What happens if the San Luis Valley runs out of water? Environment, economy, and community.

By Lili Weir

A regional trend of increased aridity will decrease the amount of water available to people in the San Luis Valley, and calls into question how residents of the greater area are responding to the economic and ecological shifts.

“I don’t want to say bleak” but water levels “look diminishing” Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and alfalfa farmer, Cleave Simpson said. 

Scrolling through his slideshow, Simpson explained how water trend data of the Rio Grande River was in a downward trend, and expressed the magnitude of the problems at hand.

An increase in aridity in the San Luis Valley has many environmental consequences. The interconnectedness of the rivers, mountains, and valleys ecosystems provide natural services to the residents of the valley. As these systems are damaged due to decreased water availability they can no longer perform their services including flood mitigation, erosion retention, and fire suppression according to several studies.

People are beginning to feel the effects of these lost services, as increases in extreme weather events threaten their homes and livelihoods.                   

“We’re a little panicked” founder of Colorado Headwaters and resident of Salida, Jerry Mellett said. 

Mellett was recently evacuated from his mountain home because of the Decker fire and the shock of this event seemed to act as a call to action for those who live within this community. 

Dubbed a “red zone” by the United States Forest Service, there would have been no effort to save the residents homes if the fire were to reach them. This fact demonstrated to members of this community the insecurity of living in an increasingly arid landscape however Mellett seemed proud of Salida’s ability to respond to the situation as a community and withstand this environmental stress.

“It was a wake up call” Mellett said.

Those in rural mountain communities are not the only ones experiencing instability because of the lack of water in and around the San Luis Valley.

Due to a decrease in snowpack, the Rio Grande River and the aquifers underneath the San Luis Valley have been receiving less and less water annually which creates strain for those in agricultural communities who rely on consistent snowpacks for their crops. 

In response to this water threat, many farmers have begun to implement sustainable growing practices such as fallow fields and water conscious crops in an attempt to optimize their profits and stay in business, potato production researcher, Samuel Essah said. However the looming offer of money could potentially sway farmers away from these practices.

 Valley residents who are vulnerable to these stressors, such as retirement aged farmers, are being approached by Renewable Energy Resources to purchase their land and water rights. RER is a company that would like to siphon water out of the San Luis Water to the increasingly populated front range cities as water becomes more scarce.  

“It would be absolutely devastating up here” if those farmers were to do business with RER, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Christine Canaly said in a recent chat with Colorado College students.

The removal of aquifer water to the front range would exacerbate the effects that increased aridity is having on the valley, and call into question the viability of agriculture in the San Luis Valley. 

“That’s gonna kill us,” third generation potato farmer Sheldon Rockey said about the possibility of a pipeline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *