ALAMOSA — The Board of Managers for Subdistrict No. 1 has voted unanimously to approve the amended Management Water Plan. Pending approval from the Board of Directors of Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), the amended plan will be sent to Kevin Rein, state engineer for the Division of Water Resources and the state’s chief water guy with the power to approve or return the plan to RGWCD for more work.
“We needed to do this. Our plan recognizes the reality of climate change and allows us to react to it. We’re in the same predicament as Lake Mead. Twenty years ago, no one could predict the drought and climate when they set the levels. This plan allows us to address our farming needs in reaction to a changing climate,” said Subdistrict 1 Board President Brian Brownell.
The amended Plan of Water Management is a game-changer — not just for farmers and ranchers but the local agricultural economy and lifeblood of the San Luis Valley. And it is anything but a last-ditch effort in preventing the “inevitable shut off of wells,” a narrative Renewable Water Resources (RWR) has repeatedly promoted.
According to Marisa Fricke, Subdistrict No. 1’s program manager, the amended Plan of Water Management is the culmination of work since 2018 including intense, detailed analysis, negotiation and discussion on the part of Subdistrict No. 1 farmers, ranchers, managers, water experts, engineers, economists, attorneys and staff.
“I know the Board of Managers and the constituents of subdistrict one have worked extremely hard and with a real sense of urgency on their amended plan of water management,” Cleave Simpson, Republican state senator and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, told the Valley Courier. “The challenging climatic conditions have made creating sustainable aquifers in the Valley extremely difficult and burdensome.”
For those just joining the conversation — the original Plan of Water Management, approved in 2011, established a required level of water to be achieved in the unconfined aquifer with a deadline of 2031.
Failure to reach the target level could potentially result in the 3,000 wells that comprise the subdistrict being shut off by the state engineer until the water in the aquifer reaches the goal on its own.
At the time the original plan was crafted, both level and time to reach it seemed feasible and, over the years, resulted in a 30 percent reduction in water drawn from the aquifer.
But no one could predict that the drought, in its ninth or tenth year when the plan was written, would briefly abate for a few years and then hit with such a vengeance that all significant progress made up to 2018 would be wiped out.
As Simpson notes, climatic conditions have played a major role.
The amended plan sets a new target deadline of twenty years from now. If approved, that provides not only sufficient time for the new plan to have the predicted impact but cements in the revolutionary “don’t take out more water than is put back in” approach to sustainably managing the aquifer well into the future.
As Fricke and others have noted, it is vital that the measures in the plan remain flexible in response to climatic conditions that are behaving in relatively unseen ways. As NOAA reported on April 25, La Niña — the weather pattern that brings drought to the western portion of the United States — could potentially go into a “rare third year.”
“The amended plan should have the effect of reducing drawdown from the aquifer by approximately 30 percent, which is on top of the 30 percent that has already been reduced,” Fricke says, adding that the drawdown may need to be more than that, depending upon what the climate does.
But, for now, growers and the board governing Subdistrict No. 1 are adapting to the changing circumstances with their focus trained completely on how the aquifer is responding.
“We’re going to live within our means, and the aquifer will tell us what we need to do,” Fricke says.
Ultimately, how growers in the subdistrict move forward is up to Rein. Once the plan is submitted, a response can be expected soon.
But his office has not been left out of its planning, as confirmed by Simpson.
“I can't predict how the State Engineer will respond, but the staff at the Division of Water Resources here in the Valley has been very engaged with the entire process,” he said.
At this point, one factor cannot be ignored.
Subdistrict No. 1 is years ahead of other water users outside of the Valley and in other parts of the state and country facing similar challenges. As has been reported, the plan was the first of its kind anywhere. Not only were the growers addressing sustainability in 2002 when the word was not in the public discourse, they took steps that were unheard of at the time — including paying for water that they, and the generations that preceded them, had used for free.
As local farmer and rancher John Kretsinger recently told the Courier, “Those other water users outside of the Valley are 20 years behind and just now getting started. Can you imagine where we’d be if we had waited that long?”