San Luis Valley’s natural environments in decline as climate change takes hold
DECLINING aquifers, deteriorating wetlands, and an overall warming of the San Luis Valley. These are hallmarks of the changing climate and a phenomenon that has biologists Cary Aloia and Jenny Nehring, and Rio Grande Water Conservation District general manager and state senator Cleave Simpson, beyond concerned.
The Alamosa Citizen interviewed Aloia and Nehring about their research and what they see ahead (LINK), and spent time with Simpson to talk about conservation efforts and other strategies by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and farm managers of the Valley.
“I see the variability in our climate as one of the biggest changes,” said Aloia, noting the freak snowstorm in September 2020. “We keep saying amongst ourselves, ‘Gosh, this isn’t normal. But you know what, nothing is normal anymore in the things that we’re seeing.”
“Look, this is the biggest challenge facing the ag and water community, which again affects everybody in this Valley,” said Simpson. “It’s such an imbalance between supply and demand.”
The Upper Rio Grande Water Basin is over-appropriated, meaning the state of Colorado decades ago granted too many water wells that draw from the aquifers of the Rio Grande. Now, both as a result of groundwater withdrawals and as climate change diminishes the surface water and natural water coming in from snow packs, Valley farmers are having to voluntarily choose not to plant a field in a particular year or retire a water well to lessen the impact the changing climate has on efforts to restore the Rio Grande.
“There’s probably about 45,000 acres here that don’t have a water supply going forward,” Simpson said of the Valley’s irrigated farm land. “Challenges are immense and you can do some improvements with irrigation efficiency which will help in some regard, but it won’t solve the problem.”
Through the formation of six subdistricts, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District has been making progress in implementing voluntary conservation measures to help restore some balance to how much water is available for farming. The subdistricts were established as “communities of interest” with similar hydrology and geology characteristics, and each has a board of managers to help direct strategy.
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1 is the most watched because it relies on the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, which is the shallowest of the aquifers that run through the Valley floor.
The subdistrict is under a state court decree to restore the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 after the aquifer lost an estimated 1 million acre-feet of water from 2002 to 2004 to groundwater pumping and drought. It’s the court decree and the subdistrict’s court-approved Plan of Water Management that calls for the Valley to permanently retire around 40,000 acres of irrigated land.
“In order to restore balance between available supplies and current levels of use it will be necessary to permanently reduce the amount of consumptive use per year from the Unconfined Aquifer by up to 80,000 acre-feet per year, which is represented by the reduction of approximately 40,000 acres,” is the language of the subdistrict’s water management plan.
Marisa Fricke, program manager for Subdistrict 1, said there remains a healthy level of optimism among farmers that the subdistrict will meet the state’s requirements. She reaches that conclusion after seeing more farmers enrolling in measures like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which pays producers to not use a particular water well for 15 years. If the farm producer enrolled in the permanent CREP program, then the well is permanently retired after 15 years when the payments end. But if the farm manager enrolled in the temporary program, which more are doing, the well can come back into operation after the 15-year period.
“The optimism is still there, and so farmers are taking advantage of all these different opportunities to keep farming in the Valley,” said Fricke. “When you lose optimism, that’s when you lose people wanting to stay here.”
Faced now with back-to-back dry years, compounded by what’s been 20 years of drought going back to 2002, the board of Subdistrict 1 is looking to get even more assertive with its measures.
Under discussion is a strategy that requires crop producers in Subdistrict 1 to use only their surface water and be charged an overpumping fee of $500 per acre for exceeding the allotment. An overpumping fee of $150 per acre currently is in place for Subdistrict 1 farm operations through the court-approved Plan of Water Management. Taking it to $500 per acre signals a more aggressive strategy to address the unconfined aquifer and the state’s orders.
It’s a multi-step approval process to implement a higher overpumping fee through an amended water management plan, but the subdistrict and water conservation district are signaling their intention to move ahead.
These are delicate steps explained along the way through community meetings with farmers and communications from the water conservation district. For Subdistrict 1, in particular, it’s a sensitive time as the state monitors the annual progress of bringing sustainability to the unconfined aquifer.
“The subdistrict truly is faced with a sense of urgency to say, ‘You have a decree, you have a document that says you have to accomplish this in a certain timeframe,’” said Simpson. “So it’s certainly warranted to have some different ideas and different perspectives about ‘How are we going to solve this?’ Because what we’ve been doing for 10 years hasn’t moved us where we need to go.”
Simpson takes his cues on the state of the Rio Grande Basin from the stream flows that come in at Del Norte. Historically the stream flows at the Del Norte water station have been at 800,000 acre-feet for multiple years within a certain decade. “Over the last 20 years,” said Simpson, “we’ve had one year greater than 800,000 acre-feet.”
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