Still Waters: Bottoms up!

Important periods of local history are not always the kind that result in police tape around crime scenes and murder suspects in court.

Sometimes they occur in courtrooms where farmers talk about irrigation practices and experts with genius IQ’s try to explain the complexities of a river basin’s water system in a way the rest of us might be able to comprehend.

One of those less flashy moments in our San Luis Valley historical record is occurring this week and the next and possibly for the rest of the month. It is a trial before Chief District Judge Pattie Swift who is also our water judge. The subject may appear “dry” at times, pun intended, as experts describe clay layers and computer modeling efforts.

However, this trial is historic, and its outcome will directly or indirectly affect every one of us who live here. The trial concerns rules the state engineer filed with the courts more than two years ago (that’s how long things like this take to reach trial stage) governing wells in this river basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley.

In the past those who pumped from wells were not under regulations or restrictions except the decrees for gallons per minute associated with their well permits. There was no one to take them to task when their pumping affected surface water rights (streams, canals, ditches), folks whose rights dated back to the late 1800’s and therefore were more senior than anything since. (Our state operates on a priority system with the oldest rights being the most senior.) Every well drilled in the 1900’s was “junior” to those surface rights, but even when those folks who should have had priority were forced to cut the amount of water they were using so the state could meet its Rio Grande Compact obligation to downstream states, the people who had well water were continuing to pump.

Adding insult to injury, that was especially hard to swallow during times of drought when a farmer who relied solely on river and ditch water had to watch his fields dry up while a neighbor with a well could water his crop to completion.

Of course a lot of farmers and ranchers own both surface and well water and use it in some combination throughout the irrigation season. As the farmers who took the stand this week testified, they always use their surface water first, but when it dries up, they have to resort to using well water to finish up their crops. Well pumping costs more so they use it as a last resort, they explained.

Well pumping is costing even more now and will cost everyone more in the future as the rules before the court take effect and everyone with a well of a certain size has to make up for the injury he’s causing to streams and rivers.

Sharing the misery as it were, thousands of Valley residents are — or will soon be — paying for that injury through water management sub-districts under the umbrella of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. It’s “pay to play,” as the late Ray Wright described it. Everyone pays his fair share, and the sub-district collectively makes up for the injuries its particular group of wells has caused and is causing to the surface water rights. It’s about as equitable a manner as we can get to, I think, for sharing the blame and the solution.

Those well irrigators who don’t join a sub-district have to come up with their own way of making up for their injuries, such as an individual water augmentation plan. At some point there might be some wells shut down entirely.

The City of Alamosa (which provides water through wells) is developing its own plan to remedy the well pumping that provides the water to our taps. The city could spend as much as $4 million through water rights purchases and legal fees to comply with the well regulations. That puts a different perspective on the price of a glass of water!

One of the major components of the groundwater rules that are the subject of this month’s trial is to make well users remedy the injuries they have caused fellow irrigators with senior surface water rights.

Another major component is to restore the aquifer to a more stable level. We have this apparently endless supply of water in a massive underground reservoir, but we have been taking more out than nature has been putting back in, and we can’t keep on like that.

Add to that the fact we haven’t seen the kind of moisture we saw in the 1980’s and have experienced some pretty dry years since, like this one is shaping up to be.

So like it or not, if we want to keep growing the crops that form the foundation for our Valley’s economy, and we want to continue seeing something come out of our faucets when we turn them on, we’ve got to be serious about preserving the precious liquid that sustains us all.