State, county officials receive input on water issues in Saguache County

State Rep. Donald Valdez, pictured, and the Saguache County Board of Commissioners held a community meeting on Monday, June 14, at the Road and Bridge Building in Saguache to hear from stakeholders about water issues in Subdistrict No. 5 of Rio Grande Water Conservation District. 

SAGUACHE — More than 20 people provided their concerns, wants and needs to state and county officials on the issue of water Monday night, June 14, at the Road and Bridge Building in Saguache.  

The community meeting attended mostly by county ranchers and farmers, was led by State Rep. Donald Valdez, (Democrat-District 62) and hosted by the Saguache County Board of Commissioners, who were all present — Chair Tim Lovato, Lynne Thompson and Tom McCracken.  

Valdez’s district covers portions of Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Rio Grande, and Saguache counties.  

Valdez said he had been contacted by local landowners with water concerns and after reaching out to Saguache County officials organized Monday’s open-to-the-public gathering.  

“I’m here to listen,” Valdez said. “I know this is not an easy topic to talk about.”  

While not an easy topic to discuss, everyone agreed it needs to be talked about, and sooner rather than later. Many who spoke said the San Luis Valley and much of the state has been in a drought for years, leading to less water for ranchers, farmers, and communities.  

Colorado, like other Western states, remains mired in a drought cycle that has seen four major droughts in the past two decades. The dry weather has sapped soils, raised wildfire danger, and drained underground aquifers on which farmers also rely.  

The San Luis Valley relies on the Rio Grande River and other streams and creeks for much of its water and taps into a vast underground aquifer system. Over the years, these have become taxed and need replenishing.  

The state has put the task of replenishing the aquifers on the locals and does not allow farmers and ranchers to pump from wells if replacement plans are not approved. Fines are also being levied.  

Saguache County is in the northwest corner of the San Luis Valley and is part of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Subdistrict No. 5. The subdistrict is not being allowed to use its wells but is considering appealing the state decision at a special meeting on Thursday, June 17, in Alamosa. The subdistrict would be allowed to use its wells during the appeals process.  

Saguache commissioners highlighted a letter regarding water issues the board drafted and hand-delivered to the State Engineer Kevin Rein on June 1.  

Commissioner McCracken wanted to avoid “kicking the can down the road. It’s come to a head now. We cannot live beyond our means. We have to live within our means.”  

Valdez was not the only state representative in attendance. State Sen. Cleave Simpson Jr. (Republican-District 35) made the drive from Alamosa to sit in and provide input. His district is large and encompasses all of Alamosa County, Conejos County, Costilla County, Mineral County, Rio Grande County, and Saguache County in Southern Colorado.  

Simpson said funding of nearly $10 million from various state agencies was going to be available to help with water issues. He also said he was working on legislation but could not go into details at this time. 

Valdez and Simpson said water was priority for them and they’d be willing to work together on the issue. 

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Subdistrict No. 5 Manager David Schmittel said they have proposed a 30 percent decrease in pumping across the board and well owners would be charged for going over their set allotment. But the proposal had not been put into effect.  

Local rancher Ed Nielsen, who also owns Nielsen Real Estate in Saguache, and others agreed with the proposal.  

“The focus has to be on replenishing the aquifer,” said Nielsen, who continued to reiterate this throughout the nearly 90-minute meeting.