Certainly since the industrial revolution the world has suffered from “unintended consequences.” Local, not global, air pollution, due to industrial emissions, plowing of the prairie lands that ultimately led to the famous, or infamous, dust bowl days, building homes on the beach with wonderful views that are ultimately washed away by storms, to name a few—all of which have become a tax burden. Are we headed in the same direction here in the San Luis Valley?
Rio Grande water users have created a water debt to states below for which the entire San Luis Valley seems to be responsible. In order to satisfy this debt, we pump water from the so-called “closed basin” into the Rio Grande until the debt is paid. If we understand correctly, the initial debt has been satisfied; however the closed basin project continues to supply water to down stream users to satisfy further use of Rio Grande water in the San Luis Valley. The pumping of closed basin wells to supply this “pay-back” water has contributed to lower water tables, especially in the north end of the valley. Monitoring of well data shows that the rate of water table decline during years of insufficient recharge is twice in magnitude to the rate of recovery during rates of recharge, at least in and around the closed basin project. This is an unsustainable situation which seemed to have no influence on other pumped well drilling projects which are surely susceptible to the same outcome.
Meanwhile, well drilling was allowed for sprinkler irrigation throughout the valley. It was as though there was no limit to the underground water supply. Does the use of these sprinkler irrigation wells have any effect on the water table? We invite you to look at the areas within a few miles to the south east of what was once called “North Star Farms.” What once were reasonably good-hay meadows and pastures now has hardly any live vegetation growing on it because of insufficient sub-surface moisture to sustain even modest desert plants. Old ranches along Saguache Creek now find that this creek no longer flows enough to provide adequate irrigation for pastures and hay meadows. The reader might think that this is an isolated problem, but ask those users of pumped wells further to the south if their wells can support the pumping they did a few years ago. Surprisingly, monitor wells along a corridor between State Highway 17 and U.S. Highway 285, roughly Moffat to Saguache, show a very constant average level of the water table for the last 30 or so years. One would think that recent periods of drought might show decrease in these well levels. Further, years of above normal precipitation like the winter of ’82-’83 do not seem to influence the water table monitored by these wells. This is difficult to understand. However, we are not hydrology experts. Perhaps the water was pumped out as fast it was put into the aquifer.
If the Colorado State Engineer does not, or cannot, rectify the problem then the San Luis Valley will ultimately not exist as we know it. Much, or most, of the blame resides with this office since well permits were granted so freely. Certainly insufficient measurements, testing, and forethought occurred at that level of government.
The idea of weather modification, or cloud seeding, in the San Luis Valley dates back to the 1960’s. During winter months various weather modification projects have been used to enhance snow pack at higher elevations. The argument being that enhanced snow pack results in higher revenues from winter sports like skiing and snowmobile recreation as well as insuring higher volume spring runoff to feed streams that flow out of the mountains. Summertime weather modification has been used with the concept that hail suppression will occur along with enhanced rainfall along the storm paths. The Coors Beer industry was instrumental in supporting these concepts, along with San Luis Valley barley growers. Skeptics, like us, question the down wind effects of such weather modification. The saying, “You can’t milk the cow twice” implies that precipitation due to weather modification at one point is likely to result in less precipitation down wind. Proponents of weather modification will assure you that such is not the case; however, we have seen little or no data to support this claim. Perhaps even the contrary when we recall that one of the worst hailstorms around Monte Vista apparently occurred after a cloud seeding event. We would suppose that cloud seeding induced events depend on where seeding is done and what stage of cloud formation is occurring at the time of seeding. At one time summer cloud seeding was outlawed. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation investigated some illegal activity; however, we find no record of apprehension of those involved. The bigger question is: who funded the illegal cloud seeding?
The lesson(s) is(are) we as a state, and especially in the San Luis Valley, should look at history. If we fool with nature’s way of providing precipitation, we are likely not aware of, nor can we even imagine the possible “unintended consequences.” Farming and ranching has always been a gamble; we all must take our “lumps” when relying on nature’s ways. Lest we forget, our front range neighbors, Denver metropolitan area, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo, to name only the higher populated regions, must also take their “lumps” when it comes to water use.
Thad and Sue Englert