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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

Rules Governing Deep Aquifers in San Luis Valley Go to Trial

By Ruth Heide

ALAMOSA—The fate of proposed state rules governing new groundwater withdrawals from the San Luis Valley's confined aquifer rests in the hands of District Judge O. John Kuenhold.

In 1998, the Colorado General Assembly passed House Bill 1011, and Senate Bill 222, passed in 2004, recognizing the valley's unique hydrology and the need to protect existing water rights and the state's Rio Grande Compact delivery obligations to downstream states. In response to those pieces of legislation, Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Hal Simpson promulgated rules governing new groundwater withdrawals on June 30, 2004.

But some don't think the state's rules are fair, and have been protesting them in water court in Alamosa throughout February and March. Challenging the state's rules as unconstitutional are the Colorado Association of Home Builders, San Luis Valley Water Company and Cotton Creek Circles, whose case centers on the ‘rules governing new withdrawls of ground water in Division 3 affecting the rate or direction of movement of water in the confined aquifer system.’
Defending the proposed rules are the Attorney General's office representing the state; Rio Grande Water Users Association; Rio Grande Water Conservation District; and the Conejos Water Conservancy District.

Judge Kuenhold is presiding over the case which went to trial on January 30 and was scheduled to conclude on March 9. The six-week trial included testimony from more than a dozen witnesses testifying on behalf of the state's rules and a half-dozen witnesses opposing them.

Proponents of the rules argue the Valley's water situation is unique, with a unique hydrologic structure. They also argue that water supplies in the San Luis Valley are over-appropriated, and that ground water management rules are necessary to maintain a sustainable aquifer in the Rio Grande Basin.

Opponents argue the rules are unconstitutional, violating individuals' rights to appropriate water, that water is available in the basin for appropriation, and that new water applications should be given the opportunity to develop augmentation plans rather than replace new withdrawals at a one-for-one ratio as required in the rules.

Much of the testimony during the trial focused on the Rio Grande Decision Support System, a comprehensive computer model designed to meet state legislators' mandate for a specific study of the San Luis Valley's complex hydrology. This model is expected to be used to calculate the impact of any proposed new withdrawals from the valley's aquifers. State witnesses such as Willem Schreüder, who developed the model, testified to its accuracy and reliability while protesters' witnesses such as groundwater modeling expert Charles Norris testified the model was flawed and unreliable, particularly for predictive purposes.

Witnesses including Colorado Division of Water Resources Chief Deputy Ken Knox and Registered Professional Engineer Allen Davey testified the valley's aquifer systems are currently not in a sustainable condition, and the proposed state rules are necessary to bring the system back into balance.

Closing arguments are currently scheduled for Friday afternoon, March 24, in Alamosa. Judge Kuenhold has no specific deadline to render a decision but said he would make a ruling as soon as possible following the conclusion of the trial.

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