Water issues Part 1

The Crestone Eagle • March, 2020

by Tom McCracken

Availability of water affects everyone in the SLV. Surface water comes from precipitation in the surrounding mountains, as the valley floor only receives 7-9 inches of rain per year. Ground water (the aquifer) is recharged by surface water that percolates into the soil. Aquifer levels determine how far the streams flow into the valley.

Historically water was developed for “beneficial use” by ranchers who diverted streams onto adjacent land and irrigated native grasses to feed livestock. This practice, developed over the past 150 years, turned out to be a sustainable use of water that provided food, fiber and wildlife habitat along the riparian zones, without chemical inputs. The first folks to develop the water were given first “priority.” The “doctrine of prior appropriation” is widely viewed across the western US as an equitable means of water management.

About 60 years ago, wells were drilled in the center of the valley which are used to grow crops like potatoes, alfalfa and grain under center pivots. Inexplicably these wells were exempted from the “priority” system. Drilling continued unchecked for years and additionally the “Closed Basin” wells were drilled to send “excess” water to neighboring states under a compact that mandated Colorado to share the Rio Grande.

We are now dealing with an aquifer so depleted that surface streams sink into the ground much earlier, causing environmental and economic damage to ranches and public lands. In January of 2019 the aquifer was depleted by 1,400,000 acre/ft.

In 2004 the State Legislature initiated groundwater rule SB 222 intended to restore the aquifer. Local sub-districts were created to accomplish this rather than enforcing the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. After fifteen years this mandate has yet to be accomplished and the goal of restoring the aquifer becomes more challenging each year and is further exacerbated by climate change.