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Sub-district may enter property market

Posted: Friday, Mar 1st, 2013

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Program Manager Rob Phillips, front, and General Manager Steve Vandiver, rear, listen to comments during a Thursday meeting of the sub-district board. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Steering through choppy uncharted waters, the board of managers for the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district may be changing course.

Although deciding on a split vote yesterday to approve contracts to fallow approximately 10,500 acres to varying degrees this irrigation season, the board indicated it might be looking at more permanent land and water rights retirements in the future.

Board members talked about buying land/water rights rather than, or in addition to, paying irrigators to temporarily fallow farmland for a year at a time.

Sub-district board member Jamie Hart said he did not see the temporary fallow contracts as money well spent. He and two other sub-district board members opposed the motion to approve fallowing contracts this year, three board members who have fallowing contracts abstained, and the motion to approve the contracts passed with four affirmative votes.

“I don’t feel this is a very good bang for our bucks,” Hart said. “Is this the best business model we can come up with? … My thought is we should be spending this money in different ways.”

He suggested more educational efforts as well as land purchases to permanently retire irrigated acreage.

He said the sub-district saved 12,000 acre feet in reduced pumping last year, but the aquifer lost another 125,000 acre feet, so that is not going to get the aquifer to a sustainable level. The sub-district is going to do the same thing this year, and the aquifer is probably going to decline again, he said.

“I am not saying we didn’t do something, but was it enough?” Hart asked.

“The sub-district cannot fix this problem,” he said. “We can try to manage this problem, but we can’t fix it. The only way we can get this fixed is Mother Nature has to kick in, give us some wet years in a row.”

Board member Sheldon Rockey disagreed with Hart and said there is value in the fallowing program. He said the fallowing program is not just about reducing water but also about reducing chemicals and crop diseases and changing the way farming is conducted in the Valley.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Program Manager Rob Phillips said even accounting for the drought’s impact on reduced acreage, the farm units involved in fallowing contracts last year reduced their pumping considerably over what it had been in 2011.

“You are getting more of a bang for your buck than you think,” he said.

Hart said, “the sooner we can get on track to have something that’s permanent — the first ground that we own or the first water right we own, that we don’t rent — will be the best buck we ever spent … I can’t see that the sub-district can be sustainable on a program that we are offering here today. We can’t continue this practice.”

Steve Vandiver, general manager of the sub-district’s sponsoring district, Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said the board made a conscious decision to pursue the fallowing program for 2013 back in the summer of 2012 when it began developing the 2013 budget. He said it wasn’t until after the deadline for people to submit offers to fallow that the push began to change the fallowing program.

He said there is ample opportunity to go a different direction for 2014, but if the sub-district board scrapped the fallowing program this year, it would take the rest of the irrigation season to close a farm sale that would permanently retire water, and in the meantime not one acre or one gallon of water would have been saved during this irrigation season.

He said he has begun talking with individuals and real estate agents about water and land purchases that could be potentially negotiated in the future.

He said the fallowing program was put together as a temporary stopgap program to try to accomplish sub-district goals of reduced pumping and aquifer restoration.

“We don’t have many options,” he said.

He asked that the board continue with the fallowing program it had put in place for this summer and put money aside for purchasing water rights in the future.

Board member Mike Mitchell agreed.

“We are better off as a group saying we probably won’t do it this way next year but let’s get this one behind us, move forward and go on.”

Hart said he understood it was probably too late to change the situation this year but it was important to him to put something different together next year.

Board member Lynn McCullough said the board needed to seriously look at different options and directions for the future. He said although purchasing land and water might be expensive at first, the benefit from that purchase would last forever, as opposed to spending money to fallow acreage over a single year.

McCullough said he had spoken with accountant Lyle Hood about different possibilities, and one that has merit would be deferred gift annuities, which might provide more benefit to certain landowners than outright sales.

Attorney David Robbins cautioned the board to be careful with land purchases, which would take land off the tax rolls and potentially disrupt the tax base that school districts, counties and other governments depend on.

Board member Carla Worley said it appeared the board was having a hard time figuring out the best use of its money, so she recommended hiring someone with economic expertise to assist the board.

Worley, Mitchell and Sub-district Board President Brian Brownell agreed to serve on a steering committee to bring back some names for the board to consider during its next meeting on March 19.

Board member Ernie Myers, who is in the fallowing program, said everybody needs to be part of the solution of reducing pumping and replenishing the aquifer because currently some people are severely cutting back while others are pumping “like there’s no tomorrow.”

“We are in this together,” he said.

Lyle Nissen, who was involved in the early stages of the sub-district effort, encouraged the board to persevere in their efforts “to salvage the aquifer, that way we salvage the economy.”

He said if one method doesn’t work, fix it, change it, and move forward.

“Let’s tweak and tweak and tweak because that’s what we went into this knowing we would do. If the state comes in, there’s no tweaking left.”

He told the board they were capable of dealing with this problem and fixing it together.

“What you accomplish as a board member here is the most important thing you have done in your lifetime except for your family,” he told them. “You have a chance to make a difference for a lifetime.”

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