The Crestone Eagle • September, 2020 

Rio Grande State of the Basin:  The current water situation? Dry!

by Lisa Cyriacks

In the San Luis Valley: water is and will always be a critical issue. While demands on our scarce water supply grow, there are many community-based efforts working to restore a better water balance and plan for our future.

In the case of groundwater, the amount of water withdrawn by legally permitted wells exceeds the amount of water refilling the aquifers.

At a recent symposium hosted by Adams State University’s Salazar Center, local water leaders presented information on key aspects of current water conditions and challenges.

Salazar Center Director, Rio de la Vista, “With this year’s water shortage, the time is now to raise our level of knowledge on the critical water issues here. We aim to engage more people in community-based efforts for a sustainable water future and we need everyone’s help to make that possible!”

Local water users and State officials recognized something needed to be done in response to a severe drought that started about 20 years ago and reached its peak in 2002. They banded together to form local groundwater sub-districts to balance water use and supply. Their goal is to make groundwater use sustainable and protect senior surface water right holders from water shortages due to groundwater pumping.

Despite efforts to meet a court-mandated goal to replenish the shallow aquifer to pre-2000 levels by 2030, significant progress

was curtailed by another serious drought beginning in 2018.

Agriculture is the economic engine in the San Luis Valley. None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the valley floor. The valley is one of the world’s largest high-altitude deserts. Water users draw from the valley rivers and streams to irrigate their crops but the peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of water storage in the region, growers rely on groundwater to finish watering their crops.

The latest attempt to export water from the valley to the Front Range is led by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), based in the city of Centennial near Denver. This scheme is undermining local farmers’ efforts to address water shortages and could set a dangerous precedent of water export.

There is zero unappropriated water in the Rio Grande Basin. This means all surface water and groundwater is currently used by existing water users, leaving no water available for transport outside the valley.

RWR aims to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water and pipe it over Poncha Pass to the Front Range. Local water leaders believe that if the pipeline is built, the RWR project will be just the start and lead to further attempts to export water.

The proposal is opposed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache; joined by environmental groups, local businesses, and many farmers and ranchers.

There is widespread opposition in the valley to the RWR export scheme. Locals are concerned that RWR’s plan could turn Saguache County into another Crowley County, an area east of Pueblo that has been devastated economically by the sale of its water. See https://bit.ly/2CORMbB.

The San Luis Valley is a beloved place for many Colorado residents and travelers from across the country and around the world. With the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three extraordinary National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande Natural Area, the Rio Grande National Forest and many other public lands, the valley’s water sustains wildlife for viewing, hunting and fishing, and many forms of recreation. Sandhill crane migration attracts many visitors to the valley. Water export threatens the valley’s economy, which is dependent on agriculture.

Valley water leaders urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts about valley water resources and advocating for the truth about RWR’s export plans and the valley’s water supplies and hydrology.

Please see www.rgwcd.org for information about current aquifer levels and the subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.