Board debates requirements to access $30 million earmark in state Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund
IRRIGATED agricultural land in the San Luis Valley is worth $250,000 for 160 acres, or $2,000 per acre-foot of groundwater withdrawn.
At least those are the valuations on irrigated acres that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board agreed to during a special meeting Tuesday when it debated requirements for farmers and ranchers to apply for a $30 million pool of state money.
The water conservation district board will meet again on Friday, March 3, to formally adopt the requirements.
Developing the criteria to access the $30 million tied to state law SB22-028 and its Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund was a painstaking process for the water conservation district board, which has met for hours and hours over a series of meetings to hash out the requirements.
Cleave Simpson, the architect of SB22-028 and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, always said drafting the requirements would prove to be more difficult than getting the legislation adopted, and he was right.
“This whole plan is not easy to understand,” said board member Peggy Godfrey in her pleas for simplicity in drafting the requirements.
The state law is intended to help irrigators in the Upper Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin meet their water obligations by retiring irrigated acreage. Each basin has an earmark of $30 million. In the case of San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers, the money has to be spent to permanently retire groundwater pumping wells to help the Upper Rio Grande meet the state’s groundwater pumping regulations and stabilize the two aquifers in the San Luis Valley.
David Robbins, the water conservation district’s long-standing attorney, emphasized that the requirements have to result in a “verifiable reduction in groundwater wells.” The state program is essentially a $30 million “buy and dry” for irrigated acres in the Valley, Robbins has said.
Once adopted, the Colorado Division of Water Resources will review the requirements before they go into effect. The state takes at least a month to review and approve the requirements adopted by the water conservation board, according to Robbins.
That means it would be sometime in April and into the spring that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District would begin to accept applications and start to spend down the $30 million earmark. Amber Pacheco, acting general manager, said the water conservation district is already getting phone calls from groundwater well irrigators looking to apply for the money.
Under the state law, any of the $60 million not spent by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and Republican River Conservation District by Aug. 15, 2024, goes into the state’s kitty for spending. The money is part of Colorado’s federal appropriation of COVID-19 relief funding.
In opting to establish a “base payment” that values a quarter section of irrigated land (160 acres) at $250,000, the board knew that it may overpay on some properties and underpay on others.
“We’re going to hear that,” said board member Steve Keller. “This is where simplicity works against accuracy.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s debate when some revisions were made to the draft, Robbins advised board members to be careful not to advocate for criteria that could benefit their own farm operations. That prompted board member Mike Kruse to recuse himself from the deliberations. Kruse has said he plans to submit an application for some of the $30 million.
The water conservation district board had to account for different sizes of farming operations that may apply for the money. The section on land compensation reads, in part: “Applications that seek to include parcels of property that are either larger or smaller than a standard quarter section (160 acres) will receive a prorated base payment that will rely on the decreed and/or permitted irrigated acres for the serving well(s), using $250,000 for 160 acres as the base. [For example: a half quarter at 80 acres would have a base payment of $125,000 or a parcel of 240 acres would have a base payment of $375,000].”
“I don’t want this $30 million to go away. I want to spend it all,” said Greg Higel, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board.
Once the state approves the requirements, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will publicize them on its website. A draft of the requirements is posted here, but note that this draft was slightly modified in language in a few sections during Tuesday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is not the final draft.