Water conservation model built on the Rio Grande may be a template for rest of US

Sen. Heinrich hopes to add a nationwide groundwater conservation program to Farm Bill

By: - August 24, 2023 4:30 am

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) listens during a tour at the South Valley Economic Development Center on Wednesday Aug. 23, 2023. Heinrich joined with Senators from Colorado and Kansas to push for a national groundwater conservation piloted in the San Luis Valley on the Rio Grande. (Photo by Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)

A program built on the Rio Grande to preserve groundwater could become a national model.

Last month, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) alongside Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a federal program to mirror local efforts in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado to reduce the strain on aquifers and the river.

Nonprofit land trusts in the San Luis Valley banded together in 2022 to pay farmers to keep water in aquifers, through programs that maintain wetlands and tie water rights to lands. These voluntary legal agreements help landowners preserve natural characteristics on private lands. It is often used to preserve wetlands habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife.

A new mentality of collaboration in a river district

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

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

Colorado Open Lands and other trusts went a step further in 2022, by paying farms to limit water usage by leaving some water in the ground, instead of pumping it for growing food.

Sally Weir, a conservation manager, who worked with Colorado Open Lands described the unique deals.

“The idea is that landowners are compensated for the value of the water that they’re not using, and essentially leaving in the aquifer for sustainability,” Weir said in a 2022 interview with Source NM.

Keeping aquifers filled prevents the rivers from drying and lowers the draw on non-renewable resources.

“It’s all connected, the rivers and the aquifers,” Weir said.

Heinrich plans to wrap the measure into the Farm Bill – the massive legislation rewritten every five years which determines how billions of dollars are spent in agriculture, food aid, forestry, and other programs.

In an interview with Source NM Heinrich said areas across the U.S. are facing dropping aquifers, and dwindling rivers.

“There are a lot of places with similar challenges where it would be a benefit,” he said.

He nodded at efforts to make a groundwater bank in eastern New Mexico, on the precipitously dropping Ogallala Aquifer.

“[We’re] setting that up so that communities have that as one more tool in the toolkit, especially given the increasing scarcity that we’re seeing with freshwater,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich chairs the Senate Appropriations Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If the measure is included in a new Farm Bill, it would establish a new program through the USDA to encourage voluntary reductions in groundwater pumping by compensating less pumping on agricultural lands. A USDA program would pay farmers based on the market value for water rights, instead of (usually lower) per-acre lump sum, under the proposal.

In addition, the bill allows farming on the land, and choices for reducing water use, as long as farmers meet the committed amount of water they agreed to conserve.

Here’s a copy of the full bill:

Groundwater Conservation

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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.