ONE farmer rose to say that he believed the heavens would take care of the San Luis Valley’s water needs. Another said he appreciated the sentiment, but conditions on the ground speak otherwise and farmers need to continue to adapt their operations to drought and over pumping that plague the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s aquifers.

The Southern Rocky Mountain Ag Conference closed Thursday with a focus on water and the many challenges facing the Valley’s farming community. While this week’s snow was nice to see, the short-term forecast for the next three months calls for more of what we’ve been seeing – dry and temps above seasonal norms.

“We’ve got a problem here,” Craig Cotten, area engineer for the Colorado Department of Water Resources, told a packed conference room of farmers. “We don’t have enough water to go around for the people using the water.”

In short, the Valley’s farmers can expect another difficult irrigation season. Farmers in Saguache County face a second consecutive irrigation season of having the state shut down groundwater wells for a period of time due to unsustainable conditions of the confined aquifer on the northern end of the Valley. 

In 2021 some farmers in Saguache County had their groundwater wells shut down for three months through June. The same thing could happen again this season, said Chris Evers, program manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 5, which covers Saguache County.

South of Saguache County in Rio Grande and Alamosa counties, there is a new plan afoot that would require crop producers in Subdistrict 1 of Rio Grande Water Conservation District to cover any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits. 

In other words, farmers in Subdistrict 1 would be limited to a running five-year average of their natural surface water to cover their groundwater withdrawals. If they don’t have natural surface water and can’t purchase surface water credits, they would be subject to a $500 per-acre overpumping fee administered by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The draft plan also asks the state to give farmers in Subdistrict 1 another 20 years, rather than nine more years, to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level. The proposed plan needs approval from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and eventually a green light from the state engineer and the state District 3 Water Court in Alamosa County.

It’s the nuances and complexities of a water management plan, like the proposed Subdistrict 1 plan, and the real concern of another irrigation season of groundwater well shutdowns in the northern end of the Valley that cause farmers to find faith where they can.

Some look to the heavens, while others dig in and overhaul their operations to give themselves and the aquifer more time to achieve sustainability.

But one thing remains certain. “Over the last 20 years we’re seeing drying and overall less water,” said Cotten, the state water resources engineer.

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