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Struggle continues to curb water decline

Posted: Tuesday, Jul 23rd, 2013

Courier editor

VALLEY — San Luis Valley aquifers continue to decline, but water leaders have not abandoned efforts to do something to change that.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Engineer Allen Davey reported further aquifer declines to the RGWCD board during its quarterly meeting this month.

“It’s kind of a depressing report and will get worse next month,” he said. “It almost has to because people are continuing to pump and not recharge.”

He said he had to adjust his graph to include larger numbers because the unconfined aquifer storage continues to decline. Since measurement began in 1976, the unconfined, or shallower, aquifer has declined 1.2 million acre feet, 982,000 since the drought year of 2002.

“We are still pumping more water than we are putting in by far,” agreed RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver.

The unconfined aquifer study area currently is in the central area of the San Luis Valley, about where the first RGWCD groundwater management sub-district lies.

Davey has also identified areas in future sub-districts where monitoring wells could be situated to track unconfined aquifer levels.

About half a dozen of the monitoring wells in the unconfined aquifer study area will go dry if they are not deepened, Davey added. Vandiver and RGWCD Program Manager Rob Phillips said they had heard of numerous irrigators who were re-nozzling sprinklers because of low pressure.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said his office had received a fair number of permit applications to redo wells because they had collapsed, a greater number than this time last year.

Sub-district efforts continue to try to reduce pumping and replace water to surface water users who have been negatively affected by the well pumping, Phillips explained. He said since May 1 the first sub-district has replaced 820 acre feet of replacement water to the Rio Grande from the Rio Grande and Continental Reservoirs and the Closed Basin Canal. He added 187 acre feet of Rio Grande Canal forbearance water has been utilized for stream depletions as well.

This year the sub-district’s fallowing program involves 31 contracts encompassing 71 parcels or 8,262 acres, Phillips reported.

Vandiver said he understood the preventive planting program would be as large or larger than last year, so hopefully with all of the fallowing efforts this year 30,000 acres would be taken out of production.

Phillips said the Sub-district #1 board of managers has decided not to offer a fallowing program in 2014 but to focus instead on CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) to reduce irrigated land in the sub-district.

RGWCD Board President George Whitten asked what the sub-district board’s reasoning was for discontinuing the annual fallowing program. RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said the sub-district only has so much money to try to reduce irrigated acres and is obligated to reduce irrigated acreage by 40,000 in 20 years. The fallowing program was a stopgap temporary fix until CREP was in place, Robbins explained. The sub-district board felt it had to do something to reduce pumping, so that was the solution it developed until the CREP could be funded.

The CREP covering the area of the first sub-district is still open for enrollment through the USDA Farm Service Agency, and the sub-district board is offering additional incentives for those who sign up.

RGWCD Board Member Lawrence Gallegos asked if CREP contracts would still be funded if the Farm Bill is not renewed. Robbins said the contracts that are in place would be funded for the duration of the 15-year contract, but new contracts might not be accepted if the Farm Bill is not adopted by September.

“People that want to get in have to get in by September,” Gallegos said.

“If they want to get in for sure,” Robbins responded.

Robbins also updated the RGWCD board on legal actions involving the district and sub-district. He said objectors to the sub-district’s 2012 replacement plan that District Judge Pattie Swift approved have filed appeals with the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, with the appeals likely to be consolidated under the Colorado Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. The procedure will include the filing of briefs, answers, reply briefs and oral arguments, Robbins explained. He said the higher court would not probably get to a point of issuing a ruling until about this time next year or even later.

The two main points contained in the appeal involve the way augmentation wells were handled by the sub-district in its annual replacement plan and whether the sub-district can use Closed Basin Project water to replace injurious depletions to surface rights.

Robbins’ legal team, that includes attorney Peter Ampe, is working with other water lawyers in preparation for additional sub-districts in the San Luis Valley once the groundwater model is sufficiently updated to help the new sub-districts determine how much water they will need to replace their injurious depletions to surface rights.

The sponsoring water district is preparing for several more sub-districts to get underway as soon as the model is ready. To help handle the increased workload volume, the RGWCD board approved additional staff positions this month. One will involve database management and the other will assist Office Manager Amber Pacheco. The board may be asked to add more staff in the future, as requested by a board sub-committee that reviewed office needs.

Vandiver said the two new staff could physically be accommodated in the existing building the water district shares with the Bureau of Reclamation, and in Allen Davey’s office, but there may come a time when the space will not be sufficient to house all of the district staff and the board will need to reevaluate its location.

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