THE Rio Grande Water Conservation District will pay $3,000 per acre-foot to permanently retire water pumped through groundwater wells under SB22-028. It also will require farmers who tap into the money to commit to a groundcover revegetation plan to keep down the dust.

Those were two major changes the RGWCD Board made Friday as it finalized a set of requirements to allow farmers to tap into $30 million the state of Colorado has earmarked to permanently retire more groundwater wells in the San Luis Valley. 

The hope is to permanently retire 40 to 50 productive irrigated circles in the San Luis Valley through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, which holds the $30 million. By retiring that many circles, the district is hoping to save 11,000-15,000 acre-feet of water every year from now on. The final draft of the requirements will be reviewed by the Colorado Division of Water Resources before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District can begin to execute the groundwater well retirement strategy.

The money will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and it was that feature that had the board increasing the per acre-foot payment to $3,000 from an earlier draft of $2,000 per acre-foot.

The concern was that too many “little wells” and not enough full irrigated circles would use up the money. And even in offering $3,000 per acre-foot for the water, board members were concerned whether that was a high enough payment to entice large farm operations to apply for the money and retire groundwater wells.

“At $3,000 per acre-foot we will find interest and it’s a fair value,” said board member Zeke Ward.

Read the final draft of the plan HERE

Earlier: Rio Grande Water Conservation District sets value of irrigated land.
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Why it matters

The San Luis Valley is on the hook to retire more groundwater wells, and thus plant fewer irrigated acres, to help recover the two depleted aquifers in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. 

It’s what prompted state Sen. Cleave Simpson to craft the bill and then tap into Colorado’s federal COVID-19 allocation to set up the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund. There’s $60 million in the fund, with $30 million earmarked for the Upper Rio Grande Basin and $30 million earmarked for the Republican River Basin in eastern Colorado.

In particular it’s the unconfined aquifer, which runs through Subdistrict 1 in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties, that has the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the state Division of Water Resources focused on permanently shutting down more groundwater wells in that subdistrict.

While farm operations of all sizes and in all the subdistricts can apply for a piece of the money, it’s the large farms operating on multiple groundwater wells that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District hopes to buy out.

Why the focus on revegetation

There’s growing awareness that as the Rio Grande Water Conservation District executes strategies to retire groundwater pumping wells, more dust is created in the fields that no longer receive water.

That’s why the board debated at length the revegetation requirements for any farm operation that receives money through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund. 

A farmer will have to commit to a revegetation strategy and can use up to 18 inches of water per acre over three growing seasons to help groundcover take root. But even then, there’s awareness that in the high altitude desert of the San Luis Valley, nothing will grow without water.

“There are going to be some parcels where revegetation won’t work,” said board member Dwight Martin.


Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE