ALAMOSA — In a 7-1 vote on Tuesday the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board voted to move forward on its Sub-District #1’s behalf with the purchase of the West Medano Ranch from The Nature Conservancy for a price not to exceed $4 million.
The main purpose for acquiring the property is to retire groundwater and recharge surface water rights associated with the approximately 8,000-acre ranch to help the groundwater management sub-district reach one of its primary goals of restoring the basin’s aquifer levels.
The sub-district can cover the approximate $4 million purchase price with fees collected over the years from irrigators living within the sub-district’s boundaries.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) board member Bill McClure cast the only dissenting vote on Tuesday, with affirmative votes coming from RGWCD Board President Greg Higel and board members Lewis Entz, Peggy Godfrey, Dwight Martin, Brian David, Cory Off and Lawrence Gallegos. Board member Mike McClure was not present.
“I think it’s something that needs to be done, and it’s an opportunity and I think we should move forward with it,” said Gallegos when he made the motion to move forward with the purchase. He said with a goal of 40,000 irrigated acres to be taken out of production in the area covered by the first sub-district, and only 3,000 acres permanently retired through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), “I think there’s a long ways to go.”
RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson will now perform due diligence and negotiate with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) the final purchase price for the West Medano Ranch, based on an appraisal performed by Tim Walters. If that final purchase price comes in at the Sub-District #1 board of manager’s cut-off figure “not to exceed $4 million,” the sponsoring district board will sign off on a contract to purchase the property from TNC.
Simpson said the Sub-District #1 board of managers last Tuesday voted 6-4 to proceed with the acquisition of the West Medano Ranch, which then proceeded to the sponsoring RGWCD board for its approval to proceed.
Simpson said the property comes with three active wells, which would be retired, as well as surface water including 1,000 shares of San Luis Valley Canal water. Currently about 300 acres are being irrigated under a contract TNC has with an area farmer, he added. Those acres would be returned to native vegetation and the surface water currently used for crop irrigation would be recharged to the aquifer, Simpson explained. It would take some water to establish native vegetation, Simpson said, but the end game would be to eliminate irrigation uses for this water.
The ranch is under a conservation easement, Simpson added, but the easement provides the flexibility required to retire or recharge the water rights associated with the property.
McClure questioned whether it was appropriate for the sub-district to own land and asked how much property Sub-District #1 has already purchased. RGWCD Program Manager Rob Phillips said the sub-district has purchased 706 acres and in that process taken out about 800 acre-feet of water per year. In addition he and Simpson explained that the sub-district also owns 59 1/2 shares of Rio Grande Canal water that is being recharged back into the aquifer.
Phillips said on the other properties the sub-district purchased, sheep and cattle have been used to graze down weeds and grasses, but they are not irrigated cropland anymore.
RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told McClure there was no prohibition against the district owning land, and for the water district to acquire water, it means acquiring the land associated with it. He said the sub-districts must focus on permanent solutions to address the basin’s overdraft problem, and to do that they can get people to permanently retire irrigated acres through CREP or they can acquire water rights for recharge or permanent retirement, which is the case here.
“This is one of the options you have to look at if we are in fact going to achieve the restoration of the aquifer,” Robbins said.
The permanent solutions must include reduced well pumping and increased recharge, he added.
He said in order to meet the commitment the district and its sub-districts made to the community and to the court to restore aquifer levels in the San Luis Valley to those levels identified in the sub-district legislation, this type of acquisition is necessary.
He said when this property came up, “I thought that was good business this district board and sub-district board should look at.”
Robbins added that this property is in the east side of Sub-District #1 where there have been issues with groundwater availability and farmers are not able to fully irrigate their properties. Plus, he said this is land that should not have been used for farming.
Simpson also clarified that the money to purchase the West Medano Ranch would come from the variable fees collected from sub-district irrigators, not the taxpayers who support the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. There is no expense to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, he said.
Godfrey said Sub-District #1 has $3.8 million that it had to set aside to show the state engineer it could cover depletions, but the sub-district is in a more secure position now, so “that money is available for something like this … They’ve got the money.”
She added she would like to see the water from this property going into the aquifer until sustainability levels are reached or the water is needed for another purpose.
Higel agreed this land purchase was a good use of the $3.8 million set aside for a post-plan remedy and would provide a more long-term remedy than other uses of the money.
“We need to recharge the whole sub-district, and to me this is perfect,” he said.
Simpson said The Nature Conservancy has offered to finance the purchase, and there are low-interest loans available, but it makes no sense to pay interest if the sub-district can purchase the property outright.
Off asked if anyone else was interested in purchasing the West Medano Ranch. He understood the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for example, had shown interest in the property, and he would rather the district buy another piece of property if the BLM wanted this one.
Simpson said BLM had at one time shown interest in the property, and RGWCD staff had even talked with BLM staff about a cooperative purchase, but the two organizations had divergent goals for the property. RGWCD would want to retire the water, while BLM would want to use it to create wetlands, he said.
Robbins said although he could not speak for BLM, he did not think the agency was interested in buying the property now.
Simpson added, “If there’s interested parties now, I am not aware of them.”
Caption: Rio Grande Water Conservation District Attorney David Robbins, centers, addresses the proposed purchase of the West Medano Ranch during Tuesday’s meeting in Alamosa. At left is Board President Greg Higel and at right is Board Member Lewis Entz. Courier photo by Ruth Heide