Farmer Kyler Brown in front of a small dam on the Rio Grande at a farm outside of Monte Vista, Colorado. “I’ve ranched. I’ve cowboyed. Now I’m farming and ranching,” Brown said. “You quickly learn in the West how important water is.” (Photo By Diana Cervantes for Source NM).
RIO GRANDE RESERVOIR, Colo — After 15 miles of pockmarked dirt road, the Rio Grande spreads wide in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains. It glitters, aqua, whitecaps whipped up by the wind. But even in the birthplace of the river lay the stark stains of climate change.
Deep, bald scars pucker the mountaintops, shorn of trees. In older burn scars, grass grows, flowing in the first summer breezes. In the newer scars, the thin rows of trees list, blackened and cracked, only a skirt of green growth at their base to mark the passage of time.
Read more: A river wounded
The Rio Grande meanders south and east through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a region of about 8,000 square miles spanning six counties, tucked between two mountain ranges. Agriculture drives the economy. More than 46,000 residents rely on $370 million generated by alfalfa, barley, potatoes, wheat, beef cattle and sheep.
“Now you just really feel that that’s all on a collision course with climate, and that may have some severe ramifications,” said valley farmer and rancher Kyler Brown as he passed over the low Rio Grande that cuts across his father-in-law’s farm in Monte Vista, Colorado. The valley’s way of agricultural life is imperiled.
The San Luis Valley depends on water, for the herds, the crops, for next year’s planting. And for mortgages, farm insurance, sometimes for the shareholders, sometimes for keeping the business in the family.
Average rainfall is only 7 inches to 9 inches annually.
Three-fourths of the water in the Rio Grande instead starts as snow, folded into the crevices of the mountains, slowly seeping through soil or streaming down to the riverbed.
The snowpack acts like a bank, a savings — water frozen for the future. In past decades, that meant cold snowmelt would start filling the rivers in April, peaking in June, eventually slowing through the autumn.
But warmer temperatures, less tree cover due to wildfires, more dust and thirsty soils from years of compounded drought prevent the just-melted snow from ever reaching the riverbed. Over the years, the smaller snowpack is becoming liquid earlier and changing the rhythm of the river.
In scarcity, relationships change
Though the San Juans had all of the snow they usually would in early spring 2022, it didn’t translate to a full river. Brutal May winds stripped away snowpack.
“There was a tension in my gut,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Because as the winds were howling, we knew we were losing snowpack. Every day, we were losing our opportunity to have flows in the river and put water in our aquifers.”
Threats are present. Farmers pump groundwater to make up for the river’s shortfalls, but that means falling groundwater levels. Populations swell on the Front Range around Denver, and downriver, too. And there’s always potential for devastating wildfire.
“We’re living on the knife’s edge with water,” Dutton said.
Water managers talk of new efforts to curb water use. They’re trying to change relationships between conservation groups, environmental nonprofits, farmers and the quasi-governmental irrigation districts.
Nathan Coombs, who manages the Conejos River District, said years of trust-building with groups typically at odds means there’s a greater willingness to face issues.
“Once we took down barriers of communication between project partners, we could start clearly seeing problems,” Coombs said. “If you want to solve those problems, you’ve got to talk to people you have never wanted to talk to before.”
It’s not perfect.
“Look, there’s always going to be a skunk at the picnic. I’m not saying everything is always totally kumbaya, but the biggest players for the vast majority are engaged.”
SAN LUIS VALLEY, Colo — Groundwater made the valley green, but climate change and over-pumping across time has depleted those water sources.
There are two aquifers underlying the valley. One is called the “confined aquifer,” trapped under an impermeable clay layer deep down, concentrated centrally. The other is a shallow “unconfined aquifer” generally found between 15 feet to 100 feet underground across most of the valley.
In certain spots in the valley, water used to gush out in artesian wells from the unconfined aquifer. But in recent decades, levels declined steeply after years of too many wells and too little recharge from the river or precipitation.
And the aquifers, explained Colorado State Engineer Mark Rein, take a double hit.
“There’s less water flowing naturally into aquifers that the wells rely on. At the same time,” he explained, “due to the lack of surface water, the wells are going to be more reliant on the aquifers.”
Farmers in the San Luis Valley have just eight years to stop the freefall of groundwater levels, or face the state shutting off wells.
In the valley’s most affluent district stretching between Alamosa and Saguache Counties, the aquifer declined 1.3 million acre feet by 1976, most of that over just 20 years. District officials submitted a plan to replenish the aquifer.
Rein acknowledged the efforts of Valley residents to reduce pumping, saying in June that it was too soon to tell if they could succeed in replenishing the aquifer before the 2031 deadline.
There’s a nexus Subdistrict 1 is dealing with, Rein said.
“We have this very rich culture in the San Luis Valley of irrigation, crops — and the economy is so dependent on it,” Rein said. “And at the same time, they’re facing a reality of less water.” One push to curb use might not go far enough. Another may go too far and erode culture and economy. “That’s what makes success more or less possible.”
All across Colorado, farmers have to offset any groundwater they pump either by submitting plans to water court for individual wells or joining a conservancy district in any of Colorado’s river basins.
People in the Rio Grande basin went further, carving up the basin into seven hyper-local subdistricts with a role in restoring the “balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.”
Dutton, 36, brims with verve when she speaks about the river. Growing up on a potato farm, both her father and grandfather took on water leadership positions.
She said decisions at the local level were how changes were made to water policy.
The entities, the districts, the boards, they’re all made up of people that have a dog in the fight, she said. “They live and work in the community. They’re water users.”
Farmers in the valley taxed themselves, paying an additional fee for every acre-foot of groundwater they pumped to fund conservation measures.
Rio Grande and River Conejos conservation districts use the money to pay farmers to stay off their wells, to retire them, to retire fields, to purchase farmland. Or the funds go to creating a system of “water credits,” allowing farmers who need more water to buy from farmers who returned excess flows to the aquifer.
In 2022, the Colorado Legislature chipped in another $30 million out of federal coronavirus relief funds to buy land and retire irrigation wells along the Rio Grande.
The efforts are unique. Hundreds of wells were shuttered by the state in northeast Colorado in 2011.
“There were large-scale wells shut-offs, and those wells are still shut off,” Dutton said. “But here, we took the initiative as a community, and we said, ‘We want to regulate ourselves. We want to work together to make this work.’”
Recent cycles have not been kind, either. After a few frugal years of farmers cutting pumping recharged the aquifer some, bad drought struck again. Without much replenishment from the struggling river, the past three years nearly erased those gains for groundwater.
Even when, in 2021, the district’s farmers pumped the least they had in a decade — the aquifer still dropped to a new historic low.
“It was incredibly disheartening,” Dutton said.
When a near-record monsoon season doused the valley in the summer of 2022, with some places receiving double the annual average rainfall, the river still ran at only 67% of its long-term average.
“It really wasn’t a great year as far as streamflow goes,” Dutton said. “Hopefully enough people saw what was happening in May and made some choices to change their farming plan for the year.”
Time is running out. Subdistrict 1 has to replenish the unconfined aquifer by more than 900,000 acre feet, or face the state capping wells.
Despite all their efforts and sacrifices, Dutton said, “we’re anticipating seeing a significant drop in the aquifer.”
This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.
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