To develop the Rio Grande Basin Plan the Basin Plan’s Steering Committee and subcommittees identified 14 goals for the Plan. These goals focus on the most important issues confronting the Basin and strive to achieve long-term sustainability in water supplies and uses.
Most of the goals address all four of the need categories identified in the Plan: Agriculture (Ag), Municipal and Industrial (M&I), Environmental and Recreational (Env&Rec), and Water Administration WAdm).
These goals will be used by the BRT to develop projects and evaluate proposals brought forward for funding.
CONSTRAINTS AND CHALLENGES
The Basin will face major challenges with respect to future water management. These are summarized below.
THE RIO GRANDE COMPACT
The State of Colorado, through the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR), is charged with administering the mandatory obligations of the Rio Grande Compact. This duty essentially makes Compact flows the number 1 priority water right that is to be satisfied before all other water rights are met. The Division Engineer uses the annual flow forecasts to determine the flow obligation. Overestimation or underestimation of annual streamflow can result in impacts to water rights users and under- or over-delivery of Compact obligations. To meet the Compact obligations, holders of more junior water rights often have to forgo taking their water or are curtailed, reducing their ability to maximize crop production. An irrigation season, usually April 1 to November 1, has been established, and all flows outside of the irrigation season are delivered to the Colorado–New Mexico state line. During the irrigation season, the Division Engineer determines daily curtailment to irrigators in order to meet the remaining Compact obligation. In recent years, the factors affecting hydrology have made flow forecasting exceedingly difficult, resulting in high curtailment of both junior and senior water rights holders during the irrigation season. The consequence of this is the reduction of river flows available for consumption in the Basin, which further increases the demand on groundwater to offset shortages. This has led to depletion of the aquifers and the need to rebalance the water uses to achieve a sustainable water supply.
FACTORS AFFECTING HYDROLOGY
Environmental conditions, which impact streamflows, habitat, and the condition of the watershed, are an important component in water management and its implementation in the Basin. These environmental challenges include:
- Prolonged and Lingering Drought
An extended drought that began in 2002 and continues into 2015 has resulted in significant reduction in snowpack accumulation and runoff in the Basin and beyond. Manifesting in reduced stream and river flows, this has broad implications for surface water management and use. This trend has also served as a catalyst for erratic wildfire behavior, beetle outbreaks, and dust on snow events.
- Forest Fires
Increased intensity and size of wildfires is caused in part by drought conditions and beetle-killed forests.
- Beetle Kill
The Colorado-wide epidemic of beetle-killed forests, which has been extensive in the Basin, creates complex factors that affect surface water and groundwater hydrology by altering snow accumulation and infiltration, changing the timing of snow melt, accelerating forest succession, and increasing wildfire intensity.
- Dust on Snow
Driven by high winds that transport and deposit dust onto the winter snowpack, the phenomenon known as dust on snow has a measurable effect on the rate at which snow melts. It may cause the peak runoff to occur as much as three weeks earlier than historically has occurred and may decrease annual runoff by as much as 5%.
- Climate Change
Climate change studies predict that the southwestern United States, including the Rio Grande headwaters, will experience higher temperatures and reduced precipitation compared to historic levels. This will result in earlier runoff as well as reduced streamflow and water supplies, by an estimated 30% over the next 50–100 years, in the entire Rio Grande Basin. While the implications of climate change are not fully known or understood, the community will continue to monitor this issue and the BRT is seeking ways to prepare for and enhance the Basin’s resiliency in the face of these changes.
A severe drought and warmer temperatures have led to declining river flows and earlier snowmelt, causing peak flows to occur much before the greatest need for irrigation. From 2000 to 2014 the flows in the Rio Grande have totaled 1.8 million AF less than the total would have been if the Basin received long-term average flows during the same time period. Reduced surface water supply has meant less available water for surface irrigation and aquifer recharge. The subsequent increase in reliance on groundwater to meet growing season needs has led to depletion of streamflows and significant declines in the unconfined aquifer, which has fallen by as much as 1 million AF since 2002.
Although irrigators pump the greatest percentage of groundwater for agriculture, pumping for municipal, recreation, and environmental uses is important to the Basin. All of the towns in the Basin rely on wells for their municipal supply. Additionally, many State Wildlife Areas and USFWS and BLM Wildlife Refuges utilize wells to create habitat and grow food for local and migrating wildlife. Finally, aquifer levels are important to many surface and subsurface hydrologic features of the Basin, such as the hydrology of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the health of countless wetland complexes, and the ability of producers to harvest hay and graze livestock in historically sub-irrigated pastures.
Basin groundwater users recognized that the “race to the bottom” of the aquifers would result in a tragedy of the commons where all uses would be eliminated if everyone did not work to bring pumping to sustainable levels. From this realization came the idea of self-governance through Groundwater Management Subdist ricts, enabled by SB-222, to be formed under the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD). Subdistricts are discussed in the methods section.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources identified the need to promulgate Well Rules and Regulations for existing uses of groundwater in the Basin. The rules will meet the requirements of SB-222, including the prevention of injury, providing for sustainable groundwater supplies, and preventing interference with meeting Colorado’s obligation under the Rio Grande Compact. Well rules will require groundwater users to shut off wells, obtain an augmentation plan, or join a Groundwater Management Subdistrict.
It is recognized that funding of water projects, both in the Basin and statewide, will continue to be a significant challenge. Regardless, implementation of the projects identified in the Plan is critical. The Basin has a history of positive cooperation in protecting water resources and implementing water-related projects. Multi-purpose projects and public/private partnerships that provide multiple benefits have a strong track record of success and broad-based support for securing funds and achieving implementation. Many Basin entities have succeeded in obtaining such funding as State and federal grants, loans, donations, and in-kind contributions and will continue to seek diverse support for needed projects. The BRT will continue to encourage cooperative projects and diversified funding.
OPPORTUNITIES AND PROJECTS AND METHODS
There are a number of identified water management projects that meet a broad array of existing and future water demands. Most of these efforts build upon cooperative efforts between a variety of stakeholders and interests. Projects identified in the Plan provide an overview of current strategies and how they address needs and the associated challenges. In addition, there are no limits to other potential efforts that may be identified and can address future opportunities.
GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT SUBDISTRICTS
COOPERATIVE PROJECTS WITH BASIN RESERVOIRS
IMPROVING STREAMFLOW FORECASTING
IMPROVING WETLANDS AND RIPARIAN AREAS
STRATEGIC CROP DEVELOPMENT AND IRRIGATION IMPROVEMENTS
CONCLUSION: THE WAY FORWARD
Identifying critical challenges and developing clear solutions for managing water resources is a vital step in the Basin’s path forward. The ongoing economic prosperity of this unique region, the health of its environment and wildlife habitat, and the development of recreational opportunities for the community all depend upon implementation of the Plan’s recommended strategies to protect and optimize the use of the Basin’s water.
Benefits from successful implementation of this Plan also extend beyond the Basin. Agriculture in the Basin produces the highest per acre revenue of any basin in the State, while the environmental and recreational attributes are of local, national, and international importance. Financial support from the State of Colorado, federal agencies, and private and public sources will be necessary to implement the action items outlined in the Plan.
As the San Luis Valley communities address the obstacles to protecting and enhancing the Basin’s water values, new challenges will arise. For this reason, the Plan is dynamic and will adapt as future opportunities and constraints present themselves. The Plan will be updated periodically as additional information is collected, new focus areas are identified and new issues emerge. The primary goal of the BRT and the Plan is to create a sustainable water future. The actions identified in this Plan for responsible stewardship of the Basin’s water resources will help achieve that future and aim to preserve a balance of water uses and needs that will benefit generations to come.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable acknowledges Governor John Hickenlooper, Director of the Department of Natural Resources Mike King, the Governor’s Advisor on Water John Stulp, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director James Eklund, and CWCB staff for the vision of the Colorado Water Plan and financial assistance in the preparation of the Rio Grande Basin Water Plan.
The Rio Grande Basin Water Plan was prepared by DiNatale Water Consultants with significant input and assistance from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Mike Gibson, chairperson) and the Basin Plan Steering Committee and Basin Plan subcommittees. The Steering Committee members, who also served on Subcommittees and many who were active participants in drafting and editing this Water Plan, are: Mike Gibson, Rick Basagoitia, Ron Brink, Nathan Coombs, Rio de la Vista, Heather Dutton, Eugene Jacquez, Nicole Langley, Judy Lopez, Cindy Medina, Emma Regier, Travis Smith, Charlie Spielman, Kevin Terry and Steve Vandiver.
With the Rio Grande Basin Water Plan the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable is calling on stakeholders from across the Upper Rio Grande Basin to provide their input on the Colorado State Water Plan. The draft plan can be seen at www.coloradowaterplan.com. The final comment period for the Colorado Water Plan ends September 17, 2015. The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable cordially invites you to attend one of three outreach meetings:
- September 2 San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District 6:30 pm
623 Fourth Street in Alamosa, Colorado
- September 8 Manassa Opera House 6:30 pm
4th Street, Manassa, Colorado
- September 9 Moffat School Commons Area 6:30 pm
501 Garfield Avenue, Moffat, Co
Stakeholders are also welcome to attend the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable monthly meetings on the 2nd Tuesday of every month. Our next meeting will be September 8, 2015. Roundtable meetings are held at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 Fourth Street in Alamosa, Colorado. Your attendance and comments are greatly appreciated. For those of you who are unable to attend the meetings and want to comment send your comments on the Colorado Water Plan to the Colorado Water Conservation Board at www.coloradowaterplan.com.