A new mentality of collaboration in a river district

When it comes to water, it’s not North vs. South or surface vs. groundwater anymore, one farmer explains

By: - February 6, 2023 5:05 am
JD Schmidt's sheep graze in the San Luis Valley on June 23, 2022.

JD Schmidt’s sheep graze in the San Luis Valley on June 23, 2022. Drought has impacted every part of agriculture in the valley. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

MANASSA, Colo. — Nathan Coombs, who manages the Conejos River District, used to hold beliefs that more water for conservation meant less for farmers. 

“I was raised on a production ag farm,” he said. “Water was for crops. That was the only use in my perspective.”

Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.

Read more: Moral questions on a standard San Luis Valley farm

The farmer from Manassa, Colorado, said his mind was changed eight years ago after meeting with fish biologist Kevin Terry, who works with the nonprofit Trout Unlimited. 

He proposed that Coombs partner with the organization to release water from Platoro Dam not only during the growing season in order to keep trout alive in the winter and allow them to spawn in the spring. 

“In the past, we didn’t care. The fish were on their own,” Coombs said. But Terry offered that Trout Unlimited would pay premium cash to ranchers and farmers who delayed releasing some water, and then the nonprofit would call for it in the winter. 

It changed Coombs’ connection to the water. 

“I wouldn’t say I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “But when I’m driving to Platoro at the head of the Conejos River to control what’s happening downstream, I feel this sense of responsibility to do the best we can for all water users.” 

Monsoons roll over the Rio Grande National Forest outside of La Jara, Colorado.
Monsoons roll over the Rio Grande National Forest outside of La Jara, Colorado. Even as the valley received record rainfalls, a short-term gain does not erase aridification through 20 years of drought. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

His perspective isn’t the only one that shifted. Attitudes about water, Coombs said, are changing across the valley. 

“We’re seeing a whole new mentality here. It’s not North versus South, East versus West, surface versus groundwater,” he said. “You start to see the power of collaborations.”

Some of these partnerships even extend to federal agencies. 

JD Schmidt has raised sheep in the valley since 1976. Today, he’s a large producer with a head of more than 900 on a ranch outside Monte Vista.

This year was another difficult year, with the drought striking the meadows the sheep feed on in the early spring and summer. 

“We got droughted out,” Schmidt said. “We had to buy hay for feed.”

For the last 10 years, Schmidt has partnered with federal agencies — the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service — to graze on public lands, and to use the sheep as noxious weed control instead of pesticides. 

When the sheep chew down the weeds, “it saves them a whole lot of money,” he said. “They don’t have to pour chemical on it. And the livestock works out pretty good for the wildlife too. They don’t tend to disrupt the birds.”

Hector Sandoval cares for JD Schmidt's sheep in the San Luis Valley.
Hector Sandoval cares for JD Schmidt’s sheep in the San Luis Valley. Sandoval said the consecutive years of drought have been hard on the herd. In the spring, “We had to feed them. There wasn’t always enough grass,” he said. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Trust in the land

DEL NORTE, Colorado — As a mason, Andy Brown knows his way around building walls up — and tearing them down, too. In some ways, it’s not so different from the work he does now, cementing new relationships to preserve ecosystems and chipping away at a scarcity mindset. 

“A mindset of separateness and scarcity … it causes us as human beings to pull inward and constrict,” he said. “I think it’s about connecting at the individual level, where we need to make small, incremental inroads with people to heal divides.”

Brown is a slim man with a Southern Appalachian drawl, oscillating between complex water terms and spinning poetry off the cuff about the valley’s beauty. The pearlescent buttons on the sleeves of his Levi’s button-down shirt click on the table as he gestures, hair tied back into a low ponytail. 

Brown, 56, has lived several lives. He developed an environmental consulting company in his hometown — Asheville, North Carolina — which he sold in 2012. He returned to stone masonry for a few years before doing work again in Trout Unlimited as a cold water conservation manager for the Southern Appalachians. 

Now, he’s pushing for new partnerships on the Rio Grande, through the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. 

“We’re really about the ecological resources, the water resources, and the ability for the agricultural community to make it economically,” he said. “We believe there are ways to blend all of those. We’re trying to create win-win-win solutions.”

Andy Brown sits at a kitchen table.
Andy Brown, who heads the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, said his philosophy when it comes to water is to “slow it down, let it infiltrate and keep it on the land.” (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

The trust Brown leads has protected nearly 30,000 acres, mostly on the Rio Grande. Colorado Open Lands, another trust, has protected more than 109,000 acres in the San Luis Valley.

The key is preserving wetlands and fish habitat, which are vulnerable to increased drying. And that means working with property owners, said Sally Weir, a conservation manager for the Headwaters trust. 

“To conserve that type of habitat — all the connectivity and migratory flyways for birds and other wildlife species that rely on those environments — it’s really critical that we not just focus on conserving public lands but also work with private landowners. Because they’re the ones that have that habitat,” she explained.

How it works

Land trusts are nonprofits that enter into voluntary legal agreements with landowners to preserve natural characteristics. Certain agreements also involve state agencies. A property owner who has riverbanks, for example, may agree with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to set up a path for the public to access for fishing. 

Weir said each agreement is tailored to the land, but they are typically a donation or sale of certain property rights. Usually, conservation agreements allow for continued ownership of land.

They also tie water rights to a property. “The threat of water export out of the valley was one of the fundamental reasons that the organization was formed back in the ’90s,” Weir said. 

These deals often limit some types of future development. Any restrictions carry forward, even if the land is sold.

Landowners are compensated if they are selling the property rights, and they also receive tax incentives. 

Brown said conservation is a trust effort — a method to preserve land alongside people who work the land. 

But time is of the essence. 

“I think that word hope is a double-edged sword, because it always puts us thinking, ‘Oh, in the future, I’m hoping for the future.’ Well, what about the present?” He asked. “Let’s deal with the present right now. Let’s all collectively feel what it feels like to see a river dry up when it’s supposed to be and it has historically been flowing all the way down.”

Does nature have rights?

Environment and conservation rights are latecomers to the water allocation game. Colorado first designated keeping water in streams for conservation as a legal use in 1973

“That means these rights are pretty junior, because most of the water was allocated to irrigators and cities long before that,” said Glenn Patterson, a professor of introductory water law at Colorado State University. 

Water users have donated more senior rights to keep flows in the rivers and streams, but it’s not always clear what explicit rights nature and conservation have. 

“It’s a gray area,” Patterson said. “There’s this recognition that it makes sense to leave water in-stream, but it’s not a guarantee that all streams are going to have enough water for their ecological needs.” 

Looking for answers in tradition

MONTE  VISTA, Colorado — Linda Schoonover is a woman of two minds, liking to straddle both tradition and innovation. She’s been a longtime member of the trust’s board, bringing a ranching perspective.  

Linda Schoonover cradles one of her geldings on her ranch outside of Monte Vista.
Linda Schoonover cradles one of her geldings on her ranch outside of Monte Vista. “If you ever look in a cow’s eye, or a horse’s eye, you see a wisdom there that they know something you don’t know,” she said. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Her hair is cut in a blunt bob, and she likes to brew the coffee extra strong. Sitting in the glass-paneled foyer, she’s fast-talking, cracking jokes like a whip. 

Her herd of Black Irish Angus and Longhorns is down to 50. In years past, she ran between 500 and 600. 

“I’m an old lady now,” she laughed. “I do all the calving, the lambing, the irrigating, the pasture management.”

She’s uncertain what the future will bring for farming and ranching, but asks if some of the answers are in tradition. In reclaiming the pasture from dust, she raised drought-resistant black grama, a native grass, and cultivated an older strain of Vernal alfalfa. 

“The old Vernal stuff has roots to China, and it’ll pop up, no matter what,” she said. “Even in a drought you’ll see these big clumps of Vernal alfalfa.”

Linda Schoonover pauses after making cuts in the field to let the water soak in.
Linda Schoonover pauses after making cuts in the field to let the water soak in. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Ranching keeps her grounded. When she’s making cuts in the ditch to pour water into the alfalfa meadows, when she’s hunting for worms or nursing a calf, it connects her to tradition. For her, that tradition also means conservation. 

“I think while we’re here on this great Earth, we’re stewards,” she said. “You don’t be a big old slob. You don’t blow things off. You take care of things to the best of your ability.”

That means establishing limits, she added — something society has been reluctant to do.

“How do you stop growth?” she asked. “That’s the question to end all questions in the West.”

Find the next article, The patron saint of farming, at SourceNM.com on Wednesday.

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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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.