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State to shut down well violators

Posted: Wednesday, Oct 17th, 2012

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Colorado Division of Water State Engineer Dick Wolfe is not waiting for full-fledged groundwater regulations to be implemented before cracking down on excessive well pumping in the San Luis Valley.

This week Wolfe issued a draft policy concerning pumping limits for large-capacity wells in the Rio Grande Basin, Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten announced to those attending the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting yesterday in Alamosa.

The draft policy involves pumping limits for wells, specifically nonexempt large capacity wells, which have been required to meter usage for a few years now. Some of these wells have exceeded the pumping limits in their permits or decrees, Cotten explained, so they may be required to curtail or shut down pumping next year.

“We have actually started ensuring those limitations are complied with,” Cotten said on Tuesday, “but this policy sets it more in stone how we are going to do that and what steps we are going to take to ensure the wells are pumping within their limitations.”

He said this was something that needed to be handled, and this policy will set limits in black and white “so there’s no question.”

He described the bases that will be used to determine if a well has exceeded its limits. Some wells have maximum annual production they cannot exceed in any one year, such as 200-300 acre feet. On that basis, the water office has already ordered some wells to shut down, Cotten said.

“We do know there have been several that have exceeded their maximum annual production, and we have issued orders on those,” Cotten said.

He explained that a cease and desist order is given when a well is found to be in violation. If a well owner does not obey the order, the matter could wind up in court, Cotten explained, and the well owner could face fines of up to $500 per well per day following the cease/desist order.

A cease and desist order can be a long-standing order, Cotten explained, so if the well owner exceeds pumping limits in any year after the order was issued, the order will be invoked again.

Cotten said his staff is reviewing all of the well permits and decrees to see what the limits are for each well.

Another means of determining pumping limits, in addition to annual limits, is through averages, but well permits/decrees have not previously specified over what period of time that average was to be set. The state’s new policy sets that time period at five years.

Cotten said his office is aware of three or four well owners who are in violation now, but until well meters were required in 2009, the state did not have data on how much was being pumped. This year will be the end of the fourth year of well pumping statistics, so the water office now has good numbers for how much water is being pumped from wells in the Rio Grande Basin (the Valley.)

With 2013 being the fifth year of well meter readings, the state will have the five-year averages it will require in the new policy.

When wells are involved in fallowing programs like Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and fallowing plans through the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the years the well was not being pumped as part of a fallowing program will not be included in the five-year average, Cotten explained. He said someone could not pump their wells as much as possible for three or four years, for example, and then fallow their land for a couple of years to make up for the excessive pumping.

“We want the fallowing program actually saving water for the Valley,” Cotten said. “We won’t count the years when the well is in a fallowing program.”

The policy is still in draft form, and Wolfe will accept comments on it until November 9. Contact the Division 3 office at 301 Murphy Drive, Alamosa, 589-6683, for more information.

Cotten said this policy would probably be incorporated into the broader groundwater regulations pending in the basin. This policy can be enforced sooner, however.

The “volumetric pumping limits of nonexempt wells in the Rio Grande Basin” draft policy refers to the extreme multi-year drought in the basin as one of the main reasons this policy is under consideration. It says the drought years have affected the recharge and storage in groundwater aquifers serving as the water supply for municipal, domestic, irrigation and other water users throughout the Valley. The policy states that during this summer alone, for example, water table elevations declined up to six feet in some areas, and the unconfined aquifer storage in the closed basin, which has been measured over a period of 30-plus years, decreased by about 166,000 acre feet.

“Storage in the unconfined aquifer in the closed basin is now at its lowest recorded level,” the policy states.

At the conclusion of the draft policy, Wolfe states he has a duty “to regulate groundwater use in the Rio Grande Basin so as to maintain a sustainable water supply in the confined and unconfined aquifers and to avoid interfering with the ability of the State of Colorado to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”

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