by Matie Belle Lakish

Water tables are at an all-time low in the San Luis Valley, prompting farmers, ranchers and Crestone/Baca residents to meet together to understand how water regulatory agencies operate, and how they are responding to the current crisis. To help local residents understand the complexities of Colorado water law and how it impacts the current drought situation, the Northern San Luis Valley Conservation Roundtable, presented two experts in the water field in a forum held on February 1.

While residential water use for the Baca and Town of Crestone is not in crisis—at the moment—farmers and ranchers, especially in the northern part of Saguache County, are really “feeling the heat” as streams, springs and flowing wells that they have relied on for generations no longer can meet their water needs. For those coming to Colorado from a “tributary” state, that is, eastern states where water rights are attached to the land, the western water rights are like tangled webs of ownership and regulation. Who owns what, under what conditions can one use the water, and how much is there, really?

Craig Cotten is Colorado’s Engineer Advisor to the Rio Grande Compact and Division Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. He is in charge of managing surface water and groundwater use in the Upper Rio Grande Basin

in Colorado. Also presenting was Travis Smith, a member and former Chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Superintendent of the San Luis Valley Irrigation District. He owns and operates a family ranch in Del Norte.

Craig Cotten, as Division Engineer, shared a historical and legal perspective on Colorado water, and particularly on the Rio Grande watershed. Water rights go by what is known as “Prior Appropriation”. That means that the first person to file a water right has the most “Senior” water right, and unless the river or stream totally dries up, will always have water. Everyone else who has water rights on that stream has “Junior” water rights, and depending on where their right falls, may only get water occasionally or not at all. Some streams and ditches have hundreds of water rights. The oldest water right in the Valley is the Vigil right on the People’s Ditch in Costilla County, dating from 1866.

In the 1960s, high volume wells and center pivot sprinklers changed the face of agriculture in the Valley, and also created a major change in water use. Whereas ditch diversions from rivers and streams fed the aquifer because water would sink into the aquifer as it traveled through the ditches, the center pivot system allowed for much less return to the aquifer, and much more extensive pumping. Over the years this has caused a significant drop in the underground water table with effects such as those described in Marty Shellabarger’s article last month.

In most of the Water Divisions in the state, regulations to disperse water were adopted in the 1970s. They were never adopted in this division. With all the center-pivot pumping, and pumping from projects like the Closed Basin Project, and the Rio Grande Compact obligation to send water downstream to New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico combined with several dry years, the Valley water table is extremely low. Cotton says the water table is lower this year than ever before.

For ranchers in northern Saguache County, that spells trouble. Even though some of them have very senior water rights, there just isn’t water. The water table has dropped so much that creeks and springs that have flowed for generations are drying up, artesian wells are flowing little or not at all, and grasses and shrubs whose roots used to reach for water are no longer able to do so.  All this means disaster for many local farmers and ranchers.

Finally, the regulations that were meant to go into effect in the 1970s are being developed with a new sub-district management plan. Some ranchers with senior water rights say it’s about time, and hopefully, not too late. Other farmers with no senior surface water rights and only center pivot sprinklers on wells will have to shut down their operations. Because of that, there has been a lot of contention over the implementation of the regulations.

Travis Smith, with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, represents a different perspective on Colorado water. CWCB is a State governmental agency, but is less concerned with the legal and adjudication issues and more with how water is managed in the Valley. As more and more people move to Colorado, there is more demand to use water for other purposes than was conceived of when water law originated. Besides agriculture, there is urban use, recreational use, in-stream flows for fish, and several other uses. CWCB is charged with trying to manage all those uses.

The San Luis Valley has its own CWCB board with over 30 members, and although it does not have the same enforcement responsibilities as the District Engineer’s office, the board is very involved in working with farmers and ranchers to find ways to mitigate water shortages. The new sub-district plan that was developed forces farmers with junior water rights to either purchase senior surface (stream) water rights, or pay $200 per acre to pump water.

The new Sub-District 1 irrigation plan will go into effect this upcoming season. That new plan calls for irrigators to pay for the right to pump water, with the expectation that many will choose to fallow their land. However, voluntary participation is reported to be disappointing. In the meantime, northern Saguache County ranchers are looking to a very dry season with low water tables and wondering what good their senior water rights will be.