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Water Update

Column by John Orr

Water – September 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Great Sand Dunes National Park water right

In August, Division Three Water Court Judge O. John Kuenhold signed the decree for a water right for the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The decree was the final piece of the puzzle in converting the former Great Sand Dunes National Monument to a national park.

Congress mandated the preservation of the resources and ecosystem in their authorizing legislation in 2000.

“There is no question that the United States is entitled to make an appropriation of water in connection with the park,” said Kuenhold.

Objectors and proponents reached an agreement prior to the proceedings that allowed for an abbreviated trial, and Judge Kuenhold said his review of the proposed decree determined its correctness and that it should be signed.

The park’s ecosystem depends on adequate groundwater levels and protected surface flows which recharge the aquifer. The decree grants an in-place groundwater right in the unconfined aquifer underlying the park. The water right is junior to the San Luis Valley Closed Basin Project and other water rights with a priority before the 2000 legislation establishing the park.

RGWCD groundwater sub-districts

Earlier in the summer State Engineer Dick Wolfe attended a meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and addressed the importance of adopting rules to govern pumping from the San Luis Valley closed basin.

Bringing the aquifer back into balance is the issue. The state already requires metering for wells pumping in excess of 50 gallons per minute, but more rules are needed. Valley irrigators are hoping to settle their differences without the state imposing well shutdowns as has happened in the South Platte and Republican River Basins.

A legal hearing over the first groundwater management sub-district rules is scheduled for October. Wolfe is hoping that all sides will find common ground and work out their differences over fallowing, payments to irrigators and the protection of senior rights. Wolfe said that establishing new rules for groundwater pumping from the closed basin may take as long as a year, but he hopes to get the process started this October.

Short Takes

The state health department has several projects going this summer at the Summitville Superfund site. They are beefing up the spillway and onsite dam to withstand a 100 year storm event. Also in the works is a new structure for sending uncontaminated water down the Wightman Fork directly, along with preliminary work to pave the way for a small hydroelectric plant to be installed in 2009.

After meeting the Park County Board of Commissioner’s final conditions, Will-O-Wisp Metropolitan District received approval for their 1041 permit and can now move forward in supplying water from Elk Creek for the Tanglewood Reserve development. The district has been working on satisfying the conditions since May 2007.

In August, the Rio Grande Headwaters Trust and Ducks Unlimited scored a $50,000 donation from San Luis Valley realtor, Chet Choman, for habitat and conservation efforts.

As we go to press residents of Leadville and Lake County are awaiting the EPA’s response to Reclamation’s recent risk assessment on the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. Readers may remember that Reclamation threw the EPA under the bus with respect to the EPA contention that a blow out, resulting in loss of life, was likely at the LMDT. Pumping through the new relief well has so far not lowered the water level in the Leadville Mine Pool.

A conservation easement has been established for 2,800 acres of the Tarryall Creek Ranch. The project is a joint effort between Park County and Colorado Open Lands. The $500,000 price tag was covered by a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado.

Lake County Commissioners have decided to postpone asking voters to approve joining the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District until next year.

The Uncompahgre Plateau Project has received a $40,000 federal grant to remove invasive plants and restore native species. They plan to use the dough to improve 23 miles along the Gunnison River in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

Here’s some good news on the invasive species front. After 19,000 inspections at Lake Pueblo CDOW officials have not turned up any additional zebra mussels or their veligers (the larval stage of mollusks).

The BLM is still tweaking their proposed land swap for water for the Blanca Wetlands. Over 200 bird species, including 13 on the threatened or endangered species list, call the wetlands home. The BLM is looking for 189 acre feet of water to augment groundwater pumping in the wetlands. Written comments have to be submitted to the BLM La Jara field office by September 12th.

Small hydropower installations are getting a boost from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority’s Small Hydropower Loan Program. If you have a creek or ditch with a decent drop in elevation check out the program at link.

We now know why Nestlé is buying the Hagen Springs near Nathrop. Their bottling operation is in the gunsight of California<@146>s Attorney General, Edmund Brown. It appears the AG in parched California has taken issue with Nestlé’s bottling operation. Brown said recently, “Nestlé will face a swift legal challenge if it does not fully evaluate the environmental impact of diverting millions of gallons of spring water from the McCloud River into billions of plastic water bottles.”

Reclamation can’t win. They overestimated the runoff from this year’s monster snowpack and are now facing criticism for letting too much water out of Blue Mesa Reservoir. This year’s runoff on the Gunnison was around a million acre feet, 35% above average, but 10% short of expectations. Reclamation spokesperson, Dan Crabtree, thinks that getting within 10% is pretty good considering all the variables that go into estimates.

In other runoff news operators have moved 60,000 acre feet through the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. The average is usually around 39,000 acre feet. As of the end of July, Fry-Ark diversions totaled about 87,000 acre feet.

John Orr follows water issues at coyote gulch. Please send story ideas and links to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com.