WHEN you’re working on an enormous issue like water – in this case how to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the two aquifers of the San Luis Valley – you have to stretch your mind to find new approaches.
The idea that groundwater pumped to irrigate crops could be restricted through a conservation easement is one of those moments when something that’s never been tried bubbles to the top and provides a new way to look at an urgent problem.
On Nov. 8, Valley farmer Ron Bowman signed the first-ever groundwater conservation easement to restrict the use of groundwater on his nearly 1,900-acre ranch northeast of Moffat. The commitment also set a timeline for Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to purchase the ranch for $2.6 million, a deal it will be looking to close in 2023 with a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The subdistrict’s acquisition of the entire ranch not only saves groundwater from being pumped, but importantly helps Subdistrict 4 achieve its sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer as well as offset stream depletions to nearby San Luis Creek from groundwater pumping that occurs in Subdistricts 4 and 5.
“If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do.”
– Ron Bowman, rancher
“How the law is written and works, we’ll hold those water rights and they’ll still be water rights but we won’t pump them ever again,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 4 and one of the architects of the deal. “That protects those water rights from being abandoned and somebody else coming in and saying ‘Because these water rights have been abandoned, I can pump water over here.’ So we’re holding their place in line but saying, you can’t pump this water, this is our water to pump.”
Bowman’s groundwater pumping has accounted for about 10 percent of that being pumped by irrigators across Subdistrict 4. The farm has been operating with 12 center-pivot irrigation circles, growing mostly forage crops including some alfalfa.
“If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do,” Bowman said. He and his wife, Gail, purchased the property about five years ago.
The reduction in groundwater pumping and the fact the water is being placed in a conservation easement so it’s never pumped again creates a new way for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the state agencies and nonprofit land trusts it partners with to address depletion in the aquifers.
“The nice thing about a groundwater conservation easement is each one can be tailored to that property,” explains Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands.
Parmar has been instrumental in helping create a framework for the groundwater conservation easement that Bowman entered into. She credits Cleave Simpson, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the Valley’s six counties, with the initial brainstorm.
From there it was getting other smart water people in the room, like Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District; local farmers Sheldon Rockey and Nathan Coombs; and state division engineer Craig Cotten to lend their expertise to determine if groundwater could be placed in a conservation easement.
The concept also went through a rigorous exercise with water attorneys to determine the legality of such a move, and Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in Del Norte lent support to the project. There was also the matter of figuring out how to appraise the land given the new construct of groundwater being placed in an easement as part of a sale.
“By drying this particular farm, we are ensuring that the other farms in the subdistrict are sustainable and we ensure that this groundwater stays in the aquifer and out of the hands of anyone who might want to try to move it outside of the basin.”
– Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands
“Over 20 years ago conservation easement work began to grow in the San Luis Valley largely with the establishment of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which was formed primarily out of concern for the surface water provided by the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” Colorado Opens Lands noted. “Now through this new application of a conservation easement on the Valley’s groundwater resources, the land trust community in the Valley is reinforcing its commitment to supporting the community in protecting its most precious resource: water.”
More common in the Valley are announcements of land conservation easements, where a portion of agricultural land is placed in an easement to prevent future development and preserve the land as a natural habitat.
Now water managers like Simpson have figured out that groundwater can also be placed in a conservation easement, which creates a new way for farmers to think about their operations as they continue to reduce the amount of water they use to farm to meet the state’s groundwater pumping rules.
“We are used to keeping water rights in irrigation through conservation easements, so it feels wrong to intentionally dry a farm, but by drying this particular farm, we are ensuring that the other farms in the subdistrict are sustainable and we ensure that this groundwater stays in the aquifer and out of the hands of anyone who might want to try to move it outside of the basin,” said Parmar.
Other approaches to a groundwater conservation easement may be different, she said. Instead of a farmer putting all the groundwater in a conservation easement as Bowman did, maybe only a portion of it is conserved through an easement and the rest continues to be used for crop production.
“Our hope is to work with landowners across subdistricts to avoid the state stepping in to shut off wells,” said Parmar. “I am continually amazed by the willingness of farmers and ranchers to step up to the challenge and grateful to work with irrigators like Ron Bowman, who want to be part of the solution.”