Valley Water districts clear the air

Courtesy photo by Heather Dutton The Rio Grande, as well as farmland are in full view near Del Norte.

Local leaders dispute survey’s false claims

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Many San Luis Valley residents recently received a phone survey inquiring about support for a proposal to export 20,000 acre-feet annually from the Valley to the Front Range.

The project proponents, Renewable Water Resources (RWR), have stated their intent to pump deep groundwater from the confined aquifer over Poncha Pass and Trout Creek Pass to the South Platte River.

RWR’s website is fraught with misinformation regarding the water supplies, hydrology, and legal obligations of the Valley.

The phone survey was no different. The call included approximately 20 questions, many with significant factual inaccuracies. It is important that community members have an understanding of the truth about their water resources.

The proponents would not provide a list of the survey questions. Therefore, the following account of key questions may not be exact.

Survey Question: “Did you know there are 2 billion acre-feet of water within the Valley aquifer system?”

Fact: This figure is false and has long been quoted by tycoons looking to get rich by exploiting the Valley’s water resources. The origin of the claim that there are 2 billion acre-feet stored in the deposits underlying the Valley is a USGS report from 1971 where geologist Phil Emery took a stab at estimating the contents of the aquifers. During the trial for the American Water Development Incorporated (AWDI) water export proposal, another ill-advised effort to take water from the Valley, Emery noted he had miscalculated his estimate. Further court decisions, studies, and the State of Colorado’s groundwater model, the Rio Grande Decision Support System, have shown there is no unappropriated water in the basin. Meaning, all of the surface and groundwater has been spoken for by existing water users. In fact, there are more claims to water than can be satisfied and the Valley’s water supplies are over appropriated. 

Survey Question: “Do you realize this proposal will withdraw water from 3,000 feet below the surface and will have no environmental impacts?”

Fact: Pumping from 3,000 feet impacts the confined aquifer, which is the deeper of the Valley’s two aquifers. The confined aquifer is connected to the unconfined (shallow) aquifer and surface flows to some degree. RWR has expressed intent to pump from a series of deep wells in the north end of the Valley. Extensive pumping in this area could have great impacts to surface and groundwater, which supply the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and numerous important ecosystems on public and privately owned lands.

Survey Question: “Are you aware of the pending action by the State Engineer to shut off irrigation wells in Subdistrict 1 with no compensation?”

Fact: There is no pending action by the State Engineer to shut off irrigation wells in Subdistrict 1. In response to the recognition by local water users and State officials that groundwater use in certain parts of the basin is unsustainable, local leaders worked to pass legislation that allows communities within the Valley to create plans to balance water use and supply. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) then formed Groundwater Management Subdistricts (Subdistricts) to create and implement plans of water management. These actions allow the Valley water users to work together to recover aquifers themselves, rather than facing sweeping orders from the State Engineer to shut down or curtail wells. Subdistrict 1 has been in operation for ten years and has until 2030 to recover the groundwater to levels identified as the sustainability targets in the legislation that enabled Subdistricts. The State Engineer and staff of the Colorado Division of Water Resources have provided critical support and are working closely with local water managers to ensure implementation of the plans of water management is successful.

Survey Question: Did you know there have been pipelines exporting water out of the San Luis Valley for the last 100 years?

Fact: There are no existing pipelines out of the Valley. There are two ditches that take water across the Sangre de Cristo mountains from Medano Creek to a ranch in the Wet Mountain Valley. These diversions occur pursuant to a 1914 court ruling and divert a combined total of 15 cfs from May 15-July 15 of each year. The cumulative diversions total an average of 1,063 acre-feet per year, a far cry from the 20,000 acre-feet proposed by RWR.

The RGWCD, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, and Conejos Water Conservancy District urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts of the Valley’s water resources and advocating for the truth. Please see for information about current aquifer levels and the Subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.