In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.
The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.
“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler in the valley, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager at Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”
Streams that flow from the nearby San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains slowed to a trickle, some of them before the normal irrigation season had even begun. Rushing water created by snow from the previous winter failed to materialize. That left the ditches, creeks and rivers that recharge the valley’s aquifers dry. The precious groundwater had plenty of demands, and no supply.
“The aquifer was declining,” Messick says. “But nobody really started noticing until they started sucking air instead of water.”
Farmers began to cast blame as to who caused the problem. Fingers pointed at the state, water managers, Mother Nature, and among the farmers themselves, divided into camps depending on where they got their water. All the while, many farmers kept pumping whatever water they could find and the aquifer continued its unprecedented decline.
Instead of giving in to the divisions that could have so easily fractured the rural valley of about 47,000 residents, a group of farmers decided to embark on a risky experiment – the first of its kind in the United States. They agreed to pay more money for the water they pump out of the ground by imposing fees, a kind of tax, per acre-foot of water. To get to that point, family farmers had to put aside old grudges and recognize their shared fate in the aquifer under their feet.
Seeing hope in the farmers’ efforts, researchers are studying the risky gambit to see if it is working.
The rural towns and homesteads in the San Luis Valley are intrinsically tied to the quantity and quality of groundwater found there.
Artesian water pressure – a hydrological marvel made possible by the valley’s bowl-like geology – was accidentally discovered in the valley in the fall of 1887, according to a 1891 report by professor Louis George Carpenter of Colorado Agricultural College, now Colorado State University. A dug well could spurt water from deep underground several feet into the air and irrigate hundreds of acres.
A photograph taken at the time, now-famous among water policy wonks in the West, shows a man neatly dressed in a suit and wide-brimmed hat, his hands tucked behind his back. He is dwarfed by the gushing water fountain next to him shooting up from the valley floor. The San Luis Valley’s water, and the farming opportunities it brought, quickly became the stuff of legend.
Like an oil boom, word of the plentiful water spread quickly and development followed. By 1904, a U.S. Geological Survey inventory in the valley put the number of water wells at 3,234. For generations, the valley’s groundwater was plentiful, able to sustain growing communities and legacy farms.
Standing in the valley’s center, near the town of Center, you are surrounded by towering mountain peaks in nearly every direction. At your feet, greasewood bushes and straw-colored native grasses spread out on the valley’s flat expanse. In land area, it is roughly the same size as the state of New Jersey.
In the valley’s eastern flank, wetlands and marshes are common, temporary homes to sandhill cranes as they make their spring migration. In its western portion, the country’s highest sand dunes rise hundreds of feet to form the main attraction of Great Sand Dunes National Park. In between lie thousands of acres of potatoes, barley, hay, vegetables and grazing cattle – all supported by a sprawling network of ditches and canals and water pumps.
“The San Luis Valley is – I’ve been told – the most intensely irrigated agriculture region in the world,” says Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. She grew up on her father Doug Messick’s potato farm.
Looking at the valley from above, it is easy to see what she means. The flat expanse of the valley floor is a grid of circular farms with lush, green fields. The corners between fields, the sections not watered by irrigation systems, are dusty and brown.
“So we get – especially here in Center – we get an average of seven inches of rain a year,” Dutton says. “So it’s a high mountain desert.”
The area sees less rain than Phoenix, Arizona, which receives an average of eight inches every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While it’s intensely dry, the desert is also one of Colorado’s most productive and valuable agricultural regions. In 2012, the valley’s farmers sold nearly $320 million in crops alone. That same year, ranchers sold more than $61 million in livestock.
Colorado is the fifth largest state for potato production and nearly all of the state’s potatoes are grown in the San Luis Valley. In 2013, valley farmers produced more than 18 million pounds of potatoes. All of the farm production is only possible because of complex systems to manage, store and distribute water. Without that, agriculture simply couldn’t survive.
Community At A Crossroads
By the end of 2002, it was clear the valley’s farmers were fast approaching a crossroads. Colorado’s top water enforcer, the state engineer, made clear that if the farmers continued to pump from the underground aquifer he would be forced to shut them down.
They were running afoul of the state’s frontier-era water laws, which prioritize water rights based on their effective date. Some farmers who held rights to divert water from streams dating back to the late 1800s were seeing their supplies drop, partially thanks to water wells dug decades later in the 1950s and ‘60s. In Colorado, when a younger water right is curtailing an older one, it is a serious problem.
In the years that followed the 2002 drought, scientists did enough research and monitoring to link the reduction of the aquifer to the limited availability of surface streams.
For the farmers that depend on the aquifer, the choice was simple: keep pumping until everyone’s supplies ran out and risk the ire of state water officials; or, find a way to curb their pumping.
“It was really the first effort here in a recognition that if they didn’t do something that the consequences would be pretty grave,” says Cleave Simpson, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the valley’s main water management authority.
After years of litigation, court cases and a round of state legislation, the farmers formed a plan. A majority made a painful decision. They agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest to pay more money for water, hoping that the higher cost would cause them to think twice when turning on their pump.
“We couldn’t sit back and just pump to the bottom of the aquifer,” Simpson says. “The schools, the hospitals, the communities would just not survive.”
Communities formed a network of subdistricts that could levy fees on water use, self-governed by the farmers themselves. Subdistrict one, the largest and most heavily irrigated in the valley, was the first.
“This is kind of a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation,” says Kelsey Cody, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is part of a research team that studies groundwater pumping in the valley. “As an individual, I have no incentive to leave any water in the ground because any water I leave in the ground I know my neighbor is going to take out. And he knows the same thing.”
Today, farmers in subdistrict one pay $75 for each acre-foot of water they pump and another $8 for every acre of crops where that water is used. An acre-foot is the standard unit of measurement when talking about vast amounts of water, and easy enough to visualize. It’s the amount of water spread out over an acre at a depth of one foot.
If those same farmers are recharging the aquifer by applying surface water to their crops, they’re given a credit for that added water. Some farmers who pump end up paying nothing at all if their water use finds a balance between the amounts pumped and recharged.
For some bigger farms without surface water rights, that is not the case. Their annual water use fees can total tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. That money is then invested in a fallowing program that pays farmers not to plant or to purchase farmland outright. While the fees have been tough for some farmers to swallow, at least a majority have internalized the goal.
“The alternative is to shut these wells off until this aquifer comes back by itself,” says Jamie Hart, a barley and potato grower in the valley who sits on the subdistrict one board. “We can’t survive that. There are land payments to make and equipment payments to make. And we can’t continue without producing something.”
But it’s not easy. Subdistrict one’s early meetings were contentious and tense. For months farmers argued about the fairness of the fee structure and the right dollar amount to collect from those who pump from the aquifer. Conspiracy theories popped up, calling the subdistrict idea a nefarious attempt to make agriculture so costly and difficult that farmers would begin selling off their water rights to the highest bidders.
“Working together, that’s hard for farmers to do,” Hart says. “Farmers, they’re pretty independent people.”
A Success In The Making?
This was the first time a group of U.S. farmers decided to tax themselves to pump groundwater, fallow tens of thousands of acres of farmland, and try to save an aquifer, according to research from the University of Colorado Boulder. Because of that, no one really knew if it would work.
The valley’s farmers have been paying for groundwater now for nearly six years. The wells in subdistrict one all have meters that measure how much water they pump. Researchers were able to compare pumping figures collected before the fees went into effect, and after.
“From our analysis of the data, we were able to determine that yes, they’ve been able to reduce their groundwater extraction pretty substantially,” says researcher Kelsey Cody.
Farmers have cut back their pumping by an average of 30 percent since they started paying fees. Since 2013, the aquifer has risen about 250,000 acre-feet. They still need to recharge at least another roughly 600,000 to 700,000 acre-feet to have the aquifer be considered somewhat recovered and stabilized.
Many farmers say they have updated irrigation equipment and switched to less thirsty crops, Cody says. Some of the water savings comes from pinpoint timing of when to water crops in order to waste less. Meanwhile, the number of irrigated acres hasn’t dropped substantially. That suggests farmers are irrigating smartly and efficiently, not closing up shop.
“It’s not a fee that so far has caused people to go out of business,” says Craig Cotten, the Colorado Division of Water Resources engineer based in the valley’s most populous city, Alamosa. “But it is a fee that they actually think about what they’re doing when they go push a button on a well.”
The farmers who are part of subdistricts are under a court mandate to recharge the aquifer even more over the next decade-and-a-half. At least within subdistrict one, there are early discussions taking place about raising the pumping fee higher in order to curb pumping even more and make additional progress in aquifer recharge.
“Can we fill up the bath tub that we created, the void that we created for $75 [per acre-foot]? Probably not,” Hart says. “It may cost us a little bit more to ever get that filled back up. But once we get there we can back that fee off. And we can survive.”
There is the fickleness of Mother Nature to contend with as well. In each of the last four years, snowpack in the nearby mountains has hovered at average to above average levels. When it melts, it yields higher streams, which recharge the aquifer even further. Historical weather records are pessimistic about a fifth consecutive year with above average snowpack. Drought is a constant specter hanging overhead with the possibility of undoing all the progress that’s been made.
With aquifers in danger of running dry in many communities in the Midwest and West, like the Ogalalla Aquifer under the Great Plains or in the central valley of California, the San Luis Valley could provide a model, says CU’s Kelsey Cody.
“The reason people should care about this is that anywhere there is groundwater there is almost always going to be challenges in managing it,” Cody says, “because it’s difficult to see, it’s difficult to monitor, it’s easy to think that it’s everlasting.”
After a brush with danger, and a series of hard lessons, the farmers in the San Luis Valley now know they need to care for their water supply if it, and their communities, are to survive.
This story has been updated to reflect Doug Messick's relationship with Spud Grower Farms.