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Water district tries to cover its tails

Posted: Thursday, Apr 18th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Regarding the San Luis Valley’s first groundwater management sub-district, the tail is wagging the dog.

The sub-district, sponsored by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is required by water court order to not only replace current depletions caused by well pumping to senior surface rights but also to make up for the lag or tail depletions from well pumping for the next 19 years.

With the sub-district only in its second full year of operation, its sponsoring district has so far put up the guarantee to the court that the tail would be taken care of.

However, the parent district is now ready for its sub-district to take over that responsibility. Especially with at least four other sub-districts emerging in the Valley, the sponsoring water district board cannot afford to cover all of their tails, so to speak.

The RGWCD board during its quarterly meeting on Tuesday unanimously voted to direct Sub-district #1 “to try to deal with this so we don’t have to deal with it in coming years.”

The sub-district board will need to provide to the RGWCD board during its July meeting some ideas how it plans to cover lag depletions.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said it is important for the sub-district board of managers to start planning and budgeting for the lag depletions.

“The judge required, and the state engineer required in our annual plan there would be water available for the annual replacement plus the next 19 years,” Robbins explained. “If a well pumped this year and was shut off permanently, there would be 19 years tail. The state engineer wants to know if that occurs there’s some way in which that amount of water can be left in the system in order to take care of that.”

The sub-district board in its first two years of operation did not allocate funds to take care of the tail, Robbins added, so the sponsoring water district in both years voted to give the state engineer assurance the district would cover it if it had to.

If the RGWCD board had not taken that action, the sub-district’s annual replacement plan could not have been approved, and the sub-district would have been dead in the water. The sub-district submitted its 2013 annual replacement plan to the state and the court on Monday.

“The annual replacement plan is not approvable without some way of addressing the future depletions,” Robbins said.

RGWCD Board Member Greg Higel said the sub-district has come too far to let that happen now.

However, he said the boards of the new sub-districts still in the formation stages need to be aware they will have to get lines of credit to cover the tail requirements. He said the sponsoring district board was willing to help with the first sub-district because there were so many unknowns when it started out.

Robbins said Sub-district #1’s argument for not covering lag depletions was there had not been well regulations in place, so it would not be fair to go back and pay for impacts that occurred during the time when everyone was allowed to pump whatever they wanted. The sub-districts should only be responsible for the impacts occurring from the time the sub-districts took responsibility forward, he added.

The court disagreed and told the sub-district it had to cover its tail, Robbins said.

The problem won’t go away, so the first sub-district and subsequent ones have to find a way to address it, he added, “because it isn’t appropriate for this board each year to say we will guarantee it.”

It will take a significant amount of money to cover 19 years of declining depletions, Robbins said, and the sub-district won’t be able to come up with that kind of money all at once, but it must start planning for it and setting aside funds for it.

“You are talking millions of dollars,” said RGWCD Board Member Cory Off.

“That’s right,” Robbins replied.

Off said his biggest fear was the sponsoring water district would be responsible for the lag depletions if its sub-district didn’t work out and the wells in the sub-district were shut down by rules and regulations. The tail obligation would still remain, and Off said he conservatively estimated it would cost $12-18 million to cover 19 years of lag depletions, which is more than the RGWCD’s total budget could cover annually.

“If we did not do anything else except pay the depletions we still wouldn’t have enough money to do it,” he said.

RGWCD Board Member Lawrence Gallegos said, “you are talking several million dollars, and if you add the other sub-districts in there, it’s going to be lots of money.”

Gallegos said the problem is compounded by the addition of more sub-districts coming on line because they will have to provide guarantees to the state as well. He said if the drought conditions in the Valley do not turn around, it would be risky to rely on revenue from sub-districts because many wells will not be able to pump, and it is the fees from well irrigators that finance the sub-districts.

“You end up with a lot of financial problems if there’s a lot of wells that aren’t able to pump,” he said.

RGWCD Board Member Kent Palmgren said if fewer people were pumping, there would be less depletions to pay for over time. If the sub-district started saving money now, it would be able to cover those depletions, he added.

Palmgren said the properties the district is currently negotiating to purchase would also provide surety for future depletions because they would come with water rights.

“It’s obviously an issue but why did we go into the process of forming sub-districts … if when the first hurdle comes up we want to shut them down because we don’t want to back them?” Palmgren asked.

“I don’t think anybody’s saying we should try to shut the sub-district down,” Gallegos said. “There has to be some sort of solution. It’s a pretty big issue because it’s a lot of money. We’ve got to figure a way to come up with that … We’ve got to realize it’s a pretty big problem.”

Other ways in which the sub-districts are affecting the sponsoring water district are in personnel and space. RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver told the board it was imperative to add more staff. For example, he has been spending the majority of his time on sub-district matters, and Program Manager Rob Phillips will not be able to keep up with all of the sub-district work required of him with five more sub-districts in the works.

“We do not have the staff here to do the work,” Vandiver said. “There’s going to be another 3,000 wells we’ve got to deal with in the other sub-districts. We’ve got to get some help.”

He advertised for someone to help Phillips and received 15 applications, with probably only five of those meeting the job qualifications. He said he hoped to hire at least one more person.

The water district can use some of the money the first sub-district has reimbursed it to acquire more staff to deal with future sub-districts, Vandiver explained. So far the first sub-district has reimbursed its sponsoring district about $800,000.

Vandiver said the district needs to look for expanded facilities in the near future as well because it is running out of space at the location it shares with the Bureau of Reclamation east of Alamosa.

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