Valley farmers form Sustainable Water Augmentation Group

Photo by Mechel Meek A group of Valley farmers announced in a press release that they have come together to create the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), an alternative to Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1.

SWAG offers an alternative to Subdistrict 1 plan

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Water has been and will most likely remain a highly contentious issue in the San Luis Valley. A group of Valley farmers announced in a press release that they have come together to create the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), an alternative to Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1.

“It is no secret that we are at a critical moment for the future of the San Luis Valley, as drought deepens, climate change intensifies, and the unconfined aquifer’s water level continues to drop at a dangerous rate. Decisive action is required now before the aquifer runs dry and the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force is threatened,” the release stated.

The San Luis Valley has a mostly unconfined aquifer and is subject to many variables including drought.

A confined aquifer is surrounded by rock and clay pieces which confine it to an area and make it less at risk for loss, but an unconfined aquifer is exposed and can be impacted more severely by outside factors.

A confined aquifer is found deep beneath the ground, while an unconfined aquifer is just below the ground level.

According to Texas A&M University, the water level in wells drilled into an unconfined aquifer will be at the same elevation as the water table. The water table will rise or fall in response to recharge and pumping. Generally, water percolates from the ground surface through an aquifer's recharge area.

With the large amount of agriculture in the Valley, water is its most precious resource, and its most contested one.

The San Luis Valley is home to a variety of crops, including the ubiquitous potato fields, alfalfa, vegetables and other crops. Without access to water, these crops could not be grown. The Valley does not see a large amount of rainfall, instead, the water flows from the mountain areas from snowmelt and rainfall, and moves just below the surface, which requires the use of wells to irrigate the fields.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1 covers much of the San Luis Valley area. According to the Subdistrict 1 Plan of Water Management, “The goals of the Subdistrict are to cause groundwater levels in the Unconfined Aquifer of the Closed Basin to recover, and then to maintain a sustainable irrigation water supply in the Unconfined Aquifer with due regard for the daily, seasonal and longer-term demands on the aquifer and to protect senior surface water rights and avoid interference with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. To achieve these goals, reducing and managing overall groundwater consumption is essential.”

The group of farmers behind SWAG disputes the effectiveness of the plans in place and proposed by Subdistrict 1.

“Despite making little progress towards sustainability with the fee-based model, Subdistrict No. 1’s Board of Managers is now poised to vote on raising the over-pumping fee from $150 to $500 per acre-foot. That’s a 233% increase on top of a 386% increase over the past decade. While this plan may work for some producers, it is not a viable option for the members of SWAG who have paid these ever-increasing fees only to see reduced yields and declining water levels in the aquifer. It is clear the status quo is unsustainable for the farmers of the Valley, nor the aquifer that we rely on for our water. We simply do not have the time to double down on a one-size-fits-all fee-based approach,” SWAG stated in the release.

The SWAG press release included an answer to the ongoing water crisis in the Valley.

“SWAG has entered into an agreement to purchase and retire approximately 4,500 acres, irrigated by wells, that have historically consumed an average of 5,678 acre-feet per year from the unconfined aquifer at a cost of over $35 million. If real progress towards sustainability is not made, the sad truth is that SWAG members’ wells are subject to the very real threat of forced curtailment; whether by the State of Colorado if the subdistrict cannot prove its plan for sustainability will work; or by the Subdistrict itself through ever-increasing fees for pumping which would punish those water users who rely on their decreed water rights for their wells, or the absence of water at their wellheads due to the overuse of the unconfined aquifer. The only way to solve this threat and ensure the future vitality of the Valley is to work together to find solutions which work for everyone. We need more options to promote conservation, not less. SWAG’s augmentation plan is one of those options, and we hope that other members of the community make your voices heard before it is too late,” SWAG concluded.

According to Subdistrict 1, “The reduced native water supply is the result of the onset of a serious and prolonged drought that has greatly reduced inflows and surface water diversions into the Subdistrict lands. In order to restore balance between available supplies and current levels of use, it will be necessary to permanently reduce the number of acres irrigated in the Subdistrict by approximately 40,000. The amount of the reduction in acreage will be periodically reviewed by the Board of Managers.”

The Subdistrict 1 Plan of Water Management continues stating that water levels will be increased by, “A program of temporary fallowing, potentially in cooperation with federal programs, to remove sufficient acreage from production, on an ongoing basis, to achieve reduction in water consumption necessary to achieve the goals of the Plan. Economic incentives for the permanent removal of lands from irrigation, potentially in cooperation with federal programs. Replacement of stream depletions and/or increases in groundwater recharge. Infrastructure improvements to maximize the diversion and recharge of water available to Colorado under its compact allocation. Purchase and retirement of irrigated lands and/or water rights, either within or without the exterior boundaries of the Subdistrict. Education and research into water conservation, water use efficiency, improved water management, and public education on agricultural water use. Improvement and operation of ditches, headgates, and recharge facilities to make the best use of available water and to improve groundwater recharge.”

This water management plan was enacted on June 15, 2009. Some farmers have expressed their lack of faith in the water management plan, and its ability to complete the stated goals and objectives.