THE WATER SUPPLY OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY FACES PRESSURE AS NEVER BEFORE ~ The Colorado Sun

Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, crisis looms for southern Colorado economy.

Crops near Monte Vista, Colorado, are irrigated using center pivot sprinklers. Farmers in the region fear that a combination of drought and demand threatens their way of life. (Mark Obmascik, Alamosa Citizen)

They all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.

South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm. 

North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor. 

Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table. 

Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58% of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.

Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.

Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom. 

The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years. 

A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range. 

And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30%, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan. 

Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before. 

Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.

Workers sort potatoes by size and quality, then pack into boxes for shipping at White Rock Specialties potato processing plant in partnership with Rockey Farms in Mosca in May 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”

It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18% of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture. 

The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the states of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.) https://omny.fm/shows/the-colorado-sun/playlists/podcast/embed?style=artwork&image=1&share=1&download=1&description=1&subscribe=1&playlistimages=1&playlistshare=1&foreground=000000&background=ffffff&highlight=fcd232

In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000. 

But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.

“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.

Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop. 

This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year. 

By contrast, Denver Water needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries. 

In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy. 

Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions. 

After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.

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