The end of a water mine?


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article,"The Great Sand Dunes: the next new national park?"

A federal buyout of the Baca Ranch would erase the threat of a sale, by a private developer, of San Luis Valley water to the Front Range. But pressure is building on the federal government to send more groundwater south in the Rio Grande.

The feds already pump valley groundwater into the Rio Grande. The Closed Basin Project, built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, pumps 40,000 acre-feet of water each year from a shallow aquifer in the northern tip of the valley. That water flows into the Rio Grande to help Colorado meet its obligations to New Mexico and Texas under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

At full capacity, the project could carry another 60,000 acre-feet into the Rio Grande each year - welcome water in a river in a tug-of-war among cities, powerful agricultural interests, and environmentalists who want to leave some water in the river for the endangered silvery minnow (HCN, 10/11/99: A tiny fish cracks New Mexico's water establishment).

"We're going to have to put more water in the river," at some point, says writer Ed Quillen. The question is, where will the water come from?

"If you dry up the acequias, you'll have every John Nichols fan out with guns," says Quillen, a columnist for The Denver Post and the publisher of Colorado Central Magazine. "Dry up the potato farms up here and you'll have every farmer in the valley up in arms - and they have even more guns, if not as much political support."

The cities aren't going to budge either, he says, so the easy answer is to pump more water out of the Closed Basin Project.

Hogwash, says David Robbins with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The Rio Grande Compact wouldn't allow the feds to pump more Colorado water to solve New Mexico's problems. More to the point, he says, there is no extra water in the valley. "If you pump big holes, mother nature is going to start filling those holes." If the aquifer is drawn down, he says, lakes and rivers will refill it, leaving valley water users high and dry.

But there may be some extra water under the valley. Last fall, the state kicked off a study of the deep "confined" aquifer in the Closed Basin. While it is not well understood, some theorize that the deep aquifer could be tapped without affecting the shallow aquifer or the water table. If the state's study, which will likely be out in 2002, reveals a pool of deep groundwater, the idea of a water mine in the San Luis Valley may come alive again.

"We say that the compact protects us," says district manager Ralph Curtis. "But who's to say what the federal government will do to get water out of the San Luis Valley to protect the silvery minnow?"

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