The Crestone Eagle, September 2002:

The drought continues . . .Is there any end in sight?
by David Nicholas

The answer is no. We are now deep in uncharted territory. There is no one with any insight into how this drought might end. The long-range weather forecasts are predicting average or below average winter snowfalls. Here is how things look at this time.

State of the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District
Scott Johnson, District Manager of the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District, reports that the new well, Well 18, is not operating yet. The District is still awaiting the infrastructure, pumps and storage facilities to bring it on line.

Well 17 is still pumping water at the rate of 200 gallons a minute, but in Johnson’s words, “it could sand up at any time. When that happens,” said Johnson, “it will take about 24 hours to bring well 18 into operation. It doesn’t take much to change it over.”

The water level in the aquifer is still about 45 feet below the surface and has not come back up to the norm of 25 feet, as it was thought it might in August.

Cottonwood Creek facility is still providing water to the District at about 600 gallons a minute. There is no telling when it will dry up. If the winter is a dry one, then Cottonwood will certainly cease to run. “It could last and run through to the winter,” said Johnson, “but there’s no telling.”

The Casita Park well has no problems at this time. The water level in the aquifer at this well remains constant at 25 feet. There has been no drop in the water table.

Will we need to go water restrictions anytime soon? “I don’t think so,” said Johnson. He is confident that restrictions will not be needed in the District in the foreseeable future.

A Water and Sanitation Ballot Measure in November
There have been legal problems about obtaining the loan for Well 18’s infrastructure. “Depending on which lawyer you talk to,” said Johnson. “We are not sure if we qualify under the definition of a Water Activity entity.” It means that if a loan cannot be obtained, then the District will put the needed funding in a debt question to the voters on the ballot in November.

Do we need the infrastructure? “Yes, we do,” said Johnson, “There is no telling how long this drought will last. It could be this way for the next couple of years, so it is better to be prepared to handle the situation.”

Will it mean an increase in rates? Earlier this year, when this was thought to be one alternative, Johnson said, it probably would not make a difference, but then a ballot measure was not on the horizon. If the debt question goes on the ballot, it will probably mean an increase in rates. How much it will be, Johnson does not know, yet, but that information should be included in the case for question in the ballot material.

The Local Picture—Well Water
Folks to the north of Crestone report that the water pressure in their wells is dropping, and some have begun to reduce their water use, but none have gone dry.

Elsewhere, in the Grants, no dry wells to report this month. But well owners are advised to monitor their levels because, while there is no problem with getting a permit to replace domestic at the Division of Water Resources in Alamosa, there is in finding an available drilling rig to do the work. Drilling companies are reporting they have work well into next year. Planning ahead cannot hurt you.

The Big Picture, El Niño
The monsoon season—what there was of it—is over. The long predicted El Niño effect, which the National Weather Service had predicted would occur in November and then revised to July, has reversed itself again.

According to Steve Vandiver, the District Engineer for Water Division 3 and Engineer Advisor to the Rio Grande Compact Commission, the El Niño is due to start having an effect on us in November. We can expect more dry weather.

Vandiver, who works for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources in Alamosa, watches how the rain will fall, or not, because the weather has political implications in the Valley, for the interstate compact and the international treaties. Every millimeter of rainfall which makes the flow of the Rio Grande—each drainage and ditch which contributes to the recharge of the two aquifers below the Valley floor, rise or fall—is of interest. Unfortunately, Vandiver has been extraordinarily accurate as to how this year’s weather pattern has played out.

“Here, in the San Luis Valley, we had that few days where there were some thunderstorms around, but it didn’t do really anything for the river flows,” said Vandiver. “A few streams came up a little but they went right back down as soon as the storms left.

“The long-term forecast: I am seeing several things that the El Niño that was predicted for November, then moved up to July, and now has moved back to November is a very weak impulse. They are not expecting much of a change. I have heard that there is no long-term forecast that would show that this is going to break—now that can change at any time—but there is nothing that anybody’s seeing that, I am aware of, which is going to change this pattern.”

Ramifications for the Valley
In the Valley the ramifications of little or no rainfall for the rest of the year and a winter of average snowfall is bad news for the future. Ranchers and farmers who use irrigation to water livestock and grow crops are not subject to restrictions by any government authority. Encouraging these folks to practice restraint is pushing it uphill.

This year, an effort by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to educate ranchers and farmers to grow fewer crops and so reduce their water usage has fallen on deaf ears. Farmers planted full circles of potatoes, barley and other produce and irrigated to the maximum, drawing on the water from the unconfined aquifer. (Note: A circle refers to the area watered by pivot sprinklers, which rotate in a full circle.)

While it looks to be a bumper crop for both potatoes and barley and prices for both will be good this year, the result has been that the drawdown on the unconfined aquifer at Hooper-Center-Del Norte area and at Villa Grove has been alarming.

Says Vandiver, “We have just gotten the numbers and the hole which is developing out in the Center and Hooper area primarily is dramatic. The lowering of the aquifer is extended all the way down to the Del-Norte—Monte Vista Area, and we are seeing declines over all of the aquifer of 15 or more feet. We are aware of places north and east of Del Norte of 30-50’ declines. There has been no recovery—as we predicted there wouldn’t be—without the recharge from the diversions of the large canals, of which there has virtually been none.

“There is no stream flow in the immediate area. Canero and La Garita Creeks are dry or so low that there isn’t any help there. Saguache Creek is the same way. San Luis Creek and all the east side streams are dry. So there has been no help for the aquifers at all.”

The consequences are showing up already. The Division of Water Resources has issued approximately 300 permits for replacement of domestic use wells. These are house wells, people use primarily for drinking and sanitation purposes, which have either gone dry, or they are small diameter artesian wells that have stopped flowing and there is no way to get a pump in. Wells are expensive, and it has put people in a bind.

Says Vandiver, “We have de-watered this valley extensively this year. The alluvium along the rivers has dried up way more than I have ever imagined; the banks of the river are depleted.

“The (proverbial) hole that we are digging for ourselves in the aquifer out in the Closed Basin (Center-Hooper) area is substantial, and it is going to take a number of years to recover. The diversions into that area would have to be more than the annual draught (drawing out of water) to even start to recover the aquifer. So we are going to need multiple high diversion years to recover from this. The long term is that if we don’t get those years, we are going to continue to ‘mine’ water in that area, and it will become more and more difficult to obtain a water supply.”

So, could the unconfined or shallow aquifer, which lies just below the surface, go dry?

“I don’t know that it would go completely dry,” said Vandiver. “But it doesn’t have to. Let’s say a typical 1,000 gallon a minute pump can only produce 300-400 gallons a minute, because the saturated thickness of the aquifer is not available to produce more than that, it renders that well useless.

“Farmers could try and make a go of growing half a circle, if we don’t get some recharge we are going to have to cut down the draught on the aquifer in order to preserve anything that is left. So the aquifer may become so low that it just is not functional in some areas.”

Essentially, that would imply water restrictions. “Well, it does,” says Vandiver, “but because we don’t have rules and regulations in this valley at the present time for the administration of ground water, this is going to have to be a voluntary thing from the farmers. They are going to have to understand that the water supply is not there to produce all of the crops and feed all of the wells. They may have to voluntarily cut back the number of wells which are used and the number of acres irrigated in order to provide a full supply for a smaller number of acres. That is something that may have to come next year, if we don’t get a decent winter. Some real planning is going to have to take place from the farmers here.”

This is not good news for farmers who have financial pressures, and most do. Farmers will not take kindly to being told what to do here. In similar situations elsewhere, particularly south in New Mexico and Texas, farmers have ignored the warnings and are taking what they are entitled to. They face the coming year without any water at all to do anything.

Vandiver suggests that all of us practice using water frugally. Even in the Crestone area, while we are assured that using less water than our ranching and farming friends, the aquifer will not produce water indefinitely unless there is a recharge. Learning to do with less is not that far in our future, if something does not change. So pray hard for a long and snowy winter. What else are you going to do?

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