From the High Country News (Nick Bowlin):
One day in mid-July , Colorado state engineer Kevin Rein stood before a packed room of farmers and ranchers and admitted that he might be forced to ruin their lives. Rein, a middle-aged man with wavy gray hair, spoke in the measured tones of a technocrat, but his message was dire: If the valley’s residents cannot figure out how to sustainably manage their water use, the state would do it for them. And though he stressed, time and again, his office’s dedication to working with them, and though he praised their efforts, his goodwill fell flat in the hot, poorly ventilated room, where more than 120 people were crammed, worried about their future.
For most of the 20th century, water use in this southern Colorado basin outstripped water supply. The people of the valley came up with an uncommon solution to this not-uncommon problem: an experiment in communal water management. And what they’ve found is that self-governance is hard. Rein not only has the authority, but a legal mandate, to end this experiment if its failure becomes assured. If or when it becomes clear that the San Luis Valley’s water system cannot reach a sustainable level by the year 2031, then, yes, he said, his office would shut off irrigation for a substantial part of the area. That would mean no water for many fields, which could mean foreclosures, bankruptcies and family farms sold.
The stifling room went silent for a full 10 seconds. When the questions resumed, they came without outrage. Rein was not the villain. Most people present must have known that, in the end, they themselves represented both the cause of the problem and its only possible solution.
THE SAN LUIS VALLEY is a high-mountain desert ringed by the Southern Rockies and blessed with unusual water resources. From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, the Rio Grande traces southeast down to the valley floor, beneath which lie two enormous stores of water, one just belowground, the other deeper and enclosed by clay. The river and these aquifers sustain more than 1,500 farms and ranches — and the towns that rely on them — in harsh conditions generally inhospitable to agriculture. Center, a small town with a predictable location relative to the rest of the valley, registers some of Colorado’s coldest temperatures and lowest rainfall. Farming at almost 8,000 feet means long winters and a three-month growing season, accompanied by regular dry spells and occasional July killing frosts. But the sandy soil and near-constant sun are great for potatoes, making the valley the nation’s second-largest producer of “fresh” spuds — as in produce found in a store, not French fries. Other crops include barley, which often goes to the Coors Brewing Company, and alfalfa.
When morning comes to the valley, the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains earn their name, burning blood-red as the sun summits the sawtooth peaks. On high, snowpack endures for most of the year, watched daily by the farmers below, whose yearly water supply depends on the runoff. A drought that began in 2002 and continues today — recent rainfall notwithstanding — made the valley’s water deficit even more acute. In response to this new aridity, the people of the valley sought authority to regulate their own water use, which the state granted in 2004. In 2012, local governing bodies made up of water users across the valley began to tax commercial irrigation, replace water removed from rivers and streams, and pay farmers to fallow their land.
Western water wonks mostly view this attempt at self-management with hope, as a possible model for other communities facing water crises. But on the ground in the valley, the situation is grim. Last year, the snowpack was low and little rain fell; the Rio Grande’s flow in 2018 was one of the lowest ever recorded. The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated the valley a drought disaster area. With little surface water, farmers had to rely on water pumped from belowground, wiping out years of steady accretion to the shallower, or unconfined, aquifer. Last year’s dry spell put the valley back where it started: about 800,000 acre-feet below the aquifer’s legally mandated recovery level. Seven years gone and no net gains. In December, Rein sent the valley a warning letter. If, he wrote, it is “undeniable that the sustainability goals” will not be met by the 2031 deadline, irrigation shutdowns would follow. Rein would repeat this message in July. This threat now haunts thousands of water users, an ever-present doom on the horizon.
DROUGHTS BELONG TO THE CHAOTIC FORCES OF CLIMATE, and markets to invisible hands. But the San Luis Valley’s experiment in self-governance means that its agricultural producers control their own fate. Among them is Kyler Brown, who farms barley and potatoes a few miles north of Monte Vista. On a windy, warm day, Brown drove me through his family fields. The farm belongs to his father-in-law; Brown married into the valley. He is 36, tall and sturdy, and sports a black beard and a wide-brimmed hat. Brown laughs often in loud bursts and treats the valley’s struggles to moderate water use with a black humor. To him, the valley is suffering from old habits that die hard.
“It hasn’t led to violence yet,” he said with a grin, as the truck bounced down a two-wheel dirt track. The San Luis Valley is occasionally called “the Kumbaya basin” for its collaborative spirit, but Brown dislikes this description. For decades, the locals lived beyond nature’s limits. Now, water is scarce.
It was late March, and the snow still sat heavy on the surrounding peaks. The irrigation ditch adjoining the fields was overgrown with weeds. Soon, the scrub would be burned clean, the gates connecting Brown’s fields to the Rio Grande Canal open, and his water allotment flowing. Brown steered with one square tanned hand and gestured with the other. If the valley’s farms and ranches, its towns and economies, are to survive, he said, their relationship to water must change, and yet Brown does not think the local governance system, as it stands now, is up to the challenge. “People thought the (water management system) was the miracle, that was the amazing thing,” he said. But implementing the system, forming committees and boards, that’s the easy part, Brown went on. Changing how people act, that’s the real work.
This is especially true when water suddenly appears plentiful, as it did this spring. As if in response to Rein’s letter, southwestern Colorado had one of its snowiest winters in decades. In the mountains above the valley, the season-to-date snowpack average stayed above 300% for most of the spring. The Rio Grande, snow-fed, ran fast and full across the heart of the valley. Grazing meadows flooded in places. Ditches and canals, the vascular system that carries the lifeblood of the valley, filled.
This, then, was the challenge the valley faced, after the disastrous drought and Rein’s letter: 2019’s abundant water, set against 2018’s drought, offered yet another test of the farmers’ habits. Could they use the welcome, unexpected snowpack to refill the aquifers? This is a hard ask: Last year’s drought strained farmers financially. This year, the resource is plentiful.
Brown wants to take on this clash between individual and communal interest. Over the winter, he proposed a “consensus-building” plan to the local water management authority — something that would bring farmers, ranchers and community members together to build agreement on a few key conservation points. As Brown sees it, the people of the valley need to accept that the problem is not principally, or only, water scarcity. People’s water habits, the crops they grow, the decisions they make on the farm: All of these need to be held up and examined under the new arid realities.
“Everyone needs to think every time they turn on a pump,” he said.
Brown took me to a small meadow near the Rio Grande, where he runs a few dozen cattle on the cottonwood flats. The river was full to its banks, running dark and cold. Seeing so much water makes scarcity hard to imagine. It’s easy to think that way when the river is full.
Perhaps that’s been the problem all along. The valley’s system of water rights dates back to the 1850s, following the Mexican-American War. The Rio Grande supported the area’s early farms and ranches. Acequias, community water channels, shared the resource at the valley’s southern end. Founded in 1852, the San Luis People’s Ditch in Culebra Creek is the oldest continuously used water right in the state. These waterways created thousands of acres of marshy terrain in the low country, grown over with stands of cottonwood and willow that shaded native wildflowers. By 1900, the entire flow of the Rio Grande was allocated via surface water rights.
After World War II, electrification enabled farmers to pump water from wells tapped deep into the aquifers. By the second half of the 20th century, surface-water users had to curb irrigation, thanks to river compacts formed with downstream states. Well users faced no such restrictions. They pumped away, which impacted stream flows, since ground- and surface water interact. For a time, this was not a problem; there was enough water to go around for both surface and groundwater users. (In fact, the water table was so high that valley houses built in the early 20th century don’t have basements.)
The development of center-pivot sprinklers in the 1970s brought big changes, expanding agricultural capacity by allowing more efficient irrigation, no matter what the river was doing. Water use and farm size increased. Before this pumping technology, fields were flooded from the irrigation ditches, and the runoff helped replenish groundwater. But now, the combination of pumps and sprinklers drained the groundwater without replenishing it. Few questioned what this technology allowed. The water table dropped, and the rivers and creeks thinned. The pheasants that once thrived in the thickets and woodlands disappeared.
TODAY, MORE THAN 14,000 PERMITTED WELLS puncture the valley floor. On a map, they appear as a tightly packed confederation of crop circles, laid out like thousands of green sundials set against the dusty waste of the desert. Many of these wells pump within the valley’s first water management “subdistrict,” which began the experiment in self-governance eight years ago. Two more subdistricts became active this year, on May 1. If all goes according to plan, there will be seven of these, distinguished by differences in geography and hydrology.
The actual work of shared governance takes place through the taxpayer-funded Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which includes the subdistricts. In practice, this involves committee meetings, lots of them. Each subdistrict’s board is made up of water users — farmers and ranchers. (Board members are mostly, but not uniformly, older, white and male. The valley is not — about half the population is Hispanic or Latino.) The meetings take place in a drab, reddish stucco building outside Alamosa. Committee members show up in stiff jeans, flannel shirts and seed caps that are removed for the Pledge of Allegiance, which begins each meeting, revealing pale foreheads above weather-beaten faces. The audience resembles the boards. Most people seem to know each other. Before an April session, I heard a farmer in a hat that proclaimed “compost done right” confide to the man next to him that “we’re going to be doing more quinoa this year, for sure.”
The meetings themselves tend to be dry affairs. In April, Subdistrict 2 board members went page-by-page through the annual water plan, discussed a few water leases, and solemnly approved a $78.22 refund to a ranch for a water fee overcharge. Someone cracked a joke about “counting every penny.” But these sessions, however mundane, are where the water management work gets done, amid a patchwork of interests, values and preoccupations.
Cattle ranchers sit next to barley and alfalfa producers. Big operators who own thousands of acres farmed with the newest in GPS-driven tractor technology rub shoulders with smallholders who supplement their agricultural income with a second job in one of the scattered towns. Some have water wells and some have river rights, and many have both. There are disagreements and digressions, punishingly long budget sessions, personal gripes, and episodic displays of resourcefulness and democratic good sense. In the middle of all this is Cleave Simpson, the water district manager, a fourth-generation farmer who tends about 800 acres of hay. Tall, thick-shouldered with sun-narrowed eyes, Simpson has a remarkable ability to explain water policy minutiae in clear, everyday language. People remark on his steady presence and decent conduct in an uncertain time. Even people who disagree with him tell me this.
Simpson believes that the valley can fix its water imbalance, but he admits the difficulty. Cutting water use is unpleasant, he told me, “but we can either wait on Mother Nature — or we can give it a shot ourselves.”
For eight years, the first subdistrict has given it a shot, and the results are uneven. Farmers within its borders must comply with the subdistrict’s water plan or get their own through state water court. Some early resistance aside, most chose the first option. Subdistrict 1 has several tools at hand to curb pumping. The primary one is a fee on pumped water; the current rate is $90 per acre-foot. Those with excess water can sell it to those who want more, via a credit system. There is also a program that pays farmers to take land out of production. About 10,000 acres of farmland have been retired this way, only about a quarter of the expected figure by this point.
Though the system is complicated, the aquifer is not. The aquifer responds to two things: recharge from the surface and reduced pumping. The effects are so obvious that locals sometimes refer to the aquifer as “the bathtub.” The amount of surface recharge each year is limited, so replenishing the aquifer effectively means less groundwater pumping for irrigation. That’s the hard part.
Subdistrict 1 sits atop the unconfined aquifer, so in many ways it is the most important. Many of the largest and most lucrative farms are here, in the heart of the valley. The subdistrict stops just before the Rio Grande to the south and stretches into the valley’s northern reaches, where smaller farms and ranches sit amid the sage and chico brush. Most of the farmers here grow barley, alfalfa or potatoes. Almost all of them rely on wells that pump from the aquifer. When Rein threatened a pumping shut-off, he was referring to Subdistrict 1’s more than 3,000 wells.
Rein’s letter woke people up, said Erin Nissen, who plants potatoes and barley with her father, Lyle, outside the small town of Mosca. At a special meeting after the letter ran in the local paper, several dozen people were expected to show. Hundreds came, filling the room and spilling out the door. “The letter was good,” she told me over the phone. “Scary, but good. There was talk from the beginning: ‘Oh, it’s fine, they won’t come and shut off the wells.’ ”
People are realizing now that the state might, indeed, shut off the wells. Part of the problem, according to Nissen, is an inability to require water-use cutbacks. When the subdistrict system was formed after the 2002 drought — the mention of which still makes valley farmers shiver — the architects thought market mechanisms would be enough, given commodity prices, and the hydraulic and climactic data available.
While sound at the time, this model could not account for the realities of a changing climate, and the subdistrict has proven unable to discourage enough farmers from pumping. “There’s a really sad mindset of, ‘I can pay for it, so it’s my neighbor’s problem,’ ” Nissen said.
IN PRACTICE, THE SUBDISTRICT’S POLICIES cannot account for the valley’s unequal water distribution. Farmers with good surface water rights take what they need from the river and sell the extra as credits, while wealthier farmers and operations owned by corporations and other outside entities pay the pumping fee and buy up credits. In both cases, there is no behavior change. Hiking the pumping fee will eventually hurt large water users, but it would also devastate small, poorer farms and ranches. It doesn’t take much to break them. For some, the cost is already too high.
That was the case for Dale Bartee’s neighbors, in the northern part of Subdistrict 1 near Center. In the past few years, he said, three locally owned farms nearby sold, in part due to the ever-rising pumping fee, with most of the land going to out-of-state investment firms.
“We used to see all our neighbors on the road, and we’d stop and visit with them,” he said. “Not anymore; now, it’s just haul by and never see them.
“It’s really hurt this area,” he added, sitting at his kitchen table in mid-August. He and his 8-year-old son, Kolby, had been out in the fields, and Bartee made sure Kolby washed his hands and arms before sitting down to talk. A laconic man with a horseshoe mustache, Bartee is the fourth generation of his family to work the farm and hopes to make it five. He runs a cow-calf herd, puts up hay and grows small grains. Kolby and his brother run a herd of 57 sheep. Bartee’s operation has middling surface rights, so he does all he can to limit pumping costs.
All summer, farmers discussed a pumping fee increase as if it were a certainty. They were right. At a budget meeting in late August, Subdistrict 1’s board confirmed a $150-acre-foot rate for next year’s irrigation season. In the public comment period, many argued that the fee would drive farmers from the land. Others said an increase was the only choice, given the aquifer’s level. Several board members spoke about the rate hike as a grim necessity. To Bartee, the new fee means that “the big guys and the ones with the surface credits are just going to get bigger.”
The other subdistricts seem to have learned a few things. LeRoy Salazar, the president of Subdistrict 3 near the Conejos River, which flows wide and shallow down from the San Juan Mountains and east across the valley’s southern end, said that his board can mandate water use restrictions during a dry spell. Simpson agrees, but obtaining this capacity for Subdistrict 1 would require an arduous return to water court. A small farmer himself, Simpson said that a $150-acre-foot fee could make his operation untenable.
Without enforcement authority, Subdistrict 1 has minimal tools besides higher taxes to restrain pumping or manage competition between members. As Brown sees it, this sustains incentive structures that are geared toward use, not conservation and replenishment. “I have a decreed right to that water on paper, and I’m going to pump as much as I can, for as long as I can.”
The instinct is understandable. Most farmers operate on tight financial margins and will pump all they can to bring their crops to market. But when it comes to creating a sustainable system for the valley as a whole, these private instincts run afoul of public considerations.
By April, as snowmelt accelerated on the peaks and farmers prepared to plant potatoes, Brown was already souring on the prospects for his consensus-building plan, proposed to address the public-private push-and-pull. The response, he said at the time, had been pretty quiet. At an April presentation of the proposal by one of Brown’s friends, the skepticism was tangible. Brown said he understands public hesitation. The community has already tightened its belt, but it has not been enough. He likened the water challenge to a family budget.
“Every family has a hard time living within its means,” he said. “Not because there aren’t externalities, like going to the emergency room or no Christmas bonus. But it’s about behavior.”
IF THE VALLEY IS TO MEET WATER DEMANDS, inherited habits from wetter times will need to change. Right now, for example, many farmers pump to their legal limit, whether or not the crops need water. In a year like 2018, when the rivers and ditches ran low, heavy well pumping is the only option for many. And in a wet year, the economics of farming and the demands of thirsty crops like alfalfa and wheat prevail. If the water is there, alfalfa will keep drinking. Of the crops that grow in the valley, alfalfa uses the most water per acre. It is also extremely lucrative: The valley exports bales by the truckload to dairies and stockyards all over the West, and in a good year like this one, a farmer can get three cuttings.
In Subdistrict 1, it falls to the ranchers and farmers themselves to break these inherited habits. On the ground, this looks something like what Erin Nissen is up to. Nissen, who is in her late 20s, grew up on her family’s farm. She has a calm demeanor, a direct gaze and innovative ideas on how to manage water use.
Her family operation consists of 11 fields, with each 120-acre section divided into 40-acre plots. Each plot is farmed independently, with crops that rotate each year. They currently grow 240 acres of potatoes and 60 acres of barley. Other fields are planted with cover crops, which are chopped up and turned back into the soil. Also in the rotation are fields of sorghum-sudangrass that are grazed by cattle, fertilizing the fields and thereby reducing the need for chemical inputs. All of this is done with an eye towards building up organic material and promoting healthier, more resilient soil, which acts as a sponge and better retains water. Once rare in the valley, crop rotation has become more common, its benefits for the soil now widely recognized.
For irrigation, Nissen uses evaporation models to predict the precise amount of water her crops will need. If the afternoon turns cloudy, for instance, she’ll reduce irrigation by a few percent. Even the sprinklers have been modified — anything to shave water use down to the minimum. Newly installed nozzles spray water in droplets, like rain. Older models distribute a mist that is more likely to blow away. Nissen has also reduced the total number of acres she cultivates and voluntarily limits her pumping.
Many farmers use some of these techniques, but few use them all. It can be hard to introduce crop rotations, let alone a full switch to less thirsty crops like quinoa and hemp. Habits are durable things, especially successful ones. Barley and potatoes, planted on the same fields every year — and irrigated in the same ways — have made and sustained many livelihoods in the valley.
I asked Nissen why she has introduced so many changes, and her first answer was: necessity. The family has lower-priority surface water rights, so they depend on taxed water that is pumped from belowground. Cutbacks save money, and healthier soil means higher crop yields. But Nissen also called it an ethical move. Like so many young people who grow up on farms, she went away for college, graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in agricultural and applied economics. After graduating, she returned, the fourth generation of her family on the farm. It’s not just any future she wants for the valley, but this one, where family farms of moderate size endure, where children work the same land their parents and grandparents tilled. Attaining that future, though, Nissen said, demands that she change her farm’s water habits. “It’s important that farmers cut back for the good of the valley,” she said.
THIS COMMUNAL VIEW was what Brown wanted to encourage with the consensus-building plan, breaking away from the system that brought on the current water crisis. In early June, the Subdistrict 1 board gave the proposal a muted response. For now, the idea has little life.
Like Nissen, Brown’s ultimate hope is for people to face up to the conditions at hand and then consider what sort of future they want for the valley, before it’s too late. For both of them, the point of the subdistrict system, this experiment in self-governance, is not simply to guarantee the valley’s economic future, but, crucially, to sustain a certain sort of life on the land and the communities this life supports. “If we want as many people, as many families, working the land as possible, that’s a value we need to be working towards,” Brown said.
Even while family farms and smaller operations endure in the San Luis Valley, many people describe a trend towards consolidation — larger farms growing at the expense of smaller operations, while outside dollars buy up land as investments or tax write-offs. Department of Agriculture census records show an increase in the number of large, rich farms in recent decades.
Some of the valley’s larger operations, such as North Star Farm, which is owned by a California-based trust, and Natural Prairie from Texas, are backed by outside money, as are many of the new hemp operations. Without the strong community ties and commitment to family farms that have inspired Nissen to overhaul her farming practices and conserve water, these deep-pocketed operations have little reason to limit their water use beyond the legal mandate.
The San Luis Valley depends on agriculture. Along any of the valley’s highways, most of the storefronts and signs advertise this dependence, from engine shops and welders, to potato warehouses and irrigation engineers, to the shiny new combines that crouch in waiting along the bar ditch. People, too, rely on agriculture. Farm dollars fund a public school system and several hospitals. Monte Vista has more than a dozen churches. Alamosa boasts a small university, Adams State, which offers an agriculture degree tailored to local students.
There is a divide between the valley’s majority-Hispanic towns and the farms that surround them, according Flora Archuleta, director of the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center. “The people in control are white, the farmers,” she said. “They own the land.” Even so, she went on, Alamosa, Monte Vista and Center would likely not exist without agriculture. The resource center sits on a storefront strip down a gravel side street in Alamosa. Across the street, passenger train cars sit humped and rusting in an old railyard. The office is constantly busy — something different every day. In May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) invaded a nearby Mexican restaurant, taking five people. Decades ago, more than 10,000 migrant workers staffed the farms each year. Some farmworkers, mainly Mexican and Guatemalan, still come up through New Mexico and Arizona for planting season, but fewer now, Archuleta said, due to the ever-increasing mechanization of industrial agriculture and tightening immigration policies over the past decade. “The valley is a farming community,” she said, “and that’s what people rely on.”
As Heather Dutton, a fifth-generation valley resident and manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, put it, even Alamosa’s mountain-bike stores — in a town of fewer than 10,000 people — exist because there are enough people with enough money to ride on weekends. “There’s this huge chain of people who are all able to live here because of farming in one way or another,” she said, sitting in a craft beer and coffee shop in Alamosa. When we got up to leave, Dutton stopped to say hello to several diners she knew. Like her, all of them rely in some way on the success of those farms for a livelihood.
A major downturn in agriculture — whether it happens over time, due to climate change and consolidating market forces, or immediately, should the state order well closures — would hurt Alamosa and the other towns. And the valley is already struggling, despite the presence of so many large, wealthy farms. Commodity prices have not been healthy in more than a decade, and the six counties that constitute the valley are among Colorado’s poorest. Shuttered storefronts dot Alamosa’s main street. A recent casualty is a J.C. Penney, which anchored the block for more than a century. Locals took this closure particularly hard, even petitioning the company to keep the store open. Explaining the closure in a statement, the company said it is shutting locations that do not meet financial targets.
Archuleta’s family has lived in the area since before it was part of the U.S. If farming collapses, she predicts, “the valley would become a ghost town.”
IN FEBRUARY, MANY PEOPLE SPECULATED that, with a large river and some luck with snowmelt, the valley could regain what was lost last year and maybe substantially more. The first part came to pass: The Rio Grande is projected to have its highest annual flow in more than two decades. The second part did not. As of September, the aquifer had gained about 140,000 acre-feet, less than what had been lost in 2018 and not even the largest yearly recharge since 2002. The water level by summer’s end tends to be the replenishment for the year. It is enough to stay the threat of well shutdowns for now, but next year is as likely to return to drought as it is to resemble 2019. Rein’s warning endures. Did the valley take advantage of this year’s snowpack? As with most things, the result is mixed — not exactly a failure, but not all it could have been.
The valley’s people know that the subdistrict system may well fail, yet many continue to act on behalf of a project that asks them to place their trust in each other. Simpson was born here, left for the Colorado School of Mines, and spent more than a decade working as an engineer before coming back and buying a farm with his wife, Cathy, who is also a local. This tracks a pattern in Simpson’s family history; his great-grandfather was the first in the family to arrive in the valley. His grandfather left for a time, then came back, as did his father. His son, Jared, left for college. Now 27, he works the farm with his father. Simpson told me he does the often-thankless task of running the valley’s water governance system for his son. “I love agriculture,” he said. “My son loves agriculture. He has a college degree, he doesn’t have to do this. I do wonder why we keep beating our heads against the wall. But this is home.”
And if it fails, this experiment in self-governance, why should people outside the valley, beyond these homes, care? I put this question to Brown in March. We were driving out along the dirt track through the low country that cradles the river. Snow was visible high above, and spring was coming on. He thought about this for a moment. The valley’s inhabitants produce food, and their livelihood depends upon a thriving agricultural economy, he said. Most of the country does not live this way. And failure to address the water crisis would threaten this way of life, another instance of the decades-long economic abandonment of rural America. But then, after a pause, he added something more. Here in the Colorado mountains, there exists a community, one with a past full of mistakes and a future dark with uncertainty — yet a community all the same. “People who live here aren’t any more special than people anywhere else,” he said, “but they also aren’t any less special than anyone else.”
Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.