Efforts to save the Rio Grande picked up momentum in 2022

IN the world of water, 2022 was punctuated by significant land acquisitions intended to dry up more irrigated farmland in efforts to save the Rio Grande, and major legislation out of the Capitol Dome in Denver that will deliver millions of federal tax dollars to retire more groundwater wells in 2023 and beyond.

There was also the threat of federal legislation to help manage the affairs of the Rio Grande, and a call by the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos in New Mexico for a seat at the table that brought a sense of drama to the annual Rio Grande Compact meeting held in Alamosa.

Then, of course, there was Douglas County and Renewable Water Resources.

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The year, as noted by State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Conservation District, started with promise but was quickly overtaken by reality.

“I will always remember how 2022 started in the Valley, on the heels of nearly the lowest annual pumping ever recorded within subdistrict #1 in 2021, we started January of this year at the lowest unconfined aquifer level ever recorded in January,” he said. “That’s such an eye opener; we have been recording the change in the unconfined aquifer every month beginning in January of 1976. Aquifer conditions continued to be problematic with near record lows ever recorded in September. So much more work to be done to balance our demands with our supplies.”

Others found inspiration in the urgency being brought to correct the water problem.

“I am continually amazed by the willingness of farmers and ranchers to step up to the challenge,” said Sarah Parmer, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands, whose own work to establish the first-ever groundwater conservation easement in the state helped mark the year of work in the Valley’s water world.

What follows is a recap of those efforts and a preview of how efforts to “Save the Rio” will continue to play out in the new year.

sun rises behind a mountain

PHOTO: Andrew Parnes

sun rises behind a mountain

PHOTO: Andrew Parnes

A new way to manage the Rio Grande

THE December announcement by Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that Valley farmer Ron Bowman had entered into a groundwater conservation easement to restrict the use of groundwater on his nearly 1,900-acre ranch northeast of Moffat showcased a new way for water managers and farmers to address the problems of the two aquifers in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. ​

The commitment also set a timeline for Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to purchase the ranch for $2.6 million, a deal it will be looking to close in 2023 with a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The subdistrict’s acquisition of the entire ranch not only saves groundwater from being pumped, but importantly helps Subdistrict 4 achieve its sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer as well as offset stream depletions to nearby San Luis Creek from groundwater pumping that occurs in Subdistricts 4 and 5.

Here’s more of an explanation of how the groundwater conservation easement works and why the purchase of the Bowman ranch is key to sustainability for the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande.

a dirt road leads through a green field toward the ranch, with mountains and a cloudy sky in the background
a dirt road leads through a green field toward the ranch, with mountains and a cloudy sky in the background

How the Hazard ranch sale saved the day in Saguache County

BEFORE Ron Bowman signed on to a groundwater conservation easement near Moffat, Perry Hazard was having deep conversations with his family about letting go of the century-old family ranch and selling it to Subdistrict 5 of Rio Grande Conservation District – again to save water. The sale of the Hazard ranch reverberated through Saguache County as residents came to the realization that the need to reduce irrigated water consumption was bigger than anyone and any farm operation.

“In this particular instance,” said George Whitten, vice president of the Subdistrict 5 Board of Managers, “had we not been able to secure that water and we weren’t able to actually establish an annual replacement that satisfies the state, then there would have been about 8,000 acres of meadow land that would have been lost.”

Here’s more on the meaning of the sale and how the Hazard family, a symbol of historical and cultural pioneering in Saguache, came to save the day.

The acquisitions of both the Bowman ranch in Moffat and Hazard ranch in Saguache are key to restoring balance to the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Both sales also demonstrate how oversight from the state and adherence to the state’s groundwater rules that govern irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley are constantly on the minds of farmers and ranchers.

center-pivot spray irrigation system with irrigated field on left, fallow on the right
center-pivot spray irrigation system with irrigated field on left, fallow on the right

State Engineer: Upper Rio Grande is ‘actually quite good

JUST uttering the name of Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein causes a farmer’s rash. But Rein, in an August interview with Alamosa Citizen, gave a tip of the cap to Valley irrigators for their constant work and vigilance around the conditions of the Upper Rio Grande.

“It has taken a lot of innovative thought and hard work from a lot of people in the Basin to achieve that,” Rein said of the progress made. “These administration tools allow us to manage our water in good water years and bad water years. Add to that, we are in compliance with our interstate compact on the Rio Grande with Texas and New Mexico.”

Rein had a lot more to say  about the ongoing work to save the Rio Grande in our QA. He was also present when the Middle Rio Grande Pueblos made their request for a “seat at the table” at the 2022 Rio Grande Compact meeting in Alamosa.

Pueblo Isleta Governor Vernon Abeyta addresses Rio Grande Compact commissioners
Pueblo Isleta Governor Vernon Abeyta addresses Rio Grande Compact commissioners

New Mexico Pueblos call for ‘seat at the table’

“NEW Mexico’s Pueblos are the oldest irrigators in the Rio Grande Valley and the six of us in the Middle Rio Grande work collectively to manage and protect our water rights and water resources,” said Pueblo Isleta Governor Vernon Abeyta. “It is now time the coalition interacts with the commission directly and for the commission to engage the coalition Pueblos so that our voices can be heard. Today we are calling for a seat at the table with issues concerning our water rights and resources being discussed and decisions made.”

It was a dramatic moment to witness and one that foreshadowed efforts of others like the Ute Mountain Utes in the Four Corners Region to call for a voice in negotiations around the Colorado River Basin and its troubles. Adding to the water-related drama was the U.S. Supreme when it agreed in November to hear an appeal on the rights of the Navajo Nation to draw water from the Colorado River. The development added more uncertainty to how the U.S. ultimately views Native Americans and their call for a seat at the table when it comes to water rights in both the Rio Grande and Colorado River basins.

The Rio Grande Canal on a bright sunny day with mountains in the background
The Rio Grande Canal on a bright sunny day with mountains in the background

Rio Grande recovery efforts get state investment

Efforts to recover the aquifers of the Rio Grande got a major boost when the Colorado Legislature adopted Senate Bill 28 offered up by Simpson. Simpson wears three hats in the water world: He is the state senator representing the San Luis Valley and the interests of farmers and irrigators in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. He’s also the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and he is the only state legislator who runs his own farm operation.

What he delivered in Senate Bill 28, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, was $30 million to retire more groundwater wells in the San Luis Valley. The legislation found zero opposition, a rarity in the sausage-making of state legislation, but tapping into the money is proving to be much more challenging than getting the legislation across the finish line.

Simpson and his board at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District continue to work through a process that will allow farmers to apply for the money through the state Division of Water Resources. The clock is running to distribute the money, which came through Colorado’s share of federal COVID relief dollars, and 2023 will prove to be a pivotal year for Simpson and his board as they set their sights on retiring more groundwater wells and more irrigated acreage in the San Luis Valley.

Marisa Fricke leans on the pitchfork she uses to clear waterways on Subdistrict 1 land
Marisa Fricke leans on the pitchfork she uses to clear waterways on Subdistrict 1 land

Valley farmers tie their fate to Mother Nature

WHILE Simpson was crafting Senate Bill 28, farmers back home in the Valley were looking to take even more drastic steps in their efforts to meet state targets on groundwater pumping and recharging of the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s unconfined aquifer. In Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, board managers crafted a new Plan of Water Management that would tie the level of groundwater pumping allowed to the natural surface water of the property.

The plan was adopted and sent along to Rein and the state Division of Water Resources for review and sign off. So far it’s still a proposal, with the state sending feedback and the Subdistrict 1 board working through what the state wants to see.

“Subdistrict No. 1 has a standard, as required by state statute and articulated in their current Plan of Water Management, that is very specific in terms of an aquifer storage level and the need to achieve that level within a specified time,” Rein said during the summer. “While the Subdistrict has taken steps to meet that goal during the last decade, the current drought and the associated reduction in available surface water has impacted the Subdistrict’s ability to recover the aquifer. This is not new information for the members of the Subdistrict and I believe that meeting the current goal within the specified time would require measures more drastic than the Subdistrict anticipated 11 years ago.”

The deliberations in Subdistrict 1 and the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin perfectly illustrate the complicated nature of water management during two-plus decades of drought – the longest drought in at least 1,200 years, according to Wired Magazine.

Subdistrict 1 is the most lucrative corridor for farming in the San Luis Valley. As such its fate weighs heavily on water managers. The subdistrict is the biggest land subdivision in the Valley, with 3,000 water wells. Farm operators in the subdistrict hold contracts with Coors, Walmart, Safeway and account for bulk of the potatoes grown and distributed across the U.S. and Mexico. Collectively the cash crops in Subdistrict 1 are valued at approximately $400 million.

How Subdistrict 1 is able to survive and meet the state’s orders on groundwater pumping and recovery of the unconfined aquifer will again dominate the water conversation in 2023.

a view of dense housing development in Douglas County with the RWR proposal superimposed
a view of dense housing development in Douglas County with the RWR proposal superimposed

Then there’s Douglas County and Renewable Water Resources

THE struggles of the Rio Grande and the plight of farmers falls largely on deaf ears in the commissioners’ chambers of Douglas County, the poster child for sprawl along Colorado’s Front Range.

Ever since former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his sidekick Sean Tonner submitted their proposed plan to pump 20,000 acre-feet of water annually every year from the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande, and ever since the startup Alamosa Citizen initially reported and brought attention to the scheme in December 2021, it’s been drama after drama with the Douglas County Commissioners.

Commissioner Lora Thomas immediately recognized the problems with the Upper Rio Grande and took the position that Douglas County has no business looking to move water from the Valley to feed the growth of Douglas County.

But she’s outnumbered. Commissioner George Teal is on board and doing heavy cheerleading, and Commissioner Abe Laydon, while professing neutrality, has downplayed the seriousness of the Rio Grande’s troubles and failed to grasp the urgent nature of the Valley’s water problem.

Over and over, through email correspondence, the three commissioners were told by their constituents to find another solution to Douglas County’s water needs. The water attorneys Douglas County hired to help analyze the RWR proposal have been specific in spelling out the legal problems and poking holes in the plan. On two occasions the attorneys sat in executive sessions with the commissioners and articulated the problems, only to have Teal and Laydon refuse to walk away.

For their part, Owens and Tonner have brought lobbyists on board to work the state legislature and find a way around the state’s groundwater rules related to the Rio Grande. The pair had hoped the 2022 Midterm Election would yield a more favorable Colorado Legislature to their cause but it did not, and with Simpson monitoring their every move at the state Capitol, it’s difficult to see how RWR will find the “legislative fix” it is banking on.

Owens and Tonner also aren’t the only strategists in this long game. County Commissioners across the San Luis Valley have been meeting over a plan to have individual counties adopt a local zoning code that would require RWR or any other group interested in pumping groundwater from the San Luis Valley to get approval from every county in the Valley before water exportation could happen.

It’s another way the San Luis Valley is working to save the Rio Grande.


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