Reflections from the South Slope

-Erin Minks

I live on Colorado’s ‘South Slope’, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley. Water is at the core of our community, our economy, and our identity. Our issues are groundwater management and the Rio Grande Compact, under which the Colorado State Engineer makes sure we fulfill our annual obligation of river water to New Mexico and Texas.

I am also a participant in the 2011 Colorado Foundation for Water Education Water Leaders Program, which has allowed me the rare opportunity to network with water professionals from around the state with a shared passion for water issues.

As part of the class, a number of us opted to read the first edition of Dan Tyler’s The Last Water Hole in the West, a compelling history of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD) and the water project that brought about its existence. During this year’s Water 2012 Celebrations, among many other anniversaries, Coloradans will recognize the seventy fifth anniversary of NCWCD.

Tyler’s book delves deep into the early champions and skeptics of one of the most ambitious trans-basin diversions of its time, the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) Project, which would lead to tremendous growth in irrigated acreage, and ultimately residential growth on the northern Front Range of Colorado. In the book, I saw ironic comparisons between the conflicts in early trans-basin diversions and our own issues here in the San Luis Valley.

Here on the South Slope, our trans-basin diversions are mostly wildlife-based: Colorado Parks and Wildlife benefits from four diversions high in the Weminuche Wilderness which bring flows from the San Juan and Gunnison Basins. Another trans-basin diversion moves water from the Rio Grande Basin into the Huerfano Basin over Medano Pass in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We have fought our battles against potential trans-basin diversions on a scale that would have threatened our way of life. Many Coloradans may remember American Water Development Incorporated, or AWDI, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when speculators strategized moving water from our closed basin into the Arkansas Basin and Front Range markets. Those were also wet years when Elephant Butte Dam spilled, erasing all the debt we owed to New Mexico and Texas through the Rio Grande Compact. After winning those fights against the threats outside our Valley, we kept on pumping from our confined and unconfined aquifers with minimal awareness of how that groundwater consumption would grow to be an even larger threat to our way of life.

Tyler’s book talks about the classic conflict in Colorado water history- West Slope versus East Slope. Here on the South Slope, the conflict has become one of us against ourselves, the threat being our unsustainable use of groundwater.

Without a common threat from the outside, we have lost the unity we had twenty years ago in the days of AWDI. Thankfully, the Colorado Supreme Court has spoken and given us direction- the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s groundwater management sub-district mechanism is constitutional, and we can move forward to file an Annual Replacement Plan with the State Engineer this April.

But with commodity prices high, the temptation for farmers is strong to go another year relying on wells to close out the water gap, from July to September, and to pay the real price later. Our high-altitude alfalfa gets some of the highest prices in the forage industry and consumes the most water.

With a constant curtailment during irrigation season, when irrigators can’t use all the water they legally own because it has to be used to meet compact obligations, and a grass-roots, Supreme Court-affirmed groundwater management strategy, the South Slope has a lot to teach other Colorado basins. We already operate with a constant “call” on our river. And if we can manage it, we hope to retire wells differently than it was done on the South Platte in 2005. Here on the South Slope, it will be friends, neighbors and business partners working together to achieve recharge and stability of our aquifers, rather than mandates from the State Engineer.

If, and how, we can sustain our agricultural way of life while protecting our aquifers- that’s the test we face this spring of 2012, the first year of groundwater administration on the South Slope of Colorado.

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