San Luis Valley: Steve Vandiver — ‘The commodity markets are going to drive this (retiring acreage irrigated by groundwater)’


Farmers and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been working for a number of years now on rules for groundwater sub-districts that will incent farmers to remove land irrigated from the Valley’s aquifers. The Colorado Supreme Court recently blessed their work so all is well, right?

The short answer is nope. Senior surface irrigators are still claiming injury and now, it appears, high commodity prices are affecting farmers decision process when it comes to removing acreage from production.

Here’s a report from Brett Walton writing for Circle of Blue. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Simply put, the San Luis Valley no longer has enough water to support the abundant farm production that is becoming increasingly supercharged by rising prices for the crops grown here.

There may be a way out. Water officials in the region’s six counties are working with the federal government on a voluntary plan that would pay farmers to take land out of production. If things turn out as planned, up to 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of the valley’s roughly 240,000 irrigated hectares (600,000 acres) will not be farmed.

Though it is still being negotiated, the plan has a significant obstacle: the explosive rise in food prices, which are making the sums offered by the water-conservation program less enticing. Prices for the valley’s mainstay — potatoes — have increased 25 percent in the last five years. Wheat, alfalfa, and barley prices have done even better, more or less doubling over the same period.

“The commodity markets are going to drive this,” said Steve Vandiver, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, in an interview with Circle of Blue. “If prices stay high, it’s going to be harder to get farmers to sign up.”

If the voluntary program does not work, Vandiver went on to say, the result would be worst for farmers. The state, he said, would then step in — like it did in not long ago in the nearby South Platte Basin — and force well owners to shut down, without compensation. “We’re trying to keep that from happening here,” he said. “We’re trying to provide a soft landing.”[…]

Climate change plays a role in the new river patterns, Gibson told Circle of Blue. Wind storms from the deserts in Arizona and New Mexico are more frequent, and they drop dust on the mountain snowpack, which is the primary water source for the valley’s rivers. The warming effect of the dust, combined with higher temperatures, means that the spring melt has moved several weeks earlier in the year. With a longer dry period in the summer, more groundwater is required to balance the changes in the river.

New reservoirs to store the altered flows are prohibited under a compact between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, Gibson told Circle of Blue, but existing reservoirs are being renovated to maximize their storage capacity.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

One thought on “San Luis Valley: Steve Vandiver — ‘The commodity markets are going to drive this (retiring acreage irrigated by groundwater)’

  1. It would seem that the best solution is permaculture. Assuming the only problem is a weakening aquifer.

    See YouTube video: “Greening the Desert”

    P.S. I sense that there are political challenges imbedded in this problem.

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