VALLEY — The 2018 water year began with lackluster snowfall. While the snowmelt and irrigation season have begun, the basin-wide estimate of snow water equivalent sat at just 42 percent of average on April 10th, which is normally the date of peak snowpack in the Rio Grande Basin. This dire outlook is reminiscent of 2002, when the snowpack was well below average and the river flows were the lowest on record. The National Weather Service is predicting a continued period of below average precipitation through the beginning of summer.
The Division Engineer for the Rio Grande Basin, Craig Cotten, has reviewed river flow forecasts from the National Weather Service and NRCS, and has predicted flows in the Rio Grande will total 300,000 acre-feet (46 percent of average) and 140,000 acre-feet (40 percent of average) in the Conejos River. These predictions may change as the year progresses, but Cotten noted that, “in 2018 there will be much less water in local rivers than in normal years.”
As such, local water managers are urging all residents of the San Luis Valley to conserve water. Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, noted that even though last year was a great, above average water year, it is important to be vigilant in planning and use of water.
“Water is our most precious resource. Regardless of the water levels in our reservoirs or aquifers, we all need to do our part to conserve water this and every year,” said Dutton.
Water users are encouraged to be very thoughtful in their actions this year and look for opportunities to reduce water use. For homeowners and local municipalities, this could include replacing leaking faucets, installing high efficiency showerheads and toilets, exploring weather based irrigation controllers, and converting landscaping to native or low water use vegetation.
Agriculture water users should be mindful of how their actions in 2018 will impact future water management. Nathan Coombs, manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District observed that most of the sub-districts are including a five-year pumping average in their plans of water management. Therefore, higher than average pumping this year will carry forward in future calculations of well impacts and pumping charges. Coombs suggested farmers and ranchers inventory their equipment and look for areas where upgrades or maintenance might improve water use.
“This would be a good time to look into installing new nozzles, fixing leaks, and removing old corner systems,” said Coombs.
Coombs also encouraged Valley residents to explore ways to help one anther get through the year, “It looks like it is going to be a tough water year. Perhaps hay growers can make it a point to sell a portion of their crop locally. Also, farmers growing green manure can help ranchers who are short on pasture by making fields available for cattle grazing.”
Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, emphasized the importance of taking into account the impacts of 2018 well pumping on the long-term goals of the sub-districts. Subdistrict #1 has made great progress in reducing total pumping and improving the unconfined aquifer in the closed basin area. However, Simpson noted, “the gains in the aquifer could be lost this year if farmers aren’t careful with their pumping. If we see losses similar to 2002, farmers will have to ratchet up their efforts to recharge the aquifer in coming years in order to meet the sustainability requirements.”
The board of managers of Subdistrict #1 prepared a factsheet about the 2018 drought, potential for increased pumping and reductions in the unconfined aquifer level, and subsequent consequences. Currently, Subdistrict #1 has been recovering the aquifer at the yearly rate of 53,211 acre-feet or more, which is on track to meet the requirement of the court-approved plan of water management by 2030. Even with the approximately 30 percent reduction in overall annual pumping that has been achieved in Subdistrict #1, it is estimated that the aquifer could decline as much as -293,000 acre-feet. This decline would require groundwater users to increase the annual rate of recovery to 89,065 acre-feet per year to comply with the plan by 2030. While these figures are specific to Subdistrict #1, the message across the Valley is consistent: A significant loss in unconfined aquifer storage or confined aquifer pressure would be a setback for all of the farmers and ranchers within Subdistricts as they work to establish their plans of water management to reach sustainability goals.
As the communities of the Valley brace for what is predicted to be a very dry year, it is key for every water user, large or small, to consider ways in which they can do their part to save water.