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Colorado water situation is a Tale of Two Basins

A comparison of water resources and availability in two of Colorado’s geographic regions reads like a Tale of Two Basins.

Dave Nettles, division engineer for Div. 1 of the state engineer’s office in Greeley, CO, said prospects in 2014 have greatly improved in the South Platte River Basin. The basin services agricultural producers located within or near the state’s most populous metropolitan area, the Front Range. Last year was turbulent for the region’s fresh producers, who saw their ability to irrigate severely curtailed.

Craig Cotten, Nettles’ counterpart in Div. 3 in Alamosa, CO, talked about conditions in the Rio Grande River Basin and Colorado’s San Luis Valley. He summed things up this way: “We have a low of 66 percent of average to a high of 97 percent of average,” he told The Produce News in early January. “We’re the lowest basin the state.”

According to Cotten, a study released this past December by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior reported on the future of water in the Rio Grande. Cotten said the report stated that lack of precipitation is expected to reduce water volume by one third by 2090.

The situation in southern Colorado contrasts sharply with conditions in northern Colorado.

“Snow pack is about average for the South Platte,” Nettles said, adding that rainy conditions this past fall had two significant effects in the region. Rain caused dramatic flooding in the region, but also filled the state’s irrigation reservoirs to full or near-full conditions.

The state engineer’s office continues with rule-making processes to address water use and conservation. In northern Colorado, Nettles said final rules were adopted to regulate well metering. Agricultural producers are required to be part of water augmentation plans approved by Water Court, or they must obtain approval of a substitute water supply plan. Nettles said the substitute plans are temporary in nature.

In the San Luis Valley, Cotten said the state engineer’s office is looking to finalize rules and regulations for groundwater use by April.

“I think we’re on track,” he told The Produce News.

The first self-regulating groundwater management subdistrict, whose operations are in full swing, covers five of the valley’s six counties. That subdistrict is charged with the responsibility of collecting user fees to purchase augmentation water and begin the process of replenishing the aquifer in the Rio Grande Conservation District to sustainable levels.

Within a year of completion of these regulations, Cotten said other subdistricts will be created in the valley.

“We’re contemplating seven,” he said. “But that’s a little up in the air. Most areas will have subdistricts.”

Once created, he said agricultural producers will have three choices: join a groundwater management subdistrict, secure augmentation water or stop pumping.

Both areas saw difficult fire seasons during 2013. But the effects to each were radically different.

Nettles said turbulent flooding had the net effect of washing away debris and ash from water. Sweet corn had already been harvested when the September flooding began. However, Nettles added that some onion stands were damaged as a result of flooding.

In southern Colorado, Cotten said agricultural producers are anticipating high levels of ash in water during 2014.

On other fronts, Cotten said Colorado, a party to the Colorado River Compact, is being brought into a lawsuit filed by Texas against New Mexico. Officials in Texas have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, which alleges that New Mexico is using more water than it is allowed under the interstate compact.