When Hal Simpson, the state water engineer, shows up in the Valley to talk about the weather, you know things are intense. The top water official in the state summed it up at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting on July 14. “We are dealing with drought, the most serious drought in Colorado’s history,” Simpson said.
Drought conditions in the San Luis Valley aren’t getting better, according to division water engineer Steve Vandiver. Vandiver, presenting his report, said that the mountain streams runoff has concluded in the Rio Grande basin, and no respite is in sight this summer for water users in the San Luis Valley. “My crystal ball became opaque about three years ago,” Vandiver said, and the drought is continuing longer than he thought it would.
The drought really had not gone away, despite the early signs of good rains in the spring. Sure the rains made the creeks flow and even the Rio Grande as it passed through Alamosa looked as if 2002, the worst year for drought in the history of the San Luis Valley, was not going to repeat itself. But it was all in appearances.
The long range weather forecasts throughout winter promised an average or below average precipitation, and while the snow looked good—and was recorded as being well above normal—in the higher elevations of the Sangres, the snow pack in the San Juans barely made readings of normal in late March/early April.
“Snow in the Sangre de Cristos melted more rapidly than anticipated and did not provide the water it was expected to yield,” said Vandiver.
Here above Crestone, despite how it looked, the snow run-off in May had only five days where the run-off was normal, and while some water recharged the aquifer, most of the water was absorbed by hungry vegetation at the water’s edge. It just kept streambeds wet. As it was around Crestone, so the same was for the Rio Grande and all along the ditches that supply water to surface water users. This was expected to happen after a dry year like no other.
Again the high and dry winds of April and May blew off a lot of snow, accelerating the snowmelt, but spring and summer rainstorms still kept the creeks flowing and the sense of an abundance of water led to gossip that the drought had broken. This was very wishful thinking.
What was happening to wells out in the center of the Valley was that the water levels would rise substantially during and just after a good rain, but then within a day or two the levels would drop to where they were previously.
Hope was kept alive that the steady rains of the monsoon season of June and July would arrive and spare the growers; however, the monsoon rains have been light and at best erratic, along with some four weeks of record heat. Watering the fields was still required for many around the clock to prevent the hot sun burning the crops.
The forecast is that farmers with shallow wells will continue watering their crops until the wells go dry. Many will face ruin this year.
During the winter months, when irrigation of crops had stopped after the harvest period in September last year, there was some recharge, which brought up the level of the unconfined or shallow aquifer, by approximately 42,000 acre ft (326,000 gallons per acre ft), some 370,000 acre ft below where it should be.
Last October, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was so concerned that this year’s drop in the unconfined aquifer would be a further 200,000 acre ft, as farmers irrigated their crops during the 2003 growing season, that they issued the unprecedented recommendation that farmers grow 20% less, so that everyone could get through the year.
By all accounts many farmers took the suggestion, but many did not. Just how many can only be determined after the harvest in September. While the drop in the aquifer may not be as much as was suggested back in October, wells are beginning to go dry in areas where there is intensive drawdown—out by the town of Center and in Rio Grande County. There is no reprieve this year.
No supplemental well drilling allowed
When the water is gone, it’s gone. So if there is a dry well or a well which is only pumping at a lower rate than the water decree allows, farmers must make do. They can no longer apply to the state to drill a supplemental well to make up for the loss of flow in their primary well. Instead they need to go through the water court. While this was decided last year, what is new is that both the state, and, by a 5-2 vote at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in mid-July, the court applications will be opposed.
“We are opposing them,” Vandiver told the board. “Our recommendation to the court for supplementals at alternate points is that the court deny those. We are going to resist supplementals at alternate points.”
State Water Engineer Hal Simpson said “We took a position a year ago that supplemental wells in an aquifer where water levels are decreasing are adding to the problem, and we feel they shouldn’t be encouraged by the state. We weren’t comfortable granting them. If a surface water right can’t find water, why should a supplemental well?” Simpson said he appreciated the support of the board in upholding the state’s position.
Simpson suggested that state and local water users must work together to come up with viable solutions to water shortages. “In times of drought, water is over-appropriated,” said Simpson.
But that is not so simple for farmers with mortgages and a cycle of debt, which emphasizes improved farming techniques, putting more land to crops and so, using more water. There are going to be hard feelings this year as wells go dry. Tempers will be on edge. Solutions do not look good unless it rains through August and September.
Here in Crestone there are wells in the town which are beginning to go dry again. However, Scott Johnson, District Manager of the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District, says there is no water shortage as the wells for the District are deep and the drawdown in the unconfined aquifer under the Baca Ranch is minimal.
As a number of people have commented to this writer recently, what if Stockman’s Water Company’s water export plan had been implemented, where would we have been then in the drought? Certainly, the blunter version of “up a creek without a paddle” comes to mind.
What to do? Pray for more rain, and more rain, and more rain. (But not all at the same time!)