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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Rio Grande Basin

by Laurie J. Schmidt

Take a valley surrounded by extensive wilderness and situated between two imposing mountain ranges. Add a small population of about 50,000 people and an economy based almost entirely on agriculture. Then throw in an atypical aquifer system and a major river whose water is partially obligated to users hundreds of miles away. This is the Rio Grande Basin, endowed both with pastoral beauty and a unique set of water issues.

The Rio Grande River stretches about 1,900 miles from Colorado to Mexico. Virtually all of the water in the river's short, 175-mile run from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains to the New Mexico border is put to agricultural use in the basin's San Luis Valley, with a small amount used for domestic supplies.

Like most of Colorado's rivers, the Rio Grande is governed by an interstate compact. In this case, the Rio Grande Compact dictates that one-third of the river's runoff must go downstream to New Mexico and Texas. To complicate matters, water legally permitted to stay in the basin is over-appropriated. ‘There are more water rights held in this basin than there is wet water to meet those rights,’ says Mike Gibson, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the roundtable's chair.

To meet their compact obligations, the valley's irrigators often have their water rights curtailed to ensure there is enough water left to send downstream. Downstream states have already sued the Rio Grande Basin once for under-delivery, and Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee, says the basin has learned its lesson. ‘We must deliver water to the downstream states—it is an obligation, it is not optional.’

The basin is also wrestling another hefty gorilla — depletion of its aquifer system, which largely supports the region's farming interests. Achieving sustainable use of its aquifers is the roundtable's top priority. Although it is not the only basin in Colorado with an aquifer system, it is unique. Some of the groundwater lies in a closed basin and is not directly tributary to the river. A distinct, shallow and unconfined aquifer produces most of the water for the area's farm ground, while the deeper, confined--or artesian--aquifer lies under much of the valley floor. ‘The aquifer system here is much different than the typical alluvial system that you see on the Arkansas or the South Platte,’ says Vandiver. ‘Depletions from wells have a much different impact on surface streams here than they do in other places in the state.’

The valley's 6,000 wells have the potential to disrupt the balance of groundwater discharge and recharge, which is exactly what happened in 2002. ‘After the 2002 drought, farm pumping devastated the shallow aquifer because there was heavy pumping with little recharge for three years in a row,’ says Vandiver. ‘In this valley, 6,000 irrigation wells are too many, and we will probably not be able to sustain the aquifer system over the long haul with that kind of draft.’

The aquifer system has, at times, been a source of discord among water users. ‘During times of drought, people with relatively senior surface water rights aren't getting their wet water, yet they see their neighbors pumping their wells and producing their crops or irrigating their land,’ says Gibson. ‘That's been a point of contention.’

With support from the roundtable, the RGWCD is implementing groundwater sub-districts, which will levy assessments and fees on irrigated acres and pumping. The resulting revenue will be used to offer incentives to farmers who cease pumping and temporarily retire their water rights. Vandiver says the long-term goal is to permanently retire 25,000 acres of irrigated farm ground. To allow the aquifer to recover to its pre-drought levels, however, will require a more radical approach in the short-term—an estimated 40,000 acres must be taken out of production.

Not everyone is celebrating the onset of sub-districts, particularly those who anticipate paying the most because they lack surface water rights to offset their pumping. But Vandiver says it could be worse. ‘The alternative is to let the State Engineer have his way and shut off the wells, with no compensation. Some folks aren't happy, but others understand that if we don't do something soon, they won't be able to sustain their current pumping levels. The golden goose is going to quit laying the golden egg.’

The potential effects of climate change are also casting a shadow on the region. Researchers say the San Luis Valley could get less snow in the future, and according to Gibson, peak runoff in the spring is already occurring two to three weeks earlier than it has historically. ‘We don't have many reservoirs in the basin. Our reservoir is essentially the snowpack,’ says Gibson. ‘So if we have less snow, we have less water in storage, and that will change the river flow, the irrigation season, and how water is delivered downstream. Multiple factors seem to be working against us here.’

The basin's four reservoirs are privately owned, and Gibson says they have all suffered from lack of maintenance. The roundtable funded three projects through the Water Supply Reserve Account to remedy some of these issues. One study will examine measures to rehabilitate the basin's only on-stream reservoir — the Rio Grande — by replacing outlet works and addressing seepage problems. Other funded projects include replacing valves in outlet works in Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River and determining how to correct dam safety issues in two of the basin's older reservoirs. Through improvements to surface water storage, the roundtable seeks to further reduce its reliance on groundwater.

The roundtable is planning a big push to complete its needs assessments in 2009. On the non-consumptive side, Gibson says the attributes have been identified and mapped, and they are now in the process of quantifying the needs. ‘We truly do not have a lot of [additional] consumptive needs, other than a bigger water supply, but we have come up with a number of environmental needs for the basin,’ he says. The basin's most valued environmental resource is its wet meadows areas. The Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges provide significant bird habitat and are used by sandhill cranes during migration.

Through the WSRA, the roundtable has approved two projects: $1.5 million in matching funds to acquire conservation easements through the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, and $285,000 to match an Environmental Protection Agency non-point source pollution grant. The latter, called the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, will improve wildlife habitat and fisheries and reduce sediment loading in the Rio Grande. Gibson says both projects will assist the basin in meeting its compact obligations and achieving aquifer sustainability.

One thing the Rio Grande Basin has going for it is that, so far, it has been somewhat shielded from the ‘water grabs’ by large municipalities that have affected basins elsewhere in the state. ‘At the moment, we are relatively insulated because of our geographic location and the cost of installing pipelines from the valley into urban centers,’ says Gibson. ‘But it's something we talk about, and we recognize that circumstances could cause that to happen in the future.’

For a basin so isolated, solutions to water issues must all consider the region's fragile economy. A loss of agriculture can trigger a domino effect when infrastructure that supports the agriculture, such as equipment and supply retailers, is also forced to leave the area. ‘If you come in and start dissecting the water out of here it's the farm economy that suffers, and that's all we have,’ says Vandiver. ‘Once the fabric of the agricultural community starts coming unraveled, there's nothing left here.’

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