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Declining Aquifers

By Ruth Heide

San Luis Valley water users struggle to pump groundwater sustainably

Throughout the last four years, water tables in some of the San Luis Valley's shallow aquifers have been dropping like a stone. Some 20 percent of the valley's total water supply is from groundwater—most of which is used for agricultural irrigation. Groundwater also helps sustain numerous meadow wetlands in the valley, home to abundant wildlife. But as water managers watched the aquifers slide further into decline, it became obvious that even Mother Nature could not bail them out.

Since 1976, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District has monitored approximately two dozen wells tapping the shallow unconfined aquifer beneath the farms and ranches in the west central San Luis Valley. Up until 2002, the wells charted an uneven course of groundwater ups and downs as dry years in the late 1970s were followed by years of ample snowmelt in the 1980s.

But since 2002, the driest year on record for the Rio Grande, the level of the unconfined aquifer in the study area has dropped by nearly 800,000 acre-feet. And there's little sign of reversal, even though the area has begun recovering from the drought and 2005 snowpack levels measured 150 to 170 percent of normal.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Engineer Allen Davey, keeper of the district's unconfined aquifer data since the early 1980s, pointed out that at the current rate of pumping, the valley's underground aquifer will never recover from its diminished condition. Using a recently-completed groundwater model, he predicted a continued decline in aquifer levels unless the amount of pumping also declines. ‘We do not have a sustainable aquifer system at the rate we are pumping,’ he said.

Reflecting on the effect of above-normal snowpack levels this year, Daveys says he ‘was hoping we would not see additional declines [in aquifer levels]. We might not, but it is going to be close. I expect we will see some decline.’
Like an overdrawn checking account, the valley's underground aquifer is having a hard time recovering from deficit.

‘If you take out more than you put in, it is going to go down, and eventually it is going to go dry,’ Davey says. ‘We have to stop using so much water.’

Ray Wright, a long-time San Luis Valley farmer and president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, adds

‘The reality that we are using more water than nature is providing becomes really abundantly clear when we go through a wet year and do not see any signs of recovery.’

There's no doubt the situation is serious; the question is what, if anything, can be done besides waiting and hoping Mother Nature continues being more generous with snow. Finding that answer starts with trying to understand what, apart from the obvious drought, may be contributing to the aquifer's depletion.

Davey attributes the depletion in part to expanded irrigation and crops which require more water. For example, the establishment of dairies in New Mexico has created a new market for alfalfa in recent years. San Luis Valley farmers were able to convert ground too rocky for potatoes into productive alfalfa fields. And alfalfa generally uses more water than other crops grown in the area.

Other changes in farming contributing to expanded water use include the introduction of center pivots which allowed more ground to be farmed than before, more efficient farming practices, higher yields and the use of water for soil management rather than just for producing crops.

The Sub-District Solution
When the drought year of 2002 shut down water deliveries to surface water users in the San Luis Valley, well users were still able to pump. The inequity of the situation prompted a rumbling for the state engineer's office to start regulating wells in the valley much like they are already managed in the over-appropriated South Platte and Arkansas river systems. In those basins, enforcement of well regulations and requirements for court-approved augmentation plans has forced some irrigators to shut down their wells, or spend thousands in legal and engineering fees.
Many San Luis Valley residents did not want to see the same thing happen to them.

One of the most organized approaches to the problem is the creation of groundwater management sub-districts under the umbrella of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Such districts would enable San Luis Valley water users to reduce their groundwater use in an organized manner, short of state mandates.

Groundwater sub-districts were not well defined until the passage of Senate Bill 222 last year. State Senator Lewis Entz, a San Luis Valley farmer and charter member of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education board, sponsored the legislation which was written specifically for the valley. The legislation provided for the formation of groundwater management sub-districts as a means of creating localized solutions to protect senior water rights, replenish the water table, and comply with the state's obligation to deliver a portion of the basin's annual river flow to downstream states under interstate compact agreements. And it allows for greater input and participation from the farmers and ranchers affected.

Doug Shriver, one of the proponents who testified before the legislature in support of the bill, explains that ‘Senate Bill 222 allows us to work together as a team.’

Shriver is a second-generation San Luis Valley farmer whose father Henry began farming in the valley in 1946. Using a combination of wells and surface water rights, Doug, his wife Karla and Doug's brother raise potatoes and wheat on a farm halfway between Monte Vista and Alamosa.

Doug Shriver says he became involved in water issues because he wanted to be proactive. ‘I feel it is important that we handle our own problems, and this is an opportunity for us to fix those problems ourselves rather than have the state fix them for us. It really is the right thing to do, because we caused the problems.’

‘We cannot continue going down the path we are,’ Karla Shriver adds. ‘We have to come up with a solution.’
Senate Bill 222's solution is based on a ‘pay to play’ concept which allows sub-districts to levy fees. Everyone in the sub-district pays a flat fee to participate. Additional fees are based on usage of water compared to the surface water supplied to the system for any piece of ground. Lands with no surface rights pay the most while lands with adequate surface water for their needs pay the least.

The goal is to fallow, meaning refrain from growing crops or irrigating, a certain amount of land within the sub-district. This helps replenish the underground aquifer and protect those who have surface water rights. Farmers who intentionally take land out of production will be compensated through fees paid to the sub-district combined with compensation from programs such as the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

Two sub-districts are underway at this point. Groundwater Management Sub-district #1 is still in the process of gathering signatures from landowners, while Groundwater Management Sub-District #2 gathered enough petitions to successfully request approval from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District this summer. The next step will be going to District Court for approval.

Subdistrict #2 will encompass some 30,000 acres south of the Rio Grande River. Groundwater Management.

Sub-District #1 encompasses approximately 200,000 acres in the Closed Basin area, considered closed because of a natural topographical divide which presumably prevents water which flows into the basin from moving toward the Rio Grande River.

So far nearly 51 percent of the landowners managing approximately 98,000 acres have signed up in Sub-District #1.

Organizers have set a goal of approximately 110,000 acres. Current requirements are that at least 51 percent of the landowners, owning at least 51 percent of the land within a potential sub-district, must formally request the formation of the district through a petition process before it can be submitted to the water district and subsequently the District Court for approval.

Other potential sub-districts have been discussed but none have begun the petition process. Wright estimates as many as 6 or 8 sub-districts could be formed throughout the San Luis Valley.

Wright added that in order for the closed basin sub-district to be effective, it would have to raise between $1.5 million and $4 million in fees per year. In addition, he estimates as many as 50,000 acres would need to be idled in the closed basin sub-district area to help recharge the aquifers sustainably.

An Objection of Equity
Not everyone is happy with the proposed sub-districts. A group of potential objectors say they are not being given enough credit for their water rights.

‘We are not really opposed to the sub-district,’ says objector Richard Benton, a stockholder on the Rio Grande Canal.

‘We are just trying to get some equity out of our water.’ Benton says he does not believe the Rio Grande Canal is getting enough credit in the proposed sub-district structure for the water it contributes to the Closed Basin.

He said he and others who share his views have met with the sub-district organizing committee and the Rio Grande Canal's representatives for the proposed sub-district but did not feel they made much progress in reaching a compromise. ‘They have the impression we are opposed to the sub-district, and we are not. We want clarity of rules and regs and we want these things stated before we vote. They are asking us to sign a contract without the terms.’
Benton, who raises alfalfa and cattle, has been farming for 30 years.

‘We all know and accept the fact that something needs to be done and has to be done. It's just we felt there are more options than what they are giving.’

But Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board President Ray Wright says that those designing the closed basin sub-district have tried to recognize the value and role of surface water rights in recharging the groundwater system. The sub-district proposes to include acreage with good surface water rights, acreage with inadequate surface rights and acreage with no surface rights.

Faced with continued disagreement, in early August the organizing committee for Groundwater Management Sub-District #1 announced it was considering changing the boundaries of the sub-district to exclude those who do not want to be in it. If the boundaries are altered to encompass the acreage already signed up, the sub-district could move forward. But altering the boundaries might not be the right solution, Wright admits. In the long-term, he feels, the nature of the common aquifer in the closed basin area requires everyone to participate to make it work.
Benton says he believes changing the boundaries now will only cause more problems. ‘They are trying to redraw all this while in the middle of the game. That's going to open another battle if they think they are going to do that.’

Uncertain Future
Many San Luis Valley residents still fear the threat of state well regulations. In many visits to the valley, Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Hal Simpson stressed that if valley residents did not do something, he would have to. He strongly encouraged valley residents to participate in sub-districts to avoid state regulation, noting that he would not wait indefinitely before proceeding with groundwater regulations.

Wright explains that if the sub-districts are not successful, the next best solution might be for San Luis Valley residents to work as closely with the state engineer as possible to draw up rules which recover the aquifers and protect surface water rights without causing wholesale devastation.

‘I think it is inevitable that ground in the San Luis Valley is going to be fallowed whether by sub-districts or CREP or well regulation or simply running out of adequate supplies of water,’ Wright says. ‘We are going to see the scale of irrigated agriculture here in Division 3 reduced because Mother Nature demands it.’

Benton predicted water would someday be exported from the area because it would be more economical for farmers to sell it to Front Range cities than try to keep it on their farms. An acre-foot of water would stretch much farther in supplying urban residents with water than providing water for agriculture, Benton adds, and cities can afford to pay for the resource because they can spread out the cost among the city residents. ‘It's just a matter of time.’

Farmers like Doug and Karla Shriver and Ray Wright are not willing to surrender their way of life so easily. ‘I still feel that agriculture can come up with a way to work out this problem, and I think all of us can do something,’ Doug Shriver says.

Although Wright says his three daughters are not likely to continue his agricultural legacy, he is passionate about preserving it just the same. ‘I do care about the valley,’ he says, ‘and think I am in a position to understand what we are facing whether it feels like 'Chicken Little' or not. [We have] to try to come to some resolution without a wreck.’

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