From The High Country News (Cally Carswell):
Instead of denying or ignoring the problem, [San Luis Valley] farmers are facing the fact that agriculture has outgrown its water supply. They admit they must live within new limits, or perish. Determined to avoid state intervention, they’ve created an innovative irrigation market, charging themselves to pump and using that money to pay others to fallow their land. Thousands of acres have come out of production, and their sights are set on fallowing tens of thousands more.
Brian Brownell is among those cutting back. When I visited last September, the valley’s potato harvest was in full swing, and dust clouds over fields where farmers were exhuming spuds were visible from miles away. Dust also levitated above a field on Brownell’s farm, but nothing was being harvested. Instead, the Sudan grass he’d planted was being hacked to pieces and tilled into the soil. He’d received $96,000 for putting 480 of his 1,680 acres into this “green manure” instead of a more water-hungry and profitable commercial crop.
“Everybody’s pumping too much water,” he said. His gray sideburns bristled on tanned skin, and his lips curved down in thought. “People have to start to buy in to the community thing, instead of ‘me,’ ‘my farm,’ ‘my deal.’ ”
This time, farmers are scrambling to save local agricultural not from outsiders who covet their water, but from themselves.
“It’s only going to work,” said Brownell, “if everybody does something to save the water.”
The San Luis Valley’s 8,000 square miles are flat as plywood, hemmed in by the San Juan Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Sangre de Cristos, a dramatic wall of serrated peaks edged by sand dunes that seem plucked from a North African desert. The valley’s 46,000 residents live in scattered small towns, beneath lonely willows and cottonwoods, and around highway outposts where a few stores merit a mark on a map. It’s a tough place to live, and attracts some unconventional folks: The valley is home to hot springs (and a communal kitchen) frequented by nudists, an alligator farm, a community of 1,500 with 23 spiritual centers, and a UFO watchtower unimpaired by light pollution, where camping costs $10 a night.
But mostly, there are farms — big ones. The center-pivot sprinklers here are among the most tightly packed in the world, and their hulking aluminum spines give the valley floor the illusion of topography. The annual harvest — largely potato, barley and alfalfa — is worth some $300 million, and without it, a number of the towns probably wouldn’t exist. There are no mines, no ski resorts, no gas wells. Alamosa, the biggest town at 8,937 residents, boasts a small college and a hospital. Almost everything else — the fertilizer and tractor dealers, the Safeway, the county governments and K-12 schools — is supported primarily by money from the fields.
At a more basic level, everything runs on irrigation water. From the 1850s, when Hispanic settlers dug the first ditches, until the 1950s, most of that water was diverted from the Rio Grande and its tributaries and flooded onto fields. Then, drought and technological innovation spurred a well-drilling boom. Groundwater nursed crops through dry years and the late season, when rivers shrank. Soon, center-pivot sprinklers were hooked up to wells, watering crops evenly and efficiently all season long, and many farmers started irrigating exclusively with wells, using river water merely to recharge the aquifer. Marginal land became profitable, crop yields — and water consumption — grew, and large-scale commercial agriculture came into its own.
For decades, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, also called the State Engineer’s Office, granted well permits as generously as dentists dispense toothbrushes, ignoring basic hydrology. The water in the ground and the rivers was connected, and voracious well-pumping could lower streamflows — a serious problem, since the river water was already claimed. Following the logic of prior appropriation — the Westwide system that gives priority to those with the oldest water rights — wells that were connected to streams should only pump after older river irrigators are sated. But the opposite happened. In the late ’60s, the state clamped down on river irrigators to comply with the Rio Grande Compact, which requires Colorado to leave water in the river for Texas and New Mexico. Well owners, meanwhile, pumped happily away.
In 1975, the State Engineer tried to phase out a slew of wells, but a court encouraged a softer approach. Wells were drilled in the valley’s “closed basin,” where streams don’t drain to the Rio Grande. They sipped gingerly from a high water table, “salvaging” what would otherwise evaporate and piping it to the river. The Closed Basin Project seemed like a win-win: Wells kept pumping, river irrigators got water, and regulators backed off. It produced less water than expected, but the ’80s and ’90s were so wet that few people cared. Mother Nature bought rounds for everyone.