ALAMOSA — Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Kevin Rein, pictured above, in a community meeting Friday addressed the question of what happens if the Rio Grande Basin’s aquifer is not recovered to the mandated level by the 20-year deadline, which is now 13 years away.
In line with Senate Bill 04-222’s sustainability requirement, the basin’s first water management sub-district must recover aquifer levels to between -400,000 and -200,000 acre feet, comparable to levels experienced during the 1978-2000 time period, which was a relatively stable period for the basin’s aquifer system.
Rein said he believes this is the only example in the state where aquifer sustainability is required. He added that he has seen the recovery data. “I don’t see it’s going the wrong way, but it’s not following the projections to meet the sustainability goal in 20 years.”
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten added that the basin has 13 years plus the rest of this year to reach the sustainability goal. “We’ve got a steep curve to meet,” he said.
Rein said, “The curve is getting steeper. I think when the curve gets steeper, then maybe the actions you have to take get more urgent to ensure that sustainability.”
Cotten said as that 20-year deadline gets closer, the question will be if the sustainability requirement is not met, does the state just set a new deadline “or is that a hard line in the sand?” He added, “Personally I would say that’s a hard line. They have to meet that.”
Rein said it would not be out of the question to enact further legislation at that point.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson said it would be a misrepresentation to say it’s not working. He said in the last seven years the sub-district has recovered 350,000 acre feet and is recovering more than 50,000-60,000 acre feet a year.
This year could be a challenge because it is a dryer year, he added, and the aquifer will likely suffer as a result.
Simpson added that as the 20-year sustainability deadline draws closer, and it appears the sub-district will not meet the -200,000 to -400,000 acre feet requirement, “I think it’s incumbent on us … to do everything we can to close that gap.”
That might mean buying more property with water rights, further incentivizing fallowing programs and other measures, he said.
“If we don’t get some years that are significantly above average, we probably would never make the requirement,” Simpson said.
Cotten said one of the questions he gets asked is if the state is going to hold firm to the requirement and the deadline or if at the end of the 20 years the aquifer is still a million acre feet down will there just be new legislation or a change in the sub-district rules.
“I think that’s a really dangerous thought for people,” he said. “This is a court decree. It’s in place now and we need to meet that, and that’s the mindset from my perspective.”
Long-time state legislator Lewis Entz said when he was in the senate he carried that sub-district legislation, and it was designed for the local water users to deal with their challenges themselves rather than have the state engineer step in with mandates. He added that he believed it was up to the sub-district’s board of managers to make sure the requirement is met in time.
“I want it to be kept among ourselves to make that decision, not you,” he told Rein.
“I like that idea,” Rein responded.
Mike Mitchell, who has served on the Sub-District #1 board since the beginning, said with all the efforts to meet the requirements, if “we get so far behind, what can we do?”
“Don’t give up,” Entz said.
Mitchell said when commodity prices went up, people could afford to buy water, so it has been a challenge to get water users to cut back, and the sub-district board was never given any enforcement capabilities. “If we had enforcement, we could limit pumping, but we never got that,” he said.
Entz said, “I can’t understand a farmer knowing the situation we are in not wanting to comply.”
Sub-district Board Vice President Carla Worley said the climate is not what it used to be, and what was considered average for water years is not anymore. “At this point in time our average is dropping,” she said. “There has to be some kind of adjustment … Something has to change. Our average is not average anymore. If we had average years, we would be able to get there with what we have done so far, but if we don’t have average years, it is not going to happen.”
Rein said that while the suggestion might be that the goal needs to be changed, the outcome still must be that the aquifer will eventually become static again.
Worley said that would be nice if it was static, but the goal may need to be adjusted. “Maybe what we thought was the right place isn’t.”
She said now that there are other sub-districts, they might be able to help reach the goal.
“I don’t think we can accomplish the goal with what we have right now as our tools,” Worley said.
Others said it was dangerous to think about changing the requirements when what needed to be done was to cut back pumping.
Rein said he did not want anyone to think he was advocating changing the requirements. “If our curve is steep, the urgency becomes greater … to try to meet it.”
Even if a different goal is set, the aquifer must eventually experience some equilibrium and be sustainable at that range, he said. Even if climate conditions do not improve, “you are still facing that,” he said.
Rein welcomed invitations to come to the San Luis Valley and said as the new state engineer (since last July) he would continue administering the office in a manner similar to Dick Wolfe who retired. Rein earned a degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University and has been with the Division of Water Resources for 20 years in the Denver office, with the last 10 years served as deputy state engineer. He said the state office has a great connection with the Valley through Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan who previously served as the Division 3 engineer.
Rein said at the state and basin level, the water division office’s goal is to provide solid and fair water administration so everyone can get the best beneficial use of their water rights without injuring anyone else.