Water 2012: SLV sub-districts help address basin in crisis
In 2004, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) supported legislation (SB04-222) that granted the State Engineer wide discretion to permit the continued use of underground water consistent with preventing material injury to senior surface water rights and ensuring sustainability of the unique aquifer systems in the San Luis Valley.
The district, as well as other water interests and well owners in the San Luis Valley, undertook this effort to try and reduce the severe negative economic impacts that have come about in other basins as the result of strict priority administration of groundwater by the state. The bill was signed into law in 2004, and codified as section 37-92-501. It prevents the State Engineer from curtailing groundwater withdrawals so long as those withdrawals are included in a groundwater management subdistrict and the withdrawals are made pursuant to the subdistricts’ properly adopted and approved groundwater management plan.
The district supports the development of subdistricts in the Valley as a flexible and innovative alternative to a strict priority administration by the state, as they can ensure protection to senior surface water rights, the viability of the aquifer systems and ensure the protection of the local economy that is dependent upon sophisticated agricultural practices. Water users developing subdistricts determined that subdistricts could be formed in communities of interest with relatively uniform hydrologic conditions that would reflect a local system, all the while protecting senior vested rights and sustaining the aquifer.
Section 37-92-501 allows the State Engineer to recognize this subdistrict approach and specifically requires three critical provisions. Any water management plan adopted by a subdistrict must ensure that: (1) unconfined and confined aquifers shall be regulated so as to maintain a sustainable water supply in each system; (2) injurious stream depletions must be replaced in accordance with the rules adopted by the State Engineer and the state shall not permit the expanded use of groundwater; (3) the plans shall not unreasonably interfere with the state’s ability to fulfill its obligation under the Rio Grande Compact.
The statute also requires the Water Court to retain jurisdiction over any approved groundwater management plan to ensure that the plan is operated in accordance with its decree and that injury is prevented. All of these criteria honor, maintain, support and sustain Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine.
The district offers the following information:
1. Most members of the Subdistrict No. 1’s Board of Managers own both surface and underground water rights. One member represents that group of well owners that owns no surface water rights. Nine of the members of the Board of Managers were appointed by the five major ditch companies running water inside the boundaries of the subdistrict.
2. Any groundwater pumping depletions occurring within a proposed subdistrict must be offset and replaced to insure senior water rights are protected.
3. Subdistrict No. 1 does not have sole control of the replacement of depletions. The state and Division Engineer and the Water Court have to concur the plan adequately replaces depletions or the plan fails.
4. Section 37-92-501 does not eliminate the Prior Appropriation Doctrine by allowing the State Engineer to recognize subdistricts.
5. Any depletions to senior surface water rights as the result of well pumping in the Subdistrict No. 1 must be replaced. Subdistrict No. 1 is a fundraising mechanism that assesses service and user fees against its members. Money raised may be used to compensate landowners for retirement of water rights or the purchase or lease of water rights to offset any depletions as the result of groundwater use.
6. In 2007, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after receiving a recommendation from the Rio Grande Roundtable, approved grant funding of approximately $60,000 to Davis Engineering, Inc. to complete a study of shallow unconfined aquifer wells near the Rio Grande between Del Norte and Alamosa.
The objective of the 2007 study north of the Rio Grande, which was a $60,000 grant from the CWCB given to Davis Engineering, was to examine the existence of a groundwater divide separating the Closed Basin from the rest of the Rio Grande Basin north of the river. The RGWCD has funded the continuation of this study since that time to determine the status of this hydraulic divide.
South of the Rio Grande, the objective of the study was to determine the direction of groundwater flow to assist in estimating depletions to the Rio Grande from well pumping in the alluvium. Data collected from the study will be updated periodically as a tool useful for many Valley interests.
The district is actively working with landowners throughout the Valley to create subdistricts that will promote sustainability of the Valley’s complex aquifer system, to prevent material injury to senior surface water rights while ensuring continued economic viability of the Valley’s agricultural practices by avoiding a mass shutoff of wells without regard for the unique hydrogeologic makeup of the Valley.
The district’s work with landowners to develop subdistricts is done in an open, public forum where all members of the community are invited to participate.
If, through properly formed subdistricts, and approved ground-water management plans developed by those subdistricts, the Valley can achieve a sustainable level of pumping while replacing any depletion caused by groundwater pumping, the Valley as a community can move forward with fewer irrigated acres while preserving the farm economy that all rely on. The underground reservoirs under the Valley floor are an incredible resource and as long as they can be used without injury to senior vested rights, it would be shortsighted to not make optimum use of that resource.
Currently, the RGWCD and other subdistrict proponents have prevailed in the Colorado Supreme Court in December 2011. In their decision, the court unanimously approved the subdistrict concept and the Plan of Water Management for Special Water Improvement Subdistrict #1. This subdistrict is the area north of the Rio Grande in the concentrated center pivot sprinkler area. The district staff is moving quickly to prepare the annual replacement plan due in the spring. The other proposed subdistrict workgroups can now move forward in forming the other subdistricts envisioned in the San Luis Valley.