Pat McDermott, a longtime staff engineer with the Division of Water Resources, opened the Roundtable Discussion on water at the Agricultural Conference in Monte Vista with a comparison of two contrasting water years — 2018 and 2019.
He informed his audience that 2018 was “the fourth worst year for water flow in the Rio Grande since the late 1800s. In June 2018, [water flow] was at 15 percent of normal — it was a terrible year.” By way of contrast, 2019 was “the biggest year since 1999,” and the 16th best year according to the records, he commented Tuesday. Runoff was “especially outstanding” on the Conejos River.
In early to mid-summer of 2019, water delivery peaked at 8,000 cfs on the Rio Grande producing an annual volume of 929,000 acre-feet , that is 142 percent of the long-term average.” The high runoff lasted until July, when water flow stood at 241 percent. But the following months were dry, because the Valley did not receive its usual monsoons.
August 2019 water flow was at 163 percent, September was 76 percent, and it stood at only 60 percent of normal in October. “We had senior rights called out in September and October last year that had never been called out like that,” McDermott commented this past Tuesday, meaning their water use was cut back due to the low available flow.
The dry months caused problems in meeting water delivery to New Mexico and Texas in fulfillment of the Rio Grande Water Compact. The Division of Water Resources had projected an additional 60,000 acre-feet of index for the Rio Grande during the 2019 calendar year. Lack of rainfall within the basin caused the estimated index to plummet and the curtailment had to be reduced during the latter portion of the irrigation season. A total of 561,000 acre-feet was delivered to the downstream states (New Mexico and Texas).
At the conference, McDermott estimated that the Rio Grande side of the compact will have a credit of 900 acre-feet. While moisture was at a low in November, it has “recovered nicely,” he said, and Tuesday moisture levels stood at 108 percent of normal, with the southern Sangre de Cristo Range “in good shape.” The forecast predicts a dry spring for the southwest, but nowhere near 2002 levels, he concluded.
Division Engineer Craig Cotten spoke next, announcing that Judge Michael Gonzales is the new water judge for the Valley. Gonzales is the one who will enforce the upcoming Rules and Regulations for nonexempt well use in the San Luis Valley. These groundwater rules were approved in 2019 for all nonexempt wells in Division 3 except for those wells around San Luis. These wells must remedy injurious depletions to ditch water rights.
Ground water rules will see a two-year, phase-in period and subdistricts must be in compliance by March 2021. Augmentation plans must be finalized by March 15, 2021, or must go to a substitute water supply plan.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District Director Cleave Simpson said his district has an “exceptional staff” helping to manage the subdistricts. The district also works on other things pertaining to the State Legislature. The Rio Grande Natural Area and other entities also are managed by the District.
Simpson introduced his subdistrict managers, Marisa Fricke (Subdistrict 1), Amber Pacheco (Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6), and Chris Ivers (Subdistricts 4 and 5) who reported on the progress of each subdistrict.
Dutton, manager for the SLV Water Conservation District, said augmentation projects have been in place in five counties since the 1980s. She said the District has the majority of the Pine River - Weminuche Transmountain Ditch and owns several other water rights. Augmentation is available for domestic, commercial, industrial and municipal wells.
It is also available for agricultural purposes, “but gets quite expensive,” she said. Dutton provided a table for potato growers to help them estimate the cost of augmentation for their storage and humidification operations.
RWR water transport
State climatologist Russell Schumacher tackled the Renewable Water Resources plan to transport water from the Valley. “This basin’s demand exceeds supply and has for the last two decades,” he said. “We won’t be sending water out of this basin. It won’t be easy, but we will figure it out.”
He noted that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) said “not no, but hell no” to the water transport plan.
For those considering the option of selling water to RWR, Schumacher extended the offer to come talk to RGWCD for options before signing any deal. “This is a trans-basin diversion,” he told the audience. “The San Luis Valley has no legal obligation to retire stream flow or unconfined aquifer wells,” something the RWR site wrongly states.