Saguache commissioners tap into aquifer data

SAGUACHE — After Saguache County Commissioners added agenda items and scrutinized minutiae in their latest minutes, they kicked off their Jan. 3 meeting with an eye on reduced aquifer measurements from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD).

“I just looked at Well 10 pretty closely,” Commissioner Tom McCracken mentioned, referencing one data point west of Saguache Creek and north of Center. “It looks to me like unless there is some significant recovery between December and January, we’re going to start the year again lower than last year.”

McCracken noted how the aquifer made a slight recovery during the past two months, but “it’s still lower than it was last year. We’re supposed to be recovering the aquifer right now, even with [RGWCD] Subdistrict 5 not pumping for a while.”

In 2022, the Colorado Division of Water Resources shut off some Subdistrict 5 wells for a spell.

“During the last Subdistrict 5 meeting,” Commissioner Tim Lovato added, “they had to — by the first of the year — come up with the percentage they would pump this year for their SWSP [Substitute Water Supply Plan]. They chose to go with 85 percent.”

Factored over a five-year running average, this 15 percent reduction is half of the percentage designated for the last two years. Lovato added that Saguache Creek only ran at 50 percent of its normal flow last year. At the same time, the groundwater irrigators only pumped 52 percent of their normal consumption. However, these twin reductions of roughly equal percentage didn’t cancel each other out in the final tally. The groundwater table measurements are low.

With headwaters near Table Mountain, Saguache Creek flows into the upper north side of the San Luis Valley and quickly dives underground to trickle south unseen. Even the signs that identify Saguache Creek near the town of Saguache are now unreadable. They have faded from blue to white like old jeans.

San Luis Creek also goes underground before intersecting with Saguache Creek in the Closed Basin Project area. Without a surface outlet to the Rio Grande, the basin earned its name for collecting water at the low point of San Luis Lakes. The basin earned its Bureau of Reclamation funding as a mitigation measure for compliance with the Rio Grande Compact of 1939.

The San Luis Lakes are dry today as water flows through a 42-mile conveyance channel to the Rio Grande. Covering a long swath through the center of the valley, the Closed Basin project includes 115 miles of pipeline laterals, 170 water salvage wells, and 132 observation wells.

After a break and an executive session for personal personnel issues, the board received an update from Theresa Jehn-Dellaport, the founder and principal of Quantum Water and Environment. She outlined timelines for requesting grant funding from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable. Jehn-Dellaport’s company is pitching in $10,000 for the $385,000 project. They are looking to install monitoring equipment that, if properly maintained, could provide data indefinitely.

“The unconfined aquifer within the study area will benefit from enhanced information,” Jehn-Dellaport explained. “We also want to understand how the unconfined aquifer works with surface water. If you pump the unconfined aquifer, how does that affect Saguache Creek and the wetlands?”

The board approved the grant proposal summary for submission, pending removal of the “Draft” watermark before the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meeting on Jan. 10. The group will likely approve or respond on the same day.

Other than Subdistrict 5, no other RGWCD subdistricts have widely announced a percentage reduction in pumping for 2023. All six subdistricts hold rolling quarterly meetings from January through March, starting with the full RGWCD Board of Directors at 10 a.m. on Jan. 17 (via ZOOM and at the RGWCD headquarters in Alamosa). Subdistrict 5 will meet in the same room on Jan. 18 at 5 p.m. Subdistricts 2 and 6 meet in February, followed by Subdistricts 1, 3, and 4 in early March.