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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.

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Water Education Colorado

Dry Wells in La Plata County

By Cris Meyer

Naturally limited water resources, drought and growth team up to send southern La Plata County on the hunt for new water supplies

Wells are going dry in La Plata County. And even though the Animas-La Plata Project currently under construction just outside Durango will be dedicated exclusively to tribal and municipal water use, it will not satisfy all of the county's demands for potable drinking water.

Located in the arid Four Corners region, La Plata County is home to some 47,000 residents. Although still predominately rural with an economy driven by tourism, natural resource extraction and agriculture, the county did not escape the growth boom of the 1990s. County records show that directly east of Durango, in the Bayfield and Ignacio areas, there were some 11,488 new housing starts between 1976 and 2000. Some expect the population to quadruple over the next 30 to 40 years.

The recent drought also served to highlight what growth will do to local water demands, and to underline southern La Plata County's pending crisis in domestic water supply. The signs are there: falling water tables, wells gone dry, and springs pumping at half their normal capacity.

Southwest La Plata County
For residents of the La Plata River Valley west of Durango, drinking water from the Animas-La Plata Project will arrive none too soon. While the final configuration of the ALP project was stripped of agricultural irrigation water that would have transformed the valley's farm and ranch economy, naturally limited surface water and poor ground water quality have also put a damper on the area's residential development—at least for now.

Currently, about half the families in this sparsely populated area get their drinking water from ground water wells. Others, faced with either poor water quality or dry wells, must haul their water from Durango or from a natural artesian source called Marvel Springs.

‘Some 180 families are served by Marvel Springs,’ relates Brice Lee, president of the La Plata Water Conservancy District. According to Lee, demand for Marvel Springs' water reflects the severity of the area's water supply problems, and the spring experienced a dramatic surge in use during the drought of 2002. Eventually, they were required to install a ‘key’ system where families must pay for use, and impose a 1,500-gallon fill-up limit.

The search for long-term solutions to the area's domestic water problems has been an ongoing collaborative effort involving the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, La Plata County, La Plata Water Conservancy, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Bureau of Reclamation and several New Mexico entities. Recently, these organizations assisted in the formation of the non-profit La Plata West Water Company to identify solutions to the region's potable water dilemmas.

Their solutions have a certain amount of urgency. Water from ALP is still several years away—the reservoir is not even expected to fill for another seven years—and there is no funding in the project to move the water over to the La Plata area. Regardless, the water supply situation in the valley is rapidly degrading. Recent drought has reduced surface irrigation dramatically, so return flows (water not taken up by crops and returned to ground water or rivers) are not recharging the shallow aquifers like they once did. Even flows at Marvel Springs have dropped by almost half in the last several years.

‘Because Ridges Basin Reservoir will not even start filling until 2009, we're looking at interim solutions to supply our current needs,’ says Mark Langford, president of La Plata West. ‘People need water now.’

One proposal is to buy one million gallons per month of treated water from the Upper La Plata Water Users Association in Farmington, New Mexico. That water would be delivered to the Colorado-New Mexico state line through a network of distribution pipelines. But before this could happen, a local delivery system would need to be constructed. La Plata West Water Co. is currently conducting legal and engineering studies to evaluate the feasibility of this alternative.

One thing is certain, it won't come cheap. Pat Greer, a long-time valley resident and ‘keeper of the well’ at Marvel Springs, wonders where the money will come from to construct such a distribution system. ‘This is such a poor community,’ Greer worries. ‘It may be hard to get it [the distribution system] paid back.’ Sharing that concern, the La Plata West Water Co. has stated its intention to seek funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other sources to supplement payments from local users.

Yet until these sorts of issues can be resolved, many La Plata Valley residents will continue to haul water, one load at a time, perhaps wondering how their landscape may change when more water for homes—but not farms—arrives in their valley.

Southeast La Plata County
In recent years, drought and naturally limited water resources have combined with a good measure of residential development to threaten the ground water supplies enjoyed by of thousands of homeowners and businesses in southeastern La Plata County.

The countryside southeast of Durango is a mixture of tribal, private, state and federal lands. Although towns such Bayfield and Ignacio have their own municipal water systems, the majority of local residents use private wells. Many wells tap the shallow groundwater aquifers that underlie the region—aquifers that rely primarily on recharge from precipitation and agricultural return flows.

But changing land use and drought are stressing these limited resources. Severe drought has drastically reduced not only the amount of natural precipitation making its way into the aquifers, but it has also reduced the amount of irrigation water applied by local farmers and ranchers. Farmers converting to sprinkler irrigation systems also sharply decrease their returns flows to ground water, a mixed water efficiency blessing. In addition, county records show the number of wells in the area has doubled between 1980 and 2000, indicating the extent of the growth-related strain on the aquifers.

Over time, local residents also began to notice their well capacities were changing. Soon, many families could not run their dishwashers and clothes washers on the same day. Lawn sprinklers would slow to a trickle after a few hours. Then the drought year of 2002 really helped drive the message home—their ground water supplies were unsustainably taxed.

In the spring of 2003, a group of concerned citizens came together to form the La Plata-Archuleta Water Task Force. Not soon after, they proposed the creation of a new La Plata-Archuleta Water District, charged with providing a reliable source of adequate quantity and good quality water to the area.
‘We can't afford to do business as usual,’ says Dick Lunceford, president of the Task Force. ‘We're at the point of diminishing returns as more and more residents tap into declining resources.’

Their plan is to construct about 370 miles of pipeline along every county road, state and federal highway, as well as one or more water treatment facilities. Primarily funded by property taxes, the proposed system would cost an estimated $65 million. Potential sources of water to supply the system include water stored in Vallecito Reservoir and owned by the Pine River Irrigation District. Pine River would then lease this water to the new district.

It is anticipated that the Task Force will be putting their proposal before local voters in upcoming elections. Hopes are high for the district's success.

‘Many people have been working on this [district proposal and pipeline system] for a long time,’ says Lunceford. ‘They're 110 percent committed to success. We have to do it. If we don't build this system, it could easily have long-term economic impacts in the region.’

•••

Many people consider adequate good quality drinking water a basic human right. How much more precious it seems when the well goes dry and you suddenly have to haul all your water from miles away. It may surprise some to find out that these sorts of concerns are very real to many people right here in southwestern Colorado. But the domestic water supply problems of La Plata County are not unique. Other areas of the state, and the arid West, have similar concerns brewing. Solutions will vary, but in the end, these challenges will no doubt influence our definitions of sustainability, and how we interpret ‘adequate supplies."

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