Who’s who in water: Rio Grande Water Conservation District

VALLEY — The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Created in 1967 as a statutorily special district by the Colorado General Assembly, RWCD is composed of five counties across the San Luis Valley including Alamosa, Rio Grande, Conejos, and portions of Saguache and Mineral Counties. The RGWCD mission is “to enhance and protect the water rights of the citizens of the San Luis Valley who reside within the boundaries of the District.”

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District exists to serve the San Luis Valley. The changes in conditions and water availability has brought the necessity for RGWCD and the water users of the Valley that it serves to look for ways to “live within their means” and respond to the changes. Cleave Simpson, general manager of RGWCD, points out that it is about “what we want this Valley to look like in the future.” The results of this approach have included the formation of special improvement districts or subdistricts in response to the groundwater rules from the state engineer along with many other initiatives.

The subdistrict process began in 2004 for the purpose of forming “communities of interest” in areas that have similar hydrology and geology where members could come together to pool their resources by way of paying fees on pumping and irrigated acres to create revenue. The revenue would then in turn be used to purchase water for replacing depletions to the river along with fallowing ground to reduce pumping from the aquifer.

Subdistrict number 1 was officially formed by the District Court on July 19th, 2006. Subdistrict number one and its Plan of Water Management were confirmed following two district court trials and a trip to the Colorado Supreme Court in 2011. Subdistrict number 2 was officially formed on March 1st, 2016. The board of managers is currently in the process of finalizing their Plan of Water Management. Subdistrict number 3 became a legal entity on January 27th, 2017. Subdistrict number 4 is the newest just established on July 21st, 2017. The Alamosa-La Jara and Saguache subdistricts have not yet been recognized as legal entities. However, petitions for formation are being finalized and submittal to district court is anticipated to occur very soon.

RGWCD also has a history of successful projects and partnerships. Because RGWCD has the authority to work with federal agencies, the partnerships have been numerous. The federal agencies that RGWCD has worked with have included The United States Bureau of Reclamation, United States Forest Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

The RGWCD partners with the Bureau of Reclamation on the Closed Basin Project. The Closed Basin Project is a federal reclamation project designed to salvage unconfined groundwater in the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley that would otherwise be lost to evapotranspiration. The project was designed and constructed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which maintains and operates the wells in conjunction with RGWCD. The project originally consisted of 170 salvage wells. However, due to water quality issues and the aquifer being drawn down, the number that is currently available for pumping is now between 90 and 96 wells. The main purposes of the Closed Basin Project are to assist in Rio Grande Compact deliveries, mitigation deliveries to the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area, reduction of any accumulated deficit for Colorado in the Rio Grande Compact, to provide water for sale for irrigation and other beneficial uses, and to make water available for fulfillment of the United States’ obligation of water availability to the United States of Mexico (treaty from May 21st, 1906).

RGWCD has also developed what is known as the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan. This initiative which is commonly referred to as HCP exists for mitigation and compliance with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 which prohibits the ‘take” of endangered species or their habitat. The HCP was developed to assist with habitat for two endangered species that are found in the San Luis Valley. They are the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow Billed Cuckoo. Habitat Conservation Plans allow for a proactive approach in dealing with ESA requirements as well as ESA covering for specific activities, monitoring, and assurance. The Habitat Conservation Plan was completed in November of 2012 and is now in the implementation process.

RGWCD has also been a key voice in the conversations that happen at the Rio Grande Roundtable. Simpson notes that RGWCD has a “unique” opportunity to be part of the bigger picture in the water community and have access to even more resources.

The RGWCD board recently approved the purchase of the Medano Ranch. The purpose is for the land and water to serve as another tool for Subdistrict Number 1 and their Plan of Water Management and to provide flexibility and additional resources to aid in the roles of both the subdistrict and RGWCD.

There are many goals and tasks that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District has, but the mission continues to remain the same. Enhancement, protection and sustainability are the key components of this district. Simpson observed that his role at RGWCD is an “honor” and that he has a fantastic staff to work with. RGWCD is in the process of planning a celebration to honor the 50th anniversary and is looking forward to many more years of dedication and service.

The Rio Grande Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month at 2 p.m. at 623 East 4th. Street, Alamosa. For more information please visit www.rgbrt.org.

Helen Smith is the outreach specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.