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On the water front, outlook is still bleak

Posted: Thursday, Apr 25th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — As the San Luis Valley enters yet another year of drought with little moisture in sight, water leaders are concerned about how long the agricultural community can hold on.

At mid-April, the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s snowpack was only 66 percent of normal.

“We are anticipating we are not going to have as much water this year as we did last year, unfortunately,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten reported to water leaders during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s recent quarterly meeting.

Stream flow forecasts for this year’s irrigation season are as low as 26 percent of average for the San Antonio River at Ortiz and 29 percent on Sangre de Cristo Creek to only 64 percent of average as the highest prediction on the Rio Grande at the Thirty Mile Bridge and 56 percent on the Rio Grande at Del Norte.

Trinchera Creek is only expected to run at 44 percent of average this year.

Forecasts for the annual index flows on the Rio Grande have decreased each month to a current prediction of about 335,000 acre feet. Last year, which was not a stellar water year, the Rio Grande produced 470,000 acre feet.

Of the 335,000 predicted to run downriver this year, 82,700 acre feet will have to be delivered to the downstream states of New Mexico and Texas to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations. To get the necessary water downstream to meet that obligation, the water division will have to curtail irrigators about 6.5 percent during the irrigation season, Cotten explained.

Currently there is zero curtailment on the Conejos River system, and that is not expected to change, according to Cotten, because the winter deliveries and credit from last year will ensure the Conejos meets its annual compact obligation.

Cotten said zero curtailment is both good and bad news because ditches will not have to be curtailed during the irrigation season, but they may not have any water either.

“We do have a dry river at Los Sauces on the Conejos right now,” he said. “No water is making it to the Rio Grande right now, and it will be like that through the summertime.”

He said rivers that normally run 750 cubic feet per second (cfs) are only running about 300 cfs and those that should be running about 300 cfs are at about 100 cfs.

Pointing to the weather service’s May-July outlook for continuing dry weather in the region, Cotten said, “It definitely does not look like it’s going to get much better in the short term anyway. We are in for kind of a rough situation this year.”

Adding even more pressure to an already difficult situation are the urgent requests from downstream states to send more water their way to help keep endangered species like the silvery minnow afloat.

“We have told them we don’t have any water to send down,” Cotten said.

One of the main water repositories for Rio Grande Compact water is Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico. Currently it contains only about one-tenth its total capacity.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Engineer Allen Davey continued to report water declines in his long-term aquifer studies. The unconfined, more shallow aquifer storage showed slight improvement in the last two to three months, as it generally does during times when the Valley floor is not being irrigated. However, it still has a long ways to go to get back to where it was when the study started in the 1970’s. Since 1976 the unconfined aquifer in the study area, the west central portion of the Valley, has declined 1.2 million acre feet, a good portion of that during recent drought years.

Davey said he could not speculate how many wells might go dry this year but “undoubtedly we are getting near the bottom of the aquifer in some areas.”

He said the water flowing into that unconfined aquifer reservoir has not matched the outflow to wells.

“It is in a near crisis situation,” he said. “I just hope the weather someday will change.”

Davey has also been tracking changes in the confined or deeper aquifer storage. Most of the approximately 50 study wells are reflecting a decline, he said, some more significant than others.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver reported that San Luis Lake was still dry with not much promise of it filling this year, given the low run off expected from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains this year.

“It doesn’t look like there will be enough run off to get to San Luis Lake,” he said.

As “Mother Nature” continues her efforts to dry up irrigated acres in the Valley, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s first groundwater manager sub-district continues its own. Vandiver said more than 9,000 acres are under contract for fallowing this year. That will amount to a reduction of about 15,000 acre feet in pumping.

More acreage can be fallowed under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program once the federal funding is released. Vandiver said the district is working with congressional aides like Charlotte Bobicki in Sen. Michael Benet’s office to try to get that CREP funding released in time for this year’s irrigation season.

He and Program Manager Rob Phillips said efforts are also being made to purchase property with water rights that could be permanently retired to help the sub-district meet its goal of reducing irrigated acreage. Those property purchases are in negotiations at this point.

Phillips said more acreage will also be fallowed through preventive planting again this year but he will not know approximately how much until May. He said most farmers hoped they would have water to pump, but he knew of some who had already decided to cut back by as much as half their usual planting this year because of the water situation.

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