Case pits SWAG producers against
Subdistrict 1’s Plan of Water Management 

By cvlopez |

THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

NOW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval. 

It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.

Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future. 

The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.

SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.

Members of the SWAG Board of Directors attend the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board meeting on July 14: Les Alderete, left, Asier Artaechevarria and Willie Myers.

The finer arguments to be made

To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”

And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”

The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.

“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”