While I basically agree with much of the Bartee Ranch letter of Dec. 11, 2018, in the
Valley Courier, I would point out some facts of history and some unintended consequences of SB-04-222. Formation of subdistricts were authorized to “cooperatively” manage groundwater use, replace senior surface water depletions and maintain functional and sustainable aquifers. This legislation was developed in an attempt to avoid or mitigate the sizable pump well shutdown that occurred in the South Platte Basin because pumping was causing serious injury to senior surface water rights.
The subdistrict plan was to decrease groundwater withdrawal by enrolling land in CREP.
This was encouraged by incentive payments generated from user fees for pumping water without replacing it with original river water. Seemed like a good idea; however, the profitability of farming exceeds the benefits of CREP enrollment. Incentives have failed to attract sufficient retirement of groundwater pumping. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so there has to be more economic pressure to retire water use to meet legislative and court requirements for replacing depletions and sustaining the aquifer.
Recharge has been retarded due to drought. The only tool the subdistrict has to reduce water use is to increase user fees to a level where some farmers will quit farming and go to CREP. Large farms or those owned by outside entities using their “farm” as a tax write-off can withstand paying the increased user fees until enough small farmers go broke. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? Sort of like Walmart bankrupting a Ma-Pa grocery store by cutting prices below a profitable level, then raising them back up after Ma and Pa have quit. A farmer who can’t make a profit while paying high user fees is made to feel like a “bad farmer,” with residual depressing self-deprecation and blame. I can promise you the San Luis Valley farmers I know would live like a Spartan, work like a dog, and totally deplete the kids’ college fund before walking away from a way of life and livelihood they love. None-the-less the end effect is that raising water fees won’t work in forcing less water use, at least in the remaining dozen or so years the subdistrict has to comply with their sustainability requirements. The Division of Water Resources gets credit for creating this mess by grossly miscalculating a Rio Grande Basin water budget back when the circle sprinkler was developed and well permits started pouring in. The circle sprinkler drastically changed and improved water use in the SLV pump wells were previously used only to finish a crop after river flow declined in midsummer.
No 1950s farmer would have considered planting 100 acres of potatoes or grain if he had to flood irrigate it with only a 1,000 gpm well. Today that is easily accomplished with a circle sprinkler. Irrigated acreage soared and groundwater consumption soared with it, out-pacing recharge to the aquifer except for well above average snowpack years. Way too many well permits were issued and way too many previously unfarmed brush quarters were put into production. I have yet to hear a mea culpa from the Division of Water Resources for issuing so many well permits. But when things got out of hand and surface seniors were legitimately complaining of deficits and the aquifers were being over-pumped and potentially destroyed, the DWR allowed the passage of SB-04-222. That effectively removed the most efficient, effective, and immediate tool of water administration: the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Instead of being able to curtail wells based on appropriation date, they are now forced to wait and see if the subdistrict can starve a sufficient number of farms out of production with higher user fees before the time runs out and DWR will have to curtail all wells. I, for one, will insist that they do that without any lenient time extension or new legislation unscientifically defining lower “sustainable” aquifer levels. The currently defined “sustainable” aquifer levels are not based on scientific parameters of the aquifer, but are truly arbitrary and capricious. There are already areas where the aquifer has suffered subsidence (compaction) which alters the ability of a well to give up water and the aquifer to receive it. From a humane standpoint, a farmer who is told to quit because he didn’t get in the well permit line soon enough doesn’t carry the stigma of being a “bad farmer.” He may feel screwed but he won’t feel destroyed.
The answer to our current water problems is to repeal or seriously amend SB-04-222.
Nice try, but it won’t work — sort of like prohibition. It grinds against human nature as evidenced by the Bartee Ranch letter. We need to put water administration back into the DWR where it belongs. Then we can all cuss the State instead of each other.