Who’s Who in Water
When talking about water you hear references to Water Conservation and Water Conservancy Districts. What are these and how do they differ?
Water Conservation Districts determine policies, own water rights and other real property, coordinate local engineering and legal studies, and assist in the development of water resource projects. They may levy ad valorem taxes for the expenses of the organization.
Locally, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) serves the Rio Grande watershed. This district was formed in 1967 as a large enough taxing entity to raise funds to fight the court case brought by New Mexico and Texas against Colorado for not meeting its Rio Grande Compact obligations. The district was created under Colorado Statute (37-48-101) and through the state legislature. The board of the district is appointed by individual county commissions.
The district has contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation to manage the Closed Basin Project. They have led efforts to oppose the removal of water from the basin, as proposed by AWDI and Stockmans. They initiated the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for endangered species that include the South Western Willow Fly Catcher. The HCP will release irrigators from federal (USFW) regulations. The district took a the lead in the conversion of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, as a part of a strategy to protect the aquifers from third parties. The creation of the Rio Grande Natural Area, downstream of the Alamosa National Wildlife Area, provides protection for this reach and upstream water rights.
Recently the district has created the concept and now implementation of the Ground Water Management Plans to protect and restore the aquifers. This concept is market-based allowing agricultural producers to pay more if they use wells, while compensating other irrigators for fallowing their land.
The district has quarterly public meetings where state and federal agencies and third party organizations give updates on their involvement with the water issues confronting the Valley and the state.
In contrast, Water Conservancy Districts are formed at the request of communities and are local instrumentalities of state government. They are organized under procedures in state district courts and remain under their jurisdiction. These are formed in conformance with the Water Conservancy Act of 1937 and Colorado State Statutes 37-45-10 and have the powers of a public or municipal corporation. The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Conejos Water Conservancy District are two such districts.
Conservancy Districts can acquire and sell water, construct and operate water resource projects, condemn property and contract with the federal government on water resource projects, and do generally everything necessary to promote and provide an adequate water supply. Their boards are appointed by the district court based on the relative county populations.
The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD) was formed in the late 1930’s with the goal of selecting a preferred dam site for the Rio Grande; Wagon Wheel Gap was the site. The construction of the dam never happened because of World War II. In the 1970’s, the Colorado Division of Water Resources imposed regulations on small wells in the Valley requiring them to be augmented, i.e. the water consumed (consumptive use) associated with that well had to be replaced to the system. The SLVWCD assumed the role of providing augmentation water to new well users. Simply, a home will consume approximately 10 percent of the water pumped from the well. The district replaces this 10 percent from its resources. The district’s augmentation water typically began as surface irrigation water, which the district acquired, and through water court changed the “beneficial use” from surface irrigation to augmentation water.
The SLVWCD provides this service to the community, releasing a homeowner from having to acquire a water right and taking it through water court. In addition, by providing this service the Rio Grande is not depleted in any way, protecting the water rights of irrigators on the river and assisting the state in meeting its Rio Grande Compact obligations.
During the past 12 years the SLVWCD has supported the efforts of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project to create a fully functioning river.
The writer wishes to acknowledge that his sources included a paper presented at the Colorado Water Congress 2008 Annual Water Law Seminar, authored by Mary Meead Hammond, Esq. and Karl D. Ohlsen, Esq.
Mike Gibson is the manager for the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District; president of the Colorado Water Congress and chairman of the Rio Grande Roundtable.