Water issues Part 2

by Tom McCracken

SB 222 allows the sub-districts 20 years following their formation to restore the aquifer to a “sustainable” level, defined by the state to be between negative 200,000 and negative 400,000 ac/ft. from “optimal” levels. Surface water users in the northern valley do not feel that these levels will support wetlands and creeks such as San Luis Creek. The irrigated grasslands and associated riparian zones once had water underground that was close enough to the surface to keep them alive in times of drought.

In recent droughts those lands have been degraded, allowing weeds to invade while killing native trees and shrubs. Dead trees are clearly visible along dry streambanks in the Baca development, the National Wildlife Refuge and along streams north of the Baca.

Sub-districts tax themselves for water usage in order to achieve two objectives: 1) Purchase water for augmentation 2) Pay farmers to fallow land. A major challenge is that water in all of Colorado is over-appropriated. As a result, sub-districts have begun buying ranches and drying them up. Coloradoans must choose what is most important to them,  sustainable ranches along our creeks that support families, wildlife and tourism while producing food, or large corporate farms often owned by out-of-state entities that in the past have used chemical agriculture and failed to protect the soil from erosion and water from contamination while driving down commodity prices.

Sub-District #1 in the Center area has been in existence for 9 years and has until 2031 to reach “sustainability”. Other sub-districts have not yet taken any actions to restore the aquifer but will begin in 2020.  Meanwhile the Closed Basin Project continues to pump, and water export schemes persist, first AWDI, then Stockman’s Water and now Renewable Water Resources.

My proposed solutions

1) Shut down the Closed Basin wells immediately.

2) Lobby to increase CREP funding, (a federal program that pays farmers to fallow land) while requiring participants to cover the fallowed acreage with vegetation that will prevent erosion while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

3) Sub-districts should increase pumping fees to support fallowing programs that both fully cover fallowed land with vegetation and create new programs that subsidize farmers to plant cover crops as part of their rotation. These crops would store carbon in the soil, increase fertility (organic matter),  reduce erosion, control weeds and nematodes and decrease water usage by 60% to 70%.

4) Do not allow water to be exported from the valley. If that is not legally feasible, require that any plan include payments that would be used to purchase lands irrigated by augmented wells. The wells would be then dried up, so that the amount of reduced consumptive use on farmland would be double the amount of water exported.

5) Encourage agricultural practices that increase soil organic matter while introducing alternative crops that use less water.

6) Support value added uses of our crops to increase the economic wellbeing of our farmers, allowing them to reduce water usage.

7) Compensate surface water users that have been injured by aquifer depletions, reducing hostilities in our communities while allowing them to continue farming and ranching.

As Saguache County Commissioner I will work hard to solve the water issue for the benefit of all.

My next topic: Wildfire.