ALAMOSA —Here in the San Luis Valley, water is at the core of our economy, livelihoods, communities, wildlife, and more. So, it’s no wonder that well over 100 local farmers, ranchers, and a wide range of community members turned out on the evening of July15 to hear about the latest developments in water management from Colorado’s top water official, State Engineer Kevin Rein. Hosted by the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University as part of their Water Education Initiative, the talk was “The Rio Grande’s Water Future: Shared Goals, Shared Responsibility.”
Clearly with all of its complexity, water management cannot be fully addressed in one presentation. But Rein provided a comprehensive look at how water administration developed in Colorado, starting even before statehood, addressing the evolution of water law, water uses, and water allocations that have evolved for over 140 years.
Rein further outlined the basis of the newest layer of water administration that will affect this Basin: the rules and regulations that will address non-exempt groundwater withdrawals. Having been through an extensive community process and then a court challenge, the rules and regulations were finally approved in Division 3’s Water Court by Judge Pattie Swift in March 2019. As there were no appeals to that ruling, the Rules are now final, and the State Engineer’s office is empowered to enforce them.
Rein’s talk aimed to answer three key questions: 1) What having final rules means? 2) How that affects the Rio Grande Basin? and 3) How and why the State, through the State Engineer’s Office and its Division of Water Resources are involved?
With a diverse audience ranging from active water users to community members interested in the subject, Rein first outlined the development of water uses in Colorado’s history. Extensive surface water diversions were developed across the Valley and state. With more uses and users, the competition for a scarce water supply emerged. The concept of “prior appropriation” became the method for allocating that water and the basic structure for the state’s administration of water rights was developed and in place prior to statehood in 1876.
Groundwater was recognized early on, especially in the San Luis Valley where artesian wells flowed freely and abundantly in many areas. Over time, with over-appropriation of surface water rights, rural electrification, and powerful new pumping technology, significant groundwater development occurred. But it was not integrated into the administration of water rights until legislation in 1965 established the permitting of wells and in 1969 incorporated tributary groundwater use into the prior appropriation system. From this came the requirements and methodology for replacing depletions (i.e. injuries) to rivers and streams caused by groundwater pumping, including plans for augmentation.
Rein described how groundwater regulation has come to the Rio Grande Basin, in fits and starts over the decades. One of the first actions taken by the state engineer was in 1972, imposing a moratorium on new appropriations and thus prohibited drilling of new wells in the confined aquifer and the unconfined aquifer outside of the closed basin. In 1981, the moratorium was extended to new appropriations from the unconfined aquifer inside the closed basin.
In 1975, the state engineer attempted to promulgate ground water rules here, but not surprisingly, it was very contentious. And the effort was postponed until the “Closed Basin Project” was completed, in hopes that it would be a solution.
While well use came to be administered in the Rio Grande Basin through permits and decrees, until recently, there were no rules to address pumping depletions to surface water. The epic drought of 2002 and seeing the effects of the state’s regulation of wells on the South Platte River, prompted the water users of the San Luis Valley to take action. The Rio Grande Basin simply had to find a way to reconcile surface water diversions, prior appropriation, and groundwater use.
In 2004, legislation was developed and passed as Senate Bill 04-222 stating that “…the state engineer shall have wide discretion to permit the continued use of underground water consistent with preventing injury to senior surface water rights.” Additional legislation allowed for the development of the groundwater management subdistricts and provided that the “…state engineer shall not curtail… withdrawals from aquifers in division 3… included in a ground water management subdistrict…if the withdrawals are made pursuant to a groundwater management plan…”
In addition, for most areas of the Valley, a clause requiring sustainability of the aquifers was also implemented, stating that “use of the confined and unconfined aquifers shall be regulated so as to maintain a sustainable water supply in each aquifer system…” The Rio Grande Decision Support System was also developed by the state to provide the technical data to inform the process.
Through these various acts, the state engineer now had the authority to require groundwater users to develop and implement plans to replace depletions. These have an immediate impact to water rights, in real time and with quantifiable requirements to offset injuries to surface water rights in the time, location and amounts that are occurring.
However, the aquifer sustainability requirements are unique to the Rio Grande Basin. As they are long-term and perpetual, they will need very different strategies to achieve: primarily reductions in groundwater withdrawals. While substantial progress toward aquifer restoration had been made in Subdistrict #1 (north of the Rio Grande) since 2011, the severe drought of 2018 resulted in the loss of nearly all of the gains of the prior seven years. While the ample water supply of 2019 has certainly helped the situation, the challenges to meet the requirements are considerable.
Rein acknowledged the diligence and hard work of the Valley community in establishing the subdistricts, noting that all are now formed, that Subdistricts 1, 2 and 3 are now operational, and that Subdistricts 4, 5 and 6 are finalizing their Groundwater Management Plans with Annual Replacement Plans to follow.
Rein also discussed the sustainability requirement, and stated that if Subdistrict #1 is not successful within the defined time frame, i.e. by 2031, or if it is clear in the years leading up to that, that they will simply not be able to attain sustainability (i.e. the aquifer levels required by law), the state engineer’s office has the obligation to administer the Plan of Water Management and its associated decree and will take action to curtail well pumping. This was also stated in the letter from Kevin Rein to Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in December 2018.
Ultimately however, the answer to the Rio Grande Basin’s water future lies in the hands of this community. It is our challenge and our opportunity to resolve these issues and achieve water balance. And it will need to be achieved in conjunction with the state’s roles and responsibilities and in working with the many water interests here, to meet the needs of the people, our towns and communities, and agriculture, while sustaining the environment and wildlife through healthy rivers, streams and aquifers.