Alamosa councillors cap groundwater compliance right aquisition

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

The city has already bought some water rights to begin this compliance process.

Alamosa City Attorney Erich Schwiesow told the council Wednesday night that staff has estimated it could take $3.5 million to comply with the rules…

The ordinance provides an outside limit to the terms of the financing of $3.7 million principal, $5.6 million total payment, and maximum annual payment of $375,000.

The $5.6 million is based on 5 percent interest over a 15-year repayment period.

Schwiesow said this ordi-ALAMOSA city council this week set boundaries on how much it will spend on its efforts to comply with new water rules from the state.

The council approved on first reading and scheduled for a March 1st public hearing an ordinance setting $3.7 million as the upper limit of what the city will finance to pay for water rights and associated expenses to bring the city into compliance with new groundwater rules.

Under the new rules, well owners (including municipalities ) must make up for their negative effects to surface water rights as well as providing means to replenish the San Luis Valley’s aquifer to more sustainable levels. nance for financing for the water project including the acquisition of water rights. It does not mean the city will be spending that much, but it means the city will not spend more than that, he explained.

The city will be working with UMB Bank to set up the financing . Alamosa Councilman Charles Griego said he hoped local banks would be involved. City Manager Heather Brooks said UMB Bank would shop around for the best rates, and Schwiesow added that the city council would ultimately approve whatever bank UMB Bank brought back to the council for financing. UMB Bank essentially serves as a broker for the city, he explained. In another water related matter of a different nature, the council on Wednesday approved its first budget amendment for the year in part to cover the costs of replacing failing equipment in the city’s wastewater treatment facility. The city will transfer $250,000 from the Enterprise Debt Fund to the water treatment department to replace ultraviolet equipment that is part of the last disinfection phase at the wastewater plant…

Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg added that when the plant was constructed 19 years ago, it had two UV systems. One of those quit working five or six years ago and the other is “on its last leg.” There are no parts even available for it now, he added.

The total transfer from the Enterprise Debt Fund was for $383,000, which included the $250,000 for the UV equipment as well as water department operations including $33,000 to add a technician to backfill existing staff.

The budget amendment also includes interdepartmental transfers to cover the cost of a drone purchase for the city, which all departments from IT to fire will be able to utilize.

San Luis Valley: New groundwater sub-district forms

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Southern San Luis Valley water users took charge of their future on Tuesday as they became the third group to form a water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The sponsoring district board unanimously accepted petitions for its latest subdistrict , which encompasses 141 wells covering 170 parcels of land in Conejos County.

The sub-districts are designed to provide an alternative to individual well regulation by grouping wells in geographic or hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), which as a group replaces its injurious depletions to surface water rights. Sub-districts are also beginning to repair long-term depletions to the Valley’s aquifer system caused by well pumping.

Sub-district participants pay fees, which are used to buy water and/or provide incentives to reduce pumping. In the sub-district presented on Tuesday, participants will be assessed fees per well and per acre foot of water.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Amber Pacheco presented to the sponsoring district board on Tuesday petitions representing 141 of a potential 198 wells in Sub-district #3. Nathan Coombs and LeRoy Salazar, who were part of the group that formed the subdistrict , were also present for the petition presentation to the RGWCD board.

Pacheco told the board staff and working group members had been working on this third sub-district for many months. Once they had information from the groundwater model, which determines depletions, the group was able to move forward.

Pacheco said the group was very successful in persuading well owners to join the sub-district , which is an “opt-in” sub-district . People had to choose to join. The first sub-district , on the other hand, was drawn up to cover a specific geographical area in the Valley’s closed basin region, and the work group then had to gather petitions from at least 51 percent of the landowners and 51 percent of the land.

Pacheco said efforts were made to contact every well owner in the Conejos subdistrict to give them the opportunity to join the subdistrict . Only one well owner, whose address was in Florida, did not respond at all, and another did not want to be involved. Both of those wells had not been used in a while.

Four other well owners opted out, not because they were against the sub-district but because they had other plans for their properties, and 21 wells belonging to governments such as towns or school districts indicated they would like to contract with the sub-district but could not participate directly, Pacheco explained.

She added a number of well owners decided to move their wells to exempt status so they would not fall under the groundwater rule process, for example downgrading them to stock or domestic wells, and a couple of well owners planned to seek abandonment of their wells.

All of the irrigation wells in the third sub-district are included, however, Pacheco said.

After receiving the petitions , RGWCD staff verified ownership and legal descriptions before presenting them to the board.

“It’s a massive undertaking ,” said RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson who commended the staff who completed that process. He also commended the residents who have been working on this for some time.

“The people have been great to work with,” Pacheco added.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the process now is to file the petitions with the district court in Conejos County (because that is where the land lies in this subdistrict ) and seek the court’s approval for the sub-district’s formation. The court must hold a hearing no less than 60 days and no more than 90 days after receiving the petitions , he added. Individuals with questions or challenges against the sub-district formation may express those to the court.

“With our participation basically 100 percent, we would hope we wouldn’t see much of a protest to the formation of the sub-district ,” Pacheco said.

If there are no challenges, the court will enter an order forming the sub-district , and a board of managers can then be appointed and a plan of management prepared, Robbins explained.

That plan will be submitted to the state engineer’s officer for approval.

The first sub-district , which is one of the largest and most complicated, has been in operation for a few years now, and the second sub-district in the alluvium of the Rio Grande was officially formed in March of this year and is currently working on its plan of water management.

Pacheco said progress is also being made in sub-districts in the San Luis Creek, Saguache and Alamosa/La Jara areas. She said the goal is to have the remainder of the sub-districts in front of the court by early next year.

RGWCD staff has been meeting with entities such as the towns of La Jara and Saguache and the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District to discuss their options for contracting with sub-districts . Discussions are also occurring with federal agencies.

San Luis Valley aquifer marks another year of gains — Pueblo Chieftain

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The shallow aquifer leaned on heavily by farmers in the San Luis Valley is up 58,000 acre-feet over last year at this time.

The news delivered by Rio Grande Water Conservation District Engineer Allen Davey marks the third straight year the aquifer has gained.

“The last three years have seen a significant change in direction,” he told the district’s board Tuesday.

Davey, as he has in previous years, credited gains to the reduction in groundwater pumping by well owners in Subdistrict No. 1, which takes in 163,000 irrigated acres in the north-central part of the San Luis Valley.

The subdistrict, which was implemented four years ago, assesses a combination of fees on its members that aim to reduce pumping and also pay to fallow farm ground.

Groundwater pumping was expected to be 238,000 acre-feet, according to the subdistrict documents, although a final tally won’t come until later in the year.

Landowners in the subdistrict have also fallowed 14,245 acres of ground since 2013 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

The program pays farmers to either permanently retire ground or fallow for 15 years.

Davey also said Mother Nature has cooperated by providing decent snowpack.

“If we can just get in that cycle where we’re average, we have a good future ahead of us,” he said.

The shallow aquifer, also known as the unconfined aquifer, recharges from stream flow and from the return flows that follow surface-water irrigation by farmers.

Once stream flows dwindle in late summer, farmers typically rely on groundwater to finish their crops.

The shallow aquifer has recovered by nearly 250,000 acre-feet since 2013.

The aquifer would have to recover by another 350,000 acre-feet to meet the goals laid out in the subdistrict’s management plan.

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

#RioGrande Water Conservation District board meeting recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Although the liquid that attorneys argue about evaporates quickly, legal battles around water do not.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Attorney David Robbins, who has been on the forefront of many of those battles over the years, updated the water district board this week on several ongoing cases of water litigation.

One of the most significant cases revolves around the groundwater rules promulgated by the state engineer about a year ago. About 30 responses were filed to the rules, some for them and some objecting to portions of the rules.

The Division of Water Resources staff has been trying to work with objectors to resolve their concerns short of trial. However, if the objections cannot be resolved, they will go to trial in January of 2018.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said, “We have met with all of the objectors at least once, most multiple times. We are working out stipulated agreements, getting closer on some of those. We will be continuing to work with those people and see if we can come up with agreements.”

Cotten said the goal is not to need the eight-week trial presently scheduled for early 2018. Robbins said the judge asked parties objecting to the rules to file notices stating specifically what they objected to, such as the model or data the rules rely upon. The parties have done that, he said, and now the state has the opportunity to respond.

Robbins said some objectors are working out stipulated agreements with the state, which will resolve their concerns short of trial. For example, water users with wells in the confined aquifer system in the Alamosa-La Jara and Conejos Response Areas, who objected to the sustainability criteria in the rules, are working out a stipulated agreement with the state. Robbins said he did not think the RGWCD would have any reason to object to the stipulation but he has asked for the documentation.

“The groundwater rules/regulations case is moving along. Judge Swift is doing a good job herding the cats. The state continues to work hard to try to resolve some of the objections so they can winnow it down to people who have concerns they want to pursue before the court,” Robbins said.

Robbins is also monitoring other ongoing cases such as:

• Bureau of Land Management augmentation plan for wells at the Blanca Habitat Area, which could potentially impact flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers and for which BLM must identify replacement sources for those impacts;

• A Saguache Creek area individual augmentation plan for which Robbins questions the sufficiency of replacements for depletions;

• The City of Alamosa change of water rights case related to the golf course, which is pending information review;

• A case south of the Rio Grande and west of Alamosa revolving around the question of whether recharge replacement can carry over from year to year;

• The Santa Maria Reservoir change case to provide reservoir water for replacement for plans of water management such as those set up in the RGWCD’s subdistricts , and for which a trial is scheduled in April 2017, with James Werner the sole objector remaining;

• Three cases proposing to move water around to provide replacements for well depletions , including one for the City of Alamosa;

• The Texas vs. New Mexico /Colorado compact compliance case, which is being overseen by a special master who has indicated he will deny a motion to dismiss the case;

• Center for Biodiversity’s suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout as endangered, a case in which the RGWCD has not become involved but is considering whether it should, favoring the opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service that the trout is not endangered.

RGWCD Board Member Bill McClure cautioned against the district spending dollars and time on cases that were already well represented by other agencies. Robbins agreed and said that is why he had not recommended that the district become directly involved in the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout suit, as the US Fish and Wildlife Services is already handling it.

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Colorado will end the year with a credit in Rio Grande Compact accounting.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday it appears both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems will end 2016 on the plus side, with the Rio Grande reflecting about 7,000 acre feet credit at this point and the Conejos River system less than 1,000 acre feet credit.

“We try to over deliver just slightly so there’s no issue with downstream states,” Cotten said.

Colorado must deliver water to New Mexico and Texas according to the Rio Grande Compact. Cotten explained that the annual flow on the Rio Grande this year will be about 670,000 acre feet, which is not a bad water year, especially considering some of the previous dry years in the Rio Grande Basin.

He said that of the 670,000 acre feet, the Rio Grande would owe 190,800 acres feet or about 28 percent, to its downstream neighbors through the Rio Grande Compact . The river has met that obligation and then some, Cotten added. At this point, it appears the Rio Grande will have over-delivered about 7,000 acre feet.

There are currently zero curtailments on Rio Grande users and slight if any curtailments since the beginning of September.

The Conejos River system came closer to its obligation without sending too much extra downstream, according to Cotten.

The annual index flow on the Conejos system will be about 280,000 acre feet, of which about a third, or 95,400 acre feet, was obligated to downstream states.

“We will be close on the Compact delivery, within 1,000 acre feet,” Cotten told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday. “We are close to where we want to be on the Conejos.”

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Southern San Luis Valley water users took charge of their future on Tuesday as they became the third group to form a water management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The sponsoring district board unanimously accepted petitions for its latest subdistrict, which encompasses 141 wells covering 170 parcels of land in Conejos County.

The sub-districts are designed to provide an alternative to individual well regulation by grouping wells in geographic or hydrological areas of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), which as a group replaces its injurious depletions to surface water rights. Sub-districts are also beginning to repair long-term depletions to the Valley’s aquifer system caused by well pumping.

Sub-district participants pay fees, which are used to buy water and/or provide incentives to reduce pumping. In the sub-district presented on Tuesday, participants will be assessed fees per well and per acre foot of water.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Program Manager Amber Pacheco presented to the sponsoring district board on Tuesday petitions representing 141 of a potential 198 wells in Sub-district #3. Nathan Coombs and LeRoy Salazar, who were part of the group that formed the subdistrict, were also present for the petition presentation to the RGWCD board.

Pacheco told the board staff and working group members had been working on this third sub-district for many months. Once they had information from the groundwater model, which determines depletions, the group was able to move forward.

Pacheco said the group was very successful in persuading well owners to join the sub-district , which is an “opt-in” sub-district. People had to choose to join. The first sub-district, on the other hand, was drawn up to cover a specific geographical area in the Valley’s closed basin region, and the work group then had to gather petitions from at least 51 percent of the landowners and 51 percent of the land.

Pacheco said efforts were made to contact every well owner in the Conejos subdistrict to give them the opportunity to join the subdistrict. Only one well owner, whose address was in Florida, did not respond at all, and another did not want to be involved. Both of those wells had not been used in a while.

Four other well owners opted out, not because they were against the sub-district but because they had other plans for their properties, and 21 wells belonging to governments such as towns or school districts indicated they would like to contract with the sub-district but could not participate directly, Pacheco explained.

She added a number of well owners decided to move their wells to exempt status so they would not fall under the groundwater rule process, for example downgrading them to stock or domestic wells, and a couple of well owners planned to seek abandonment of their wells.

All of the irrigation wells in the third sub-district are included, however, Pacheco said.

After receiving the petitions, RGWCD staff verified ownership and legal descriptions before presenting them to the board.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson who commended the staff who completed that process. He also commended the residents who have been working on this for some time.

“The people have been great to work with,” Pacheco added.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the process now is to file the petitions with the district court in Conejos County (because that is where the land lies in this subdistrict) and seek the court’s approval for the sub-district’s formation. The court must hold a hearing no less than 60 days and no more than 90 days after receiving the petitions , he added. Individuals with questions or challenges against the sub-district formation may express those to the court.

“With our participation basically 100 percent, we would hope we wouldn’t see much of a protest to the formation of the sub-district ,” Pacheco said.

If there are no challenges, the court will enter an order forming the sub-district , and a board of managers can then be appointed and a plan of management prepared, Robbins explained.

That plan will be submitted to the state engineer’s officer for approval.

The first sub-district , which is one of the largest and most complicated, has been in operation for a few years now, and the second sub-district in the alluvium of the Rio Grande was officially formed in March of this year and is currently working on its plan of water management.

Pacheco said progress is also being made in sub-districts in the San Luis Creek, Saguache and Alamosa/La Jara areas. She said the goal is to have the remainder of the sub-districts in front of the court by early next year.

RGWCD staff has been meeting with entities such as the towns of La Jara and Saguache and the East Alamosa Water & Sanitation District to discuss their options for contracting with sub-districts. Discussions are also occurring with federal agencies.

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley: Habitat study to document change — The Pueblo Chieftain

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. "Sawatch Lake" at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.
1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A San Luis Valley consulting firm is undertaking a study of wetlands and riparian habitat that state and federal wildlife officials hope will help their management efforts in the face of climate change and pending groundwater regulation.

The $228,000 project by Wetland Dynamics will look at past and present wetland habitat across the valley, agency capacity in managing that habitat on their respective jurisdictions and the needs of 35 species.

Jenny Nehring, a partner at Wetland Dynamics, said the agencies have a good understanding of what they manage inside their boundaries but the study will make it easier for them to collaborate.

“A valleywide perspective of how these wetlands function as a whole to provide resources for wildlife is not well understood,” she told the Rio Grande Basin roundtable earlier this week. “This effort will help us determine where we have information gaps regarding changes in historic habitats and populations.”

The information they gather will include a look at how wetlands have changed in the valley since its permanent settlement in the 1850s.

Missoula, Mont.-based Intermountain West Joint Venture is partnering with Wetland Dynamics and will analyze historic survey and land records from the U.S. General Land Office.

The General Land Office oversaw the public domain from its creation in 1812 until it was folded into the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1934.

The analysis will also include satellite photos that were taken every 16 days between 1984 and now.

That time interval will help determine how wetlands habitat changes between seasons, Nehring said.

The final report, due in 2019, would include information for 35 species, detailing how, when and what type of habitat they use and whether the water source undergirding their habitat is secure.

It would also detail the water held by landuse and wildlife agencies and any limitations on the use of that water — a key piece of information for determining how agencies can work together.

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.
Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

Just one example of the importance of water use can be found at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials use groundwater to provide the roosting pools for the roughly 20,000 sandhill cranes that come through the valley in late winter.
Likewise, the Bureau of Land Management uses groundwater to supplement the Blanca Wetlands Recreation Area east of Alamosa that hosts migrating shore and songbirds.

The agencies that are partnering on the project and contributing manpower include the BLM, USFWS, the National Resource Conservation Service, National Park Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But it could also help land trusts and state wildlife officials who work with private landowners.

“Really what it’s going to do is help us be better partners,” said Rick Basegoitia, area wildlife manager for CPW’s valley office.

San Luis Valley via National Geographic
San Luis Valley via National Geographic

San Luis Valley: Stanford researchers calculate groundwater levels from satellite data

Here’s the release from Stanford University (Ker Than):

A new computer algorithm developed at Stanford University is enabling scientists to use satellite data to determine groundwater levels across larger areas than ever before.

Researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences have used satellite data and a new computer algorithm to gauge groundwater levels in Colorado’s San Luis Valley agricultural basin. (Image credit: Flickr)
Researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences have used satellite data and a new computer algorithm to gauge groundwater levels in Colorado’s San Luis Valley agricultural basin. (Image credit: Flickr)

The technique, detailed in the June issue of the journal Water Resources Research, could lead to better models of groundwater flow. “It could be especially useful in agricultural regions, where groundwater pumping is common and aquifer depletion is a concern,” said study coauthor Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Knight and her colleagues recently applied the algorithm to determine groundwater levels across the entire agricultural basin of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. As a starting point, the algorithm uses data acquired using a satellite technology called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, or InSAR, to calculate changing groundwater levels in the San Luis Valley between 1992 and 2000.

InSAR satellites use electromagnetic waves to monitor tiny, centimeter-scale changes in the elevation of Earth’s surface. The program was initially developed in the 1980s by NASA to collect data on volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides, but Knight and her colleague Howard Zebker, a professor of geophysics and of electrical engineering at Stanford, have in recent years adapted the technology for groundwater monitoring.

The Stanford scientists, led by former postdoctoral scholar Jessica Reeves, had previously shown that changes in surface elevation could be correlated with fluctuations in groundwater levels. However, they were only able to do so for a relatively small area because they had to manually identify and analyze high-quality pixels in InSAR satellite images not covered by crops or other surface features that could obscure elevation measurements.

The new algorithm, developed by Jingyi “Ann” Chen, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher in Knight’s group, automates this previously time-consuming pixel selection process. “What we’ve demonstrated in this new study is a methodology that allows us to find high-quality InSAR pixels in many more locations throughout the San Luis Valley,” said Chen, who is first author of the new study.

Chen’s algorithm also goes a step further by filling in, or interpolating, groundwater levels in the spaces between pixels where high-quality InSAR data are not available. Interpolation is a form of averaging, but it requires high-quality InSAR data from places that are located near monitoring wells where groundwater levels are already known in order to calibrate the link between the InSAR data and groundwater levels. In the previous work led by Reeves, only three monitoring wells were “co-located” with high-quality InSAR pixels. Using the new algorithm, that number increased to 16.

As a result, the team was able to calculate surface deformations – and, by extension, groundwater levels – for the entire agricultural basin of the San Luis Valley, an area covering about 4,000 square meters – or about five times greater than the area for which groundwater levels were calculated in the prior study. What’s more, the team members were able to show how groundwater levels in the basin changed over time from 2007 to 2011 – the years when InSAR data that could be analyzed by the algorithm were available.

“Jessica showed that there was useful information in the InSAR-derived deformation, and Ann has made the technique for extracting that information reliable and practical,” Zebker said.

Having a continuous map of deformation in the San Luis Valley led to the team discovering that there is a delay between the time when groundwater is pumped out of an aquifer and when the ground sinks, or subsides, in response to the water removal. These time lags might be useful indicators of the geological properties of an aquifer, said Knight.

“In a sand aquifer, there is no time lag between when the water is pumped out and the ground surface deforms,” Knight said. “However, if clay is present, it will take much longer to deform in response to pumping, so there will be a detectable time lag.”

The next step, Zebker said, is to take the information about groundwater levels and aquifer characteristics extracted from InSAR satellites and incorporate it with data from other sources to develop improved models of groundwater flow.

“The goal is to take into account the full water budget,” Zebker said. “This means accounting for water recharge such as rainfall and for discharge sources such as evaporation and runoff.”

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

After years of #drought and overuse, the San Luis Valley aquifer refills — The High Country News

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is an 8,000-square-mile expanse of farmland speckled with potato, alfalfa, barley and quinoa fields between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges. Only about 7 inches of rain fall each year in the San Luis Valley. But while farmers and ranchers can’t depend on moisture above ground, they make up the difference beneath it. The valley is underlain by a vast aquifer, which is punctured by more than 6,000 wells that pump water onto the valley’s crops and supports the livelihoods of 46,000 residents.

For generations, the aquifer provided enough water to sustain the arid farming community. But beginning in 2002, a multi-year drought shrunk the nearby streams and water table. Farmers and ranchers began to notice the falling levels of the Rio Grande and the rapidly draining aquifer. Some wells throughout the valley abruptly stopped working.

The aquifer dwindled so much that the Closed Basin Project, a Bureau of Reclamation pumping effort that had long met downstream water diversions and delivered flows to the Rio Grande River to maintain the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, failed to convey enough water to the valley’s farms and ranches. “We operate in a highly over-appropriated system,” says Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the main water management entity in the San Luis Valley. “Agriculture had overgrown and far outstretched water supply.”

Without change, state water regulators could shut off thousands of wells. So the valley’s farmers and ranchers, unlike other agriculture communities in the West, did something nearly unprecedented: They decided not to ignore the problem.

In 2006, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and San Luis Valley water users created the sub-district project, an innovative solution for solving water problems. The plan would charge farmers and ranchers $75 per acre-foot for the groundwater they pumped, and in turn use the funds to pay farmers to fallow portions of their fields, limiting demand on the water supply, as High County News reported in 2013. The experiment began at sub-district 1, the valley’s largest of six sub-districts, which sits at the heart of the San Luis Valley in aptly named Centre, just west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The  center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands.  Source: Google Maps (screenshot).
Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands. Source: Google Maps (screenshot).

Today, four years into the operation of the project after it launched in 2012, the aquifer is rebounding. Water users in sub-district 1 have pumped one-third less water, down to about 200,000 acre feet last year compared to more than 320,000 before the project. Area farmers have fallowed 10,000 acres that once hosted thirsty alfalfa or potato crops. Since a low point in 2013, the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, the sub-district project plans to fallow a total of 40,000 acres, unless the ultimate goal of rebounding the aquifer can be reached through other conservation efforts, like improving soil quality and rotating to more efficient crops.

The plan’s proponents say it provides a template for groundwater management in other arid communities whose agricultural economies are imperiled by drought. “The residents of the valley know that they are in this together, and that the valley has overgrown the water available to us,” says Craig Cotten, Almosa-based division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “This is a water user-led solution, which makes it unique. I really think this can be a model.”

Crucially, the plan is state-mandated, which requires everyone to either participate in a district, fallow their fields or work with water engineers to develop their own augmentation plans, which in turn need to be approved by state water courts. Those choices — paying premiums for groundwater or scaling down operations significantly — have been tough for farmers. Nevertheless, Simpson says the valley’s water users have gotten on board. “It’s not comfortable but most everyone has really come forward,” Simpson says. “It’s a bit of a paradigm shift for farmers who are individualistic and don’t typically work together — but by necessity they realize that we will bankrupt ourselves if we continue to stretch our water resource.”

But water users in the San Luis Valley have also gone beyond the call of duty, says Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. While the SLVWCD helps include users in its augmentation plan as an alternative to joining the sub-district project, Dutton says that few water users have gone that route. That’s partly because farmers and ranchers themselves have helped create the sub-district rules, through participating in public meetings and getting involved with the board of managers. “This has been a good exercise in self-governance,” Dutton says. “It’s been a success story in people coming together and trying things that my grandpa’s era would have thought were crazy.”

Although sub-district 1 has proved a success, the broader sub-district project remains in its fledging stages. In March, Colorado District Court in Rio Grande County mandated that sub-district 2, a cluster of a hundred or so wells between Monte Vista and Del Norte, unroll as phase two of the program. The second district is currently forming a board of managers to develop official rules for farmers and ranchers within the territory. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is still working with valley residents to implement the remaining four sub-districts.

Still, the project’s first phase has been encouraging for residents. Patrick O’Neill grew up in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley and first came to the San Luis Valley in 1998 to work as an intern at Agro Engineering, a consulting company. Though he later returned to his family farm in California, he came to feel that the Central Valley, built on its own wasteful groundwater use, was not sustainable. He returned to the San Luis Valley in 2005, where he now owns Soil Health Services in Alamosa and works with area farmers and ranchers to improve soil health. “I chose this place in a very deliberate way for my home because there’s potential for putting our water system back into balance,” O’Neill says. “People here are much more conscious of how much water they are using.”