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Connecting the Drops: Water Shortages in the San Luis Valley

In early July, Colorado designated 14 counties "primary natural disaster areas" due to agricultural losses caused by the recent and ongoing drought.  Several of those counties are in the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.  Farmers there are now eligible for low interest emergency loans, but as KGNU’s Maeve Conran reports, that may not be enough for this agricultural hub, which is facing a long term water crisis that could permanently affect the entire valley.  

Thousands of potatoes go by on a conveyor belt under the watchful eyes of farmer Karla Shriver and a local ag agent. Shriver says every load is inspected by the State of Colorado, to make sure they're good. These potatoes are from last year's crop, and they are good.

Shriver held them back from market until this Spring in the hopes of getting a better price.  Now they're headed to North Carolina. Shriver has farmed in the San Luis valley for nearly 30 years. Her roughly 800 acre farm stretches across Rio Grande and Alamosa Counties, and she relies on both surface and well water to irrigate her crops.

"When our surface runs out we will then go to well water, then that will finish our crop out," she says.

Shriver's surface water ran out at the end of May, and now she relies on water pumped from the shallow unconfined aquifer, one of the valley’s two major underground reservoirs. Shriver and other local farmers are now acutely aware that even that water is running out.

Steve Vandiver, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), says that aquifer is in "serious decline." He’s one of the people charged with solving the depleting ground water problem, and that’s not easy.  For decades, the natural recharge of the aquifer has not kept pace with pumping.  The crisis was first identified forty years ago, resulting in moratoriums on new well permits.  Vandiver says eleven years ago, the situation got worse.

"We had three years of very severe drought, and it really brought things to light that we hadn’t really known before, and since that time the aquifer has been in a very serious decline," Vandiver says. "And it’s just because we have been in effectively a drought since 2002.”

Now the RGWCD has to come up with a management plan to try and stabilize the situation.  

“We're in the process of creating ground water sub districts that are specific geographic, geologic or hydrologic areas," Vandiver says.

The first subdistrict came on line last year.  Well owners there must now pay a fee to pump water.  That money goes toward achieving its main goal - keeping their portion of the aquifer at a sustainable level.

"We haven't accomplished that yet but we are buying water rights to formally recharge into the aquifer, and we've done a number of other tools trying to reduce the amount of pumping," Vandiver says. "One is a fallowing program, where we use some of that money to pay farmers to not pump."  

Through the Conservation Resource Enhancement Program, the US Department of Agriculture has approved $120 million to help pay farmers in that first subdistrict to stop farming land.  The ultimate goal is to have 80,000 acres of land in the valley left fallow.  That’s a 20% reduction in farming which they hope translates to a 20% reduction in water use.  But recent rises in commodity prices have made the choice to fallow land less attractive.  Factor in evolving irrigation methods which use less water, and the way forward to restoring the aquifers is less clear says Michael Wisdom, executive director of the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group.

"What if I was more of a farm boy and just figured out how to make my water 125% more efficient?" asks Wisdom. "If I figured out different ways to apply less water to a crop and still get the same yield, why would I fallow land?”

If local water authorities cannot stabilize the aquifer, state officials will come in with their own mandates and could shut off wells completely.  That happened almost a decade ago in North Eastern Colorado when the state engineer shut down 440 ground water wells irrigating 200 farms in the South Platte basin.  To help local residents tackle the problem themselves, Farmer Karla Shriver, also a Rio Grande County Commissioner, sees the subdistrict plans as the lesser of many evils that come with drought.

“Of course we’re not happy with it, but it’s reality too," Shriver says. "We are over-extended on what is grown and we are actually mining the aquifers.  Something has got to change or we're all going to be out of business.”

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has survived four legal challenges to its plans for stabilizing the aquifers.  But now, there is a resigned acceptance that without better solutions, some farms will not make it through the current water crisis.  

Connecting the Drops is a yearlong collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at yourwatercolorado.org.

Connecting the Drops is a yearlong collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at yourwatercolorado.org.