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Recent rains don’t diminish worries about water supplies

Monsoonal flows, which began in July, were well-received by Colorado residents and agricultural producers. But the rainfall was not enough to overcome extreme drought conditions and improve water supplies.

Craig Cotten, district engineer with the Colorado State Engineer’s office, provided The Produce News with a detailed snapshot of conditions experienced in the San Luis Valley this production season.

WaterOverviewWater running in the San Luis Valley is being blackened by ash as a result of the North Fork Fire, which had burned 110,000 acres by mid-August. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado State Engineer’s Office)“We had low spring runoff and flows,” he stated. “This was the fourth-lowest steamflow on record as the irrigation season began.” July rainfall changed hydro-dynamics somewhat. “It improved the situation to the point where it’s the 10th lowest year we’ve had in the last 120 years,” Cotten went on to say. “The rain did definitely help. But we’re not having a good year. [Agricultural producers] are glad to see the rain. But there’s a realization it’s not enough to change things.”

According to Cotten, water use at a “fair amount” of wells is decreasing in the valley. “Some wells are going dry,” he added, explaining that this means that wells that have traditionally pumped at 1,000 gallons per minute are now pumping at a rate of 200 gallons per minute.

Some producers have gone to Colorado Water Court seeking permission to deepen their wells. He illustrated by some owners who have wells drilled to a depth of 60 feet are seeking to increase that depth to 80 to 100 feet.

“Some objections have been filed [in Water Court],” Cotten said. Objectors contend that deepening of wells will worsen the overall situation in the valley. Requests for deepening of wells are dealt with in the same manner as other cases in Water Court. “These are multi-year cases. In the meantime, these farmers in are limbo.”

Prior to the July rainfall, ditches were running at 300 cubic feet per second. Immediately following rainfall, they flowed at 1,000 cfs. “They are at 600 cfs right now,” Cotten said in mid-August.

Ag producers are also being hit with the after-effects of the devastating North Fork Fire. “Water coming into the ditches is pretty black,” said Cotten about the ash content. The fire, which was still burning in mid-August, had already consumed 110,000 acres.

On other fronts, creation of the first groundwater management subdistrict in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is moving into its final stages. Despite arguments from objectors, this past spring Chief Judge Pattie Smith ruled in favor of the sufficiency of the subdistrict’s management plan. Objections to the ruling have been filed with the Colorado Supreme Court.

Cotten said the case has not yet been scheduled for oral arguments, and he expects the court will issue its ruling in 2014. He said objections only affect a few provisions of the overall management plan..

The State Engineer’s office continues to work on a computer model which will determine the extent of injury to the valley’s aquifer. “We’ve been working on that model for quite a while,” he stated, adding that he expects it will be completed this fall.

After the model is finalized, the State Engineer’s office will move forward with rule-making. A 55-member advisory committee, which has been working for the past three to four years, continues to provide its input. “The rules are 90 percent developed,” Cotten said. “The remaining 10 percent is the most important and is based on the model.”

Cotten said the National Resource and Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on the Conservation and Reserve Enhancement Program with a goal of taking 40,000 acres out of agricultural production within Subdistrict 1. “On average, approximately 100,000 acre feet of water could be saved,” Cotten stated. “There is a possibility we could get other acreage in [as new groundwater management subdistricts are formed].”

The Colorado CREP program is offering the highest amount of reimbursement per acre in the United States. But commodity pricing makes agricultural producers reluctant to participate, Cotten said. “The subdistrict sees this as a primary way to bring the aquifer back up,” Cotten stated. As a result, the subdistrict is also offering additional incentives for producers who sign up by Oct. 1.

Land fallowed under the program is taken out of production for a minimum of 15 years. The fallowing can become permanent.