The Crestone Eagle, February 2003:

ASC conference made water #1 issue for the Valley,
RGWCD calls on farmers to cut crop production

by David Nicholas

On January 21, at the quarterly meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), the board of directors passed a unanimous motion calling on all farmers who draw water from the aquifer to cut back their crop production this year by 20%. This call for voluntary action is unprecedented anywhere in the U.S.

To cut crop production without promise of government subsidy came after reports by Steve Vandiver, the state’s Water Engineer for the San Luis Valley, and Allen Davey, the District’s engineer, that the bad news announced at the water conference held at Adam State College eleven days earlier may even be worse, just going on the current data for the first 21 days of the month.

Saguache resident, Virginia Sutherland, spoke just before the motion was made. “Someone’s needed to take the lead here,” she said, nodding towards the board.

After a minimal amount of discussion, as to the content of the motion, President Ray Wright called for the vote. The motion passed unanimously. That not one word was raised in opposition to the motion came as a result of what has been described, and is now considered, “the most important water conference ever—anywhere.”

ASC conference makes water #1 issue for the Valley
Just ten days into the year and water was on the minds of approximately 600 folks from the San Luis Valley who turned up at the 300-seat Carson Auditorium at Adam State College to hear speakers at a water conference,presented by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Entitled, “Conservation, Conversation, and Problem Solving”, the conference aim was to present solutions for users of both the unconfined (or shallow) and confined (or deep) aquifers, who face the prospect of crop loss and wells going dry, not just this year but for several years to come.

Worse news—the drought is not over. Even if the expected spring snowfalls and rainfall or ‘precip’ (for precipitation, the vernacular used by Valley water engineers) which are forecast to be normal this year do come, it will not be enough to stave off disaster for ranchers and farmers.

Valley agriculture draws 900,000 acre-feet (AF) a year from the Rio Grande, as well as from the underground aquifers. If there is any hope to be had, then it lies in cutting back and conserving. It means encouraging every rancher and farmer to hold off on irrigating less acreage this year. It even means going back to the tried and true (read medieval) practice of crop rotation and planting less water intensive crops, such as alfalfa, which in the last ten years has been a major crop in the valley and a big income earner for farmers.

The average precip for the valley is about 7.3 inches a year. Last year the total was 2.7 inches. So what will happen if we get the normal precip? These concerns were addressed at the conference.

A real touchy subject
Talking to farmers about what they have done to survive is a really touchy subject. The independent streak, which tends to dwell in farmers and ranchers no matter what country you live in, results from the fact that they are the basic entity in the food chain for civilizations. Without farmers and ranchers the rest of us have to do our foraging and hunting, so we are dependent on their skills and experience to provide the commodities of our food supply.

As obvious as that is, the “no-one’s going to tell me what to do!” stance, which can be the usual shoot-from-the-hip reaction of agricultural folks when government agencies come and lay out what they say needs to be done, required a different approach.

Once the bad news, that the Valley would be short on water in 2003, was finally confirmed at the RGWCD’s Board of Directors Quarterly Meeting last October, in which District President Ray Wright led a very thoughtful discussion about what to do, they decided to take it on the road, laying out the information before folks who needed to hear it. Throughout the last part of 2002, folks from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Colorado Division of Water Resources started going to meetings of farming cooperatives and ditch companies, telling all who would listen what was in store for them in 2003.

The water conference had been in the works since October, but due to the schedules of proposed speakers, January 10 was the first date when they could get all of them under one roof together.

Water conferences are generally cut and dry, and only the enthusiasts turn out to attend. These include politicians, environmentalists, state and local officials, with farmers and ranchers who are generally in the minority. So much so that at the last major conference only 300 showed up. However, that should have been warning enough for what happened on January 10. About 600 farmers and ranchers turned up to the venue, which could only seat 300, and those who had not pre-registered and did not want to stand at the back of the auditorium were turned away.

“I hope if you know folks who were unable to get in,” said President Ray Wright, “that you would convey my apologies. The District made every effort to get a suitable facility that was larger at short notice, and we were unable to do that.”

“I do (commend) the District in getting the information out to people,” said Wright. “If there is sufficient demand, we might try to put on a repeat of this conference.”

‘Frankly, I have never had this type of response to a water conference,” Wright said, “I hope that you will be part of the effort in carrying the message out.”

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”
— Ben Franklin

The same can also be said about rivers, commented Steve Vandiver, the Engineer for Water Division 3 (the San Luis Valley) and Engineer Advisor to the Rio Grande Compact Commission. Vandiver works out of the Colorado Division of Water Resources office in Alamosa.

The water engineer pointed out the goals from the state’s point of view: “Certainly the senior surface rights in this valley need to be protected against junior users, said Vandiver. “It is a prior appropriations state, so we have a priority system. We don’t administer wells in the San Luis Valley against the rivers, like they are on the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, only because we have been fortunate to put arrangements together to keep that from happening. But the priority system needs to work, and that should be one of our primary goals.”

Vandiver continued, “To actively restore and actively manage our aquifer systems: to me that means to operate them at a sustainable yield, and that we are not in a ‘mining’ (to take more out of the aquifer than is coming in) situation. That we understand the dynamics of these aquifers and what it takes to keep them at a level that allows the rest of the system to work, so that they are sustainable over the long term.”

“Next, whether we like it or not, we have an obligation to meet with the (Rio Grande) compacts (requirements) to our downstream neighbors. Year to year, that is about a third of the water, which enters this basin from the Conejos and Rio Grande, and which has to leave the state. This piece of the pie is taken right off the top.”

“The conditions, which brought this situation about were that it didn’t rain and it didn’t snow. It was hotter than normal—the average temperature over the last 5 years has been considerably higher than normal. We have that to deal with that. The other thing is that we have pretty well ‘maxed’ out how much water we can consume in this basin.”

Maxing out the water
Vandiver said, that we had experienced the driest year ever in recorded history of this basin. Over the 113 years of record, this was by far the lowest ever seen. It was 28% less than the previous low, recorded in 1977. It was only a 154,000 acre-feet (AF) for the entire year (326,000 gallons = 1 AF). By comparison, in a normal year the flow of 154,000 AF would come in the month of May.

The drought was still extreme as late as October 15, which means that the situation was no better at the end of the year than when it began. So far the rainfall for the last year and a half has been way below normal.

In the last 15 years, Vandiver pointed out, from 1988 to the present, we have only had four years of above normal pricip, one year of normal, and the rest of the years have been extremely low. Over these last 15 years, it has averaged out that we have been 80,000 AF below normal on an annual basis. That amounts to about a one million AF on the Rio Grande that has not been seen.

“The vicious cycle”
About 80% of the water in the Rio Grande and the Conejos is diverted from the watercourse for agricultural use; the rest goes to the compact obligations downstream. With the water supply down, the diversions are down, and the reuse and the recharge to the Valley aquifers is down also.

One of the big issues this year is the ability to move water across this Valley. The Rio Grande during portions of this summer was losing 40% of the water that was measured passing the Del Norte gauging station, just trying to serve the water rights which were in priority at the time. In contrast, 100% of the water in the Alamosa and Conejos rivers could not be delivered to water users.

The Rio Grande, between Alamosa and the state line, lost 30% of its flow. This was unprecedented, as generally this part of the river is a gaining reach of the river with springs and creeks adding to the flow.

Normally, in a dry water year by itself, with no depletion, the aquifer should stay constant and not change very much. But the lowering of the water table, as well as from the artesian head, came from well pumping. That the aquifers support the surface streams in this valley is no longer in doubt. The system works because of those aquifers. The reason water can be moved down the Rio Grande to Conejos or down Saguache Creek is that those aquifers support a water table that allows the stream to flow on top.

Pull the water away from the water table and pull it from the artesian head, and the rivers stop working. This means less diversion allocations to users, more losses trying to move water through the system. So the number of water rights which can be served goes down, and the very ditches which depend upon the supply to recharge the aquifers diminishes. Thus wells, while still pumping normally, cause the aquifers to go down. So it lowers the water table.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Vandiver, “one which we have got to figure out so we bring everything back into balance.”

How the river runs
Now, the Rio Grande is considered a gaining river, one which has more water added to it as it flows down its 1,880 mile watercourse. As you read this, the flow at Del Norte, when compared with the measurement at the gauging station at Lobatos at the state line, shows the river along that reach is in decline. This does not bode well for our obligations under the compact for the coming year. The problem is that water is no longer being returned back (“return” is the engineer jargon) to the river after having been diverted and used by agriculture. This year that diversion will have to be curtailed. How much depends on how the river flows, how much snow we get and so on.

Wells, wells, wells
The number of domestic wells, some of which had flowed for 150 years, have gone dry this year.

The state over the years has tightened up issuing new well permits in the San Luis Valley. The State Engineer stopped issuing permits for wells going into the deep or confined aquifer in 1971. In 1981 the engineer stopped issuing well permits for the unconfined aquifer in the closed basin, north of the river.

This decision was based on the following conclusions: there were already enough wells drawing water; the amount of draught it took to support the wells which were there had been reached; and there was no longer the ability to grant new appropriations.

After 1981, the State Engineer continued to issue permits for supplemental, alternate point and replacement wells to keep the water supply for those individual quarters at the level it had been when they were originally issued. While that may or may not have been a good idea, the permitting went on up until May of last year, when the State Engineer stopped issuing permits for supplemental and alternate point wells. This decision had been made because, under Colorado Water Law, the State Engineer could not find that issuing of permits for those types of wells would not cause injury to other vested rights. It was just that many more straws in the glass.

Do more with the same
Many farmers over the last few years have been trying to expand existing water rights, figuring that if they have a 2000 gallons-per-minute well on a crop which only take 1000 gallons-per-minute to irrigate, they can open up other lands or brush quarters to use the other 1,000 gallons, which they believed they were entitled to. This is called an expansion of use, where the state sees it as doubling the consumptive use of that well. In some cases the state has had to shut down and tag wells where that has happened to try and keep some balance in the system.

Then, there is the increase in water consumption brought about by putting extra acreage under crop production, like watering the corners of a sprinkler circle in a quarter and using “end guns” pivot sprinklers, which tend to water the roads more than the crops. At least 50,000 acres have been put into production this way since the State Engineers stopped issuing well permits in 1981. It is all legal, but it has increased the demand on the water supply.

The other thing is that more water intensive crops (i.e. alfalfa) have been planted, as well as increasing the yields of existing crops. Most of the legal irrigable acres are being used in the Valley today. This is an expansion which increased the demand for water—not only from the river—but also from the aquifers. So there are probably more wells out there operating than can be sustained in the long term.

Vandiver said that the Division of Water Resources has had to instigate abandonment proceedings, where wells have been sitting idle since they were drilled 30 or 40 years ago. Some farmers had commenced to bring those brush acres into production, and they had to be stopped from bringing the well on line

“We need to start living within our means, folks.”
“I don’t know how else to say it,” said Vandiver. “We’ve talked for years that we have too many wells in production which draw from both the confined and unconfined aquifers, and it came home to roost this year. If we don’t get six good snows in a row, then the aquifers are not going to recover. If we get a couple more dry years, this aquifer level will fall again.”

“There are approximately 2300 pivot sprinklers in the Valley,” said Vandiver. “If each of those is pumping around 900 gallons per minute, that takes a river flowing at 4700 second foot (7.9 gallons = one second foot) to support that dry day in July when the wells are all running. That’s a good peak on the Rio Grande.”

“There are consequences for not doing anything. They are evident. Certainly if we don’t get six big years in a row, we are going to have turmoil in this Valley, which will be very difficult to handle.”

“Certainly the state has the authority to promulgate rules and reg(ulation)s and somehow force wells to be administered against the river. If you can imagine that, there is not a well in this valley that is senior enough to compete against even some of the most junior surface water rights.”

“If we ever get into that, it is not a pleasant experience, and there is not enough water in this valley to have an aug(mentation) plan for every well. So unless something can be done voluntarily or within the group in this valley, and I hope we can. I am not interested in getting into a rules and regs battle, and I don’t think anybody in this room is, but if we don’t do something, that is the logical end.”

Next issue: Part 2 “What needs to be done.”