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And end to the SLV’s water wars? Don’t hold your breath.

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Sand Dunes – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE acquired the Baca Ranch, would that prevent future water development?

Not necessarily.

The plumbing of the San Luis Valley is complicated, so some background is in order. South of the Sand Dunes, the Valley just drains south into the 1,840-mile Rio Grande, which flows south into New Mexico and Texas before forming the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

But the northern San Luis Valley is part of a different hydrologic system — as separate as the eastern and western slopes of Colorado, even if the boundary is not a chain of rugged peaks, but an almost imperceptible rise in the chico brush around Hooper.

That’s the Closed Basin. Surface water there has no natural outlet. It seeps into the ground, where plant roots absorb it and then evaporate it, or flows to San Luis Lake at the eastern base of the Great Sand Dunes, where it evaporates.

Beneath the surface of the Closed Basin are two aquifers. The upper one, about 150 feet deep, is the “unconfined aquifer.” Beneath it is a layer of relatively impermeable clay, and then thousands of feet of rocks, sand, and gravel (the bedrock floor of the valley is below sea level). That’s the “confined aquifer,” and the spaces between the stones may hold 2 billion acre feet of water.

Now add irrigated agriculture. Put farms along the Rio Grande, and as they grow, they take water from the river. Colorado is supposed to send water down the river to New Mexico and Texas, but it hasn’t been meeting those obligations.

The solution is to either cut the water supply to the farms along the Rio Grande in Colorado, which could put some farmers out of business, or find more water for the Rio Grande, thereby keeping the farmers in business.

The “Closed Basin Project” puts more water into the Rio Grande. With pumps and canals, it collects water from the shallow unconfined aquifer in the Closed Basin (essentially, Saguache County east of the Continental Divide) and delivers that water to the Rio Grande to make up for the water that the farmers use.

That way, Colorado meets its obligations to New Mexico and Texas, and the farmers along the Rio Grande can still irrigate. The cost is a lower water table — about two feet lower — in the Closed Basin.

The Closed Basin Project was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is administered by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa.

Ralph Curtis, executive director, said the project diverts about 40,000 acre-feet a year from the Closed Basin to the Rio Grande, and it has the capacity for up to 100,000 acre-feet.

There are 169 collection or “salvage” wells in the Closed Basin, Curtis said, of which six are on the Baca Ranch. If it became part of a national park, the wells would likely stay in use. They predate park status there, and other water diversions that predate park status, like the Grand River Ditch in Rocky Mountain National Park, have remained in use.

But even if the six wells on the Baca Ranch were shut down, Curtis said, “it’s something we could work around.”

Gary Boyce’s “No Dam Water Project” proposes to export water from the deep confined aquifer.

But the Baca Ranch has considerable surface water rights in the creeks that flow down the west side of the Sangres. Currently, that water never leaves the ranch — it’s all diverted to hay fields and pastures.

Boyce said it varies from 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year, and averages about 40,000. Boyce has proposed to use that water to compensate any farmers or ranchers whose wells went dry on account of his tapping the confined aquifer.

WhAT WOULD HAPPEN to that water if the Baca Ranch changed hands?

The Nature Conservancy might keep the best ranching land, and use the water for that. Or if the whole ranch went to the Park Service, would the Park Service just let the water flow on downhill, to sink into the gravel and raise the water table in the unconfined aquifer of the Closed Basin?

If the Nature Conservancy kept part of the ranch, “we’d keep the water in the Closed Basin,” said Becky Johnson, Colorado media relations co√∂rdinator.

If it were under Park Service management and the irrigation stopped, the water would just flow west, and “it’s a good question what would become of it,” Curtis said. Then he laughed. “You can bet somebody would file on it, though, if it just got turned loose like that.”

If the water weren’t used for irrigation on the Baca Ranch, it would likely be available for diversion into the Rio Grande via the Closed Basin Project.

Now consider the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Like most rivers in the West, it’s over-allocated. Sometimes the river bed is dry around Albuquerque. This hurts at least two endangered species — the willow flycatcher and the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

At some point, the Endangered Species Act is going to kick in, perhaps as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by the New Mexico environmental group Forest Guardians, and the Rio Grande will need more water. Where will it come from?

Eliminate the thirsty lawns and golf courses among the exclusive developments in northern New Mexico, and alienate Republicans? Dry up the acequias in the land of the Milagro Bean Field War, and alienate Democrats? Cut back on irrigation along the Rio Grande in Colorado, and destroy a bunch of family farms?

The logical source is the Closed Basin Project, which could deliver another 60,000 acre-feet every year to the Rio Grande without adding any plumbing. And there’s about 40,000 acre feet of surface water available on the Baca — water which the owner (such as the United States Department of the Interior) could provide to the project.

And if more water becomes necessary in New Mexico, then start drilling wells into the deep confined aquifer, just as proposed by AWDI and then Boyce. This would satisfy a promise to “keep San Luis Valley water in the Valley,” although it wouldn’t keep Closed Basin water in the Closed Basin.

THE PARK SERVICE is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. So is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built the Closed Basin Project, and so is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting endangered species.

Their goals aren’t always going to be the same. It’s analogous to the situation on the Upper Gunnison. Reclamation has the legal obligation to run water through the Aspinall Unit to generate electricity to pay the bills, and the Park Service has the legal obligation to maintain the natural state of Black Canyon, which means spring floods that don’t generate power revenues.

In this case, the Park Service might be against more water development north of the dunes, but Reclamation already has a project running there, and Wildlife needs the water for endangered species in New Mexico. Compromises will be necessary.

And if the federal government makes promises about not developing water, remember that there were once people who called themselves the Nuche, and they lived in the San Luis Valley. The Utes would still be there if the federal government had kept promises made in the 19th century about how the land would be theirs for as long as the grass grew.

Adding the Baca Ranch to a Great Sand Dunes National Park would take Gary Boyce and his partners out of the picture.

But it wouldn’t solve the water issues. There would still be immense pressure to put more water in the Rio Grande, and the Closed Basin Project is in place to do that. Moreover, even though more efficient usage of agricultural water may ease water demands for a time, the growing popularity and populations of the Rocky Mountain West guarantee continued water conflicts.

Making the Baca Ranch part of a national park is not going to change that. So any celebrations about a National Park heralding the arrival of peace in the Valley’s water wars are premature celebrations. At best, there will be a truce, but it won’t last long.

— E.Q.