The Crestone Eagle, September 2003:

Water Conservation District presents plan to preserve valley aquifer

by David Nicholas

The idea of a sub-district within the five county Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) has been on the minds of water administrators for the better part of this year.

On Thursday, August 21, Ray Wright, President of the RGWCD formally announced the effort to garner public support for a sub-district which would oversee the use of available water in the agricultural sector.

The sub district comes within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. This concept is allowed by the district’s water management plan, and would come about if more than 50 percent of the property owners, owning more than 50 percent of the land irrigated (all or in part) by water wells within the proposed district, petition the district court for the formation.

A sub district would mean that the water conservation district, covering five of the six San Luis Valley counties (Costilla County is not included), would not be footing the bill for a small area of this almost 8,000 square-mile alpine valley.

Wright said the sub district, which would include about 200,000 acres in the Closed Basin, would use a market-based approach to reduce water consumption. Farmers would be assessed $5 an acre; those farmers using well water to irrigate would be assessed another $5 an acre as a “delivery” fee. Then there would be a variable fee, depending upon the crop and the amount of water to irrigate it. That could increase the assessment per acre as much as $23, for a total assessment of $33 an acre.

The $2 million-$2.5 million raised each year from the assessment would be used to manage the sub district and to pay farmers to allow fields to remain fallow to save water.

Citing the prospect of a costly legal battle, a “water war” pitting well and surface water users against each other, Wright said, “It’s a brave new world of farming here. If consumption continues and nothing is done, farmers could go out of business and economic disaster could result.”

He said his plan, being presented to the five ditch companies in his area, isn’t the total solution to the problem but could stabilize the aquifer in less time than a lawsuit, that likely would shut down well usage, because surface water rights are older and have first priority.

Wright, a conservative Republican and Chair of the powerful Colorado Water Conservation Board, advocating a taxing process (or fee, or whatever term you might use) in this instance, could not come without much soul searching. But he has not convinced many to his cause, which is why his predictions are so dire.

His idea runs into opposition because surface water users, who have priority rights over well users, would be required to submit their adjudicated rights to an entity which will curb their legal usage. Well users could continue to draw water from the aquifer, which would be recharged from water relinquished from surface water users.