Rio Grande Water Conservation District Subdistrict 1 pushes forward
on new amended water plan

IT was a day of difficult conversations at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Friday. The Subdistrict 1 board of managers was in session to fine-tune an amended strategy to recover the Rio Grande’s unconfined aquifer by covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits.

It is a dramatic shift that brought out emotions and concerns. “We’re talking about a lot of acres drying up,” said Jamie Hart, one of four Subdistrict 1 board members representing the Rio Grande Canal Water Users Association.

The proposed third amendment to the District’s plan, which ultimately needs approval from State Engineer Kevin Rein and the state Division 3 Water Court, calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds. 

It also asks for more time to restore the unconfined aquifer. An existing court order requires the conservation district to recover enough water to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 or face a shutdown of water wells by the state.

The amended plan discussed Friday would give the conservation district 20 years to recover the aquifer, with a promise from Subdistrict 1 producers that they would restore 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year over a 20-year period, and would make any adjustments to the plan only every five years in that 20-year cycle.

Based on modeling conducted by Willem Schreuder, president of Principia Mathematica in Denver, there was a high level of confidence among farm operators that the new proposal would succeed in meeting the state’s requirement of a sustainable aquifer. The earliest an amended plan could take effect would be for the 2023 irrigation season, and that would be a push given the approval process and likely challenges coming from operators within the subdistrict.

Some farm operators in Subdistrict 1 are filing their own augmentation plans with the state Division 3 Water Court in lieu of joining a new amended plan by the conservation district. That development, and concern other farm operators will follow suit, also had Subdistrict 1 board managers talking.

“We are going to be much better off if we stay together,” said Subdistrict 1 board member Carla Worley. 

Ex-officio board member Mike Kruse offered a different perspective. “If individuals can go do their own thing, I say more power to them.” He added that if a farm operator files its own augmentation plan and isn’t successful, it would be important to let that operator back into the subdistrict. 

“I would advocate that should they pursue those things and they fail, I would hope the subdistrict would remain amicable and not make it difficult for them to come back in,” Kruse said.

A shift to surface water and surface water credits underscores the urgency the conservation district feels in making greater progress toward a sustainable aquifer. The new 20-year plan, once in place for five years, would then build a “sustainability factor” into the mathematical equation of how much water is being used and returned to the unconfined aquifer by an individual operator.

“Based on what we know, the plan can have a positive effect by reducing groundwater withdrawals and, therefore, recovering the aquifer in a more timely manner,” State Engineer Kevin Rein said in an email exchange with Alamosa Citizen

The amended water plan still has to gain formal approval from the Subdistrict 1 board and then the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board before it is submitted to Rein for his review and approval.

“I can’t say whether the plan itself is absolutely necessary,” he said, “but we do see the need for more impactful actions if the Subdistrict is going to achieve its sustainability goals. This could be one of those actions and a significant step.”

Read these earlier stories for greater understanding of Subdistrict 1 and what’s at stake: ​​

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