RG Basin water efforts ongoing

ALAMOSA — Efforts continue in the Rio Grande Basin to manage one of its most vital resources — water.

One of the leaders in these efforts is the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), a levy-supported district that has protected and promoted San Luis Valley water interests for decades, tackling such Goliath projects as the American Water Development Inc. (AWDI) that promoted a water export plan in the 1980’s to the development of water management sub-districts in the last decade or so to help balance and restore the basin’s aquifers.

The district’s board, representative of varied water and geographic interests in the Valley, held its regular quarterly meeting on Tuesday and heard updates on the sub-districts it has directly sponsored as well as water projects it has supported through funding over the years.

The water district’s first sub-district, lying roughly in the closed basin area of the Valley, has been operational for a few years under its own board of managers, with RGWCD Program Manager Rob Phillips concentrating on that sub-district.

One of the major goals of the sub-districts is to offset injurious depletions that wells have and are causing to senior surface water rights. Sub-districts are located in different geographical areas of the basin or represent specific water user groups.

Five other sub-districts are at various stages of development, and RGWCD Program Manager Amber Pacheco updated the board on their status on Tuesday. She said Sub-district #2 has prepared its plan of water management (how it proposes to accomplish its part in making up for injurious depletions and restoring the aquifers), which the overseeing board approved and will now go to the state engineer for approval. Sub-district #3 is also working on a plan of water management and has already purchased 755 acre feet of water (through the RGWCD, to be reimbursed once the sub-district is operational and collecting its own fees) from the SLV Water Conservancy District to make up for injurious depletions from well pumping in that sub-district.

Sub-district #4 has been approved by Chief Judge Pattie Swift and has selected its board of managers, which will work on bylaws and subsequently the sub-district’s plan of water management. Sub-district #5 has submitted its petitions to form a sub-district and filed them with the court in Saguache, which will hear the matter in December. Sub-district #6 is still gathering petitions, with about 350 collected so far, and hopefully will present those petitions to the sponsoring RGWCD board in early 2018, Pacheco said.

Phillips and RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson reported that the district had closed on its purchase of nearly 8,000 acres of the Medano Ranch (see separate story), which had been two years in the making in a “continuing effort towards sustainability of Sub-district #1.” The water on the ranch, formerly owned by The Nature Conservancy, will be used to recharge the aquifer.

Other items shared during the Tuesday RGWCD meeting included:

  • RGWCD Attorney David Robbins has drafted an intergovernmental agreement regarding a Doppler radar system to serve the San Luis Valley. Robbins said many parties have signed a cooperative agreement showing their interest in obtaining a radar system, and statute allows governments to set up an independent entity that could operate and manage such a system.
    “That seems the best way for governments in the San Luis Valley to work together to set up an authority to operate the weather radar,” he said.
  • The district requested from USDA an increase of the rental rate for CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) from $175 to $200 in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties, which are participating in the CREP associated with the sub-district. However, USDA only approved increasing the rental rate to $200 in Alamosa County, Simpson and Phillips explained. Phillips added that Sub-district #1 has approved its own four-year fallow program, and the sub-district has already had five commitments to participate.
  • The basin’s unconfined aquifer showed improvements again this year, according to a longitudinal study conducted by RGWCD District Engineer Allen Davey. From September 2016 to September 2017 the unconfined aquifer storage in the study area (that basically mirrors the area covered by Sub-district #1 and encompasses 27 wells) showed 66,608 acre feet improvement. The year before reflected more than 58,000 acre feet improvement, in 2015, 119,469 acre feet improvement and in 2014, 71,440 acre feet to the good.
    “We are definitely going in the right direction,” Davey said. He attributed the improvement in the aquifer to better water years and efforts of sub-district members to cut back pumping. He said for the aquifer to recover to the legislatively set level in the remaining time the legislature required the recovery, the aquifer will have to improve by about 54,000 acre feet per year.
    “We are on track now,” Davey said.
  • A trial is still scheduled for early 2018 regarding the groundwater rules promulgated by the state engineer, and although some of the objectors in the case have resolved their concerns, there are still active objectors, and an abbreviated trial will likely still be necessary, Robbins said.
  • Robbins talked with the district board about possibly putting a measure on a future ballot to “de-Bruce” the district so it could retain revenues that might otherwise exceed TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) limits. Many districts and governments in the state have successfully asked voters to “de-Bruce,” which refers to Doug Bruce, the author of TABOR. De-Brucing might create more funding opportunities for the water district. Robbins and Simpson said they were not advocating de-Brucing but were presenting the idea to the board for future consideration. The board did not make a decision on Tuesday.
    • Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park chief of resource management, said it appeared the dunes would break visitation records again this year.

“We have had a great year at the sand dunes,” he said. “Visitation keeps going up.”

The park broke a record with 299,513 visitors logged in 2015, broke that record again in 2016 with more than 388,000 visitors and will likely hit 400,000 visitors this year, Bunch said.

He added that the dunes has also seen more precipitation this year with 13 inches, compared to the average 11 inches, and the Medano Creek is still flowing.

He said Park Superintendent Lisa Carrico would be leaving for the Grand Canyon. (A community farewell party is scheduled in Alamosa for November 10 from 6-11 p.m. at La Manzanilla, Alamosa.)