The Crestone Eagle, May 2002:

Drought!
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 ever seen.

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 officials.

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.

Conclusion
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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