLE Water Resources promoter Sean Tonner touted a $50 million community fund in his pitch to Douglas County commissioners Monday to support a plan to move water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County.
San Luis Valley farmers countered with figures that showed an annual loss of $53 million, or 5 percent, to the Valley’s economy from dried-up irrigated land resulting from the acre-feet of water that RWR wants to pump out of the San Luis Valley on an in-perpetuity basis.
In their fourth work session studying a possible investment in the RWR plan, Douglas County commissioners heard differing views on the economic impact of pumping water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County. At this point Douglas County isn’t sure how much of its federal COVID relief money it can invest in the RWR plan, or what it actually gets for the money.
The work session also raised questions around Douglas County’s motivation, since it is not a water utility and doesn’t have water customers, and why Douglas County is intently focused on the RWR plan rather than other water projects closer to Douglas County that also have been submitted.
“Why are you doing this and not talking about the Platte Valley Water Partnership with as much gusto?” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District. She was referencing a proposal to Douglas County from neighboring Parker Water and Castle Rock Water on a renewable water supply through the Platte Valley Water Partnership.
“We are actively looking at all of the proposals,” said Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon.
Douglas County also received a letter from the San Luis Valley Board of County Commissioners voicing their opposition: “The proposal from RWR is a threat to the life we are already struggling to maintain. Frankly, we think the use of Federal funds to take the livelihood from an area whose median income is $37,663 to increase the population of Douglas County, median income $119,730, is insulting.”
The work session on the economic impact from the RWR proposal was similar to the previous work sessions covering other topics: Little agreement on the impact 70 years of groundwater pumping and 20 years of drought have had on the Upper Rio Grande Basin, and growing hostilities between RWR pitchmen and San Luis Valley farmers and water managers.
At one point, Douglas County Commissioner George Teal, who during his run for county commissioner benefited from RWR-related campaign donations and now supports the RWR plan, grew testy with Conejos County farmer James Henderson. Teal said he took offense at statements last week by Nathan Coombs, also from Conejos County, when Coombs said ag operations in the San Luis Valley were taking a back seat to unchecked growth in Douglas County.
“It’s almost like, ‘What makes the San Luis Valley more valuable than the agricultural interests in Douglas County?’” said Teal.
Tonner said the proposed community fund would bring a needed infusion of money to help address a myriad of problems he sees in the San Luis Valley, from the lack of restaurants and hotels to the distance he has to travel to find a gas station.
“I have to drive almost 40 minutes to get gas,” Tonner said. Finding a restaurant to eat at is another challenge of his, he said. “It gives you some context of what a community fund like this can do for everyone,” he said.
Henderson and Chad Cochran provided the commissioners with figures on the market value of the crops grown in the San Luis Valley to highlight the damage to the Valley’s ag economy that would come with exporting water from the drying Rio Grande.
“How does the value of land go up when there’s not water,” said Cochran, challenging RWR’s assumption that its plan won’t harm the Rio Grande. “It’s a dust bowl.”
He wasn’t at the meeting with Douglas County commissioners, but retiring 12th Judicial District Court Judge Martín Gonzales perfectly framed what’s at stake in the San Luis Valley’s latest battle to stop a water exportation plan when he talked earlier to AlamosaCitizen.com.
“In my mind the seminal struggle for the Valley is water,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s important to keep agriculture alive. I think it’s important to have the water to keep it alive, kept in the Valley. That’s in my mind the seminal struggle by which I define as ‘If you don’t win that, you may not win anything else.’”
As a part of their process to evaluate a multimillion-dollar proposal to pump water into Douglas County, the Douglas County commissioners on Jan. 31 heard presentations from advocates and farmers from the place the water would come from: the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.
Speakers from the San Luis Valley Conservancy District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District spoke to the commissioners with one main message: this plan would damage their community.
“We are struggling to keep our ship correct and to try to recover our aquifer and then here comes this seemingly predatory-natured entity to exacerbate our problem when we’re in the middle of a hardship,” said Nathan Coombs, the district manager for the Conejos Water Conservancy District.
Representatives from Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, also sat in the room, defending the proposal at times. One of the representatives, Jerry Berry, is a farmer from the San Luis Valley and spoke in support of the proposal, which would ask some valley residents to sell their water rights and promises to contribute $50 million to the community to use as they see fit.
The two-hour meeting was one of seven that the board plans to hold to evaluate the controversial proposal, which would use a portion of the $68 million in federal money given to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act. In March, commissioners plan to travel to the San Luis Valley to hear from locals about the plan.
While RWR originally proposed that the county pay an initial fee of $20 million for the project followed by a cost of $18,500 per acre-foot for water, they recently revised that request.
In a letter to commissioners dated Jan. 27, RWR said that their attoreys recently informed them that “the rules and regulations governing the use of ARPA funds may not allow the county to spend $20 million on projects that are not completed by 2026,” according to the document provided to Colorado Community Media by the county.
If those restrictions remain, RWR suggests that the county instead pay an initial amount of $10 million from the general fund for the project with a cost of $19,500 per acre-foot. They say they believe the county could then use $10 million from ARPA to backfill the general fund.
During the meetings evaluating the project, proponents and opponents have sparred over whether or not the plan would be harmful to the San Luis Valley, a huge area that relies on agriculture as a primary source for its local economy.
So far, the commissioners have also heard presentations from RWR, the Colorado Division of Water Resources and from various water lawyers.
CALLING it a “carefully crafted plan,” former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens defended efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the San Luis Valley in a pointed opinion published Sunday.
Owens is leading the RWR plan and called out “status-quo politicians who are stoking fear doubling down on one valid reality: the San Luis Valley is one of the most economically challenged areas of our state.”
“When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in the op/ed published in ColoradoPolitics.com.
Simpson responded during Monday’s Douglas County commissioners work session on the RWR plan. Douglas County is vetting the proposal for a $20 million investment, using its federal COVID relief money to potentially buy into the RWR plan and pump groundwater in perpetuity to Douglas County from the Valley.
“Myself and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District very intentionally have not tried to implement any type of rule or legislation that would interfere with private property rights,” Simpson said. “If folks are interested in selling water rights to Renewable Water Resources we’ve not stood in the way. We certainly would challenge that a change in the water right and the proposal as crafted isn’t good for the community, and likely our position would be ‘I’m not sure you can do it without injuring other water rights.’”
Simpson was joined by other Valley water managers who briefed Douglas County commissioners on the most current groundwater withdrawals and condition of the unconfined and confined aquifers in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The RWR groundwater pumping and exportation plan draws from the confined aquifer in Saguache County and is in a part of the Rio Grande Basin considered not sustainable due to current withdrawals.
Owens, making a point in his opinion piece that there is water in the San Luis Valley available for exportation, said “the San Luis Valley pumps over 600,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifers every year.” Actual water flow meter readings show Valley farmers pumped 458,000 acre-feet in 2020, according to data presented to Douglas County commissioners.
The commissioners also saw figures that show the Rio Grande with an average flow of 550,000 acre-feet over the past 20 years, down 15 percent from the Rio Grande’s historical average going back to 1890 when water flows on the Rio Grande started to be measured.
“We’re not guessing at the numbers that we pump. We’re not guessing at the amount of water we’re withdrawing, and we’re not guessing at what it takes to farm in the San Luis Valley,” said Conejos County farmer Nathan Coombs. He is on the board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 3.
“We don’t have different points of view on the same subject, we have different interests on the same subject,” Coombs said. “The San Luis Valley, we’re needing just to survive in our agriculture economy and with our neighbors. The Renewable Water proposal is just about money. It’s about an exportation of a cash commodity.
“We are struggling to keep our ship correct and to try to recover our aquifer, and then here comes this seemingly predatory-natured entity to exacerbate our problem when we’re in the middle of a hardship.”
Coombs showed Douglas County commissioners where he farms in Conejos County and how it’s 53 miles away from Renewable Water Resources’ proposed wellfield. He said it’s incomprehensible to think the RWR groundwater pumping and exportation of water to Douglas County wouldn’t impact his operations and farming operations in the Valley as a whole.
“Those of us who have voluntarily worked our tails off to become sustainable, it’s a slap in the face. Who am I? I’m expendable? Denver Basin aquifer should be sustained, San Luis Valley should not? We should import water so unsustained growth on the Front Range continues to expand, where I have to limit the size of my operation because I have to live within my means?
“Why are we trading one aquifer for the other? I think we all matter don’t we? Why can’t agriculture interests in the San Luis Valley matter as much as the Denver aquifer?”
For Owens, the former governor of Colorado, it’s a “false assertion that there is ‘no water’ available in the SLV.”
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.
The Renewable Water Resources proposal, which has been underway since 2017, claims a billion acre-feet of water exists in the larger of two San Luis Valley aquifers, a figure disputed by San Luis Valley water experts…
Renewable Water Resources’ project wants to tap the confined aquifer, which is larger both by geographic footprint and by water volume. The company argued the project is needed to ensure water reliability for Douglas County, and maintained that the plan is sustainable — both for residents of the county and the valley.
Under the proposal, the wells would be situated on land either owned or controlled by RWR, which currently owns approximately 9,800 acres and has options to acquire approximately 8,000 additional acres.
The 22,000 acre-feet of water represents 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge, defined as water pumped back into the aquifer through precipitation, and a volume that RWR claims would not affect diminish the base.
The proposal noted that Colorado’s water law mandates that, in order to develop water, it must be “retired at the same rate,” a doctrine informally known as the “one-for-one” law in the water community. That means every drop of water removed must be replaced by the same amount.
As it turns out, Division 3 Water Court in in Alamosa, where RWR plans to submit its proposal, is the only water court that uses that law…
Under the plan, Douglas County would kick in $20 million from American Rescue Plan federal money, which is already raising questions about whether that’s a legitimate use of the federal relief funds, and whether years of legal battles would run out the clock for using those dollars, which, under federal guidelines, must be spent by December 2024…
Bruce Lytle of Lytle Water Resources, who is working with RWR, told commissioners the aquifer has the water needed for the project. That’s in stark contrast to what they heard from State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan, who told the commissioners the aquifer’s water is over-appropriated, meaning there’s nothing left for Douglas County…
Colorado Politics asked most of the 47 water districts, including the dozen largest ones, whether they intend to participate in the project, either as the end user, or, in the case of Denver, allow the reservoirs the county manages to hold that water.
The answer was “no” from all but one potential end-user. Denver Water, which manages the reservoirs, also shot down the idea…
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora water, answered similarly: RWR has not engaged in discussions with Aurora Water regarding storage or conveyance and does not plan to participate in the RWR acquisition…
That Dominion and Sterling Ranch could be the end users — both entities vigorously deny any interest in San Luis Valley water and maintain their supply is sufficient to meet needs — is bolstered by RWR’s proposal, which says the project “will maximize use of existing infrastructures, ultimately supporting the county’s goals of enhancing solutions along the I-85 corridor.”
Teal said it could be Sterling Ranch, Castle Rock or Parker Water. Regarding Castle Rock, Teal explained that the town provides water to customers outside of its boundaries, part of an I-85 partnership between Castle Rock and Dominion.
The Smethills, in a Jan. 24 letter to Colorado Politics, disputed the story, saying any depiction of Sterling Ranch as a recipient of water from the RWR project or that it is short on water is factually inaccurate…
Castle Rock Water spokeswoman Mary Jo Woodrick said in an email that “at this time, we do not intend to acquire water from RWR’s San Luis Valley project.”
The state engineer
Among RWR’s claims in its proposal is that State Engineer Kevin Rein “recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer.”
That comes as news to Rein. He told Colorado Politics there have been no new rulings that apply to what RWR describes.
“We are a regulatory agency but we have made no ruling relevant to what the report describes,” Rein said in an email.
The advice to limit the use of the Denver aquifer, he pointed out, came out in 1996, although a memo in 2020 provided guidance to the staff of the engineer’s office that is “a recitation” of the 1996 memo…
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
In addition, Weiser and Simpson wrote, the proposal will not comply with rules from the State Engineer or the state Supreme Court. The RWR proposal seeks to change the rules, which would undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Rio Grande compact, they said.
ON Instagram Karen Lundquist asks, “Other than locally voting, what else can be done to oppose this horrible proposal?”
“What a crock,” writes Don Richmond on Facebook.
You can say the Valley is gearing up for another fight over its water.
“This fight has now come to the forefront in what would seem to be a David vs. Goliath scenario,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson, who used last week’s meeting to rally his fellow city council members to the urgent matter of the day – beating back the latest effort to move water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley. (Read his full statement HERE.)
“The current proposal ‘threat’ to the water security challenges in the San Luis Valley presented by Renewable Water Resources is once again a demonstration of self-serving financial speculation at the expense of others,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the San Luis Valley and counties east of the Valley.
This past week Renewable Water Resources engineer Bruce Lytle presented the RWR plan to Douglas County commissioners. They’re weighing whether to use $20 million of Douglas County’s federal COVID relief funding to invest in the RWR plan as a way to bring additional water to the growing Denver-metro county.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who holds what appears to be the deciding vote on the three-member county commission, emphasized Douglas County’s growth and the importance of positioning Douglas County for the future as a basis for any decision he makes on whether to support the RWR plan.
“I have not made any decision whatsoever, nor will I without the input of the community and water experts,” Laydon told AlamosaCitizen.com. “We still have a lot to learn but I hope everyone that is interested will join us in these public meetings and provide their input along the way.
“What I can assure you of is that I will not do anything that is not a clear win/win for both our citizens and the people of the San Luis Valley. That is my commitment, on the record, and I will not deviate from that.”
Laydon is in a position to decide whether the RWR plan moves forward to a formal state review after one his colleagues, Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, voiced opposition to taking water from the San Luis Valley and another, Commissioner George Teal, leaned to supporting it.
On Monday [January 24, 2022], the Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to meet with three attorneys who will talk to them about Colorado water law as it relates to the RWR plan. The attorneys are James Eklund of Eklund Hanlon LLC; John Lubitz, partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP; and Glen Porzak, managing partner with Porzak, Browning & Bushong LLP.
The backdrop for the RWR push to transfer 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is an over-appropriated, drought-stricken San Luis Valley that has fewer wetlands, lower stream flows, diminishing natural spring flows, and fewer irrigated acres as the result.
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council is raising concerns about damage to the Blanca Wildlife Habitat, among other environmental concerns. RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the northeastern end of the Valley, and RWR’s engineer Bruce Lytle emphasized in his presentation to Douglas County that the plan is “designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off the Sangre de Cristos.”
“It’s difficult to get your mind wrapped around the potential environmental impacts of the Renewable Water Resources proposal because effects are so numerous and far-reaching that to quantify on any practical level, we’d have to also keep in mind the exponential affects, because this RWR proposal is asking for perpetuity of ground water withdrawal, so the aquifers potentially won’t ever be able to recharge once the pumps are turned on,” said Chris Canaly, director of the SLV Ecosystem Council.
The San Luis Creek and Rio Alto Creek move through the preliminary wellfield of 22 to 25 groundwater wells that RWR showed to Douglas County.
“The environment in this area has already been changing over time,” said Canaly. “This area is now struggling, in terms of desertification, so RWR’s proposal is just adding fuel to an already burning fire.”
Just southwest of the RWR proposed wellfield is the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, where biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been working to conserve two native Rio Grande fish, according to Canaly. The Baca refuge is also home to one of only two aboriginal populations of Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub in the state. Important fish habitat also resides in Crestone Creek, which runs through the refuge, and work in 2017 replaced old culverts to restore fish passage and enhance connectivity in the stream.
“This is the type of restoration work that the RWR project would likely undermine and dismantle,” Canaly said. She said, “if you look at the ‘impact maps’ that RWR Engineer Bruce Lytle displayed, that entire area of the Sangre de Cristo foothills watershed/alluvial fan will be impacted.”
Whether or not RWR makes it to the phase of well drilling and exportation, what remains is the growth of Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north and concerns with the Denver Basin.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer,” said Monica McCafferty with Renewable Water Resources. “And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources.”
In a world where water is becoming an even more scarce and sought-after natural resource, water exportation proposals like RWR’s only need to win one time in court to sink wells in the ground and pump water north. The San Luis Valley, on the other hand, has to win each and every time to protect one of the most unique ecosystems in North America.
Douglas County Commissioners hold work session as they decide on $20 million investment
DOUGLAS County Commissioners were told [January 18, 2022] that there is ample water in the San Luis Valley that can be exported to the Front Range and were shown a preliminary wellfield design for the northern end of the Valley.
Bruce Lytle, engineer for Renewable Water Resources’s proposal to move 20,000-acre feet of water a year to Douglas County, walked the three Douglas County commissioners through the Valley’s complex two-aquifer system and left them with the idea that there is water available for exportation.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s any controversy about the water being there. The water is there,” said Commissioner George Teal.
“I would agree with that,” said Lytle.
While Teal demonstrated interest in Douglas County partnering with Renewable Water Resources, Commissioner Lora Thomas voiced opposition to exporting water from the San Luis Valley. (You can read her letter to The Citizen explaining her position HERE.) That would leave Commissioner Abe Laydon as the deciding vote on whether Douglas County spends $20 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act money, or COVID relief funds, to push the project forward into state water court.
Laydon said he’s planning to visit the San Luis Valley, including possibly having a community forum in mid-March at Adams State, to hear from Valley residents. RWR is dangling a $50 million community fund as part of its plan, and said it would also make a “$68 million investment to pay local San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above the market rate,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty.
Colorado State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan offered the Douglas County Commissioners a starkly different picture of the Valley’s water situation.
“There’s no extra water,” Sullivan said, explaining that the groundwater supply is over-appropriated and actual Upper Rio Grande Basin streamflows in decline.
State Engineer Kevin Rein told AlamosaCitizen.com in an earlier story that RWR has misrepresented Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer that RWR said would drastically affect Douglas County’s reliance on the Denver Basin.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” said Rein.
While Douglas County Commissioners were going through the RWR proposal in Castle Rock, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors was also in session. Board members heard little encouraging news about the Valley’s aquifers heading into the 2022 irrigation season:
The unconfined aquifer is at its lowest point since January 2013, with concerns that it hasn’t recharged as it typically does when there is little irrigation happening in the Valley.
Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park experienced its fourth hottest year on record and the SNOTEL station that measures the runoff expected from Medano Creek is at 50 percent of normal for the season.
RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes on the northeastern end of the Valley. Lytle, the engineer for RWR, said they expect to have 22 to 25 groundwater wells pumping, with the well depth at 2,000 feet and wells spaced a mile apart.
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. “The orientation of the project is designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off Sangre de Cristos,” said Lytle.
Convinced that there is water available for Douglas County, commissioners Teal and Lytle played out the scenario.
“And so it would be the water court process that determines ‘Is that water available for us?’” said Teal.
“You have to follow the rules. To me, if we follow the rules, then you can get a decree augmentation plan,” said Lytle. “Now, there’s always issues. I’ve been in water court enough to know that nothing is a slam dunk in water court.
“But obviously your best chance of success is if there’s a set of rules, and you follow those rules, then it makes it more difficult for issues to be raised relative to injury.”
The San Juan Mountains and parts of Larimer County also had their hottest September on record, the data shows. Statewide, it was the third-warmest September in Colorado’s history, tying with September 1998…
It was also a drier month than usual for the Front Range and much of southern Colorado, according to state climatologists. After a wet spring and summer — the result of timely monsoon rains — moderate to severe drought conditions have started to return to eastern parts of the state. A swath of northwest Colorado remains under exceptional drought.
State officials anticipate fall will be warmer and drier than normal, stressing vegetation and soil that is already parched across the state, according to a report from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
San Luis Valley residents are currently fighting about how much water is available to them, McCracken said. Farmers growing potatoes, barley and alfalfa are pumping much of that water from wells, he said, all while the area’s snowpack is melting earlier than normal and evaporating before it can recharge local water sources.