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Subdistrict begins implementation of groundwater management plan

Effective May 1, Special Improvement District No. 1 is required to replace injurious water depletions in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. During May, the Colorado State Engineer’s office approved a plan which will reintroduce seven cubic feet of water per second into the uncontained aquifer in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “That is about 3,100 gallons per minute,” Division Engineer Craig Cotten told The Produce News. “That is what the state’s model has shown the injury to be.”

The Colorado State Engineer’s office was given authority to regulate groundwater in the San Luis Valley in 2005. One significant provision of the enabling legislation allowed for the formation of self-regulating groundwater management subdistricts.

According to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s website, “Water levels of the unconfined aquifer within Subdistrict No. 1 (areas within the closed basin) are rapidly declining and are exceeding the total amount of recharge from natural sources and from diversions of the Rio Grande. This recent decline in the water table is a direct result of a prolonged drought and increased groundwater consumption, and the rapid decline in the water table will only worsen unless the total consumption of groundwater is reduced.”

Subdistrict No. 1, as the special district is known, covers five of the six counties in the San Luis Valley and began collecting user fees last season. Mr. Cotten said the subdistrict’s authority to tax lets the entity purchase augmentation water and begin replenishing the aquifer.

Several years ago, the state engineer mandated well metering in the valley, giving the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and its water users time to address water depletion and water augmentation issues. Water metering affects all large capacity wells pumping more than 50 gallons per minute. “Before that, we really didn’t have a good [metering] system,” Mr. Cotten said.

There are a total of 6,000 wells in the San Luis Valley, and of this total 2,000 are high-apacity wells. “The subdistrict must show on a five-year rolling plan average that they have improved the sustainability of the aquifer,” Mr. Cotten stated. “They must show effort and work to meet that requirement.”

The district also uses collected taxes for administrative fees and to provide assistance to farmers who allow their land to become fallow as a way to decrease water consumption. Mr. Cotten said this year approximately 10,000 acres were fallowed in the San Luis Valley. He went on to say the federal government also earmarked $20,000 through insurance programs to facilitate land fallowing.

The state engineer’s office will gather data during 2012 to determine how much land may need to be fallowed in 2013.

Although the subdistrict’s groundwater management plan was approved and implemented, the issue is not yet settled. Mr. Cotten said that objectors filed a motion in District Water Court earlier this summer contending the replacement plan as specified was inadequate. “They asked that all wells be shut down,” he noted, adding that the motion was denied.

In October, Chief District Judge Pattie Swift will preside over a weeklong hearing in Alamosa, CO. Mr. Cotten expects a ruling on the sufficiency of the management plan will be issued in early 2013.

As is true in other parts of the United States, Colorado is still in the throes of a severe drought. “Our stream systems are way below average. And the aquifer is still dropping.”

This past winter Mr. Cotten said the valley was experiencing a low snowpack. He attributed conditions to the La Niña effect, during which climatic conditions are characterized by cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. But the pendulum has swung, and he said it looks like this coming winter will be characterized by El Niño conditions.

According to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, El Niño happens when weakening trade winds allow the warmer water from the western Pacific to flow east, increasing the temperature of the water in the eastern Pacific. El Niño conditions can result in fluctuating atmospheric conditions, and even drought.

Asked what this could bode for the San Luis Valley in 2013, Mr. Cotten said, “That change may signify a better winter in terms of snowpack.”