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Rulemaking addresses diminishing water supply in valley

The Colorado State Engineer’s Office continues to work through the rulemaking process to regulate the use of water in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. District Engineer Craig Cotten said the State Engineer’s office is hoping rules will be finalized during 2013. The complex process, which began several years ago, has become all the more earnest as Colorado’s drought conditions continue to worsen.

The Colorado State Engineer’s Office was given authority to regulate groundwater in the San Luis Valley in 2005. WaterOverviewAccording to the State Engineer’s Office, Colorado is in its fifth consecutive year for below-average stream flows in the San Luis Valley. (Photo courtesy of the Craig Cotten/State Engineer’s Office)One of the most significant provisions of the enabling legislation allowed for the formation of self-regulating groundwater management subdistricts.

The first subdistrict created covers five of the six counties in the San Luis Valley and is authorized to collect user fees to facilitate the purchase of augmentation water and begin replenishment of the uncontained aquifer in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District back to sustainable levels. Injuries date back as far as 20 years.

“People are starting to realize this is real,” he told The Produce News on Jan. 4, adding that the rules will affect high capacity wells pumping water at a rate of over 50 gallons per minute. Agricultural producers are faced with only three options. Mr. Cotten said they become part of a groundwater management subdistrict, purchase augmentation water, or shut wells down.

Subdistrict fee collection also provides assistance to farmers who allow their land to become fallow as a way to decrease water consumption. Last year, Mr. Cotten said 9,000 acres of farmland were fallowed. An additional 20,000 acres were fallowed because producers could not ring in full crops.

“Even with fallowing, we actually lost water in our aquifer,” he went on to say, quantifying the loss at 160,000 acre feet of water. “This was mainly attributed to the drought.”

The situation in 2013 with snowpack and runoff isn’t positive. According to Mr. Cotten, this is the fifth consecutive year for below-average stream flows in the valley. During this time, producers relied more heavily on wells.

“It will be very similar to 2012. We just got a preliminary forecast from the National Resources Conservation Service,” he said. “January flow is 64 percent of normal. Snowpack is down. We need 130 percent of average snowfall to get us up to an average snowfall year.” March and April are typically the snowiest months in the Centennial State.

The legal process involved with the creation of the first groundwater management subdistrict is still wending its way through Water Court.

Last October, objectors presented arguments on the sufficiency of the district’s management plan. Mr. Cotten said Chief District Judge Pattie Swift is expected to issue her ruling in early 2013.

Using the first subdistrict as a template, approximately eight other subdistricts in the San Luis Valley are in various phases of development.

The State Engineer’s office hopes to have rules finalized during 2013. A new court process will be initiated upon finalization, and the public will have an opportunity to provide feedback to Water Court.

Once the final rules are implemented, Mr. Cotten said there will be a phase-in period to help agricultural producers come into compliance.