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Valley drought persists with no fall rains

Posted: Wednesday, Oct 10th, 2012

Because of diminished water levels, rivaling the historic 2002 drought year, no curtailments are currently occurring on the Rio Grande, shown here in autumn colors in a reach between Monte Vista and Alamosa. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

Courier editor

SAN LUIS — Statistics for 2012 rivaling the historic drought year of 2002 were nothing new to irrigators attending a water meeting in San Luis yesterday.

The gauging station at Culebra Creek, outside of San Luis, has recorded water levels below 2002 drought levels for most of the summer.

“The water in Culebra Creek we have had significantly less water than we had in 2002,” said Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.

In presenting the monthly updates for the two main river systems contributing to Colorado’s Rio Grande Compact with downstream states, Cotten shared even drier statistics than the month previous, when annual forecasts had been decreased to reflect drought conditions.

Where the Rio Grande’s annual forecast was 415,000 acre feet last month, it is now 410,000 acre feet, Cotten reported to the Rio Grande Roundtable, which met in San Luis on Tuesday. Cotten said the forecast has gone down about every month this year. The 410,000-acre feet flow for the Rio Grande this year is 63 percent of the long-term average, Cotten added.

Although Colorado is still delivering some water downstream, its obligation on the Rio Grande is currently zero, so there are no curtailments on the irrigators along the Rio Grande.

The same is true for the Conejos River system, the other main contributor to the state’s Rio Grande Compact. The annual forecast on the Conejos River system is about 180,000 acre feet, or 55 percent of the long-term average, with zero curtailments made at this point and zero obligations required downstream.

“We are not delivering any water from the Conejos system,” Cotten said. “It’s dry at Lasauses and has been since sometime in May.”

This year started off with a decent run off on the Rio Grande, Cotten explained, but once flows fell off, they dropped below average where they have remained since June.

He said the water levels this year were higher than 2002 until recently, but basically they are the same as that historic drought year now and on some days in the last month have been lower.

On the Conejos River near Mogote, levels are lower than they were in 2002, Cotten added. He said even though 2002 was the worst drought year, the basin received some rains about this time in 2002, and that kicked the river up.

“We haven’t actually seen that too much on the rivers this year,” he said.

“It’s not a good situation.”

Cotten also shared results of Allen Davey’s longitudinal unconfined aquifer study, which reflect a decrease of more than a million acre feet since 1976 to the present. Roundtable member Steve Vandiver said the latest figure is 1.2 million.

When asked if his office has been seeing a large number of applications for replacement wells because of the drought, Cotten said many people had already redrilled their domestic wells to deeper depths in 2002 and 2003 so his office is not seeing that many requests this year. He has had requests to redrill irrigation wells to deeper levels, which his office is objecting to, he said.

“It is the state engineer’s policy we will object to any irrigation wells or large capacity wells that are drilled deeper than they have been,” he said.

Several of those requests will be going to trial for a judge to decide, he added.

In addition to several trials over well applications, the state will still be involved in a trial over the Valley’s first water management sub-district at the end of this month but has so far been able to avoid becoming directly involved in current litigation between the state of New Mexico and the Bureau of Reclamation, Cotten explained.

He said New Mexico has claimed, and Colorado agrees, that the bureau has incorrectly used credit water from New Mexico and Colorado stored in the Rio Grande Compact reservoir of Elephant Butte. New Mexico had significantly more water stored in the reservoir than Colorado, so Colorado has not joined in the legal battle between the two entities except to file a “friend of the court” brief, Cotten explained. If Texas enters the battle, which might happen, Colorado would probably be drawn in, he added.

Currently there’s hardly any water in Elephant Butte Reservoir for anyone’s use since the reservoir that has a capacity to hold more than 2 million acre feet is down to 113,000 acre feet.

Cotten also shared weather service forecasts for this winter, which he hopes will bring some moisture to the basin. The weather service is predicting equal chances on precipitation and temperatures for the winter months of December, January and February.

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