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.