Subdistrict 5 resumes pumping during judicial review


On June 18, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors voted 5–4 to pursue a judicial review of the Annual Replacement Plan that the Colorado Division of Water Resources denied for Subdistrict 5. East of Highway 285 between Center and Saguache, wells in the Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area are also part of Subdistrict 5.

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Following a series of discussions about petitioning for judicial review, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board of Managers for Subdistrict 5 voted unanimously on June 17 to leverage wording in the rules that would enable pumping until judgment passes. On June 18, the RGWCD Board of Directors voted 5–4 to pursue a judicial review of Subdistrict 5’s Annual Replacement Plan (ARP) that the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) denied in March.

Since DWR denied the ARP three months ago, a total of 213 wells across 65 farm units in Subdistrict 5 were prohibited from operating. On June 22, however, Division 3 DWR Engineer Craig Cotten notified these well owners. "Therefore," Cotten noted in his letter, "until the Judicial review of the State Engineer’s disapproval of the SD5 ARP is concluded, wells which have contracted and/or petitioned into SD5 can legally operate. However, they must meet all other decree and permit conditions, irrigation season limits, etc."

According to RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson, “There was a recognition when the rules were crafted that this is an arduous process, particularly for first-time efforts.”

Considering other options during the second week of June, Simpson met with Subdistrict 5 attorney Peter Ampe and representatives from the Division and the Attorney General’s office.

“We started looking closer at the rules and regulations for groundwater withdrawals,” Simpson said. "Written in the rules and regulations under Article 21, under benchmarks and phase-ins, it says, ‘In order to allow well users the time necessary to come into compliance with these rules, well users are not in violation of Rule 6 if they meet the following criteria.’”

The list of criteria is long, and Simpson cited Rule in particular, which states, “A Subdistrict’s first ARP is approved by the state engineer within one year of the approval of the Subdistrict’s groundwater management plan OR if the state engineer disapproves an ARP and is under judicial review.”

Outlining history, Simpson recalled helping form Subdistrict 5 in January 2014. The Subdistrict became official in December 2017, followed by an approved water plan in March 2020. This gave them a year to craft their first ARP.

But as Simpson explained, “We knew Saguache Creek was probably more challenging than the other Subdistricts, in some respects because there is no storage vessel on the top of Saguache Creek where we can store it and release it as required to mitigate injurious depletions.” 

The Subdistrict 5 water plan presented in 2020 met requirements for San Luis Creek and the Rio Grande, but the inadequate portfolio of replacement options for Saguache Creek doomed approval. Kevin Rein, DWR’s State Engineer, cited the Saguache Creek shortfall when he rejected the ARP. On March 15, 2021, Cotten notified the Subdistrict 5 members who did not have alternate replacement plans. They could not operate their wells.

The Board of Managers continues to seek solutions for Subdistrict 5. In addition to pursuing Well Injury Payments (WIPs), a pipeline proposed at the start of 2021 is still under consideration. Also, the managers requested bids to drill an augmentation well 100 feet deep in Saguache County. With a deadline of June 25, the bids should also consider 450 yards of pipe and 550 yards of buried electrical wire. Drill experts can contact the District office at (719) 589-6301 for more information. Subdistrict 5 managers will gather at RGWCD headquarters in Alamosa (and online) for a 5:00 meeting to review the bids on June 25.

Also, during the Subdistrict 5 meeting on June 17, Peggy Godfrey stepped down from her ex-officio position for the Subdistrict. Godfrey represents Saguache County on the RGWCD Board of Directors along with Bill McClure and will continue in that capacity. McClure agreed to fill the ex-officio position.