The Crestone Eagle, July 2002:

Drought worsens
Wells and Rio Grande drying, Baca W&S concerned about water,
. . . El Niņo monsoons soon?

by David Nicholas

Everyone’s nervous. You hear that being said everywhere. Whether it’s the lack of rain and dwindling water supplies, or the fires which are blazing in the San Juan Mountains or elsewhere in the West, this year drought in the San Luis Valley is making history.

The so-called “Million Fire”, started just south of Hwy 160 at South Fork, filled the Valley with smoke and ash, turned the sun red and at times, completely blotting it out, and heightened the nervousness.

On June 11 Steve Vandiver, the State Water Engineer for the San Luis Valley and the Engineer Advisor for the Rio Grande Compact Commission, gave an update at the Division of Water Resources in Alamosa. Vandiver said that wells have begun to dry up all over the Valley and especially in the Capulin area, where wells that go as deep as 200 feet have gone dry.

He also said, that the Rio Grande, one of the five major river systems which begin in Colorado and supply water for most of the West, has stopped running at two places before it crosses the state line. One place is where it hits the county line of Alamosa, west of the city. The other is just below the city. The Closed Basin Project, that water plume seven miles south of Moffat on Hwy 17 spraying water into a canal, is literally providing the water for the river to send down across the state line for users downstream in the 1880 mile-long basin.

Vandiver also said that the effects of the El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean just west of Central America would not be felt here. There is more on that later.

In Crestone/Baca concerns centered on whether the campground at North Crestone Creek should remain open; whether the new well needed by the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District would be drilled and completed before the old well completely sanded up; and whether the Crestone July 4th Celebrations should be cancelled.

The Rio Grande National Forest
Talk to residents close to the North Crestone Creek Campground, and they wonder why it is still open. Even the town of Crestone considered the issue on June 25, as to whether the town should request that a Stage 3 alert be declared in this area.

There has been no Stage 3 declared by the RGNF supervisor, which would close the campground and the forest to all users until further notice, as has been the case at the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. On June 21, the Forest added further provisions to the Stage 2 alert, which had been already in place.

At this time there is a concentrated effort by local residents to request the closure of the campground. “Everyday we go for walks up to the campground,” said Mary Johnston, resident on Spillway Rd, the road you take to the site. “I am always picking up cigarette butts off the ground. It’s dangerous, and they should close it. I can’t understand why they haven’t done so.”

The new well for Baca residents
“We hope to have it up and running by July 4,” said Scott Johnson, manager for the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District. It was the second day that the driller had been expected but hadn’t shown up yet. Naturally Johnson is concerned; he wants the well done. (The rig did show up the next day.) Well 17, while still operating, is sanding up from the bottom and is not expected to last beyond July.

Well 18, as it is referred to, is going to cost the district in excess $160,000. The cost is for the drilling and lining of the well, purchasing two submersible pumps, 100,000 and 150,000 gallon storage tanks, two booster pump stations, bringing in electricity from Rd T, as well as purchasing the land on which the new well will be located.

The money to drill the well and pumps comes from a loan raised with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, while the treated water infrastructure comes from a loan from the Department of Local Affairs.

Does it mean an increase in rates for customers to repay the loans? “We don’t believe so, said Johnson, “because the way our debt is structured right now, by the time we’ll have to start paying this back, a couple of current debts will be paid off or nearly paid off, so it will probably stay about the same.”

Johnson expects Well 18 to run probably 50 years. The well will be 150 feet deep and 26 inches wide at the base (32 inches wide at the top). At least 100 feet will have perforated steel casing, so the submersible pumps 140 feet below will suck the water from the formation through the casing and up to the surface.

Despite the bleak forecasts for the valley, Scott Johnson says that the water situation for Crestone/Baca is different. How so?

Says Johnson: “One of the reasons for us is that we are very near the source of the water. Number one, Well 18 is very close to the recharge area for the aquifer, so we get a lot of water that does not have to go very far to get to our wells.

“Number two, there are not a lot of cultivated fields on the (Baca) Grant, so we are not competing with agricultural wells.

“Number three, our water needs are very minimal compared to the needs for agricultural water. A farmer will use up as much water on a quarter (approximately 40 acres) of potatoes in a year as we do for all of our citizens. People don’t use as much water to run a household as it takes to do agricultural things. And I think Steve is more concerned about the availability of water for agriculture.“

For the rest of the District, Johnson is watching Cottonwood Creek, which is still providing water to the District at the rate of 130 gallons a minute. Johnson still expects Cottonwood to dry up later in the fall.

Despite several events at the well site which curtailed water service to residents in June, the Casita Park well is back in operation and should have no further problems. 120 feet deep, with the water level of the aquifer 25 feet below the surface, water availability should not be a problem.

Most wells in Crestone are still OK, although a few very shallow ones have gone dry. The town is making water from their municipal well available to townspeople who are experiencing problems.

The July 4th Concerns
Concerns about July 4 stem from a letter written to the Crestone Town Council from the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District, requesting that they cancel the July 4th Parade.

District manager, Scott Johnson put it this way: “The thinking is, that we know the town (Crestone) is experiencing problems with producing water out of their own wells for fire fighting purposes. Chances are, if there were a fire, they would have to get water from the District. This is fine. We don’t have a problem with that.

“What does concern us is that no matter how much water we have available, there’s the problem of getting it back and forth. If a fire got started, they just simply couldn’t get water there quick enough to do any good, no matter how much water we had for them.

“We have somewhere around 900,000–1 million gallons of water in storage. Their trucks only hold one thousand or two thousand gallons per truck, so that’s an awful lot of trips to the well, but they just won’t be able to keep up, number one. Number two, if we do end up supplying a lot of water to fight a fire say in the town, what happens if we get a fire in the District? So we think that, as there is a finite supply of water, we would just as soon not take a chance on having to use it when it’s this likelihood of a possibility.”

In response, town mayor, Kizzen Laki, said that while they had not yet received the letter from the District at the time of our conversation, the Crestone Fire Department had already decided that the two fire tankers/tenders, stationed in the town, would not be in the parade this year but would be on alert.

The Baca Fire Department is responding similarly, the 4,000-gallon truck/ tender is going to spray down the route and the road into the Crestone Town Park where the fair will be held, and then it goes on alert at the POA headquarters. The attack trucks will be in the parade but there will be NO water fights this year, in deference to water conservation. Slogans on the trucks will read, “If We Don’t Ignite It, We Won’t Have To Fight It” and “Fire Prevention Is Up To Us”. The water pack squads will be roaming the crowds, seeking errant smokers breaking the town ban.

The El Nino Condition
Much talk abounds about how the El Nino could alter this drought significantly, and it generally means steady to heavy downpours, while the condition exists. The National Weather Service has said the effects of the El Nino will now start to be felt across the nation in July instead of later this year, as they had stated earlier.

However, Water Engineer, Steve Vandiver’s information is that the El Nino will miss the headwaters of the Rio Grande and the San Luis Valley. The movement from the surface conditions of the Pacific ocean just west of Central America, which will generate the El Nino condition for the US, sets it up so it will pass on the gulf side of Mexico and come up to the continental US much farther east. The path at this time, he says, will move up eastern New Mexico and then onto eastern Colorado and then on to the Midwest. The hope is that the El Nino moves further north up the western side of Mexico to where the normal monsoon condition emanates around Baja California. We can only wait and see.

On July 9, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will hold its quarterly meeting, where the state of the drought will be addressed in detail. Stay tuned.

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