Who’s Who in Water: Conservancy districts

VALLEY — Conservancy districts are the entities that are instrumental in filling the gap between the administrative and public sides of daily water use in Colorado. They are also a part of fostering the growth and economic prosperity of the San Luis Valley.

These entities exist because of the Water Conservancy Act of 1937. One of the original intents of this act was for individual conservancy districts to form usually for the purpose of contracting with the federal government for delivery of water from federal reclamation projects. Today, the focus has shifted to non-federal water development along with local water conservation and management. In the San Luis Valley, there are five conservancy districts. They are the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Trinchera Conservancy District, the Costilla County Water Conservancy District, and the Alamosa-La Jara Water Conservancy District.

Water Conservancy Districts are intended to serve as local instruments of the state government that have been organized under district courts and function under their jurisdiction. Conservancy districts also have the authority to construct and operate water resource projects, acquire and sell water, contract with the federal government on water projects, and do what is necessary to provide and promote and adequate water supply.

Conservancy districts are governed by a board of directors who are appointed by the district judge. Board members also are required to have a diverse set of backgrounds that are reflective of the various types of water use. Members must also own property within the district. Representation has to be proportional to the population of each county that falls within the district. The organizational documents of the district can also specify criteria for board members. The directors must come from each county within the district that has over 1 percent of the total land area that falls within district boundaries.

The most well-known of the conservancy district here in the San Luis Valley is likely the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. Formed in 1949 in pursuance with the Water Conservancy Act (Colorado Revised Statues 37-45-101, et.seq.) SLVWCD was originally intended for the purpose of overseeing the construction and management of a reservoir at Wagon Wheel Gap below Creede. Plans were made but the support from local farmers became divided in their support and the reservoir was never built. The result was that San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District transitioned into providing augmentation for commercial, municipal and domestic wells in response to the State Engineer’s order regarding small wells in 1972. The District also purchased transmountain water rights that originate in the Rio Grande Basin and developed an augmentation plan.

Through this plan, SLVWCD is able to augment or replace injuries due to pumping from small wells. This service allows towns, homeowners and businesses to obtain new non-exempt wells which aids economic growth. This has included projects and project proposals that have wide-spread benefits for everything from agricultural to ecological considerations. SLVWCD has also expanded its work on these multi-purpose benefits through the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.

As a result, SLVWCD has developed a very community minded approach and looks to achieve maximum benefit for the valley as a whole. Heather Dutton, manager of SLVWCD, notes that the board of directors she gets to work with is a very forward thinking group of individuals. “Nothing is off the table,” she said. This can mean new ideas and sometimes even revisiting old ones.

The Conejos Water Conservancy District provides water services to the southern end of the Valley. The boundaries of CWCD extend from one mile south of Highway 17 to the Rio Grande and from County Road U all the way to Los Sauces and encompasses 100,000 acres. CWCD oversees the distribution of water to approximately 88,000 irrigated acres annually. CWCD also operates Platoro Reservoir for the United States Bureau of Reclamation. CWCD Manager Nathan Coombs noted that because of the high irrigation demand and heavy compliance with the Rio Grande Compact, CWCD has had to deal with significant changes that have been seen in water availability. CWCD has also been the beneficiary of financial assistance from the Rio Grande Roundtable and as a result have been able to update infrastructure. CWCD continues to be part of the conversation.

The Trinchera Water Conservancy District services the northern portion of Costilla County known as the  Trinchera Creek Drainage. The district was formed by decree of the District Court in 1968. Board members are appointed by the district judge for Costilla County. In 2008, a Groundwater Management Subdistrict was established within the district for the purpose of conserving and stabilizing the water supply and groundwater storage within the district. The Trinchera Water Conservancy District is also a contributing member the Rio Grande Roundtable and as such has developed partnerships and become part of the larger conversation around water.

Costilla County Conservancy District service area includes the southern part of Costilla County. This district was formed through petition and court order in 1976 for flood control purposes. Board members are appointed by the district judge for Costilla County. This district functions under the same statutes as all conservancies and prides itself on the work it has accomplished for acequias. The district has been a long time partner of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and together they have helped bring the Congreso de Acequias to fruition.

The Alamosa-La Jara Water Conservancy District serves the southeastern portion that encompasses the Alamosa River, La Jara Creek and the Carmel Waverly area. The district is proud of the work that they have done in the recently established Groundwater Rules and Regulations. Dwight Martin is the conservancy director.

This is just a snapshot of the many benefits Valley water users glean from local conservancy districts.

The districts can be reached as follows:

San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District – www.slvwcd.org or 719-589-2230

Conejos Water Conservancy District- (719) 843-5261

Trinchera Water Conservancy District-www.trincherairrigation.com or 719-

Costilla Water Conservancy District-www.costillaccd.org  or at 719-672-

Alamosa- La Jara Water Conservancy District-(719) 843-5287

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets on the second Tuesday of every month at 623 East 4th Street, Alamosa. The meetings begin promptly at 2 p.m.  For more information please visit www.rgbrt.org.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.