Unconfined aquifer hits lowest level in four years; subdistrict situation critical

VALLEY — The NRCS Upper Rio Grande Basin Snowpack Summary as of December 19th shows current Snow Water Equivalent already exceeding where the basin was in early February. This was encouraging news, providing a glimpse of hope for the Valley aquifers. However big obstacles lie ahead. Unfortunately the snowpack remains relatively unchanged since early December and is now similar to levels recorded in late December 2002.

Subdistrict No.1 has seen a positive trajectory in aquifer recovery from September 2013 to September 2017. However due to the mild 2017 winter and the impact of groundwater withdrawal on the aquifer, what was gained in three years of recovery (230,000 acre feet) was lost in just one year.

Because of the rapid aquifer decline, continued pumping and the challenging timeframe to recover close to 700,000 acre feet by 2031, the board of managers of Subdistrict No.1 are aggressively studying and developing various methods to deploy for 2019 in conjunction with the current practices in place.

Subdistrict No.1 is looking at all available opportunities, such as new technologies, crop rotations, economic studies and farming methods that can help with aquifer recovery. A number of efforts are underway to help recover the unconfined aquifer and provide help to local farmers.  A fallow program with three different options depending on farm size is available which pays farmers $200/acre for sprinkler irrigation or $145/acre for flood irrigation in exchange for zero water usage. This program has open enrollment.

CREP is available to producers, which is a 15-year program with sign up bonuses. Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) was started in 2018 to help farmers apply water saving practices in their fields. Technology such as moisture sensor probes which in with collaboration with NRCS and The Mosca Hooper Soil Conservation District can be funded dollar for dollar. The RCPP program deadline is January 19, 2019. Subdistrict No.1 will have a summit meeting on January 16, to go over the requirements that need to be met, the programs that are offered and to solicit input from Subdistrict No.1 stakeholders. More information on the conservation programs offered and the summit, go to http://www.rgwcd.org/sd-1-conservation-page or by calling Marisa at 719-589-6301.

There are many unknowns in the water world. The most obvious one is the uncertainty of future precipitation and climate. What is known is the required goals outlined in court approved Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict No.1. On December 17 the Rio Grande Water Conservation District received a letter from state engineer Kevin Rein. Rein states, “Subdistrict No. 1 is in a critical situation.” He acknowledges the climatic challenge and the efforts the subdistrict has made. However the trend in aquifer recovery is still downward.

If Subdistrict No.1 sustainability objectives are not met the division engineer and state engineer will be put in the “unenviable but required position of curtailing groundwater diversions from Sub. 1 wells.” This curtailment could potentially occur prior to the 20 year deadline. While the subdistrict assessments placed on irrigators causes challenges, the alternatives are; a court and state approved plan for augmentation or as clearly pointed out by the state engineer wells could be shut off.

The Valley is farming in a new reality, a reality in which farmers understand that water is a finite resource and must look to the future differently not only in the way they manage water, but how and what they farm. The programs available are here to help preserve the Valley’s future water supply and to help farmers through a voluntary, temporary and compensated process, so to avoid the alternative which could be mandatory, long term and uncompensated.