#Colorado farmers fight to save their water and their community’s future — @HighCountryNews

From the High Country News (Nick Bowlin):

One day in mid-July [2019], 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.

Cleave Simpson, bottom right, converses with other water users following a Subdistrict 1 budget meeting. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Kyler Brown rides along a section of pooled water on the land where he runs his cattle. There hasn’t been so much standing water at summer’s end in years. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

The well that Kyler Brown uses for irrigation was drilled in 1978. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Center, Colorado, is surrounded by center-pivot-irrigated farms that draw water from shrinking aquifers below the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Google Earth

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.

Board and community members gather at a Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1 budget meeting in August. The subdistrict voted to raise pumping fees from $90 per acre-foot to $150 per acre-foot. They also discussed the fallow field program and ways to make it more accessible for farmers, such as allowing half fields to be fallowed. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Dale Bartee checks the soil in his field of organic flax seed. The plant requires less water than crops like alfalfa and barley. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Kolby Bartee, age 8, drives as his brother, Tyler, 12, feeds hay to sheep on their farm. The boys run their own sheep herd as part of their family’s fourth-generation farm. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Read more on the business plot to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range.

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.”

Farmer Erin Nissen with some of her cattle. Under Subdistrict 1’s fallowed field program, she is still able to utilize the land for grazing. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Erin Nissen shows the quinoa crop she planted to help decrease water use on her family’s farm. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Kyler Brown’s five-year-old son, Elijah, plays at the family breakfast table with a swather that he made. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

The side of a farm building north of Center, Colorado. The farms in the San Luis Valley are known for their fresh potatoes. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

Alamosa, Colorado, in the San Luis Valley, is heavily dependent on the farm economy. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.”

Water from an aquifer that lies below Colorado’s San Luis Valley flows through a center-pivot irrigation system, one of some 14,000 that draw water from below. Photo credit:Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.

During a Subdistrict 1 meeting, Cleave Simpson consults with a farmer in the audience. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.”

Kyler Brown carries his three-year-old daughter, Olivia, to the truck to drive her to daycare. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at nickbowlin@hcn.org.

Renewable Water Resources San Luis Valley transmountain diversion project update

Aerial view of the San Luis Valley’s irrigated agriculture. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Dangling money, the developers at Renewable Water Resources — which counts former Gov. Bill Owens as a principal — contend that because the urban Front Range is the richest part of the state, it has the potential to give the most to the poorest.

They envision pumping 22,000 acre-feet per year from 14 wells drilled 2,000 feet deep at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, building a pipeline costing $250 million to $600 million, and then pumping water at least 40 miles northward over Poncha Pass toward Front Range cities.

“We need between 300,000 acre-feet and 500,000 acre-feet of new water for the Front Range. The question is: Where’s that going to come from?” said Sean Tonner, managing partner of Renewable Water Resources.

“We can take it out of the Colorado River, but we know what the stresses are there. The Poudre River? The Arkansas? The South Platte is already the most over-appropriated river. Folks are looking at moving water from the Mississippi River back to Colorado,” he said. “These are the lengths people are looking to for adding water.”

Exporting San Luis Valley water would be “fairly easy” compared with other options, Tonner said…

The San Luis Valley retort? “There is no win-win,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and a farmer, who has been traveling statewide to make the case against this trans-basin diversion of water…

The intensifying water battle here reflects the rising tensions and inequities across the arid western United States, where water and control over water looms as a primary factor of power. Thirsty Castle Rock, Parker, Castle Pines and other south metro Denver suburbs, where household incomes top $110,000 and development has depleted the groundwater, can marshal assets that dwarf those of farmers in the San Luis Valley, where families’ average income is less than $35,000…

State officials in Denver say they will study Renewable Water Resources’ proposal once the developers file it at the state water court in Alamosa.

“We’ll have to have a perspective of being open to anything,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, declining to take a position…

A Renewable Water Resources diagram provided to The Denver Post presented details of a water-siphon project that would begin near Moffat on a company-owned ranch with 14 wells spaced 1 mile apart. A pipeline, 24 inches to 32 inches in diameter, would convey no more than 22,000 acre-feet of water per year northward at least 40 miles over Poncha Pass to Salida, and also to a point west of Fairplay, Tonner said.

San Luis Valley water then could be diverted into the Arkansas River, the Eleven Mile Reservoir used by Colorado Springs and the upper South Platte River that flows into a series of Denver Water reservoirs, he said.

The exported valley water purchased by south Denver suburbs ultimately would be stored in the newly enlarged Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver and Parker’s Rueter-Hess Reservoir, still barely half full. Suburban water users would pay the cost of the pipelines, Tonner said, and Renewable Water Resources would use $68 million raised from investors to purchase water rights in the valley — rights to pump 32,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation. But the developers would export no more than 22,000 acre-feet a year. The difference would mean a net gain for the aquifer…

At least 40 farmers have inquired about selling water rights, some of them meeting with former Gov. Owens and other Renewable Water Resources officials. Tonner also declined to identify those farmers…

The ethics of siphoning water away from low-income areas toward the richest parts of the state would have to be considered as part of the state’s water project planning process, said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“That is definitely something that has to be looked at. Is that the way we want to grow as a state? Is that what the value structure is?” Mitchell said. “There are cases where those (trans-basin diversions) can be win-win. But without the buy-in of the local community, there are going to be struggles.”

In recent months, Renewable Water Resources’ principals have been working quietly in the valley, meeting with farmers and proposing the creation of a $50 million “community fund” and possibly other payments. Just the annual interest income from such a fund could exceed Saguache County’s current budget, Tonner said.

By paying farmers for a portion of their water rights, Renewable Water Resources could help them stay on their land, perhaps growing different crops that require less water such as hemp, and infuse the valley with the $50 million and possibly other payments while also retiring wells to ensure a net gain of water in the aquifer.

Denver developer, former governor make $118M play for San Luis Valley water — @WaterEdCO

Photo credit San Luis Valley Heritage.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Henry, Colo.: As the sun sets at the Colorado Farm Brewery, a light breeze plays over a deep green rye field that borders the patio. As they do most Thursday nights, nearly two dozen people have wandered into this scenic, rural bar 250 miles southwest of Denver to relax and visit with neighbors.

The brewery is part of a 300-acre farm which grows grains and hops, and which also operates a malting company. Wayne Cody, the farm’s 61-year-old patriarch, has just come in from hours of work, roasting malt, examining fields, and preparing to plant buckwheat the next day.

As he visits with customers, it’s clear that most people in this bar tonight know that something almost unholy is in the works here in the San Luis Valley.

A well-connected metro Denver water developer, backed by former Colorado Governor Bill Owens, Front Range real estate interests, and absentee ranchers who themselves control huge amounts of water here, is proposing to export millions of gallons of water out of this drought-stricken, scrappy place for delivery to fast-growing Douglas County.

Sean Tonner, who once served as deputy chief of staff for Owens, is leading the group, which has proposed spending $118 million to acquire water from the farmers here. That sum includes a $50 million community fund to help bolster the poverty-stricken region.

Tonner’s company, known as Renewable Water Resources, is at least the fourth in a stream of developers who’ve beaten a path to this remote region in the past 50 years, intent on harvesting its water. All, up until now, have been decisively turned back.

In February, at a water conference in Alamosa, just up the road from Henry, a man suggesting that Tonner’s proposal had merit was booed.

The proposal to bring water from the San Luis Valley to the metro area would require a pipeline of more than 200 miles. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s family has farmed here for generations. Salazar also spoke at the conference and reassured the 200-plus people in the packed auditorium that no water would ever flow out of the valley into the metro area.

“Over my dead body,” he said to cheers and applause.

In a minute

For Wayne Cody, it isn’t nearly that clear cut. He and his sons, an energetic, muscular lot, are pouring everything they have, including beer, into saving their family farm.

Cody’s grandparents bought the farm in the 1930s, and the family has grown alfalfa profitably, then raised dairy cows, again profitably, for some 80 years. But as farm costs rose, and dairy prices dropped, they turned to a new industry, brewing, with Coors and others as customers.

In 2008, they started the Colorado Malting Company and last year they opened the Colorado Farm Brewery on County Road 12 South. Its custom beer snifters urge guests to “Drink Like A Farmer.”

Until a corporate malting company entered the valley two years ago, the Cody clan was selling 1 million pounds of malt a year, but they haven’t been able to compete well with the big operation, and so this year they have contracts to sell just 600,000 pounds of malt, Wayne Cody said.

Last month, the family laid off a full-time and part-time employee. Still they’re pushing ahead, hoping to make inroads into California’s malt market.

In the interim, the notion of selling some of their water each year to generate additional cash has a certain appeal.

“I would hate to see the water leave the valley,” Cody said, “but would I sell some? In a minute.”

Unequivocally no

Eight miles north, in Alamosa, Cleave Simpson runs the Rio Grande River Water Conservation District, an agency created by state law in 1967 to manage the Rio Grande River. It serves roughly 1,000 farm entities in the valley. Simpson and others are deeply worried about the export plan because the valley’s water supplies are already under severe stress.

The region’s sprawling farm economy is supported by the Rio Grande River and a giant underground aquifer, a sort of bathtub that is refilled by snowmelt and runoff.

But the aquifer has been over-pumped and hasn’t been able to refill itself for decades, thanks largely to the giant thirst of the valley’s thriving potato industry. It is the second-largest potato growing region in the United States.

A stubborn 19-year drought, that broke at least temporarily this year, and a warming climate that is causing declines in western rivers are compounding the problem.

So depleted is the aquifer that the state has ordered the valley to bring water levels back up to where they were prior to 2000, or face a massive shut down of farm wells in 2030.

It wasn’t always like this. When farmers began drilling powerful irrigation wells into the aquifer in the 1950s, subsurface water was thought to be so plentiful that they could irrigate their fields almost endlessly. But as modern hydrology caught up with pumping technology, it became clear that there was a close connection between the aquifer and flows in the river, and that the pumping was harming the aquifer, the river, and other farmers’ water rights in the river.

Soon, the Rio Grande Basin was under legal fire. Eventually the courts determined that the farmers of the San Luis Valley were overusing their fair share.

Still, bringing the aquifer back into balance is no small task. To get it done, valley farmers are voluntarily taxing themselves, and using those revenues to pay other farmers to reduce their pumping and fallow fields. But last year’s drought stripped the Rio Grande River of much of its water, and forced the farmers to pump heavily to protect their crops, wiping out much of the water their voluntary conservation program had placed underground in the prior seven years.

ource: Rio Grande River Water Conservation District. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Now, even in a good water year like this one, the valley must pay back the water it has overused in the past so that the Rio Grande can be made whole as it flows south to irrigate fields in New Mexico and Texas and refill reservoirs for the citizens and farmers of those states.

It is a bitter reality in the San Luis Valley, one that makes the notion of outsiders taking even more water out of the depleted region particularly painful to many of its farmers and water officials.

“This basin is just highly over-appropriated,” Simpson said. “There are way more decrees for water rights than can be delivered in any one year. We have water rights that haven’t been able to draw from the river in 20 years. Likewise the groundwater system is also over-appropriated.”

Tonner and his team made a presentation to the district’s board in January, asking that the district support its export proposal and help manage the $68 million water purchasing effort.

That’s big money down here. But the district’s board said no. Unequivocally no.

Simpson and other water leaders here believe that most farmers will oppose any Front Range deal to export San Luis Valley water, no matter the dollar figures involved.

Town by town

Tonner is not discouraged.

Since last October, he’s been traveling the mountain passes and dusty two-lane highways that link the San Luis Valley to the Front Range, bringing his 11-slide PowerPoint presentation to the tiny towns of the valley, from Saguache to Moffat to Crestone.

His plan: To buy 22,000 acre-feet of water, a purchase that would dry up roughly 10,000 acres of farm fields and provide enough water for some 44,000 urban homes annually.

He also proposes paying more farmers to fallow enough land to forego the use of another 30,000 acre-feet of water, allowing it to remain in the vast, complex underground water system. According to RWR’s math, even after their 22,000 acre-foot export, ensuring that 30,000 acre-feet is no longer pumped means an 8,000 acre-foot net gain for the system.

Tonner’s Renewable Water Resources is only the latest company to attempt this controversial task. Three others have tried since the 1980s. Tonner was involved with an earlier effort that stalled out due to a ranch owner’s death. Tonner and his backers came back and bought that ranch and are now moving forward with RWR.

RWR says it has raised $28 million from private investors to help fund the deal, but documents on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission indicate that $750,000 has been raised. Tonner said those figures are out of date and that the rest of the money will come once the company has signed a deal with an “end user” in Douglas County.

He says no agreement has been signed yet, but that the end user would need to sell enough bonds to pay the farmers, RWR, and the cost of the massive well fields, pipeline and delivery system that will be needed to bring the water up Highway 285 and across to the Front Range. How much money is that? Tonner estimates construction costs of more than $600 million, depending on the final route of the proposed pipeline.

Tonner said he has signed sale agreements from roughly 40 farmers and that more than 100 farmers have approached him about selling their water. Tonner declined to identify them, citing the tensions in the valley and the potential for public backlash. Wayne Cody is not among them.

But Jerry Berry, a local ranch manager in the town of Moffat who has an ownership interest in RWR, did agree to talk about the proposal.

“This is an 8,000 acre-foot net gain. How does that not benefit the aquifer? You have to be open minded enough to see where the true benefits are. $50 million in a trust fund that they can use for economic growth is more than that water would ever produce agriculturally,” Berry said.

Berry, who is on the local school board, said he believes RWR is looking for a deal that benefits all parties. “I’ve done business with these guys. They are reputable. If it’s not a win-win for everybody they won’t do it.” Other developers, says Berry, have gone straight to water court without seeking community input.

And they’ve all been defeated there.

Having fought off water-hungry invaders before, the San Luis Valley, aided by such powerful politicians as Salazar and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, among others, and such powerful environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy, has established a long list of protections that will make any kind of a water export proposal difficult to execute.

Backers would have to prove that the exports don’t harm other users on the Rio Grande River and that they would not harm the aquifer itself. The plan would also have to demonstrate that it would not diminish the groundwater that maintains the Great Sand Dunes National Park and other conserved areas.

Still farmers are entitled to sell their water rights under Colorado law, even if their neighbors disagree.

Insatiable thirst

In his quest to protect the farmers in his district, Simpson too has been traveling the state and in February briefed Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a group created in 2005 under Colorado state law to facilitate cooperation between river basins.

Jeris Danielson, a former Colorado water regulator who sits on the IBCC, said the RWR proposal exemplifies a long-standing problem in Colorado — how to protect the state’s individual river basins, while ensuring the seemingly endless thirst of the Front Range, whose South Platte and Arkansas basins are also stretched beyond capacity can be satisfied.

“The problem is the six-county sucking chest wound called the metro area,” said Danielson, who represents the Arkansas River Basin on the IBCC. “That’s where all of the people are moving. So how do we solve this problem?”

Transbasin diversions (TBDs), which move water from one river basin to another, are not new in Colorado. More than two dozen pipelines have been harvesting West Slope water and delivering it to the drier Front Range for nearly 150 years, often leaving some of the state’s most scenic, fragile mountain areas and wetlands forever altered.

However, they have become so controversial, and expensive, that no new ones have been built since the 1980s. And Governor Jared Polis, when he was campaigning last summer, said he would do everything in his power to stop any newly proposed TBD.

But that doesn’t address Colorado’s urban thirst. The Front Range needs roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water by 2050 to stave off shortages, according to the Colorado Water Plan. In Douglas County, the number is smaller but the problem is more urgent. Douglas County, along with parts of El Paso and Elbert counties, relies on an aquifer that, unlike the one in the San Luis Valley, cannot renew itself. And aquifer levels are dropping. Cities such as Castle Rock rely on the aquifer for roughly 70 percent of their water, and though they have acquired some surface water rights and they operate a water recycling plant, they still need more fresh water to ensure they don’t drain their own underground supplies.

Will new surface water come from the San Luis Valley? That’s not clear yet.

“RWR has presented to us,” said Castle Rock Director of Utilities Mark Marlowe. “But it’s not part of our long-term plan at this point.”

Tonner said RWR has talked with several major water districts in Douglas County, including Castle Rock and Parker and, very early on, Colorado Springs. But he says he’s not ready to identify the lead water district in the deal thus far.

Marlowe says it isn’t Castle Rock, but that the city might be interested in the plan if the price was right and if there was local support for the proposal in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado Springs said it has not met with RWR and it will not participate under any circumstances, planning instead to pull more water from places such as the Colorado River, where it already has some supplies.

$50 million worth of indifference

Jason Anderson is a Saguache County Commissioner. If this export plan becomes a reality, the well field and pipeline for the project would be built within his district. Saguache is one of the poorest counties in Colorado, with a median household income of $34,765, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Across the Continental Divide, in Douglas County, that figure is $111,000. The chasm between rich and poor isn’t lost on anyone in the San Luis Valley.

“It seems like every five years or so, the Front Range tries to figure out how to tap our water,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind because some of the folks in the proposal are from Saguache County. On the other hand, I haven’t had many folks speak to me in a positive manner about the plan.”

So far, Anderson said, the proffered $50 million community development fund, which might be used to support food banks and new industry, hasn’t swayed public opinion, despite the region’s poverty.

“That $50 million doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role in anyone’s decision down here,” he said.

But a look at Front Range water prices makes clear why there is so much pressure to find more and sell it on the Front Range. RWR says it is willing to pay double the market price for an acre-foot of San Luis Valley farm water. That’s roughly $2,000-plus 3,000.

That same acre-foot of water piped east across the mountains would easily sell for ten times that. And in some communities, $30,000 an acre-foot is a blue-light special.

RWR’s Tonner says his backers are now examining whether they can create an additional financial incentive for farmers that could include a sort of annual royalty payment in addition to the economic development fund.

“Look,” said Tonner, “I’ve had some people say we should pay them $1 billion for their water. That’s not going to happen. But we are trying to put some bones on a proposal that would include an annual royalty payment.”

Tonner said he would go public with his plan in six months and begin making presentations to the public water roundtables in the San Luis and in metro Denver.

Once it starts

Among locals, though, there is a much bigger concern than the cash behind the deal. The worry is that if another pipeline is built to the metro area, it will be only the first in a series of urban water exports that sooner or later will permanently strip the region of its agricultural economy and its proud farm culture.

“There is a reality that when you take the water that is being used in the San Luis Valley and open up a 22,000 acre-foot spigot — I can guarantee in 20 years it opens up to 220,000 acre-feet,” Salazar said in February at the Alamosa water conference. Salazar did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Tonner says his backers have agreed that they will insert into any eventual water court decree an absolute limit of 22,000 acre-feet on their export plan. But that would not necessarily limit others from using the same pipe to export more water, said David Robbins, an attorney who represents the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

“I don’t care what RWR says, no one is going to build a pipeline out of the valley and simply take 22,000 acre-feet. That is absurd. You would have to be so insanely naïve as to believe in the tooth fairy. Once it starts, it never stops,” Robbins said.

Saving a farm

Out in Henry, the Cody family has grown accustomed to hard work and risk. In recent weeks, they’ve unveiled a new lager and brought in beer steins to sell. It’s not clear that any of this will sustain the farm.

But if selling a small portion of their water and deriving an annual royalty payment from it could help, Wayne Cody might consider such a proposal.

“Everything we’ve done here is to save this farm,” he said. “Selling some of the water is the most profitable thing I could do.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article failed to make clear that 22,000 acre feet of water is enough to serve roughly 44,000 urban homes annually.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Adams State Salazar Center to host groundwater talk by State Engineer Kevin Rein, July 15, 2019

Learn the history of ground water administration and get up to date on the new rules and regulations for ground water, at a timely presentation by Colorado’s top water official, State Engineer Kevin Rein. “The State’s Role in the Rio Grande Basin: Our Shared Water Future” will be held on Monday, July 15 at 7 pm, in Adams State University’s McDaniel Hall, Room 101. The event is free and open to the public.

Given the ever-increasing pressures on the water supply in the San Luis Valley and across Colorado, the State Engineer will provide background on the role of the State Engineer and the Division of Water Resources in administering the waters of the State. He’ll present an overview of history of ground water administration in Colorado and a hydrogeologic explanation of how wells deplete streams. 

Mr. Rein will then address the State’s emerging role in the Rio Grande Basin, with the court approval of groundwater rules and regulations in March. (See: https://rgwcd.org/images/RGWCD/Decree_Case_No_15CW3024.pdf for the full text of the court ruling.) He will also discuss his letter of December 2018 to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District about efforts to restore the Valley’s aquifers and DWR’s obligations to administer the Subdistrict #1’s Plan of Water Management. (See: https://alamosanews.com/article/letter-to-the-editor-state-engineer-issues-warning.) There will be time for questions and answers as well.

The Adams State University Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center is hosting the presentation as part of its new Water Education Initiative. They aim to bring relevant and useful information to ASU’s students and faculty and the local community about critical issues related to water in the San Luis Valley, its past and current management, and community-based approaches to sustainable water use for the future.

Parking for this free event is available in the parking lot off 1st St. just to the east of McDaniel Hall, open to the public after 5 p.m. For more information, contact Rio de la Vista, Director of the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center, at 719-850-2255 or riodelavista@adams.edu.

Aerial view of the San Luis Valley’s irrigated agriculture. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

Soil moisture probe pilot project coming to the [San Luis Valley]

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District via The Monte Vista Journal:

The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD) is seeking farmers for a pilot project in 2019 to cost-share on the purchase and installation of soil moisture probes. The project will include soil mapping and placement of probes that will give farmers immediate access to soil moisture data in their fields through an online portal and smartphone app. The goal of the effort is to determine if this data can help farmers with their irrigation decisions and lead to water conservation.

The project is open to farmers in parts of Alamosa, Conejos, Rio Grande and Saguache counties. The SLVWCD will contribute up to $2,000 per quarter section of land. The financial cost to the farmer will vary, depending on the selected vendor. Farmers are allowed to leverage other incentive programs such as RCPP to meet their cost-share requirement.

Participating farmers will select a vendor who is able to complete detailed soil mapping of each field. The vendor will then install soil moisture probes in accordance with the recommendations from the soil mapping. The vendor will also provide software that will allow farmers to access real-time weather information and soil moisture data from either a cell-phone application or a web-site portal.

Participants will be required to share the following data with the SLVWCD: The Water District Structure Identification (WDID) of the well or diversion structure used to irrigate the field; the annual quantity of water applied in water years 2013-2018 by the WDID structure and other water sources; the quantity of water applied on a minimum of a monthly basis for any year(s) enrolled in the pilot program; and soil mapping and soil moisture probe data.

At the end of the program’s first year, the average water application data will be compared to 2013-2018 in an effort to determine if use of the soil moisture probes improved water conservation.

Funding for the project was provided by the San Luis Valley Conservation and Connection Initiative and the Colorado Water Conservation Board Colorado Water Plan Grant Program.

To apply for the program contact Matt at the SLVWCD at 589-2230 or matt@slvwcd.org by Feb, 28.

Genesis of an effort to recharge groundwater in the San Luis Valley

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Here’s a report from Luke Runyon writing for KUNC. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

[In the drought year of 2002] streams that flow from the nearby San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains slowed to a trickle, some of them before the normal irrigation season had even begun. Rushing water created by snow from the previous winter failed to materialize. That left the ditches, creeks and rivers that recharge the valley’s aquifers dry. The precious groundwater had plenty of demands, and no supply.

“The aquifer was declining,” Messick says. “But nobody really started noticing until they started sucking air instead of water.”

Farmers began to cast blame as to who caused the problem. Fingers pointed at the state, water managers, Mother Nature, and among the farmers themselves, divided into camps depending on where they got their water. All the while, many farmers kept pumping whatever water they could find and the aquifer continued its unprecedented decline.

Instead of giving in to the divisions that could have so easily fractured the rural valley of about 47,000 residents, a group of farmers decided to embark on a risky experiment — the first of its kind in the United States. They agreed to pay more money for the water they pump out of the ground by imposing fees, a kind of tax, per acre-foot of water. To get to that point, family farmers had to put aside old grudges and recognize their shared fate in the aquifer under their feet.

Seeing hope in the farmers’ efforts, researchers are studying the risky gambit to see if it is working…

US Drought Monitor August 6, 2002

Community At A Crossroads

By the end of 2002, it was clear the valley’s farmers were fast approaching a crossroads. Colorado’s top water enforcer, the state engineer, made clear that if the farmers continued to pump from the underground aquifer he would be forced to shut them down.

They were running afoul of the state’s [prior appropriation doctrine] water laws, which prioritize water rights based on their effective date. Some farmers who held rights to divert water from streams dating back to the late 1800s were seeing their supplies drop, partially thanks to water wells dug decades later in the 1950s and ‘60s. In Colorado, when a younger water right is curtailing an older one, it is a serious problem.

In the years that followed the 2002 drought, scientists did enough research and monitoring to link the reduction of the aquifer to the limited availability of surface streams.

For the farmers that depend on the aquifer, the choice was simple: keep pumping until everyone’s supplies ran out and risk the ire of state water officials; or, find a way to curb their pumping.

“It was really the first effort here in a recognition that if they didn’t do something that the consequences would be pretty grave,” says Cleave Simpson, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the valley’s main water management authority.

After years of litigation, court cases and a round of state legislation, the farmers formed a plan. A majority made a painful decision. They agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest to pay more money for water, hoping that the higher cost would cause them to think twice when turning on their pump…

Communities formed a network of subdistricts that could levy fees on water use, self-governed by the farmers themselves. Subdistrict one, the largest and most heavily irrigated in the valley, was the first.

“This is kind of a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation,” says Kelsey Cody, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is part of a research team that studies groundwater pumping in the valley. “As an individual, I have no incentive to leave any water in the ground because any water I leave in the ground I know my neighbor is going to take out. And he knows the same thing.”

Today, farmers in subdistrict one pay $75 for each acre-foot of water they pump and another $8 for every acre of crops where that water is used. An acre-foot is the standard unit of measurement when talking about vast amounts of water, and easy enough to visualize. It’s the amount of water spread out over an acre at a depth of one foot.

If those same farmers are recharging the aquifer by applying surface water to their crops, they’re given a credit for that added water. Some farmers who pump end up paying nothing at all if their water use finds a balance between the amounts pumped and recharged.

For some bigger farms without surface water rights, that is not the case. Their annual water use fees can total tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. That money is then invested in a fallowing program that pays farmers not to plant or to purchase farmland outright. While the fees have been tough for some farmers to swallow, at least a majority have internalized the goal.

Take a trip back through the Coyote Gulch archives San Luis Valley Groundwater category.

When farmers must pay for groundwater, they cut use by a third — @CUBoulderNews

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

From the University of Colorado — Boulder (Lisa Marshall):

With record high temperatures scorching the Southwest this week, farmers were quickly reminded of the severe droughts that threatened their crops and livelihood in recent years. How will they manage increasingly scarce water when drought comes again?

A new CU Boulder-led study suggests that self-imposed well-pumping fees can play an important role, incentivizing farmers to slash use by a third, plant less thirsty crops and water more efficiently.

“When we talk about groundwater crises arising all over the world, the knee-jerk reaction among policymakers is often to ask, ‘What can government do?’ not ‘What can farmers do?’,” said Krister Andersson, director of the Center for the Governance of Natural Resources at CU and co-author of the paper in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. “This study shows that there exists a good alternative to top-down regulations—that self-organized efforts can have a huge impact on how much water farmers use.”

The study centered around a novel initiative in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where several hundred farmers voted to self-impose a fee on groundwater—which is typically free and largely unregulated—beginning in 2011. The move came after a historic drought in 2002 and subsequent dryer-than-average years left the region’s aquifer depleted and some farmers worried that the state might begin shutting down wells, as it had in other areas.

Historically, farmers have relied primarily on surface water from streams and run-off, but as population growth and climate change have strained supplies, agriculture has grown increasingly reliant on water pumped from underground.

The new fee, now at $75 per acre foot of water, is among the first in the nation. About 700 farmers who manage 170,000 acres are subject to the fee. Proceeds are used to help local irrigators buy supplemental surface water or to pay them to let their acreage go fallow, or unused, in dry years.

As part of a National Science Foundation grant aimed at assessing self-organized water conservation programs, CU Boulder researchers have spent years in the San Luis Valley Basin meeting with stakeholders and collecting data.

“With this study, we have been able to offer validation that what they are doing is working,” said co-author Kelsey Cody, a graduate research assistant in CU Boulder’s environmental studies program.

The study drew upon five years of data from farmers inside and outside the fee district before and after it was implemented. It found that farmers subjected to the fee pumped 32 percent less water per year on average. Some switched to less water intensive crops. Others upgraded to more water-efficient irrigation equipment. Notably, some did not reduce their water use at all and instead opted to pay extra.

“This is because a fee does not prescribe what one can and cannot do; it just forces the irrigator to consider the cost of the water itself,” notes lead author Steven Smith, who did the research as a doctoral student at CU Boulder and who is now an assistant professor of economics at Colorado School of Mines.

The authors stress that while the study confirms that irrigators are using less water and changing their farming practices, more research is necessary to determine how the fee has impacted them financially and whether the fee has caused the aquifer to recharge. Another study is in the works.

Despite wetter weather in the past year, the participating irrigators intend to keep the fee in place, and other nearby districts are moving to implement a similar one, said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which helps facilitate the fee.

“We are cautiously optimistic about it.”

As lawmakers in California, Texas, and other states ponder ways to regulate groundwater use, the researchers hope what’s happening in the San Luis Valley can serve as a lesson. The authors stress that a self-imposed groundwater fee may not be appropriate for all agricultural areas, but as the state looks for ways to conserve groundwater, it could be one effective tool.

“The punchline here is that irrigators are far more responsive to these price mechanisms than was previously believed,” said Smith. “Through their adoption, they may be able to induce a lot of conservation.”