Alamosa, CO Local environmental groups in Colorado’s remote San Luis Valley are calling for more protections for the unique aquifer systems and people of the San Luis Valley after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved an oil and gas drilling proposal based on a cursory Environmental Assessment (EA) where the BLM claimed drilling through the Conejos aquifer would result in “No Significant Impact.” Hydrogeological studies confirmed the drilling threatens the Conejos Formation aquifer, which forms the lifeblood of the unique San Luis Valley aquifer system.

Two citizens groups filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court today claiming that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to take a “hard look” at the impacts of the proposed drilling.  The groups allege that BLM did not consider a full range of  impacts and mitigation measures and asked that the BLM approvals be invalidated.  A more comprehensive analysis was requested, which would lead to better protection of the aquifer, even if BLM would decide to go forward with the plan to allow speculative federal oil and gas development in the San Luis Valley.

In January, BLM approved a federal drilling request made by Dan A. Hughes Oil out of Beeville, TX, who has leased 540 acres of federally-owned minerals outside the town of Del Norte, CO.  The project is located near San Francisco Creek, a tributary to the Rio Grande.  Unlike most of Colorado, the San Luis Valley has not had any appreciable oil and gas development.  The Valley is populated with small rural farming and ranching communities that rely extensively on underlying aquifers for their livelihood.

Better protection of the water was requested by citizens of the San Luis Valley.  “I do not understand why the BLM did not fully consider or adopt the recommendations from the Rio Grande County Hydrogeologic Study” says Christine Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “Instead of protecting the Conejos Formation aquifer as recommended by the study, which is as much as 5,865 feet deep near the drilling zone, BLM only required intermediate casing to 1,400 ft along with a vague possibility of adding more requirements later.  The San Luis Valley depends on the integrity of water in the entire Conejos Formation.  The people and the water of this Valley deserve better protection should BLM decide to promote federal oil and gas development in the Valley.”

The $100,000 Rio Grande Hydrogeologic Study was requested by Rio Grande County Commissioners through the Rio Grande Roundtable and funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2012. The authors made a comprehensive list of recommendations including  intermediary casing to protect the Conejos Formation, in some areas believed to be about 5,865ft. deep. This was a key priority that emerged from the study.

The most common concern expressed by the public was the disclosure and comprehensive analysis of the impacts to the nearby environmental justice communities.  The Valley is well known for the special sense of place and unique character that has emerged from the various inhabitants’ cultures, including Native Tribes, Spanish and Mexican governments, Mexican Land Grant heirs, Anglo settlers, and other more recent immigrants into what is now the United States.

The San Luis Valley has been a farming and ranching community for over 150 years with a relatively stable population.  Many of the residents are working in agriculture, following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents.  This Valley is the highest irrigated mountain plateau in the world, with about 7,000 high capacity water wells, over half are used as irrigation wells.  Any underground and surface water contamination due to oil and gas exploration would enter the Conejos Formation aquifer.  This Formation upon which the entire San Luis Valley community and the Rio Grande headwaters, as well as an untold amount of wildlife, fish, and plants depend.

“It appeared that community voices were not given much consideration.” says Andrea Guajardo, Director of Conejos County Clean Water (CCCW), “These communities have been here, in some cases for eight generations and a company comes in and acquires a mineral lease. Overnight, this action could change community dynamics for generations to come.  In promoting the federal oil and gas development, BLM glossed over the impacts that come with oil and gas development and completely ignored the mandate that federal agencies give special attention to the impacts on environmental justice communities like ours. ”

The San Luis Valley holds some of the largest concentrations of wetlands in the Southwest US that support numerous unique and endangered species and thousands of migrating birds each year. The Valley is currently experiencing a growing recreation and tourism sector.  The coalition of people represented by SLVEC and CCCW includes Valley ranchers and farmers, business owners, property owners and other concerned citizens of Colorado.

The groups are being represented by Energy & Conservation Law attorneys Travis Stills and Allison Melton.