Crestone Eagle, May 2002:
by David Nicholas
This spring, the wind is blowing and the snow
is disappearing off the mountains into the air, not down the
creeks. The spring runoff, which replenishes the unconfined
aquifer, has peaked and in some places failed to materialize.
It’s the worst year for drought conditions that anyone
has seen in the San Luis Valley in living memory.
Since Federal and State authorities began measuring the amount
of water flowing from the headwaters of the Rio Grande in
1890, there have only been two times when the water levels
reached chronic proportions, in 1902 and in 1978. At those
times, the rains did not come and the snows did not fall as
expected, and on each occasion the drought became the worst
in recent memory. That is until this year, when all generations
in the Valley have said that this one was the worst they have
Talk to residents living close to creeks here in Crestone
and the Baca Subdivision, and they will tell you that normally
the water rushing down the watercourses in the spring is loud
enough to drown out all other sounds, but not this year. Residents
say they can barely hear the water running.
This drought is a bad one and to get just how bad it is,
the quarterly meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation
District (RGWCD) described the bleak picture. "If you
are not praying for rain, you'd better get started,"
said Steven E. Vandiver, the San Luis Valley’s water
engineer for the state Division of Water Resources and Colorado’s
engineer advisor for the Rio Grande Compact Commission.
When asked how much rain and snow would be needed to bring
it up to normal, he replied, "Forty days and 40 nights
of rain would help. We need sustained rain now and significant
snow pack next year to even start to turn this situation around."
What Vandiver had not seen in 30 years on the job, was the
snow pack on April 17, which the SNOTEL electronic meters,
which read snow levels up in the mountain catchments, was
at 13%, and by the beginning of the District’s meeting
at 9am on Thursday, the following day, was at 12%. The difference
of 1% of snow was not the problem. The problem was that the
snowmelt had not increased the flow of water into the Rio
Grande at all. The wind had blown it away.
The spectacle of the upper reaches of the Rio Grande drying
up is considered a possibility these days, but more likely
it will turn into a muddy trickle.
How will the drought affect Baca’s water supply?
Scott Johnson, the Manager of the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation
District, is watching the situation closely. “The district
can draw up to 500 acre feet under its agreement with the
current owner of the Baca Ranch,” said Johnson. “But
on average, residences in the Baca use only about 50,000 gallons
a year or approximately 1/6th of an acre foot (an acre foot
of water = 325,851 gallons).”
Currently, the District’s main well for the Baca Subdivision,
located on the western edge of Chalet I, is sanding up due
to poor casings in the well. In addition, the water table
at Well 17, as it is called, has dropped from 25 feet below
the surface to 45 feet, which Johnson says is normal for this
time of year, and he expects it to come back up. “If
it doesn’t,” he says, “a lot of people are
going to know about it.”
After it was discovered that the well was sanding up in March,
it was reset to increase the flow. It will eventually dry
up, but not anytime soon. Right now, to cater to the residences
in the Baca, the well has to pump 1 cubic foot per second
(CFS or 448 gallons per second). At present the well is pumping
2 CFS. Also, the District has applied for emergency funds
to drill another well some distance from 17. Well 18, as this
new one is called, is close to North Crestone Creek. “These
wells are not dependent on steam flows,” said Johnson.
“They draw from the unconfined aquifer.”
With the exception of Cottonwood Creek, Johnson expects all
creeks to be dry by early June. The District draws water directly
from Cottonwood Creek because the draw for the creek is big.
He expects to be able to draw water from it until late summer.
Casita Park residents should have little to worry about.
They have their own well, quite separate from the Baca.
Crestone residents have domestic wells, and so residents
will monitor water levels on their own. There will be little
or no ditch flows through the town this year.
The Rest of the Valley
Already, many ranchers and farmers have been notified as to
whether they will receive water allocations under the compact
provisions this year. Many ditch companies have been told
that there will be no water available for their use.
Most towns in the Valley have wells that draw water from
the confined aquifer, some 700-1,000 feet deep, but unconfirmed
reports have it that some of Del Norte’s wells are going
dry now. Even for irrigators who draw water from the unconfined
and confined aquifers, the news is not good.
Allen Davey, who is the RGWCD’s water engineer, has
tracked the valley's aquifer since 1976. Water is measured
by the acre-foot, which is enough to cover an acre of land
a foot deep, or 325,851 gallons. It takes two to three acre-feet
of water to grow a crop or keep a lawn green, according to
In 1977, the aquifer decreased by 500,000 acre-feet, according
to Davey's records, and it's already down 300,000 acre-feet
this year. In normal years, mountain snowmelt recharges about
2 million acre-feet in the watershed and aquifer, but that
didn't happen this year. His records show the aquifer has
fallen 5 feet in some areas and 15 feet in others.
What it means is that, if water levels in the unconfined
aquifer, which lies just below the surface to a depth of one
hundred feet, drops any further as most irrigation wells draw
from it, many wells in the valley will go dry. In the northern
part of the valley, that has already begun to happen. Essentially
it means the valley economy could collapse as ranchers and
farmers go broke or go to other areas to find work to pay
the mortgage and to put food on the table.
We in the Crestone/Baca should have enough water unless, the
recharge factor does not occur. But if you feel like praying
for rain right now, this is a really good time to do it. This
drought can get worse, let us pray that it doesn’t.
Stay tuned, this drought promises to be an eye-opener.
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