The health of the Santa Maria Reservoir (shown above) and others is vital to water users in the SLV.
MONTE VISTA — Above Creede near North Clear Creek Falls lie two of Colorado’s highest elevation reservoirs, the Continental and Santa Maria.
The reservoirs have served farmers in the San Luis Valley below for generations.
In addition to the more than 200 stockholders who directly depend on the water from these reservoirs to irrigate 70,000 acres, hundreds of other Valley irrigators are beginning to depend on them to stay in business as they replace groundwater depletions to senior surface rights through newly developed water management sub-districts.
To continue playing their vital roles in San Luis Valley agriculture, these high mountain reservoirs require repair.
The Santa Maria Reservoir Company that owns both of the reservoirs is seeking money from a severance tax-supported statewide water fund to begin the first phase of these repairs involving the conveyance system between the two reservoirs. The Santa Maria Reservoir’s conveyance system request for $23,000 in locally allocated funds and $440,750 in state apportioned funds is scheduled to go before the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the group that administers the state funding, in March. The local water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable, voted unanimously this month to send the request on to the state.
These funds will be matched with other sources, such as a loan the reservoir company is obtaining, for a project totaling $1.8 million.
This represented the largest project and funding request at the January roundtable meeting. Continental Reservoir needs will be addressed in future phases.
The reservoir company already received grant funds to perform studies over the last few years to determine what repairs are needed and how best to implement them.
It is now time to get to work to make sure these reservoirs are as viable 100 years from now as they have been the last 100 years.
“Most of the water projects have served three and almost four generations of people,” said Santa Maria Reservoir Company President Keith Holland. “It’s time to get them so they serve the next four generations of people.”
Holland commended the Valley pioneers, who included his great grandfather, for their foresight in building reservoirs like Santa Maria, Continental and Rio Grande Reservoir. They constructed these projects during difficult economic times, not unlike today, and with primitive means and engineering, Holland said.
The reservoirs have served the Valley well, he added. Santa Maria Reservoir will be 100 years old next year. It is one of the highest reservoirs in Colorado at more than 10,000 feet. The Continental, about eight miles away, is at an even higher elevation.
Full time caretaker Bob Kukuk lives at Santa Maria year round with his wife and two children.
The Santa Maria gets its water from Continental by way of a conveyance system comprised of pipeline, siphon and ditch. Ninety percent of the water managed by the Santa Maria goes through the Rio Grande Canal with the remainder going through the Monte Vista Canal.
The main problems of the Continental, which is currently under state imposed storage restrictions, are seepage and spillway issues, Holland explained, and Santa Maria’s primary issues are the siphon supports and open ditch.
The siphon was originally built out of wooden staves that were replaced by steel pipe in the 1930’s. It was also in the 1930’s that the Santa Maria Reservoir Company purchased the Continental Reservoir from the Del Norte Irrigation District when the Continental Reservoir Company went broke.
The Santa Maria support system must be repaired first to ensure the ability of the Santa Maria to store water, Holland said. Repairs at the Continental will be completed in Phase 2.
Holland added it is fortunate the pipeline itself is in good shape and will not need repair in the near future.
Holland said the storage in reservoirs like Santa Maria and Continental is critical for the first water management sub-district that is already in place and future sub-districts, because many of the sub-district do not have access to storage, and they will need a place to store water to make up stream depletions. These storage facilities are even more critical because they were built before the Rio Grande Compact was signed so they are not affected when post-compact reservoir restrictions come into play, as they have on the Platoro Reservoir, a post-compact reservoir.
Santa Maria Reservoir Company Manager Jay Yeager said one of the sub-district’s requirements is to be able to store a year’s worth of replacement water, in addition to the water released on a daily basis to replace depletions.
“That’s a lot of water that needs to be stored,” he said.
The sub-district can use the reservoir to store that water required for its stream depletions.
Yeager added the reservoirs also hold water for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and other entities. In addition, Holland said, sometimes the reservoirs hold Rio Grande Compact water.
Santa Maria can store up to 43,500 acre feet. Continental has a capacity for 27,000 acre feet but for 20 years has been limited to 15,000 acre feet because of leakage at the dam and the deteriorated condition of the conveyance system between Continental and Santa Maria.
“It’s needed,” stressed Nicole Langley, water resources consultant, Transforma Research & Design, who has assisted the Santa Maria Reservoir Company with these proposals for several years.
“It’s truly exciting to see that now we are going to be able to make it happen and do it right,” she said. “The Santa Maria Reservoir Company is looking at recreation, wildlife, wetlands, making sure everything is all ready to go forward.”
She said this is an epic time of transition from several years of studies to implementation and from long time Santa Maria Reservoir Company President Ron Peterson to Holland.
Peterson, who served for more than 20 years, said the years of conducting studies were frustrating and slow, and the project is two years behind where he hoped it would be, but “It’s something that needed to be done.”
He added he hoped the work on the Continental would move faster.
“We need to jump on it right away because time is getting away,” he said, with Langley adding, “and money getting away.”
Holland said the emphasis now is to rehabilitate reservoirs rather than to build new ones.
“Now is the time to try to fix existing storages,” he said.
Holland credited long-time legislator Lewis Entz with promoting reservoir rehabilitation.
“It was visionary of Lewis to think that way,” Holland said.
Since the water funds have been in place at the state and basin level, several reservoir projects have been undertaken in the San Luis Valley, Langley said.
She said as severance tax monies decrease and applications for the money become more competitive, it will be more important for projects like the Santa Maria/Continental to be well prepared.
However, roundtable members have maintained that “good projects get funded,” and these projects are good ones.
“People have worked well together on the roundtable which is what it was set up to do,” Holland said. “They see the value of good projects and getting things done.”