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Sub-district #1 prepares for another season

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 22nd, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Although the Farm Bill has been extended, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) and its sub-district are still waiting for confirmation of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funding to assist irrigators with their land fallowing efforts.

“We are hoping to have a CREP program with the Farm Bill extended into this year,” said Sub-district Program Manager Rob Phillips. “We may have sign up in the spring.”

CREP is a federal program administered through the USDA Farm Service Agency. CREP has been approved for the San Luis Valley’s first sub-district, but the funding is dependent on the Farm Bill. CREP provides financial incentives for farmers willing to voluntarily take land out of production.

Phillips said while CREP is not definite yet, “it sure is a strong possibility” for this year.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said he was also hopeful CREP contracts could be offered this year.

RGWCD board member Cory Off suggested if CREP is funded this year through the Farm Bill extension, it would be wise for anyone considering participation in CREP to sign up this year because there is no guarantee the Farm Bill will be authorized for 2014. The Farm Bill extension runs through September of this year.

Robbins agreed. He said Congress will have to reauthorize a Farm Bill between now and September.

RGWCD lobbyist Christine Arbogast said there is currently not much discussion in Congress right now about when the Farm Bill will be revisited. She said she would continue to work with Colorado’s legislative delegation in Washington to emphasize the importance of including such programs as CREP in future Farm Bill legislation.

Robbins also told the board this week during its quarterly meeting the district is still waiting on a ruling from Chief District Judge Pattie Swift regarding the late-2012 trial over the sub-district’s first annual replacement plan.

He said by the time the trial occurred in late October, there were only two issues left, one regarding use of Closed Basin Project water and the other regarding whether augmentation wells had been properly handled in the annual replacement plan.

Robbins said he hopes to receive a ruling from the judge soon. Both sides in the legal matter submitted proposed findings/rulings to the judge in December.

Meanwhile, the sub-district is preparing its 2013 annual replacement plan outlining how the sub-district will replace injurious depletions to the river this year. The sub-district is also accepting offers to fallow land this year. The deadline to submit those fallowing proposals is February 1.

“I think we will get an influx of people in this fallowing program,” Phillips said.

RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver agreed. He said the incentive this year will be based on reduced pumping, rather than number of acres, “so the more people reduce their pumping, the more they will get paid to fallow.”

Vandiver said last year irrigators fallowed 83 parcels as part of the sub-district’s fallowing program, with water for cover crops on those parcels ranging from 0-7 inches.

Phillips added 13,000-15,000 acres in the area covered by the sub-district were fallowed to some degree through preventive planting as well. The sub-district cannot take credit for the preventive planting fallowing, but it supported the sub-district’s goals in reducing pumping and recharging the aquifer, Phillips explained.

Phillips reported the pumping within the sub-district in 2012 was 80-83 percent what it was in 2011.

“There definitely was some conservation done in the sub-district last year,” he said. Drought conditions probably contributed to reduced pumping as well, he said.

RGWCD Engineer Allen Davey reminded the water group the unconfined aquifer in a study area generally equivalent to the first sub-district declined by another 123,000 acre feet between September 2011 and September 2012, in spite of conservation efforts and reduced pumping.

As indicated by regular monitoring well measurements, the unconfined aquifer in that study area has declined by a total of 1.2 million acre feet since the study began in 1976.

Vandiver said, “We just haven’t seen much recovery throughout the Valley, particularly in the area north of the river.”

He said the Valley needs more moisture to help bolster the aquifer. The basin is in the fifth year of below-normal flows, he said, and that directly affects diversions. He said in the last 25 years the Valley has only had seven years of above normal flows.

“So if we don’t turn this runoff situation around, then there’s no hope for sustaining anything here,” Vandiver said. “If we don’t have runoff to support this system, we have to do more and more to get this thing turned around.”

Davey said the confined aquifer is seeing a decline similar to the unconfined aquifer.

Sub-district efforts to control aquifer decline and replace injuries to surface water rights are expensive in terms of pure dollars and cents. Phillips said fees from irrigators in the sub-district total about $7.5 million, with the bulk of that ($6.3 million) in variable fees, in addition to fees for administration and CREP.

Vandiver said the sub-district has reimbursed the Rio Grande Water Conservation District about $800,000 so far. The sponsoring water district footed the legal, administrative and other fees for the sub-district until the sub-district was able to begin collecting fees from irrigators.

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