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Central Colorado water update

Column by John Orr

Water – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rio Grande Basin Roundtable

At a recent meeting of the Rio Grande Roundtable, the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust requested $1.5 million in funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. They’re hoping to preserve 26,000 acres of private land along the river for future generations. The funding will be used to match funds from the Great Outdoors Colorado Legacy Grant program.

The big buying plan for the funds is conservation easements within the 100-year flood plain. The land would then be protected from subdivision, and the water rights would be tied to the land. The land trust also hopes to protect senior water rights and preserve agricultural efforts by preventing the conversion of agricultural land to development — and federally protected critters would benefit from the protection of the riparian habitat, too.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s recent meeting included some good news for a change. It has been a good irrigation year and some historically dry areas are now flowing with water, including several artesian wells in the Monte Vista refuge. Habitat conditions in the San Luis Valley refuges are excellent, according to the BLM. Water is running in Medano Creek.

In other RGWCD news the board decided not to file a protest against the proposed BLM plan to allow leasing for oil and gas exploration in the Sandhills area.

The appeal of the 2006 ruling on the state’s confined aquifer rules by Cotton Creek Circles and San Luis Valley Water Company is alive and well. The District Court sided with the state saying that Colorado’s confined aquifer rules are necessary for the long term health of the aquifer. The appeal was filed in February of 2007 and is ongoing.

District Judge John Kuenhold’s ruling assumes that the basin is over-appropriated so limiting new groundwater withdrawals will help protect senior water rights while helping the state meet its requirements under the Rio Grande River Compact.

The district is continuing funding for a computer model to aid in the formation of groundwater sub-districts in the basin. It is important to the sub-districts to have the information they need in replacing depletions.

100 Years of San Luis Valley Reservoirs

San Luis Valley residents recently celebrated the history and current status of reservoirs in the valley with tours of area reservoirs followed by a day-long symposium and other activities coordinated with the Tri-Hi Stampede. Speakers addressed subjects ranging from the early days of irrigation in the valley to looking at the impact of groundwater sub-districts.

One sub-district has been formed in the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley and has submitted a plan to the state for approval. Quick review has been promised.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources Deputy State Engineer Dr. Ken Knox told attendees that he will start developing the groundwater rules for the valley this winter. He hopes to have them available by next summer in time for a Division III water court filing in the fall of 2008. He promised a transparent, inclusive process for drafting the rules.

Reservoirs were built with the single purpose of providing irrigation water in the valley but have morphed into recreation sites for boating and fishing along with increasing storage. One interesting experiment currently underway is to hold back a percentage of Colorado’s commitment under the Rio Grande compact in the hope that storing the water upstream from Elephant Butte in New Mexico will keep the district from losing too much water by storing it where evaporation rates are much lower.

Other uses for the reservoirs include storage for trans-mountain water, conservation, flood control and augmentation. For example, the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District stores water in the Rio Grande reservoir and releases it to make up for depletions from wells.

It’s unlikely that new reservoirs will be built in the valley. Expansion of Rio Grande Reservoir is under consideration. Many of the existing reservoirs need repair to fix seepage and other problems.

California Gulch Cleanup

A tentative deal has been struck between the Feds and the mining companies that are on the hook for the cleanup of California Gulch. All told the deal involves $39.8 million from Asarco LLC, Newmont Mining and the EPA. The deal still needs a stamp of approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard Schmidt in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Newmont agreed to take over operation of a water treatment plant at the Yak Tunnel. The tunnel is the primary source for polluted water in California Gulch. Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen is hoping that the Black Cloud Mine will not be destroyed in carrying out the settlement. He wants to keep it around in case the economics will allow it to reopen in the future. Much of the cleanup has already been completed.

Black Canyon Water Rights

All sides in the controversy are reporting progress in settling the dispute over the 1933 water right for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Irrigators, environmental groups and the state have agreed to a general subordination. Essentially all adjudicated water rights in the Upper Gunnison Basin from before November 11, 1957, along with the first 60,000 acre-feet stored in the Aspinall Unit will never have to yield to a call for water by the park.

Now the larger issue of minimum flows in Black Canyon can be tackled. The Park Service and Colorado settled on 300 cfs in a back-room deal that was thrown out last year in federal court.

Short Takes

The Pueblo Board of Water Works has closed Clear Creek Reservoir for repairs.

The Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District has signed on to U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s plan to study storage in Turquoise Lake and Lake Pueblo. The Senator is hoping to avoid the entanglements of the intergovernmental agreements that have plagued earlier studies.

An overhaul of the General Mining Act of 1872 is in the works. Momentum to dismantle the law, signed by President Grant, has built since the Democrats took over Congress. Sportsmen for United and Sensible Mining call the law outdated and environmentally damaging.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has a new website that contains 15 years of groundwater samplings available in a database at

Don’t forget the CSU Water Resources Archive at

Campaigning in Chicago, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson claimed that the U.S. needs a cabinet level water official. The first priority should be a water summit to draft a comprehensive nationwide water policy.

The North American Monsoon is upon us. A recent flash flood changed the course of the Fryingpan River for a quarter mile or so. Roads all across Central Colorado are suffering unusual wear and tear from the drenchings.

The State Engineer is planning an appeal of the recent ruling on coal-bed methane produced groundwater by the District Seven Water Court.

Some are turning to the new sport of Riverboarding in an effort to cut costs and still get wet. Riverboarding involves navigating the rapids lying stomach-down on a plastic board with handles. Most wear protective gear, wetsuits and helmets.

In a huge surprise state officials still don’t know if cloud-seeding is effective. They are anxiously awaiting this year’s data.

Please send story ideas and links to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com.

John Orr follows Colorado Water issues at