Farming With Less Water

By Rainy Adkins

In the barren expanse of the windswept San Luis Valley bordered by snow-powdered blue peaks, groundwater water is a major source of concern for the farming community as the valley becomes more arid and crops continue to demand water. 

“There’s no way you’ll stay in business,” people have told Sheldon Rockey, 3rd generation farmer in the valley who’s aiming to run a more sustainable farm and use less water. He and his brother co-own and operate Rockey Farms.

The San Luis Valley faces a complex system of water issues that seem to be a looming end to farming as a livelihood in the valley. The snowmelt from the northern mountains forms the headwaters of the Rio Grande River which flows through the middle of the valley and is an obvious resource for farmers. Snowmelt from the mountains also flows into another more hidden, but paramount water supply: an underground reservoir, called an aquifer. Many generational family-owned farms have historically diverted large allotments of the Rio Grande to support their crops. Others have been permitted by the state to dig wells and pump from the aquifer. Currently, as snowpack diminishes and the river levels lower each year a major question has been nagging some of the more-aware farmers: Will we be able to make the aquifer last?

Concerns about water availability are definitely valid. Since 1976 the aquifer under the San Luis Valley has lost 1,200,000 acre-feet of storage according to data gathered by the Rio Grande Conservation District. In the past, farmers have been able to recharge the aquifer by replenishing the water they drained from wells with surface water from the Rio Grande. Now there’s barely enough water to irrigate crops, let alone to recharge the aquifer. Spring precipitation in all of Colorado has been an inch lower than the historic average. According to Colorado Climate Center, the valley is regularly one of the driest locations in all of Colorado, receiving less than 9 inches (recently around 7 inches) of precipitation annually. Large amounts of snowfall in the mountains around the valley usually can sustain farmers and residents but as temperatures follow worldwide trends upward snowpack is threatened.

Temperatures in Colorado are rising. According to data, since 2000 there have been more days reaching above 95 degrees than the historical average. Since 1990, night temperatures have been less likely to drop to a minimum of 0 degrees, as they did in the past. This general rise in temperature across Colorado makes snow less likely and adds to drought-like conditions. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, half of the San Luis Valley suffers from severe drought conditions and the other half from moderate drought conditions. Drought conditions mean water shortages, water restrictions, and damage to crops.

Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and a local farmer, recognizes the climate warming that is making the valley of dry grasslands more arid.

“All I’m doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic,” said Simpson.

People in the valley are responding to the threatened water levels. As the water levels of the aquifer are in danger, farmers fear state intervention that might shut down their wells and not give them back. To avoid this catastrophe farmers are trying to save the situation before it becomes uncontrollable. They’ve divided the valley into committee based subdistricts that can vote new rules into action to protect the aquifer. Simpson detailed actions by Subdistrict 1 to restore previous aquifer levels. 

Farmers have the option of being paid to not farm their land for 15 years with the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This opportunity, to leave fields fallow, is a good way to preserve water because you wouldn’t use any water on that land. Apparently, even with an up-front cash incentive, CREP has been incredibly unpopular amongst local farmers. Simpson hypothesized that the lack of success came from lots of restrictions and a general distaste for federal programs. Although CREP hasn’t been very successful, Subdistrict 1 still thinks that fallowing lands is a good way to cut back water use. They put a new similar fallow program on the table, except instead of 15 years it’s 4, and its paid for with money raised by the board instead of the federal government. 

Funding has come from a fee that the subdistrict has agreed upon per acre-foot of water that someone pulls from the aquifer. This price has grown from $45 dollars per acre-ft in 2012 to $90 in 2019 and forecasted to be raised to $150 in 2020. 

Some farmers that fail to participate in positive action are angered by this raised price. Others are confident in their own sustainable efforts:

“We’re still gonna be farming in 30 years,” said Sheldon Rockey, co-owner and operator of Rockey Farms.

Rockey Farms is an example of how small farms can respond. They’ve been a pioneer for soil health, potato seed sales, companion cropping, and green manure, efforts to make farming more sustainable with less water. Rockey and his brother took lessons from their dad and grandfather who worked the farm before them. With technical degrees going back to Rockey’s grandfather who graduated with an engineering degree, the family has been making smart, energy-saving changes since the 1980s. 

They use green manure, a cover crop on fallow lands that is a mix of numerous different seed varieties and uses significantly less water than previous crops. They have an efficient potato seed growing system to propagate healthy, disease-free potatoes that need less water across the nation. They’ve quit using toxic chemicals to kill weeds like their neighbors. They use crop rotation methods that have cut their water consumption in half. Rockey said he is optimistic that their steps towards sustainability will keep them afloat even if water levels remain low.

“I’m about the whole picture. If we have good solid run-off we’ll be fine on Rockey Farms but I’m worried about the others,” Rockey said.

Rockey’s optimism comes with a hint of something more foreboding. He sees some other farmers in the valley pumping all of their irrigation water from the aquifer without concern and without recharging it. Both Rockey and Simpson say that this behavior is the kind that is detrimental to the aquifer without natural flows of the river to recharge it. Rockey has noticed differences over time as water levels drop. 

“When we grew up we never saw what we did in 2002 and the late ’90s,” Rockey said. 

He remembered watching his dad enlist his moms to help to pull a tractor out of a muddy field where it’d sunk, during a year when the water table was extremely high. He was 10 years old. Rockey compared this to a drought in 2002 that had record low water levels. He hopes his community’s efforts can bring the water level back up.

Subdistrict 1 is trying to secure a stable and full aquifer for future farmers in the valley. Currently, only about half of the farmers are actually changing their strategies to adapt to less water. While some are not trying to be conservative with water the only solution seems to be a heavy snowpack this year that will replenish. But with rising temperatures, will it happen?

Uncertainty is definitely a characteristic of Rockey’s, Simpson’s, and all San Luis Valley farmers’ futures. Districts may be able to provide some stability if more people respond to fallow programs, recharge the aquifer, and work hard to shift farming to more sustainable methods using less water.

Simpson said, “We’re committed to making it work.”

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