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
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
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
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
“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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