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River flows near record lows

Posted: Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — This is shaping up to be the fourth lowest water year on record in the San Luis Valley.

That’s since 1889.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten reported to the Valley-wide water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable, yesterday that predicted annual flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems are even lower this month than they were in April.

If those predictions hold true, he added, that would make this the fourth lowest year in recorded history on both the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) decreased its May 1 annual forecast for the Rio Grande by 40,000 acre feet from what it had predicted on April 1, “a very big drop, and we were pretty low already,” Cotten said.

The new forecast from NRCS on May 1 for the Rio Grande was 295,000 acre feet, which is 45 percent of the long-term average, Cotten reported. The delivery obligation to downstream states based on the new forecast would be 74,000 acre feet. To meet that obligation the Valley is currently delivering 4 percent of the flow on the Rio Grande to New Mexico.

The current delivery obligation on the Conejos River system, however, is zero. As with the Rio Grande, NRCS on May 1 decreased its forecast for the Conejos River by 40,000 acre feet, down to 145,000 acre feet, which is 44 percent of the long-term average. If that prediction holds true, the Conejos will share with the Rio Grande in the fourth lowest year on record.

The obligation under the Rio Grande Compact for the 145,000-acre-foot forecast on the Conejos River system is 18,000 acre feet, which Cotten said will not be difficult to make, considering what has already gone downriver and what will be delivered during the winter months after the irrigation season is over.

“We are not currently delivering water off the Conejos,” he said. “It’s pretty much dry at Los Sauces.”

The one bit of good news, Cotten said, was the National Weather Service’s precipitation forecast for June through August takes the Valley out of the bull’s eye for below average. Cotten added, however that he picked June-August to focus on because the forecast for August-October was not as promising.

In comparing the snowpack this year to last year, Cotten said this year’s current snowpack is a bit ahead of where it was this time last year. However, the peak was higher last year than this year, so as far as moisture in the mountains, the Valley has less this year than last year.

“We are significantly below where we were have been the last three years and significantly below the average,” Cotten said.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver, the retired water division engineer for Division 3, added that when Cotten presents a graph showing 2010 and 2011 as so much higher than this year and last year, people need to remember those were also below-average years.

“Keep that in perspective we are way below what other below-average years were,” Vandiver said.

Vandiver said the Valley’s first groundwater management sub-district of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is trying to do its part to lessen the drain on the aquifers. The sub-district has contracted with irrigators to fallow 90 parcels, or more than 9,000 acres, to varying degrees from no or limited water for ground cover this year, Vandiver explained.

Irrigators in the first sub-district will also have the option soon to use Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funds to fallow acreage and reduce the strain on the Valley’s aquifers. A special CREP was approved for the sub-district area. Farmers interested in signing up should contact their FSA offices.

In addition, the sub-district is releasing water to the Rio Grande according to its 2013 Annual Replacement Plan that was approved by the state and took effect on May 1. Vandiver said the sub-district has leased numerous shares from Santa Maria stockholders and the company, which has filed a change of water right to add augmentation to its decreed uses. The sub-district received approval from the state to use water it had stored in Santa Maria and Continental Reservoirs to help supply water to the Rio Grande this year.

In addition to sharing the latest river forecast data with roundtable members on Tuesday, Cotten updated the group on pending legal matters related to water. He said the Supreme Court has still not decided whether it will hear a lawsuit filed by Texas against New Mexico and Colorado. Texas’ primary beef is with New Mexico, but Colorado is named in the suit because it is part of the Rio Grande Compact. Colorado has asked the higher court not to take the suit. The court has asked federal agencies to weigh in, and the general solicitor will represent to the court the sentiments of the Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers.

Cotten also learned of a new lawsuit just a couple of hours before the roundtable meeting yesterday. He said the WildEarth Guardians filed an intent to sue over the 2003 biological opinion for the silvery minnow and southwestern willow flycatcher allegedly not being followed properly.

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