Water rules trial concludes on Wednesday

ALAMOSA — A water trial originally scheduled for eight weeks wrapped up in less than three on Wednesday afternoon.

Chief District/Water Judge Pattie Swift had initially set aside as much as eight weeks to hear arguments over groundwater regulations promulgated by the state engineer in the fall of 2015. However, with most of the objectors reaching agreements with the state prior to the trial, the judge scaled back the timeline to four weeks. The trial began with opening statements on January 29 at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District office in Alamosa and concluded with rebuttal testimony on Wednesday afternoon, February 14. Witnesses during the three-week trial included water and engineering experts as well as farmers who will be affected by the rules.

Judge Swift will accept in writing the closing arguments from the state and other proponents as well as the remaining objectors, primarily comprised of 2 J Ranch Group. She also asked the attorneys to provide their proposed findings and conclusions as well as electronic copies of exhibits, which included maps, graphs, technical reports, historical documents and expert witness reports.

“Thank you all for being well prepared and putting on your case in such an efficient way, having experts prepared and ready to go,” Judge Swift told the attorneys. “This was a pleasure of a trial for this court.”

Final witnesses on the stand for rebuttal testimony on Wednesday afternoon were Dr. Willem A. Schreüder, pictured above, and James Slattery for the state and Gregory Sullivan for the objectors, who each pointed out flaws they perceived in the exhibits, illustrations and testimony of their opponents.

Attorney for 2 J Ranch Group Kendall Burgemeister objected to new exhibits and information introduced at the last minute on Wednesday, and Judge Swift said that while “we don’t want people surprised,” she also wanted to receive all the information she could.

Schreüder and Slattery have both involved in developing and refining a groundwater model used in calculating the depletions well users must replenish to surface water rights. This is one of the requirements of the well rules. The model was a point of contention during the trial, as objectors were concerned the model did not reflect the injuries well pumping had caused them, specifically in the area of Arroya or Diamond Springs in Conejos County.

In his rebuttal testimony, Dr. Schreüder said the lack of water at Diamond/Arroya Springs could not all be pinned on well pumping but must take into account other changes in the system, with one of those major changes being less recharge. He said well pumping contributed but could not account for the dramatic decline that has occurred in that area.

(Sullivan said the springs declined from 25-35 cubic feet per second in the 1950s to 0 around 1970.)

Schreüder said he could not put an exact number on what the impact of well pumping would be on that Diamond Springs area but “that impact would not be very large.”

“We just can’t give you a reliable number, but we will work on it,” Schreüder said.

He and others who testified during the trial said they were lacking data for the Diamond Springs area that they could input into the groundwater model.

Slattery agreed with Dr. Schreüder that the impact of well pumping at Diamond Springs “was very small.”

He added that Diamond Springs was not continuously flowing during the time depicted in the groundwater model (1970-2010.) “Generally even in the mid 1970’s Diamond Springs was basically dry most of the time,” he said.

Slattery explained that the groundwater model was a tool to quantify stream depletions resulting from groundwater pumping. He said modelers did not generate a response function (used to determine depletions in an area) for Diamond Springs. “We only generated response functions if we felt there were reliable results we could produce, the results from modeling were something we felt we could rely on.”

Modelers lacked the data they needed to produce those reliable results, Slattery said. He added that modelers decided “we needed to go collect more additional data and make sure that that data was consistent with the conceptual framework we had in the model.”

For example, he said there were no observation wells at Diamond Springs. Modelers would need groundwater levels at Diamond Springs to use it as a calibration point in the model, Slattery explained.

He said additional data would be collected and incorporated in the next model version, Phase 7, but was not finalized for the current version, Phase 6.

Slattery said neither he nor anyone else on the proponents’ side was saying that groundwater pumping had no impact at Diamond Springs, but just like everywhere else in the basin, it was only one component.

“When we see groundwater levels declining at Diamond Springs, a large portion of that decline is because Mother Nature is not giving us the snowpack that we used to have,” he said. “There’s no question when you take groundwater out of the aquifer, it’s going to have an impact, but there’s other things that have impacts too … It’s unreasonable to say that all groundwater level changes in this basin are solely due to groundwater pumping. The surface water supply in any of these scenarios is a big driver.”

He added, “There’s no question in this basin there’s been a long term decline in our water supplies. You can see that in the stream flow gauges. You can talk to the water administrators … We just don’t have the water supplies we used to and all the farmers in this Valley are struggling to try to adjust to lower water supplies and still be able to raise their crops and stay in business.”

He added that the modeling of this system has taken so long and continues to evolve “because it’s not a simple system. This is a very complex system.”