THE federal government’s Closed Basin Project reared its head at Thursday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.

In question was whether Closed Basin water could be included in annual replacement plans as a potential resource for subdistricts to help offset winter depletions to the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins.

The majority of the board answered in the affirmative, with some dissent, and approved resolutions to that effect and then separately approved the respective annual replacement plans of the six subdistricts. Those now get filed with the state Division of Water Resources for review and sign-off and are key plans to show the state how Valley irrigators are replacing the water they pump out in efforts to bring sustainability to the Upper Rio Grande aquifers.

The meeting drew a crowd of water users along the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins, who had heard the subdistrict annual replacement plans were in jeopardy of not being approved because the plans included potential use of Closed Basin water. Without a board-approved annual replacement plan in place, irrigators wouldn’t be able to begin groundwater pumping, hence the turnout and pleas to the board to vote for the plans.

No annual replacement plan, no groundwater pumping, no Valley ag economy was the message the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board members heard.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-managed Closed Basin Project, positioned in the northern end of the Valley, pools surface water and groundwater and pumps the water into a canal to meet Rio Grande Compact and Treaty of Mexico requirements. 

In rulings from the Colorado Supreme Court, the water also can be prioritized for private use if there’s water left after meeting annual downstream obligations to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, and delivering water to the Valley’s wetlands and wildlife refuges. 

But rarely is that the case.

With the persistent drought conditions, the Closed Basin Project has reduced its pumping to about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year, said Amber Pacheco, acting general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Of that, about 4,000 acre-feet is used to protect the wetlands areas and the rest of the water, or around 8,000 acre-feet, heads downstream.

The Closed Basin has an absolute water right of 42,000 acre-feet annually if conditions allow for it, and pumping is constantly monitored because under federal statute the Closed Basin Project cannot withdraw water to a level two feet below the area being pumped.

“They can’t pump it dry,” Pacheco said. “The Closed Basin Project can’t operate that way.”

Pacheco said the Rio Grande Water Conservation District cannot use Closed Basin water for anything other than wintertime depletions. “We pay all our irrigation-season depletions by other means. We don’t use the Closed Basin for that.”

And despite there being plenty of water users who would like to see the Closed Basin Project shut down and the water kept in the San Luis Valley, including some members of Rio Grande Water Conservation District board, a vote to shut it down isn’t within the boards power.

“This board can’t shut down the Closed Basin. It’s a federal project. They can ask and make comments, but they can’t vote to shut it down.”

But the Rio Grande Water Conservation District can approve an annual replacement plan for a subdistrict that includes the option of using Closed Basin water to offset winter depletions. The meeting at least made that clear.