Who’s Who in Water: The SLV Irrigation District

VALLEY — The San Luis Valley Irrigation District and Rio Grande Reservoir is one of the biggest success stories to ever emerge from the Rio Grande Basin. As a key provider of water from critical sources to the San Luis Valley and beyond, this district plays a pivotal role in the water delivery cycle that stretches all the way to Mexico. SLVID is the keeper of the gateway for the Rio Grande.

Originally formed on December 8th, 1908 as a result of the Irrigation Act of 1905, the San Luis Valley Irrigation District continues to serve water users over 100 years later. SLVID is governed by a board of directors that is composed of five elected members. The current board is led by president Randall Palmgren. The district encompasses portions of Rio Grande, Saguache and Alamosa Counties with the headquarters being in Saguache County (Center).

Quite simply, SLVID exists to serve the famers who reside in the counties it is made of. SLVID delivers water to 62,000 acres of highly productive farmground in the Center-Hooper areas. Crops that are produced within district boundaries include fresh market potatoes, Coors barley, and dairy quality alfalfa.

One of the key assets that SLVID possesses is the Rio Grande Reservoir. In 1888, farmers near the Center-Hooper area established the Farmer’s Union Irrigation Company. The intent was to build a canal system that could deliver irrigation water to 90,000 acres. The Farmer’s Union Canal became a reality. However, the need for a secondary source of water quickly became apparent for the control of these deliveries and the insufficient amount of water that the canal was delivering because it had a junior water right. Due to an embargo from the federal government which prevented any new dams/reservoirs from being constructed on the Rio Grande this initiative was put on hold. The present site of the reservoir was purchased from A.V. Tabor who had claimed it in 1903. The construction plans began in earnest once the embargo was lifted in 1907. In 1908, the process of forming the San Luis Valley Irrigation District began in order to raise the additional capital that would be needed for construction. The first board of directors took shape. On June 10th, 1910, the San Luis Valley Irrigation District signed a contract for construction of a dam and spillway with Ellswoth, Knowles, and Klaner of Pueblo. An engineer by the name of J.C. Ulrich drew the plans and specifications and was hired as the project supervisor. The tunnel was drilled in 1910. By 1912, Rio Grande Reservoir was storing water. The dam and spillway were fully completed by September of 1913 and the reservoir was full by June 16th, 1914. The result was a reservoir that is still standing after over 100 years that continues to deliver water for agricultural needs, serve as a tool for compliance with the Rio Grande Compact, and aid for fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and flood control.

Age can bring the necessity for repairs and Rio Grande Reservoir was/is certainly no exception. The dam and spillway began to be in need of repairs. Out of this necessity resulted the Rio Grande Cooperative Project. This project is a public-private partnership that was established in 2002 when the SLVID board of directors recognized the need to address the dam safety issues of the Rio Grande Reservoir. In 2003, a Yield Analysis Study to find what benefits would be obtained from improved storage and release was conducted with the assistance of a $25,000 contribution from the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. In 2005, SLVID was awarded Rehabilitation Study Grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Another grant came in 2007 for $230,000 from the Rio Grande Roundtable for a rehabilitation and enlargement study. In 2008, SLVID received another $100,000 grant for the development of an operations model.

Finally, in 2011 the Rio Grande Cooperative Project became official and plans were underway. In 2012, the Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Water Conservation Board Projects Bill which included a funding package for the repairs of Rio Grande and Beaver Reservoir.

Phase 1 of the Rio Grande Cooperative Project began following the 100th Anniversary of Rio Grande Reservoir. The Dam at Rio Grande was completely resurfaced to address seepage issues and saw completion in the fall of 2013. Repairs of the Beaver Reservoir Dam also took place. This monumental task was accomplished in spite of obstacles such as the West Fork Complex Fire. The Rio Grande Cooperative Project continues to move forward with Phase 2 which is the repair of the outlet tunnel at Rio Grande Reservoir.

The partners in this project are The San Luis Valley Irrigation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The main purpose of the cooperative project is to optimize the use of available water through the reoperating and retiming of the reservoirs owned by the partners. Additionally, volunteer efforts have aided in the use of compact storage for the native trout species to adjust to water level changes and the benefit to recreation. Methods that were dismissed before are now being put to use and the larger water community is now profiting from the results. Travis Smith, superintendent of SLVID has observed that it is about “culture change” and addressing how needs can be met.

The story of the San Luis Valley Irrigation District continues to unfold, but there are many great chapters that have already been written. SLVID continues to be a mainstay for San Luis Valley water.

Caption: Rio Grande Reservoir celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012. Photo courtesy of SLV Irrigation District