The Resilient Rio Grande Basin

Deep in southern Colorado, the nation’s highest elevation major farm region is nestled between two mighty mountain ranges.

Flanked for nearly 100 miles by the San Juans to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east, Colorado’s San Luis Valley is ripe with contrasts as stark as that of the jagged 14,000-foot peaks that stretch upward from the flat valley floor resting between 6,000 and 7,000 feet below.

Here is a place where centuries-old irrigation practices mingle with the most advanced technologies in irrigation scheduling and design in the world; where a mere 15 hardy souls live in any given square mile, but the sense of community sparks like static in the air; where fiscal conservatives embrace traditionally liberal values of environmental stewardship; and where the ratio of Hispanic to Anglo and other residents is nearly 50-to-50 in most counties. Here is a place of crackling clear blue skies, where spring’s combination of whipping winds and freshly plowed fields blows up so much dust, the panoramic scenery is blotted out entirely; a place accounting for nearly half a billion dollars of Colorado’s agricultural economy, but which often relates more closely with New Mexico than the rest of the Rocky Mountain state, given its ties culturally, hydrologically and geographically with its neighbor to the south.

And then there’s the water. The expansive 3,200 square-mile valley floor qualifies as a desert, receiving a paltry 7 to 8 inches of precipitation on average—half of Colorado’s statewide average—each year. And yet, it manages to grow an abundance of crops— between 485,000 and 600,000 acres are under irrigation in any given season—and support more wetland habitat, at 200,000 acres, than anywhere else in the state.

The hidden lifeline supporting this apparent discrepancy lies beneath the loamy topsoil that has nurtured many a potato. That secret is groundwater, stored in two vast, underground aquifers layered one over the other, which have varying degrees of connectivity to each other and to wetlands and river systems at the surface.

The region’s major artery, the Rio Grande, is modestly sized for a Colorado river, receiving runoff from the forested San Juans above—the mountains surrounding the valley can receive up to 50 inches of precipitation each year. That runoff, however, has been fully claimed since the early 1900s, and its use later restricted by legal obligations to downstream states under the Rio Grande Compact, established in 1938. What the valley lacked in access to surface flows in the past, it made up for with groundwater. But that’s changing.

A small region in south-central Colorado gives rise to the nation’s second-longest river: The Rio Grande flows 2,000 miles from its headwaters in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to its delta at the Gulf of Mexico. Containing all or part of six counties, Colorado’s upper Rio Grande Basin is a diverse
landscape of alpine tundra, forested slopes and windswept grass and shrublands. Bounded by two major mountain ranges, the basin cradles the high desert San Luis Valley, where a rich agricultural tradition persists largely due to once-plentiful groundwater resources. Photo By:John Fielder

An Unsustainable Dynamic

At one time, the use of groundwater was more supplemental, withdrawn to finish a crop late in the season when streamflows fell off. But some well owners had no access to surface water at all. With rapid advances in both irrigation technology and the rate at which wells could draw water, the valley became a profitturning checkerboard of crop circles fueled by its aquifers. In a merciless cycle, the more efficient irrigation methods became, the less water soaked into the ground to recharge the aquifers. Mother Nature did little to help; decades of drought accelerated already-falling water tables, which in turn proved to further diminish lackluster streamflows in the rivers— to the dismay of those whose surface water rights now often go unfulfilled. With less water in the rivers throughout the growing season, the valley continued—and continues today— to sip away at its most valuable resource.

No one knows exactly where the bottom is. It was once believed that more than 2 billion acre feet of groundwater lay beneath the valley floor, as much as would flow down the Rio Grande through Colorado over a 3,000-year span. Researchers today believe the aquifers never contained more than half that amount, and that much of what’s there is either economically unrecoverable or too poor in quality to be useful. Although long-term data for much of the valley is lacking, where water levels have been closely monitored aquifer storage has dropped precipitously over the past decade. In short, the dynamic is no longer considered sustainable. Gone are the days when the valley’s 6,000 wells can flow freely to sate the fields of barley, potatoes, alfalfa and grass hay, and vegetables that comprise the region’s agricultural economy.

“There’s just a puddle left down there of the bounty that was here,” says George Whitten, whose family has ranched in the north part of the valley since the late 1800s. Whitten, who has served on the board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for more than 25 years and is its current president, supports efforts the local community is undertaking, under the district’s oversight, to cut back on its use of groundwater while the aquifer recharges. He points to the large economic gains reaped from the land in the past: “You can’t consume your resources and ignore things like organic matter or an aquifer for very long. I think you have to give something back.”

Whitten knows a thing or two about giving back. For years, he voluntarily stopped pumping his own well, aware of the shrinking aquifer beneath his land and the impact of pumping on nearby surface streams. He got frugal and lived off his surface water, thinking that, by showing a measure of goodwill, he might influence others to do the same. His passion is for long-term sustainable agriculture, and he walks the talk. He mindfully grows specific crops in rotation with grazing, using his livestock to “heal the land” and return nutrients to the soil. He gets most excited talking about young farmers in the valley making headway in the realm of soil health, like-minded souls returning to a focus on smaller farms tended to with greater consciousness.

It’s not only future-minded farmers and ranchers who now recognize solutions must be implemented lest the valley’s soils dry up and blow away, but local water managers, conservationists and state and federal agencies as well—and a host of complementary efforts are underway. “A lot of this is being forced on people,” says Whitten. “That’s when change happens, when there’s a crisis, and we’re in a huge crisis.”

A United Front

Unlike some regions in the state, the San Luis Valley doesn’t have a lot to fall back on. According to the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group, agriculture accounts for at least one-third of the local economy. Oil and gas hasn’t taken off here. And tourism exists only to a limited extent: The Great Sand Dunes National Park draws visitors, and several wildlife refuges offer unique opportunities for birders, while Penintente Canyon is a premier rock climbing spot. Wolf Creek Ski Area is popular locally and among powder hounds willing to travel, but there are no full-fledged ski resorts.

Irrigation in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

Nor is the valley facing a population boom or heavy municipal demands for water. Mike Gibson manages the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, which provides water that homeowners and industrial users can purchase to offset their well depletions. He says the valley is growing at less than 2 percent per year, and the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable he chairs does not expect meeting the needs of new residents will be an issue. It’s those other water-dependent values, not only agriculture but also the rich environmental resources such as wetlands and migratory bird habitat,that the community is rallying to sustain.

When threatened, the valley’s small community has been known to rally before. In the late 1980s, American Water Development, Inc. (AWDI) attempted to virtually mine, with more than 100 wells, 200,000 acre feet of water underlying the privately owned Baca Ranch—a remnant of the Luis Maria Baca land grant—to ship to the Front Range. The valley wouldn’t have it. “Historically, the greatest thing that ever happened to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was AWDI,” says Whitten, who recalls a dramatic shift in the district board’s view of its role in the valley. “That united the whole valley—ranchers, environmentalists and farmers—where we had an outside entity who was easy to fight and easy to hate.”

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District sued AWDI, and ultimately won in court. However, AWDI was quickly followed by another effort, this time by a rancher named Gary Boyce together with Stockman’s Water, to push a similar scheme through via the public vote in 1998. Again the community rallied, and referendums 15 and 16 were shot down by what was once the largest margin of defeat in the state’s history, according to Karla Shriver, Rio Grande County Commissioner and long-time water resource advocate in the valley, who helped organize the opposition at that time. “It was amazing to see the ‘barbedwire network’ across Colorado come alive to defeat them,” she says.

The Baca Ranch was permanently closed to such development after The Nature Conservancy was brought on board to acquire the property. The nonprofit fronted around $30 million until Congress approved funds to flip the land from private to public ownership, tacking it on to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and boosting the dunes to National Park status. The deal also created the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, the third such sanctuary in the valley.

Much earlier, the valley had faced another challenge to its ability to use water originating in its rivers. In 1938, Colorado signed the Rio Grande Compact with Texas and New Mexico, downstream states that share the river. The agreement stipulated how much Rio Grande and Conejos River water Colorado could use. By 1968, Colorado was enforcing water use restrictions. Then and now, irrigators, beginning with those last in line to receive water, have been cut off from diverting in order to ensure enough water crosses the state line. The compact plays an omnipresent role in water’s administration in the basin. “The way water is administered here, the compact becomes the No. 1 priority on the river by default,” explains Gibson.

Lerot Salazar preps a field just ahead of a potato drill on one of his family’s properties near San Acacio, Colo., Saturday, May 4, 2013. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

LeRoy Salazar, the elder brother of both Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, grew up on a farm and ranch originally settled by his great-grandfather in Conejos County and recalls that the compact affected them severely. “On the San Antonio River, even our junior water rights used to run 80 or 90 days a year. Once the compact became the calling water right, those same water rights became 35 to 40 day water rights,” he says.

Salazar, whose parents raised eight children on part of a shared 160-acre homestead, witnessed other evolutions in the valley, including farm sizes growing to keep up with economies of scale. “You cannot raise a family on a small farm anymore, it’s impossible,” he says. Salazar farms the original homestead near Manassa, plus 1,600 acres of leased land. He worries about the future and his family’s ability to continue to farm: “Agriculture has always been in our life and in our blood.”

Though farming was always his first love, Salazar led a successful engineering career, founding Agro Engineering Company in 1982, which he later sold. The company continues to offer support to local farmers and ranchers for everything from irrigation systems and scheduling design to conservation tilling practices, soil fertility and crop selection. All of these practices have water-saving benefits, and are one more step in the direction of water sustainability.

Despite his concerns, Salazar remains hopeful about the valley’s potential. Having consulted for farm communities all over Latin America, Bangladesh and India during his career, Salazar recognizes the San Luis Valley is fortunate to have farmers with both a fairly high level of education and a concern for the land and water resources. “Not only do they have the ability to run farms as a business,” he says, “but we are also a community that has really become concerned about how we can make the best use of resources in every which way.”

Conservation Network

The valley has a certain “culture of conservation,” says Rio de la Vista, who came here in 1999 after being introduced to the valley’s vast conservation potential and now serves as vice chair of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable. “Because of the dryness and the harsher climate, it hadn’t grown as fast as other areas in the state,” she says. “It gives us a chance to protect some of the key areas before they become fragmented and transitioned to other uses.”

De la Vista works with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT), whose founders saw land protection as a mechanism to also protect the valley’s water. RiGHT’s work is part of a larger network of conservation groups including Ducks Unlimited, Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Open Lands and the Trust for Public Land, plus state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which have collectively protected 340,000 acres across the valley through conservation easements. By preserving working ranches, particularly along the river corridor, the organizations conserve not only important wetlands and wildlife habitat, but also the water rights associated with that land.

The northern third of the upper Rio Grande Basin is hydrologically
disconnected from the southern portion at the surface. In this “closed basin,” streams are birthed and die again without ever reaching the Rio Grande, although modeling has shown underground pathways between the closed basin’s aquifers and the Rio Grande exist. Photo courtesy of: Trust for Public Land

The work of keeping wetlands wet could have additional, far-reaching benefits. After the 2002 drought, a few years of decent snowpack didn’t manifest in the increased streamflows people expected, says de la Vista. “If you dry up a sponge, you can’t really get water through it again until it gets wet. The forest/land was so dry, nature took the first drink,” she explains. “We don’t know what the critical mass is, we haven’t done the engineering, but if we lost too much of the wetlands, it would be like a permanent manmade drought. It’s harder to move water down the river to meet compact obligations if the river corridor wetlands are dry.”

De la Vista is pursuing a similar concept outside of her work with RiGHT, looking at ranch—and range—management techniques such as rotational grazing that could lead to improved water absorption. The idea is that if the water-holding capacity of the land could be improved, it would act as a reservoir, slowing snowmelt’s path across the mountains and down to the river and making the water available over a longer period of time. “It’s something we can do. We can’t make it rain more, but we can affect the condition of our land,” she says.

The questions inherent in these uncertain times keep coming: Will Mother Nature ease the relentless drought that has plagued the San Luis Valley? Will the region’s agricultural community weather the coming years as it rebalances its groundwater use, learning to live within its means?

In this place of contradictions, families with long histories on the land are now poised for change. And even as water managers race the clock to implement solutions, time can stand still for a moment as the valley’s heart—its land, water and wildlife— prevails. “When you see the cranes that have been coming through here for thousands of years, it brings you back to Earth,” says Gibson, “All the things you worry about in the big scheme of things seem smaller. It becomes very grounding.”

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